Irresistible Hollywood stories
Pull back the curtain and go behind the scenes of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the auteur-driven era of the 1970s, and the contemporary world of show business with these entertaining and insightful novels. Together, they span nearly a century and paint a fascinatingly complicated portrait of a glitzy, powerful, often sleazy industry.
What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw, by Leah Stewart
On its face, Charlie Outlaw is a book that jumps back and forth between the kidnapping of an actor on a remote tropical island and the struggle of his ex-girlfriend to deal with the fallout of a devastating interview he inadvertantly gave to a glossy magazine — the quotes from which caused not only their breakup, but also his escape to the island for what he thought would be a solo hiking trip.
But upon further inspection, the novel is actually a fascinating — and at times searing — thesis on what fame does to a person. The reader sees how the desperate need to please caused Charlie to get roped into a journalist’s line of questioning he technically knew to avoid, and how the process of audition and rejection a decade after wrapping a successful cult television show (not dissimilar to Buffy) toys with the self-esteem of Josie Lamar, our other protagonist.
Author Leah Stewart begins each section with an excerpt from real acting coaches (like Lee Strasberg), which works amusingly to set up the vulnerabilities (and, yes, absurdities) that Charlie and Josie go through. Anyone who has gossiped over a television star’s private life will leave this tome wondering what’s really going on with their favorite celebrities.
Postcards From the Edge, by Carrie Fisher
This should have already been at the top of your reading list when Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died last year. In case it wasn’t: This biting fictionalized memoir explores the tumultuous but loving relationship between a mother and a daughter in show business, laced with Fisher’s trademark wit and imbued with real heart.
Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates
Considered one of the prolific Oates’ best, Blonde is a fictionalized dissection of Marilyn Monroe. Intended to be a novella, Oates continued to expand the book’s scope as she dug deeper into her world — passion that shows in its rigorous, empathetic, and thoroughly compelling treatment of one of the movie industry’s most iconic names.
Epiphany Jones, by Michael Grothaus
This modern psychological thriller digs into Hollywood’s ugliest, most misogynistic side with an alternately harrowing and sarcastic tone. After a man is accused of stealing a valuable Van Gogh, he goes underground and inadvertently bumps up against the illicit world of sex-trafficking amongst the movie business’ elite players.
The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
A little Six Feet Under here, some Golden Age romanticizing there, and you’ve got Evelyn Waugh’s crackling The Loved One. A poet and pet mortician becomes enraptured by the golden gates and paradise aesthetic of Whispering Glades Memorial Park, located in the heart of Los Angeles, where he falls into a bizarre love triangle.
West of Sunset, by Stewart O'Nan
An F. Scott Fitzgerald title comes later on this list, but for now, enjoy Stewart O’Nan’s mesmerizing portrait of the author as he arrives on the MGM lot and begins work on The Last Tycoon in 1937. The book has soul and drive, but it’s an enjoyably nostalgic read, too, as names like Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart drift into the action.
Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse’s uproarious foray into tinseltown mores works off of a delightfully absurd premise: a bratty Hollywood child star on the rise swaps souls with an uppity English aristocrat while at the dentist. Chaos, inevitably, ensues.
Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard
This comic-crime classic from Leonard is now best known for its multiple adaptations, both as a hugely successful feature and, more recently, a well-received cable drama starring Ray Romano. Yet in Leonard’s novel, a cast of vibrant characters comes alive like it couldn’t anywhere else.
The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West
West’s sweeping, definitive Hollywood novel written at the dawn of WWII explores a group of characters operating on the margins of show business. It’s the first novel of its kind to interrogate the movie industry as a kind of metaphor for the elusive American dream, in all of its unfulfilled promises.
Hollywood Wives, by Jackie Collins
As sexual misconduct allegations by women against men in Hollywood finally begin to mount, Hollywood Wives makes for an illuminating read. Jackie Collins sketches a portrait of women in the industry, from agents to actresses to screenwriters, and observes how they navigate such a male-dominated environment.
Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal
This subversive, groundbreaking text is the first published novel ever to feature a character undergo gender-confirmation surgery. We meet Myra Breckinridge, a young woman with an interest in being a part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, before eventually learning that she was born as Myron. The book was infamously adapted into an offensive, universally panned film.
The Actress, by Amy Sohn
Amy Sohn’s delectably performance-centric The Actress zeroes in on the picture-perfect romance between a Hollywood heartthrob and an actress on the rise. As the latter’s career takes off and the former is dogged by gay rumors, how the two consider their relationship — and the roles they play in it — makes for a fascinating dissection.
Queenie, by Michael Korda
Queenie introduces Dawn Avalon, a movie star at the height of her popularity: She grabs headlines, she’s wealthy, and she projects the ideal. Yet underneath, Michael Korda examines a woman from a much different background than you might expect. Dawn is actually Queenie, a half-caste Indian woman running from a secret past.
Somebody's Darling, by Larry McMurtry
The rare Hollywood story to center on a female director, Somebody’s Darling represents Larry McMurtry’s profound and gritty take on the movie business. Amid a cast of eccentric men, filmmaker Jill Peel tries to keep on as one of the best in her field.
Inside Daisy Clover, by Gavin Lambert
This old Hollywood story calls to mind the rise of many “Golden Age” actresses. When Daisy Clover gets her wish and a ticket to Los Angeles amid the industry’s mid-1930’s boom, her image is drastically remodeled for the media. Fame reveals itself as deceptive and demanding, forcing Daisy to look elsewhere for a chance at happiness.
The Player, by Michael Tolkin
This dizzying novel about the mechanics of Hollywood, memorably turned into a film by Robert Altman, makes process enthralling. Michael Tolkin exposes the paranoia, the wheeling-and-dealing, and the cutthroat nature of Hollywood, in all its devastating glory, when a veteran studio executive turns down the wrong script.
Third Girl From the Left, by Martha Southgate
Martha Southgate intimately uncovers the push and pull of blaxploitation cinema in this smart novel. A 21-year-old from Oklahoma leaves her hometown behind for L.A. as the controversial genre booms, but her mother — survivor of the 1921 Tulsa riots — can’t bring herself to approve.
The Deer Park, by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer’s hotel-set novel had a long road to publication: It was initially rejected by his publisher for obscenity, and later published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The book is set at a trendy desert resort where Hollywood power players converge; Sergius, the novelist protagonist, has a front-row seat for the deal-making depravity of the showbiz community.
Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann
The landmark novel recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Susann’s Valley of the Dolls takes a group of struggling young women from New York City to Los Angeles, where their climb to the top of the industry is followed by a perilous fall. The novel spawned a reviled but successful 1967 film adaptation.
Force Majeure, by Bruce Wagner
Bud Wiggins is a low-level screenwriter touching up against the Hollywood elite in the scathing, surreal Force Majeure. When he takes a job as a limo driver to pay the bills, he bears witness to the unsettling behavior of those he aspires to walk amongst, a fever dream that ranges from pornographic to surprisingly poignant.
Play as It Lays, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s 1970 page-turner cuts into American life like a razor blade, racing from the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas to, finally, Hollywood, as it interrogates the moral and emotional trappings of late ’60s society. The protagonist, Maria, is a slumping middle-aged actress recovering from a nervous breakdown.
American Dream Machine, by Matthew Specktor
Two generations of Hollywood royalty make up this tender, pointed exploration of the movie business — and, in turn, of American life. Matthew Specktor tells the story of Beau, a talent agent, his rivalry with another agent, and his grooming of his son to claim a throne of his own. All of this plays out, intriguingly, against the backdrop of the culturally turbulent ’60s and ’70s.
The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler
Detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler took his recurring character Philip Marlowe to late ’40s Los Angeles in The Little Sister. Focused on the younger sister of a Hollywood starlet, the book is somewhat based on Chandler’s own experiences with movies — and is greatly inspired by his general distaste for the business.
What Makes Sammy Run?, by Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg’s engrossing rags-to-riches story is based on the life of his father, B.P. Schulberg. In it, Sammy Glick, a poor Jewish boy born on the Lower East Side, rises to run a film studio, but not without encountering the vicious nature of the business, in all its betrayals and deceptions, in order to get there.
Children of Light, by Robert Stone
Robert Stone’s Mexico-set novel tries covering a lot of ground: In its exploration of the romance between a failed playwright and sometimes-screenwriter and his successful actress girlfriend, the book takes on alcoholism, mental illness, the struggles of adaptation, and much more. Try to keep up.
The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The unfinished novel was published posthumously, in 1941, and has inspired a stage play, another novel on this list, and a short-lived Amazon series. Amid swirling romances and betrayals, the story centers on the budding rivalry between a young and hungry producer and an all-powerful studio head.