Hollywood’s fiction can hide or shine a spotlight on reality of life in the US, writes Susan Dalgety.
Logan bounced up and down in the driver’s seat like an overgrown Tigger with an obligatory hipster beard.
“Welcome to Hollywood,” he declaimed in his best actor’s voice, “where we lie to you for a living!”
And, with a loud “hee-haw”, we were off in our larger-than-life golf cart.
The “we” were 13 wide-eyed tourists, from as far afield as France and upstate New York, who had each paid $65 for a tour of Warner Brothers Studio.
Logan was our enthusiastic guide who, in the course of two hours, romped through the history of movies, from the Jazz Singer to Harry Potter. He even threw in some television.
“Any fans of the Gilmore Girls here?” he shouted, delighted when someone at the back squealed “me”. I Googled them later.
“The four Warner brothers bought this lot in 1923 and built a nickelodeon theatre to show movies,” explained Logan as we entered a big shed, or sound studio as it is called in the business. “But by 1927 they had run out of movies to show, so they decided to make their own. The Jazz Singer was their first, the rest is history,” he shouted into his mike, with all the subtlety of Groucho Marx. “Look at this vintage globe,” Logan enthused in the props department. “It was used in Casablanca.”
I perked up. “And recently it starred in the Marvel movies, Thor and Dr Strange,” he added.
Suddenly, the globe lost its glamour, and it was just a large papier mache ball, decorated with a vivid map of the world.
Everything in La La Land is fake. “This was the hospital in ER,” shouted Logan as we passed the façade of a large, grey Art Deco building. “It was also the Gotham City Hall of Records in the Batman movies.”
“Raindrops are too small for the big screen,” he explained. “So, we make our own rain. Each drop is five times bigger than real ones, so they can be captured on film.”
“Don’t forget to visit Central Perk for a coffee,” he exhorted at the end of the tour. “Everyone thinks Friends was filmed in New York,” he laughed gleefully. “But it wasn’t. It was made here. Here in Hollywood!”
Strictly speaking, the Warner Brothers studio is in Burbank. Hollywood is seven miles south and downtown Los Angeles is a further seven miles.
Greater Los Angeles has a population of around 18 million and sprawls across 34,000 square miles. Everyone, it seems, is in the “business”.
“My wife is a writer, screenplays,” explained Alan, our Spanish-Colombian-Venezuelan-American taxi driver. “And I have just applied to DreamWorks for a job, I do computer graphics. If I get it, my dream will have come true,” he added, without a hint of embarrassment. Dreams are what built LA.
“We have over a hundred movie people living here,” said Steven, the garrulous owner of our campsite. “One of our residents has been here since 1947, Frank Garvey. Lovely old man. Used to play with Tony Bennett.”
With rents starting at around $2,000 a month, little wonder that even well-paid film folk, like make-up artists or session musicians, choose to live in a mobile home on the edge of the city instead of in a downtown apartment.
Only movie stars can afford Venice Beach or Beverley Hills. Or the new moguls of LA, the tech billionaires.
And it seems, owners of 10-acre RV parks. “Land sells for $4 million an acre in LA,” Steve told us, nonchalantly. “Home Depot wants to buy our site, but I have said no.”
He laughed as I croaked, “$40 million ...”
California is the world’s fifth biggest economy, worth a staggering $2.7 trillion per year. Its GDP is bigger than the UK or France.
It is proud of its multi-cultural identity. A third of San Francisco’s population was born outside of America. There are more Hispanic people (39.1 per cent) than white (37.2 per cent) living in California.
It is an aggressively progressive state, with the highest sales-tax and wealth-tax rates in the country, and the revenue is used to fund large public spending programmes.
The Hollywood version of California is a place where the sun shines all the time, where everyone, black, white, gay, straight, young, old, lives together in harmony.
A place where the best minds from across the globe are creating a brave new world, where there is an app for everything, and everything is an app.
But real life is not the movies. One in three of all Americans who receive welfare live in California. It has the highest poverty rate in the country – 20 per cent, caused largely by the high cost of housing. Homelessness is endemic. And there is a growing divide between those with careers in the lucrative entertainment and tech industries, around a third, and the 50 per cent of the population who work in the low-wage service sector. The sun does shine all the time however. Relentlessly.
As we wandered along Hollywood Boulevard, choked with tourists searching for their favourite star on the sidewalk, we decided we had to see a movie in Hollywood.
There is nothing quite like a cinema on a Wednesday afternoon, and just like our multiplex back home, the state-of the-art movie theatre on Sunset Boulevard was almost empty. Five of us watched Spike Lee’s latest epic ‘BlacKkKlansman’ in a room built for five hundred.
As the magic of a film maker at the height of his powers drew us in, we were transported back to 1970s Colorado Springs, where racism was as ubiquitous as flares and a young white supremacist, David Duke, was busy re-branding the Ku Klu Klan.
“America First,” chanted his hooded men. “I want to make it great again,” intoned Duke.
As the film ended on a high note, we were, shockingly, pulled back into Trump’s America. The murderous violence of last year’s Charlottesville riots flashed on to the big screen.
Neo Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan screamed their vile hatred as a young woman, Heather Heyer, was mown down and killed on live TV by a Dodge Charger, allegedly driven by a white supremacist.
And to the evident delight of David Duke, still head of the Klan 40-odd years later, President Trump’s voice then boomed out, “there was blame on both sides”.
Hollywood. The place where people are paid handsomely to lie to us. Only sometimes, a movie can tell us a truth that is almost too much to bear. America, are you listening?