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View from the USA: Hooray for Hollywood?

It sells the American Dream to a starstruck world, but behind the scenes Hollywood is as phoney as its plastic shark. Should we care?

Published 6 Jul 2019, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Aaron Millar.
Aaron Millar.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Hollywood is a microcosm of everything I love and hate about America. On the one hand, there’s fake, vacuous people and an obsession with blowing things up. On the other, popcorn.

Hollywood is America’s story. It’s the narrative the US tells the world about itself, on repeat, all the time — America the great, the beautiful, the powerful, the just, the dazzlingly glamorous and the unreal. If the world was a cocktail party, Hollywood would be the annoyingly successful cokehead bragging about himself at the top of his lungs.

That’s a problem. The journalist and author Angela Carter called Hollywood ‘the place where the United States perpetuated itself as a universal dream and put the dream into mass production’. It’s the marketing engine of the country; it’s selling the US brand around the world — and we’re buying. We’re all becoming Americans, each and every one of us, sneakily, steadily, so slowly we don’t even see it happening. But is the dream real?

Let me first say that I love Los Angeles. Venice Beach, with all its arty eccentricity, tattoos and ripped abs. Malibu, where bronzed megastars parade amid silver surf and golden sand. Take away the traffic and smog and LA is the ultimate urban utopia, ocean on one side, mountains on the other, with convertibles, mansions and beautiful people in between. It’s like a piece of modern art; it would be ridiculous if it weren’t framed so beautifully. Hollywood could exist nowhere else on earth.

I strolled the Hollywood Walk of Fame, saw the sign, hit the shops on Sunset Boulevard and followed in the footsteps of rock ’n’ roll royalty at Chateau Marmont. This 1920s gothic hotel, rising above Sunset Strip like some twisted inverse of Disney’s Cinderella Castle, is the place where Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham once rode his Harley-Davidson through the lobby. Say no more.

Then came the highlight. I walked into Universal Studios Hollywood a theme park cynic and came out feeling like a kid who’d been let loose in a sweet shop. The last time I’d been on a roller coaster, they were made out of wood and scaffolding; these ones were like the Star Trek holodeck I prayed would be invented in my youth. I played quidditch with Harry Potter, fought off velociraptors with King Kong, made friends with a Transformer and got into a high-speed shootout with the Fast and the Furious crew. Who needs Mickey Mouse ears and acapella singing when you can have Vin Diesel on a motorbike?

Yet there’s an irony to all this: the Hollywood Walk of Fame is also the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, where wannabe actors in Marvel costumes sell tours to mansions they’ll never own; Captain America’s heavier stepbrother touts alongside Spider-Man’s scrawny cousin (the only web he’s familiar with is online); and the theme park’s Studio Tour is a glimpse behind the scenes, but also a ride through a ghost town of 2D neighbourhoods and back lots, passing one of the worst fake sharks I’ve ever seen along the way. How that set of plastic jaws kept me out of the ocean for my entire childhood I’ll never know.

If Hollywood is a mass production line for the American Dream, then doesn’t it have a responsibility to tell the whole truth? After all, we’re buying what it’s selling: the brave and beautiful, the funny and smart, the forever faultless and blemish-free. And if it’s an unattainable ideal, then we’ll just never get there.

But we forgive it. As Mark Twain once said: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. He’s half right. No one wants to be teleported to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but the myths we let ourselves believe matter, too. Hollywood may be cheesy and vacuous and filled with too many guns, but if you don’t take it too seriously it’s also a lot of fun. Hollywood is the legend factory of our time, shaping the way we see the world and ourselves in it. It can be that brash guy at the party or the quiet one in the corner with something truly interesting to say. Either way, I’m ordering popcorn.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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