Kenneth Anger's Hollywood
Updated: May 24
“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.”
- Maxim Gorky, 1896
I first heard of Kenneth Anger and his seminal gossip rag Hollywood Babylon through Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, a show through which I gained a great education about studio era Hollywood and its stars. If my memory serves, Longworth first mentioned Anger in her series on Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders, and later did a whole series on the book, attempting to either prove or disprove its various salacious claims. Miraculously, I was able to find a copy in an unassuming used-bookstore in my home town. Inside I was granted access to sordid tales about sex, drugs, and bacchanal goings-on amongst the stars.
Anger’s own life is steeped in fabrication. Born in 1927 in Santa Monica, Anger claims to have made an early acting appearance in the lavish A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935 as the Changeling Prince. According to Warner Bros. records, this is patently untrue, and the role was actually played by a young girl named Sheila Brown. Still, Anger maintains this falsehood, as seen in a photograph and caption on the book jacket of Hollywood Babylon. From then, Anger continued create and learn from the art of fabrication. His short, experimental films show their mythological influence immediately in their titles: Prisoner of Mars, Demigods, Rabbit Moon, Scorpio Rising, Invocation of my Demon Brother. In his private life, Anger calls himself a Thelemite, a follower of the occultist spiritualist Aleister Crowley whose doctrine dictated: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.
“Every Man and every Woman is a star.”
-Aleister Crowley, 1906
From its inception, the art of filmmaking has sought to mythologize itself. By its very nature, it presents a modified reality, with hints of the truth made beautiful by human intervention. Hollywood manufactured its own pantheon of gods and goddesses, deeming them “stars” to further suggest their burning power and appearance of infinity. In hoards, we, or those of the early twentieth century, faithfully attended mass of the silver screen, offering sacrifices and libations in the form of nickels and dimes. As if intricately sculpted statues from antiquity, we gazed in awe at those towering, shining specimens, kept far away to allure and seduce, but generous enough to grace us with their disembodied presence. At the dawn of a new century, it was the birth of giants.
The release of Hollywood Babylon corresponds with the time in which American studios began to lose total control of their stars. The “Code” was being smashed to pieces by daring filmmakers, actors were fighting for independence, international voices were entering the scene, and audiences started going underground. The Golden Age was over, and its icons had fallen to Earth. Already, American audiences were looking back at the earlier decades of Hollywood with a longing nostalgia. Like a regular Martin Luther, Anger sought to bring the beloved, shining Olympus down to the level of a crumbling Gomorrah, or more appropriately, Babylon.
“I’ve always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind.”
- Kenneth Anger
Throughout the pages of Hollywood Babylon, Anger makes numerous references to the since-passed mythical grandiosity of Hollywood. Starting in the first chapter with the introduction of director D.W. Griffith as the “God of Hollywood” overseeing the production of Intolerance (1916) with set pieces that make the Colosseum look like a punch bowl. A great deal of his accounts are patently untrue and don’t stand up to scrutiny, and given how easy these tales are disprove, it’s likely that this was Anger’s intention: not to air Hollywood’s dirty laundry but adapt its legends into a religious text, almost as if a warning to the current Hollywood to learn from its past or be doomed to repeat it. Among some of Anger’s favourite topics are: the star’s addictive drug habits, affairs, lavish lifestyles, untimely deaths, murder, and sexual orientations. Notably, Anger uses relatively sensitive language when discussing the latter. As a gay man himself, Anger’s habit of revealing stars’ sexual orientations through baseless gossip feels closer to a retrospective invitation of certain stars into the queer community rather than a malicious “outing”.
Queer audiences have always had an innate desire to see themselves represented in the films they watch. As that was effectively impossible for the greater half of the twentieth century, they searched for queer sensibilities in the era’s mainstream media, of which there was an abundance. The leading actors and actresses were styled and acted as absolute apexes of their respective genders to the point of camp. As such, queer audiences who may have struggled with their own gender expressions were able to look at these beacons of the high-femme or stone-butch as representatives of their own constant performance. These were not men and women on screen, but a-gendered beings disguised as “men” and “women".
Hollywood Babylon both created and fostered a series of urban legend that have continued to influence our (mis)understanding of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Among Anger’s dubious claims, a few in particular stand out:
Roscoe Arbuckle’s disputed sexual assault/murder of Virginia Rappe
Falsely attributed nude photographs of actresses Jean Harlow and Peg Entwistle
Mexican-American actress Lupe Velez died with her head in a toilet while throwing up barbiturates
Clara Bow bedded the entire USC football team (including a young John Wayne)
Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in her fatal car accident
Silent film actress Marie Provost’s corpse was found half-eaten by her pet dachshund
It is the spirit of these stories told as legend, rather than their content, that has persisted in our current portrayals of historic Hollywood. Take David Lynch’s “poisonous valentine to Hollywood” Mulholland Drive (2001) that portrays a Hollywood rife with conspiracy, murder, and coverups. TV director Ryan Murphy has practically made a career straddling the middle ground of fact and fiction with a number of successful projects (American Horror Story: Murder House/Hotel, Feud: Bette vs. Joan, Hollywood) while filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers have reimagined mid-century scandals such as the the Tate-LaBianca murders (Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood) and the Blacklist (Hail, Caesar!).
In 1974, Orson Welles, one of cinema’s great masters, did a rare TV interview with British journalist Michael Parkinson. When asked what he thought of the current state of film stars, Welles responded with a definitive: “They don’t exist”. Elaborating further, he recounted “In the old days the greatest thing in the world to be was a movie star, today the greatest thing in the world is to be a pop singer”. Of course in 2022 we have famous actors, and once in a while one comes around with that special quality that suggests they could have made it big in the early twentieth century. But their worship has been so heavily diluted into obsessive factions that they no longer reign as they once did over a general populace so desperate to consume them. Now, as celebrities make it a priority to share their every move with their adoring public, the veil of mystery has been lifted. While it is for the best that audiences see the figures onscreen as real people and not infallible, emotionless mannequins designed to be pulled, poked, and prodded, the romantic in me longs for the old gods, for the appearance of an actor on screen to feel like a blessed visitation. Perhaps Anger saw before anyone else that the stars were beginning to fade, and his book was an attempt to keep them immortal through claims that hold shades of the truth, thereby keeping their stories and images alive and well.