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Glam Slam

John Gilmore is the rare author who can write about stars without being blinded by their light

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After peaking in the heyday of Hollywood, the value of fame has plummeted. This is largely a function of supply and demand: with more movies and TV shows than ever to cast, producers must always dip closer to the bottom of the barrel. Andy Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes becomes more accurate every day, but when everybody's famous the stars are just a bunch of nobodies. And since the 15-minute clause hasn't gone into effect yet, ho-hum everybodies like Rosie O'Donnell and the cast of Friends can stretch their quarter hour across several years.

Fame no longer inspires the awe it once did. You don't see people going nuts over the likes of Tim Allen or Jennifer Aniston the way fans flipped for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. In the case of Kathie Lee Gifford, one of our leading lights, the public proves it's capable of something close to outright hatred. Even without the fame glut, our esteem for stars was bound to sink sometime; after a century of motion pictures, the novelty has worn off a bit. Inevitably our current sensibilities will be applied retroactively.

With the release of two new books this fall, John Gilmore has emerged as the most up-to-date writer on fame and the hollowness of star gawking. Laid Bare is a memoir largely devoted to his relationships with various celebrities, and Live Fast--Die Young offers a personal portrait of his friend James Dean. People who write about the famous usually turn out to be starstruck, no matter how hard-boiled they imagine themselves to be. But as a child actor with a mother in the business, Gilmore was inured to celebrity from an early age. He's the rare author who can portray subjects who are famous while seeming to remain free from the influence of their public images. In a promotional blurb for Laid Bare, critic Gary Indiana describes this point of view precisely: "Gilmore's work is as much opposed to gossip as it is to mythmaking, because both are different faces of celebrity-worship, an epidemic mental illness in our society. When you find someone [who] isn't infected with it to one degree or another, you realize, as somebody once said, that sanity is the most profound moral option of our time." Maybe the clearest sign that Laid Bare and Live Fast--Die Young are less about telling stories than about real life as it is lived--unpredictably and blindly--is the fact that they would make lousy movies.

Writing from an insider's vantage point on an array of stars ranging from Hank Williams to Janis Joplin, Dennis Hopper to Brigitte Bardot, Gilmore's not gaga over the scenes he's witnessed. Where friendships and affairs are recalled, figures are not only identified but described in painstaking detail; likewise, the more legendary horror shows--James Cagney protege Barbara Payton's skid into prostitution and alcoholism, Lenny Bruce's drug-induced insanity, and Steve McQueen's entire rancid personality--are all duly reported with no trace of awe.

When not celebrating showbiz, insiders usually adopt a bitter stance toward the industry, like Robert Altman choking on his bile in The Player. But this approach has been beaten into a cliche, becoming as simplistic as "Hooray for Hollywood." Gilmore skillfully avoids chest-beating unsentimentality and nastiness, even when he immortalizes the chunks of hardened dog shit he saw in Marion Davies's carpet and conjures the image of Van Johnson grabbing for the K-Y in the dark and mistakenly squeezing a tube of toothpaste up his ass. Gilmore relays his scenes without the cackling cruelty that made Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon such mean-spirited fun--he's remembering people he knew; others write about stars. While Anger and scandal sheets like Hollywood Confidential may have been disrespectful to the individual stars, their essential reverence toward stardom was clear; that kind of writing is based on the philosophy that famous people make interesting topics--or targets--because of their fame. (A trace of this attitude is inherent to Laid Bare and Live Fast--Die Young, though; both books would probably not have been published if Gilmore's fucked-up friends had been, say, office workers or short-order cooks.)

Like Anger, Gilmore got an early dose of Hollywood as a child actor, but a bloodline mixing studio glamour and police-force grittiness anticipated his writing career. His mother was MGM contract player Marguerite LeVan, and his father was a Los Angeles police officer who worked on the notorious, still officially unsolved Black Dahlia murder investigation and other gruesome, high-profile cases. Gilmore's adult bid for screen stardom in the 1950s never really panned out, due partly to Hollywood's unofficial blacklist of Dean's wild friends, a face directors often found too handsome to cast, and later a choosiness over which roles he was willing to take.

An early aversion to the casting couch didn't help. While Gilmore was still a student at Hollywood High School, director Irving Rapper expressed a professional interest and invited him to dinner at his home in Malibu. When Gilmore told Carol Burnett--then editor of the school newspaper--that he was wary of Rapper's true intentions, she told him, "If you don't go--I'll go." As Gilmore recalls the incident in Laid Bare, Rapper got smashed on cognac and asked, "Do you suppose it is possible for a man to fall in love with you immediately?...If a man did fall in love with you, what would you do about it?...What if I was in love with you?" These are sadly unimaginative lines from the director of Now, Voyager, but Rapper probably wasn't accustomed to working very hard in that sort of circumstance. Gilmore spurned the director's advances and, not surprisingly, found himself out of the running for the film. "Rapper said I was too tall and outstanding-looking for the juvenile role....He said my understanding of 'Hollywood etiquette' was 'detrimentally amiss.'" Gilmore reflects that turning down roles in schlock like The Aquanauts, a Sea Hunt knockoff, "might have been my only shot at success," but on the advice of his principled girlfriend, Jean Seberg, he chose to do a play in New York instead, further damaging his reputation in Hollywood.

After some directing work--including Breaking Hard, a surfing epic starring a hopelessly stoned Dennis Hopper, unfinished for budgetary reasons--he went on to write pulp paperbacks with titles like Lesbos in Panama and Brutal Baby, which fellow hack Ed Wood longed to adapt to the screen, fleshed out with a story line from another Gilmore creation, a screenplay called Meat House. "Ed loved the script," he writes, "humans being canned for sale as food, and a detective-spy sort of cop who's called in to straighten things out but gets an arm chopped off instead, which then goes into one of the cans." Gilmore says Hopper took an interest in a treatment called "Out Takes," which, he claims, was later ripped off and retitled Easy Rider.

Gilmore's longest stint has been as an author, most successfully of true-crime books. The Garbage People was a well-researched ethnography of the Manson family more than an investigation of their crimes, and the chilling Severed, in which he apparently reveals the Black Dahlia's killer, is reportedly being considered by David Lynch for a big-screen adaptation.

Laid Bare and Live Fast--Die Young are the logical culmination of Gilmore's experiences in the simultaneously titillating and mundane worlds of star excess, soft-core pornography, and crime. His exposure to the distorting effects of fame has provided not only subject matter but also the insight into pathological behavior that distinguishes his true-crime writing. And while this is not another of his "dirty books," his explicit writing about sex with the stars displays the broad but subtle manipulation of an old hand.

In a way, Laid Bare provides a generous sample pack of subjects Gilmore's written on, or could write about. Each of the memories from his acting years--about famous friends, acquaintances, and ex-lovers--could be stretched into a celebrity biography in the manner of Live Fast--Die Young, and elements from all of his true-crime titles resurface. Though he rarely editorializes, he allows himself a little break here and there from the just-the-facts approach. Susan Atkins, who stabbed Sharon Tate and then later drew investigators to the Manson family by blabbing to jail mates while locked up on unrelated charges, is characterized by her words and actions in The Garbage People; in the more relaxed environment of Laid Bare, Gilmore comes right out and calls her a "sick, sad, air-head." Gilmore's memories of researching another book, Cold Blooded, lend some background to the O.J. Simpson trial. Charles Schmid, a killer of teenage girls known as the "Pied Piper of Tucson," was defended by Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey. "Bailey said he didn't personally care if someone was guilty or not," Gilmore writes. "'They usually are,' he said. It was the money, the publicity, and his own neck that concerned Bailey."

Much of the James Dean material in Laid Bare is literally repeated word for word in Live Fast--Die Young, but most of it bears repeating. Despite everything that has been written about Dean, Gilmore's sympathetic but characteristically clear-eyed perspective is a new one. The two became on-again, off-again friends while both were working in the fecund early-50s New York theater scene and continued the relationship in LA, where Gilmore was among the "night watch," Dean's "morbid" friends whose supposed bad influence brought down the wrath of his bosses at Warner Brothers. Gilmore doesn't kid himself or the reader that the friendship was among Dean's most significant, and the fragmentary style and story reflect this. The sexual play between them is unsensationalized but spelled out down to its goofy details. Most of it is schoolboy stuff, but Dean's continual hinting that Gilmore would look good dressed as a "chick" hints at a greater-than-average imagination. The fantasy reaches its fullest realization when Gilmore wears a dirty pair of panties fresh off a girl Dean has just fucked. But Dean wants to go further by combining cross-dressing with "ting-a-ling," a reckless driving game in which a driver tries to tap an unsuspecting motorist's bumper by speeding up behind him with the lights out. In Dean's scheme, "I'd be dressed up as a chick, with a big blonde wig and red high heels," Gilmore writes. "We'd go a hundred miles an hour in a trail like a snake, making bumpers ring all the way across town from the ocean to the desert."

Even when describing episodes from Dean's life that he was not a witness to, Gilmore surpasses previous biographers in finding factual and emotional truth in a story that's been smothered by myth. Dean's close relationship with his mother is drawn so poignantly that her early death is better understood as a source of his own self-destructive impulses. Dean is traditionally described as rude and moody though generally a well-meaning person, perhaps even tragically so; Gilmore explores something darker, suggesting that Dean betrayed and abandoned a young actress who was pregnant with his child at the time of his death.

Due to a certain snobbery that ranks the printed word over movies and TV, writing on stars is met with lower expectations than most books. Readers dismiss books like Hollywood Babylon and Laid Bare as "trash," even when they can't stop turning the pages. But Gilmore's characterizations of both stars and people that aren't so well-known--himself, his wives, and figures from his and Dean's stories--are as spare and sharp as pencil sketches. When Gilmore writes, everybody is not famous for 15 minutes. Circumstances have dealt him a star-studded cast of characters, but Laid Bare would be just as gripping if the names were left out, or even if it were pure fiction. Neither trash nor fluff, Laid Bare and Live Fast--Die Young mirror the current ambivalence towards stars. The last remnants of glamour linger, but in Gilmore's pages, as in our culture, the idea of celebrity has itself been laid bare.

Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip by John Gilmore, Amok Books, $16.95.

Live Fast--Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean by John Gilmore, Thunder's Mouth Press, $22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Andrew Epstein.

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