Book Review: HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD

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Leonard Maltin, a writer and film nerd who sits among the critical pantheon where Pauline Kael, James Agee, and Roger Ebert hold court, begins his latest collection of essays and interviews, HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD, with a recollection of his youth when he was an avid reader of the legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland.

It’s a fitting, heartening image to consider and a brilliant way to begin. How many of us first heard the siren call of cinema in the pages of Fangoria or had our filmic lust tantalized by the latest issue of Starlog? Who among us came to the shores of movie geekery on a ship made of horror, our landscapes expanding wider with each new monster and every fantastic new effect? This simple anecdote, from which Maltin spins a yarn of impassioned writing and film nerdity spanning decades, explains and contextualizes so much.

Maltin, for all his achievements and all his work, is, at his heart, just a horror nerd, a kid sucked into a world of fancy by monsters and makeup. For all the venom foisted upon critics in comment sections and tweets, it’s easy to forget that first and foremost, like most of us, critics are fans.

Culling from years of material produced in Film Fan Monthly and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy, HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD is, if nothing else, an ode to fandom. And not the kind of fandom we think about when we think about fandom today—the kind responsible for so many deactivated accounts and so much keeping of gates—but the true fandom, the kind that inspires deep research and contemplation. That kind that fuels fascination and wonder.

Much of what Maltin writes here might not be interesting to the lay reader. He isn’t here to discuss the modern blockbuster (or even necessarily the classic blockbuster) or to discuss your favorite actor. As always, Maltin strives for something more, following the trails of minutiae from the archives of the classic studios to discover the fascinating tidbits that surround the making of a film or the influence of a score.

In typical Maltin fashion, HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD is filled to the brim with deep dives, offering a scholarly approach to the topics at hand. In true geek fashion, Maltin has always been a master at research, and his access to the archives of Warner Brothers offers a uniquely fascinating look at the Golden Age of the studio system. One particularly memorable essay, “Here We Go Again,” finds Maltin dispelling the notion that the modern Hollywood obsession with remakes is, in any way, new. Reflecting on the 1930’s trend of remaking popular silent films in the talkie era, Maltin writes, “Sometimes studios and filmmakers would delude themselves into believing that audiences wouldn’t remember the earlier pictures; in some cases they genuinely believed they could improve upon the originals.”

As it is with today, sometimes they were right, mostly they were wrong. But the essay serves as a reminder that what’s wrong with Hollywood has always been wrong with Hollywood. It’s written with a sense of both acknowledgement—of the times they’ve gotten it right—and bemusement—for the rest of the times. It’s a deeply researched and documented work of academia, though one rich with critical subtext, suggesting, in many places, rather than telling, the behind the scenes hell that many of these movies must have endured on their path to the silver screen.

Throughout it all, even when discussing films he didn’t like or that bombed with audiences, there’s a deep reverence for the artistry and work required to bring stories to life that can only be fueled by pure, unadulterated fandom. One senses that Maltin, even when watching a film he loathes, cannot help but wonder about the journey the film took behind the scenes. It’s a deep and abiding respect that so flies in the face of our modern notion of fandom, and even when reading about a film you might not even know, you’re easily drawn into Maltin’s perspective and cannot help but find yourself fascinated if by nothing else than Maltin’s fascination.

What’s truly remarkable about many of these pieces is that he took over Film Fan Monthly, an early zine, when he was just 15 years old. He did it for the passion, for the thrill, for the sheer joy of sharing his thoughts about film. These days you can find any of a million people doing this on blogs or on Twitter, but Maltin’s era required a dedication and commitment not held by many even today. It was, simply, his joie de film that compelled him, and what continues to compel him today.

You see this more in the two sections of interviews included in HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD; the first from his early days (some from the tender age of 16), the second from his latter days. As with his essays, the interviews provide an invaluable look at the machinations of the Golden Age. Not only that, but we see the incredible growth of Maltin throughout his career.

These days, he is an interviewer’s interviewer. He knows how to pierce through a subject’s natural defenses and suss out the story yearning to be told. Turns out, this was true even in his youth. It’s hard to think of a star like Burgess Meredith sitting down with a 17-year-old, let alone opening up as much as he did. Perhaps it’s a case of a seasoned professional opening up to a bright-eyed young kid to throw him a bone, but reading through it, and the rest included in HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD, you’re witnessing the birth of a master. One can’t help but wonder at what Meredith must have thought upon the interview’s conclusion.

All of this being said, HOOKED ON HOLLWOOD isn’t necessarily the kind of book you just pick up and read without a deep interest in the history of cinema. As a reference, however, it is stunning. Packed with anecdotes and stunning quotes, it is as valuable a tool for the cinematic academic as anything released in the last few years. Maltin has also loaded his tome with hundreds of behind the scenes pictures, one sheets, and advertisements to present a broad historical document not just about the movie industry, but in his interests and fandom.

Though occasionally the prose is dense and the often the subject obscure, what HOOKED ON HOLLYWOOD does best is remind us that fandom need not be toxic. Fandom isn’t—and never has been—about slinging insults at makers and stars or delighting in the “thrill” of chasing someone of Twitter simply because you didn’t like their work. What Maltin does here, even with the works he doesn’t like, is engage thoughtfully to find the little nuggets of interest, the behind the scenes tales, the post-release magic, and the wonder of any particular film. In doing so, he finds the beating heart of film and the very soul of fandom, arguably where it’s been all along: Sitting in a room, hunched over an issue of Famous Monsters or Fangoria, and finding yourself filled to the brim with wonder.

James Roberts