Barrelhouse Reviews: Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland by Duke Haney

Review by Laura Gill

Death Valley Superstars cover.jpg

I watch the Academy Awards every year, and every year, the Academy Awards tries to recruit more people like me—consistent, loyal viewers, who will watch the show despite its flaws. Every year, the producers fall short. But this past year has been particularly fraught. First, the Academy floated the possibility of a Best-Popular-Movie Award which fell flat on its face when a public outcry questioned the grounds on which they might judge a movie’s “popularity,” and that the Academy inadvertently appeared to concede that “Popular Films” are less artistically-valid than less popular ones. So they nixed that idea, and then put faith in their host—Kevin Hart, a young, black comedian who does star in “popular” movies and television—but when Hart’s homophobic tweets from ten years ago resurfaced, another public outcry  ensued. He stepped down. Their final effort was to remove certain categories from the televised show—among them editing, hair and makeup, and cinematography—to which the public, and many people in Hollywood, responded with more outrage; are these categories lesser than? All the while, despite pandering on the part of the Academy, there is little expectation that the Oscars will ever succeed with younger audiences—people who find their content on YouTube, Snapchat, and Netflix, another controversial subject since the ostensible frontrunner for Best Picture for the longest time was a Netflix release, ROMA. That it lost to Green Book is another controversy altogether.

The continued outcries from what one might call Academy Award “traditionalists” resonate with many of Duke Haney's concerns in his essay collection, Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland, published this past December, which is a lament for an old-fashioned style of film he sees as being replaced  by lesser works of art. In the first essay, he sets up this take on the current state of culture, thinking that we’ve lost certain reverence for the art of film  (the kind he considers worthy and worthwhile) , and with it, certain cultural touchstones of our past. While he likely wouldn’t necessarily be up and arms about the Academy Awards given  his knee-jerk contempt for modern Hollywood film, he is—as perhaps many in the Academy are—disturbed by what he sees coming into its place: short, consumable narratives for kids. Indeed, he sees this everywhere, not just in film. An anecdote about Norman Mailer illustrates this—according to Haney, that there are no young people today who, upon meeting a writer like Norman Mailer would have minds “nuanced enough to critique a literary lion.” Mailer has lost what he calls his “army,” replaced by a “hive mind stuck in chrysalis.” To which I ask: So? That sounds like is great news! Let the hive minds lead away from Mailer, towards, say: Hilton Als, Rebecca Solnit, and Claudia Rankine.

Haney’s reverence for Mailer is just the beginning of a series of essays that relish the hyper-masculinity of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He seems to find it immensely unfortunate that Mailer has been pushed aside ‘simply’ because he was known to be “obnoxious, violent, egoist.” Instead, he wants us to remember that Mailer was “perhaps the most important American writer of the sixties,” a claim built on the preposterous assumption that if one chooses not to read Mailer because he was an “obnoxious, violent, egoist,” it’s a travesty. In fact, the book is riddled with kinds of claims about people's worth, impact, and value—and the ones with value are mostly men, with a penchant for womanizing. While the aim of the essays is to explore the varied lives and complicated legends of some of Hollywood’s most remembered, and in some cases most forgotten, stars, all the while exploring Los Angeles and its role in shaping these characters, most of what comes through instead is the romanticization of a past that even Haney acknowledges is problematic. But instead of addressing those troublesome components,  Haney pokes fun at them or ignores them entirely—sometimes wishing he could have a slice of the good old days back, as if to say: get another writer like Mailer, or another actor like Marlon Brando. In other words, reading these essays feels a lot like  entering a boys club where you’ll be ridiculed if you don’t laugh at the penis joke, or looked at with disgust if you say you admit that not only did you take years to listen to it, you also don't even like Graceland!

Somehow, his worst tendencies come to light with a figure Haney claims to love: Marilyn Monroe. Haney dwells on the fact that many people thought she was never a good actress, instead finding her annoying, daft, and hollow. Tennessee Williams allegedly said that “Marilyn’s mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.” Haney reflects that “this blistering assessment might sadly have rung true to Marilyn at her most insecure,” that “acting, then, may have terrified Marilyn because it could expose her as the hollow shell...she suspected herself to be.” But though Haney claims to find her a great actress and a great artist, why he might feel that way is entirely unexplored. Instead, he spends his time exploring why people were critical of her, and how she might have been critical of herself. The lack of scrutiny for the criticism she received is misogynistic and cruel, at best. For Haney, Monroe herself is peripheral. The talk of the town is all that matters.

Perhaps it is understandable that Haney doesn’t dive in. Not every essay needs to unravel every aspect of a person and in Marilyn’s case, perhaps there’s a point to be made about the criticism she garnered that goes beyond the fact that she was a woman. And yet—when put next to an essay with this sentence about Elizabeth Taylor—“not that she was really an actress; if not for her spectacular looks, she would have never starred opposite Brando, Dean, and Clift”—any benefit of doubt one may be willing to extend to Haney dissipates. And it doesn't stop there. In another essay, he objectifies a woman he meets on his journey to find a medium for a seance for Jim Morrison: “it was instantly clear that she was in fact part Indian—she reminded me of a half-Iroquois acquaintance—and I guessed her age as fifty, though most would probably guess younger.”. Another essay, dedicated to his admiration for Elizabeth McGovern, relishes in a rumor about her farting on stage and a declaration from a friend he refers to as  “The Captain.” First, “The Captain” tells him McGovern "has beautiful breasts” and then Haney chooses to bring the commentary back around (or, perhaps The Captain does, but in either case, it’s completely unnecessary) when he asks about her again a page later, and “The Captain [affirms] his [own] judgment of her breasts.” Captain’s objectification of McGovern is comical, but Haney is entirely comfortable letting such objectification slide. It’s all mostly material for a gossip rag than an actual problem.

To be fair, Haney is aware  that such criticism is coming. His final essay about Stephen Cochran, where the title “The End of Cock Run” really says it all, Haney addresses the fact that he nearly didn’t write about Cochran because “he was always a dicey subject,” he was worried he might be “accused of condoning him by simply writing about him” without “ [waving] the progressive flag.” But yet again, Haney flat-out romanticizes Cochran. He’s not simply writing about him. On one of his favorite scenes of Cochran’s from the movie Private Hell where Cochran plays the bad guy Haney writes: “the clincher for me was a later scene in which [Cochran] confess(es) that he [is] stuck on Lupino and slap(s) her when she refuse(s) to reciprocate.” Haney revels in the acting, not the person or even the action itself, but later, Haney reveals just how much Cochran’s on-screen persona was connected to the man himself, a man accused of the assault and abuse of women, among other crimes. Haney knows that Cochran is, as he says, a “pig and a covert coward,” but he can’t help saying that perhaps he was a “more nuanced pig than most.” One may be forgiven for questioning if Haney truly has moral qualms about his subjects, if his disclaimers are just editorial intrusions designed solely to avoid harsh judgment.

Viewership for the Academy Awards hasn’t gone down simply because it’s long. People are over the spectacle because even as the show tries to include more voices, it’s still mostly an old white man’s show. Like with Haney’s material, even as they try to celebrate groundbreaking work, the limits of real change creep in and make themselves known in the show itself.  Only two years ago we witnessed  Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty accidentally award Best Picture to La La Land instead of the rightful winner, Moonlight. It was hard to watch on a number of levels, partly because it’s painful to watch a mistake on live T.V., but mostly because it was hard to watch two stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood accidentally awarding a film about a white couple singing and dancing to jazz while trying to make it in L.A. over a coming-of-age story about a black, gay boy in Miami. But at least Moonlight actually did win! At this most recent spectacle, there were a few innovative, thoughtful movies being celebrated—ROMA, The Favourite, and Black Panther—but it was a film perhaps consciously designed to revel in the white savior trope that won Best Picture. Seeing the three, older white men accept the award for The Green Book was enough to tell you that even if it hadn’t been a movie that, as Jenni Miller wrote was a “movie about racism made by white people, for white people,” it was one; the old guard still has the lens, and they won’t let it go. As many people have said more eloquently, and with a good dose of wit: both of those moments were metaphors for the larger reality of Hollywood. (Said Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Spike Lee, whose classic Do The Right Thing was defeated by Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 and whose BlacKkKlansman lost to Green Book 29 years later: “every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.”)

Haney’s approach is another metaphor.  The serious flaws he discusses seem like quirks, not questions that merit important engagement. The lack of self-reflection about Hollywood’s past are, thus, immensely frustrating; here is an opportunity to reflect the dark, disturbing underbelly of Hollywood, and here is a writer who is too sheepish to examine it. Haney, in fact, seems charmed by his own masculinity. One can't help but feel like having gotten stuck in the corner of the bar, in a conversation you thought might be interesting while the man keeps talking, and you can’t get a word in. Anyone who has been in this situation knows it’s easier to nod your head and smile, but one doesn't have to do that when they read, and so, I didn't.

Perhaps Haney could have taken a page out of one of his heroes, Marlon Brando’s, playbook, when, not only did Brando not accept the Academy Award for The Godfather, but he had Sacheen Littlefeather—President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee—do so in his stead. She read a statement about the treatment of American Indians in film, and on “television in reruns” to boos and cheers. Brando, far from unproblematic himself, used his platform to ask Hollywood to look forward at least once—vigorously. But Haney is committed to the rerun. Worse, he finds himself immune to the insidiousness of the stereotypes they promote. And all that does is add weight to the parts of our past we’re hoping to reject.


Bio: Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. She received her MFA from Bennington College, and her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart and is working on a book project about traveling to author's homes across the country.