Jess Walter’s new book Beautiful Ruins is a revelation in the way it gazes at Tinseltown’s tarnished stars.
More than a century after it was coined as a geographical marker, “Hollywood” has become something of a curse word, a decidedly elastic adjective that can mean everything from sentimental to overwrought to manipulative to downright scuzzy.
The machinations of the movie biz have inspired countless works of literature, most of them utterly bleak, including The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West’s withering look at ambition and debasement in the so-called Golden Age of American filmmaking, and Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player (which begat the Robert Altman film of the same name). All of which makes Beautiful Ruins, the new book from Jess Walter, something of a revelation: a Hollywood novel that treats its characters not as cringe-worthy caricatures, but as fascinatingly flawed people enamoured of stardom.
The title is taken from a description in the New Yorker of actor Richard Burton in 1980, four years before his death: “54 [years old] at the time, and already a beautiful ruin.” The phrase perfectly captures Walter’s tough-but-tender portrayal of Hollywood’s elite.
A cunning blend of fiction and fact, the novel opens in 1962, in Porto Vergogna, an idyllic if overlooked outpost in southern Italy, where a proud man named Pasquale Tursi runs a modest (and modestly named) inn called the Hotel Adequate View. Pasquale isn’t used to getting much business, but his life is irrevocably changed the day a fetching young American actress named Dee Moray comes into port. Visibly ill, she arrives from the set of Cleopatra, the notoriously troubled production starring Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which is shooting in nearby Switzerland.
Meanwhile, in the present day, a twentysomething named Claire Silver is trying to extricate herself from a soul-crushing job as a script reader for Michael Deane, a legendary film producer who was pretty much history until he began producing a sordid reality-show concept called Hookbook.
The “Deane of Hollywood” is the book’s most satirical creation. He’s your classic movie-mogul archetype—an ageless, eternally bronzed, slightly reptilian dreamweaver who seems both inscrutable and thoroughly predictable in his motivations. In a fit of idealism, Claire confronts him about the ignominious Hookbook: “After all the films you’ve produced, is this really the kind of thing you want to be known for making?” Deane’s pat response: “Money is the kind of thing I want to be known for making.”
In the hands of someone like L.A. author Bruce Wagner—whose visceral distaste for Tinseltown is chronicled in a series of novels, including his latest, Dead Stars—Deane would be not only a hedonist and craven capitalist but probably a pedophile and murderer, too. But Walter isn’t a misanthrope; he sees humanity beneath the hubris.
Walter understands that bluster, though sometimes comical, is essential to the movie biz: Films are financed on the basis of grand visions and lavish promises. He also knows that La-La Land loves its celebrities, and does what it must to protect their brands. We learn that before he became a Hollywood hotshot, Deane was a production assistant on Cleopatra, where he was tasked with keeping Taylor and Burton’s searing affair a secret. His success in doing so impressed executives at 20th Century Fox, but he also became entangled in an elaborate cover-up involving Dee Moray, a heartbreaking episode that haunts him 40 years later, when the aging Pasquale comes to L.A. demanding to learn Moray’s fate.
Though not without bite, the book is for the most part a wistful backward glance at an earlier era of film. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Walter’s evocation of Burton, who plays a significant role in the Moray mystery. Walter nails the boozy Welshman’s charm, intelligence, and loathing of Hollywood hoopla. “It’s Satan’s asshole, this bloody film,” Burton says of Cleopatra. “Flashbulbs everywhere…priests with cameras in their cassocks…leech fixers coming from the States to keep the girls and the booze away…gossip columns jumping every time we have a bloody cocktail. I should have walked off months ago. It’s insanity.” Walter is fully aware of the deceit and exploitation that festers in L.A., but he also believes that even the most shameless glory hounds deserve our sympathy.