Thursday, November 25, 2021

Seduced by Howard Hughes

It’s natural -- especially when you come from a family of engineers -– to think of Howard Hughes mostly  in terms of aircraft. And of course there’s the latter-day Hughes, a crazy old man whose fortune couldn’t shield him from mental illness and a lonely death. But Hughes’ life (1905-1976) was intertwined with the history of the Hollywood movie industry. As a dashing young millionaire, he became determined to be a force in the world of entertainment. 

 Starting in 1926, Hughes put his considerable money behind films that were nominated for, and sometimes won, Academy Awards. Most notably, he sank about $3 million (and three years of his life) into a pet project, the World War I aerial drama, Hell’s Angels. The film, which was nominated for Best Cinematography, launched the career of Jean Harlow, whom Hughes chose to outfit in slinky gowns of his own devising. But despite a massive publicity campaign, Hell’s Angels could not recoup its then-outlandish expenses. There were human costs too. The spectacular aerial stunt work led to the deaths of three aviators and a mechanic. And Hughes himself, as a participant in some of the stunts, crashed his plane and suffered a fractured skull, the first of many dramatic injuries that doubtless contributed to his strange, twisted view of life.

 In 2018, a new book on Hughes’ movie years made its appearance. Called Seduction:Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, this heavily researched volume was written by Karina Longworth, the Angeleno behind You Must Remember This, a popular podcast that chronicles the secret history of the old studio system. Longworth does not neglect Hughes the industrialist, but her focus is on Hughes’ interaction with Hollywood, especially its women. There are lots of colorful details about his romances with Katharine Hepburn (who praised him as a lover), Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, and other celebrated lovelies. Much time is spent, needless to say, on his relationship with the very young, very well endowed Jane Russell: while guiding the production of The Outlaw, in which she plays a half-breed Mexican beauty sexually assaulted in a hayloft  by Billy the Kid, Hughes famously engineered a brassiere that would dramatically emphasize her two most prominent assets. Russell’s relationship with Hughes was to complicate her later marriage to a prominent football star. While moving in and out of a leadership role at RKO Pictures, Hughes kept Russell under personal contract for decades.

 I learned, in passing, about many remarkable Hollywood women. One was Ida Lupino, admired today as one of the few American females able to break into directing, but also apparently someone who fostered her own career success by secretly cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the dark days of the Blacklist. Another was Terry Moore, a blonde and perky devout Mormon  (now 92), who still seems convinced that she and Hughes contracted a secret marriage in 1949. (She has since had 5 other husbands.) Most disturbing, though, is Longworth’s recounting of the way the middle-aged Hughes courted pretty and very young women, scouting them out in their hometowns, enlisting the support of their starstruck mothers, and dangling before them the prospects of a movie career. Once they came to Hollywood, Hughes would ensconce them in hotel suites or bungalows, provide them with cars and drivers, enroll them in acting and dance classes, then occasionally drop by to sample their charms. No surprise: few ever appeared in movies at all. But Hughes did, as portrayed by Jason Robards, in 1980s sad and hilarious Melvin and Howard.



1 comment:

  1. Dear Beverly, Solid piece. Good information. I am personally offended that Hollywood embarrasses itself Over and Over and Over again by spending such a large proportion of its 100 year history “selling” sex to its audiences (like all those “Mens” magazines have since the invention of the photograph) rather than emphasizing ALL the strengths women, as a gender, posses, give, emulate and create. (I never understood why my mother loved movies so much when women almost always played the “lure,’ not the “cure” to a conflict). That so much is written about the Russell’s and Monroe’s of the movie industry rather than the creative powerhouses, like Hepburn and Streep is a shame, not to mention screenwriters and directors, etc. Happy Thanksgiving. Bob