In just a few short years, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, a dissection of Hollywood’s first century through stars big and small, has become not only one of the world’s leading film podcasts but one of the best examples of the power of the medium. Her long-form essays on the scandals, icons and political machinations behind the most influential artform of the past hundred years have forced an increasingly saturated field to up their game. Yet what she does isn’t a mere history lesson, nor is it simply the well-informed geeking out of someone who knows their s—t (although it is very much both of those things). What Longworth is so impeccably skilled at is contextualizing how the events of the past shape the world we live in today and how, often in the most disheartening ways possible, history is so liable to repeating itself. She makes the old feel fresh and finds new angles to oft-repeated tales, from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal to Madonna’s early years to the reinventions of Jane Fonda. Those tales that seemed so glamourous are given new shades, and the scandals that inspired countless headlines are given their full day in court.
Now, Longworth (a former film critic for LA Weekly) returns to the written page with a book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. Fans of the podcast will be familiar with this set-up, a biographical history of producer and aviator Howard Hughes during the height of his Hollywood powers, as Longworth has already dedicated episodes to some of the actresses he surrounded himself with. While Hughes’s name is front and centre on the cover, Seduction is a Trojan horse of sorts: A means to explore not only the women who Hughes tried to define himself by but also the fractured myth of the playboy that empowered him for so long. It’s no surprise why Longworth would want to dedicate such a weighty read to breaking down a powerful man who used his money, connections and promise of fame to exploit and entrap women.
Seduction offers an overview of Hughes’s life, most of which will be familiar to those who know that story, but the true meat of the book lies in the story of the women he seduced, hired, exploited and unceremoniously dumped: From Katharine Hepburn to Billie Dove to Jane Russell to his second wife Jean Peters. Hughes liked beautiful women - preferably with large breasts - and he liked the bombastic myth that the movies could create. The latter could help to commodify the former, from the marketing of Jean Harlow as the ‘platinum blonde bombshell’ to making an entire movie almost exclusively as an excuse to stare at Jane Russell’s breasts. Hughes did not invent this relentless machine of misogynistic exploitation, but, as Longworth makes the case, he did pave the way for the future of it in the most glorified terms possible.
Hughes’s problems and eccentricities are as much a part of his mythos as the planes or movies (how many times have you seen a movie or T.V. show parody a ‘crazy rich man’ by having a long-haired recluse who wears Kleenex boxes on his feet?) Longworth is empathetic to Hughes’s difficulties but is pragmatic in showing how, ill or not, he treated women as prizes to be collected. In his time, Hughes’s exploits were the workings of a spoiled rich boy who could get away with whatever he wanted. He was a ‘playboy’, and the women he amassed were positioned by the fan magazines either as gullible fools or fame hungry gold-diggers. Even major stars like Katharine Hepburn, with whom Hughes would have a relationship for several years, is seen as hanging onto her own then floundering fame by shaking up with America’s new wonder-boy.
These narratives will be painfully familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The past year, if nothing else, has taught us a potent lesson on abuses of power by men who have rejected shame in favour of rubbing our noses in their indiscretions. Once upon a time, we believed that exposing the damage would be good enough but it’s become clearer than ever that accountability cannot happen in a system where doing the right thing comes second to not being made to feel uncomfortable or inconvenienced. And it’s always been like that. Longworth has shown that seediness for many episodes of You Must Remember This and reminded us of how the gossip of that time we feverishly consume is often built on the backs of exploited women. What was the studio system if not an expanded PR machine?
Longworth is at her best when she focuses on the overlooked details of history. Everyone knows the story about the ridiculous bra Hughes had made for Jane Russell on production of The Outlaw but they may not be so familiar with the other ways Hughes objectified her throughout her career, such as a notorious dance number in The French Line that even Russell thought went too far (and yes, this was filmed in 3D). moments of oft-accepted lore are meticulously examined, such as Jean Peters’ near mythic marriage to Hughes. Her job isn’t an easy one either. While a lot of this history has been extensively documented, often by the subjects themselves, Longworth is also dealing with a publicity mastermind working in an industry that relied heavily on creating new narratives for an eager public. Separating fact from fiction is easier said than done, but Longworth has the savvy to offer a richer context between those intersections: Why was the lie created in the first place, who does it help and how did it impact everything? The truth almost doesn’t matter as much as why the story was told.
Seduction is a study of how many deprive women of their power but it also offers glimmers of hope, such as centring the spotlight on Ida Lupino, a former Hughes collaborator who struck it out on her own as one of the few women directors of the era. She gives a second glance to films that didn’t get the appreciation they deserved in their day, as well as the actresses who were written off as nothing but Hughes’s toys. Longworth, as she is on her podcast, remains stalwart in her empathy for the women who are consistently f—-ed over by the system. The more things change…
Big chunks of Seduction are taken from the podcast, which may bug some readers who have listened to those episodes many times, but the full picture painted by the book is more than worth its selling price. Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it, and at a time when we are still dealing with the fallout from the toppling of abusive giants in Hollywood, there is something to be said for looking back at a man whose playboy reputation remains in place and giving it a closer look.
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood is available to read now!
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