Hullywod Boulevard

“Hollywood lighting” calls to mind dreamy high-contrast glamour shots and unattainably lustrous skin, but the actual light in Hollywood is unforgiving.

Failure's more spectacular than success

from Hollywood Boulevard by Dennis Feldman

Dennis Feldman. Hollywood Boulevard: 1969-1972. Circle of Fire, April 2015.

In August of 1958, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce unveiled the first eight stars of what would eventually become the Walk of Fame, where major figures in the entertainment industry were to be recognized with plaques inlaid on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard. The parade of stars, made of pink terrazzo and brass, was, in the words of one-time Chamber president E. M. Stuart, a way to “maintain the glory of a community whose name means glamour and excitement in the four corners of the world.” Among the first honorees was the fallen silent film star Olive Borden, a beauty known as the “Joy Girl” who at the height of her career made $1,500 a week, but whose Southern accent and reputation for being “high hatted” made her unfit for the transition to “talkies.” She had died eleven years before the ceremony, at a women’s mission on Skid Row. After the first eight stars were unveiled, construction on the project was stalled for years.

In the lore of Hollywood, decline is more alluring than ascent, failure more spectacular than success. This romantic notion underscores Dennis Feldman’s Hollywood Boulevard: 1969-1972, a collection of thirty-seven black-and-white square-format portraits taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame when the neighborhood was becoming a symbol more of urban chaos than of movie-star glamour.

The Walk of Fame was both a tourist destination and a neighborhood improvement project intended to bring some pride to an area that was becoming more honky-tonk by the day. Ironically, the birth of the Star Walk precipitated decades of decline on Hollywood Boulevard. Between 1962 and 1968, while a long-term budget and nomination guidelines were being devised, no stars were laid down. Meanwhile, decentralization was bringing change to the neighborhood. Most of the major film studios had already decamped from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. The movie palaces, hotels, and high-end stores that had once lured visitors with the promise of rubbing elbows with movie stars were now leaving the area too, replaced with bars and porno theaters. By the time Feldman started wandering around with his Rolleiflex camera, the boulevard was home to a flourishing sex and drug trade. Cropping up nearby were massage parlors and adult businesses with names like Mother’s Fun Palace, the Institute of Oral Love, and the House of Seven Erotic Gables. Even the HOLLYWOOD sign was rusted and crumbling. (Before it was finally refurbished in 1978, it would lose one and a half “O”s and read: “HuLLYWOD.”)

In his straightforward, taxonomic portraits of people idling alone or in pairs on the boulevard, Feldman captures more intimate signs of disarray. The lumpy outline of a lace bra seen through a woman’s sweater. Creases on the chest and belly from where a man’s tank top – probably fresh from a three-pack – was folded; a dimple from where it was pulled into a square. Most of the people in this book are just a little too rumpled or too hardened or too asymmetrical to be Hollywood handsome. A weak chin, sunken cheeks, a small head on a big neck. Even teenage girls have puffy eyes, suggesting allergies or a long night.

In 1968, the silent-era sex symbol Ramon Novarro was murdered by two hustlers he’d called to his home in Laurel Canyon. A year later, the Manson girls killed Sharon Tate. The threat of “shady characters” on street corners is often overstated, but a few of the portraits in Hollywood Boulevard really do make it seem like a menace was in the air. A gaunt man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead stands with a barrel-chested greaser who looks like he just walked off the set of Scorpio Rising. A woman with a flat-ironed Brigitte Bardot hairdo wears a suede jacket, a baggy cardigan, and peeking out from underneath, a T-shirt printed with the words: L.A. COUNTY JAIL. A shirtless man covered in knife scars and tattoos even has blood in his hairline.

Tattoos in this era seem truly antisocial. Winged skulls, swastikas, hands flipping the bird, ragged stick-n-pokes, bleedy black ink. They evoke prison or motorcycle gangs. One man has the word PEACHES tattooed all over his body, a buttlike peach on his bicep, another over his belly button. There are no tattooed women.

Not everyone in these photos is so fringe. There are parents with children, couples promenading, smiling old ladies in fur. Still, there is a morning-after vibe to the whole collection; looking at Feldman’s photos I wonder about the place when the sun goes down. I think of the Hollywood Boulevard of John Rechy’s male hustling saga, City of Night, populated with “actors” and gossips and handsome plainclothes detectives and old men looking to pick up teens and of people afraid of growing old, a place where night can bleed easily into morning while you are still out on the hunt for something.

Some of the people in this book look unaccustomed to being seen in daylight. “Hollywood lighting” calls to mind dreamy high-contrast glamour shots and unattainably lustrous skin, but the actual light in Hollywood is unforgiving. Bright noontime sun exposes clumpy mascara and concealer-caked wrinkles, erases pale eyebrows, casts ugly shadows in the hollows beneath the eyes. It’s a place for nocturnal creatures—even the movie stars are meant to be seen at night, not caught on a morning walk by a paparazzo’s lens.

“Like special moths,” Rechy wrote, “attracted to the special glitter of the nihilistic movie capital, the untalented or undiscovered are spewed into the streets by the make-it legend.” The people in this book are in some ways defined by their proximity to the “other” Hollywood: the industry, the ideal. One wonders if the laughing older woman with smooth cheeks and sunspotted hands once had a brush with fame. Are the two men wearing matching paisley tunics in a band? The Hollywood “make-it legend” imposes its own narrative on their imagined lives. This is in part due to the book’s framework: Feldman shot his photos only on the star walk for a reason. But it’s even driven home by the ironic way that some of the portraits themselves are framed. Many subjects are posed in front of storefront display windows featuring an array of items including sports coats, Frederick’s of Hollywood negligees, and loungewear for the woman who enjoys a poolside Tuinal. A more aspirational life, in the form of a well-coiffed mannequin in leisure pants, peers over people’s shoulders. At times the approach feels heavy-handed, or even incurious. A man in black poses against an empty wall next to a sticker that says HELL BENT FOR LEATHER. Behind a young cross-dresser in Diana Ross eyeliner there is a Barbasol display. The square-format photos feel a bit cramped, like people are being boxed in.

Feldman, who is also a screenwriter, opens his introduction with a meditation on what it means to be a “somebody.” He writes that he is interested in “the cracks in the performance” of identity. Any collection of street photography could be said to address performed identity, but the Hollywood angle lends this book another dimension. As you flip through Hollywood Boulevard, the photos begin to look like a series of screen tests: what role is this person going for, and how well do they inhabit it? The cover image shows a young man in a Janis Joplin shirt holding a beat-up guitar case. Brow furrowed, lips barely parted, holding the stub of a cigarette loosely between his thumb and forefinger, he looks like he’s just been interrupted, like he doesn’t have time for this.

Could he be somebody important? He’s handsome and fit, which in Los Angeles gives him credibility. He has a lion’s mane of hair. He’s wearing at least four necklaces and at least five rings: too much jewelry for a man with an averaged-size ego. But that Janis shirt . . . and on his guitar case two lines of embossing tape read: JANIS JOPLIN GREATEST WHITE BLUES SINGER OF ALL TIME AND SPACE. He must just be a fan, a hanger-on.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine Feldman called the photos “a catalogue of Americans by psychology.” But at times, this feels limiting and fruitless. In the book’s introduction, Feldman writes of Hollywood Boulevard as a place where people reinvented themselves as archetypes: hippies, bikers, celluloid sexpots. Most of his subjects, he says “took ready-made identities, ones they’d seen at the movies,” but few people in the photos seem to fit a type neatly, or at all. More than forty years after the fact, it’s hard to pick up on the subtleties of subculture and trend, the codes that would mark someone as a tourist or a native. I was surprised to see so many people in what looked like hippie costumes from a sorority party, but does that mean they’re inauthentic, or that the style was just that bad? It probably was that bad. On some of these pages you can see the birth of an obstinately unstylish California: frayed and ill-fitting blue jeans; clunky, practical sandals; and everywhere, suede fringe.

My favorite photos in Hollywood Boulevard are the ones that don’t fit neatly into the time, the place, or the glib narrative of Hollywood, but instead are wildly individual: pictures of waiting, wandering, loitering with friends. Two girls with ombré hair can be pegged to the ’70s by the cut of their jeans and jackets, but their postures—one looking amused, the other staring at the camera with a directness I’ve only ever seen in teens who want to be looked at—reminds me of something more timeless. They’re young, and waiting for something to happen.

The very young resist Feldman’s taxonomic gaze: they’re busy making new ways of being. A signifier or a style that will one day become a marketable trend, or a tenet that’s taken to represent a generation, often starts as teenage idiosyncrasy. A modern-looking, androgynous pair, so similar they could be twins, poses against an uncluttered black and white wall that echoes their dark hair and pale skin. The one on the left wears no shirt, an open vest, and creased slacks. The one on the right wears a button-up with lapels spread wide and jeans so frayed they no longer look like hippie clothes, but something else. He stands with one hip cocked, a fist pressed into the small of his waist. They gaze up from under flat black brows with a bold, receptive sexuality. They look like they could be models, like they could be in New York, like they could be on an album cover tomorrow. Instead of just trying on personas against a Hollywood backdrop, they really do seem to transform the space. It’s funny that in the one photo that seems the most exciting, the most suggestive of something new, the subjects are standing on a regular dirty sidewalk, not the speckled terrazzo of the Walk of Fame.

As a tourist attraction, the Hollywood Walk of Fame isn’t much to look at. No quotes, no caricatures, no handprints or signatures. Just plaques, dull as grave markers but without the dignity. The pink and black terrazzo looks like the floor tile of a mall; after all, it’s meant to be walked on.1 The famous names are better celebrated elsewhere; if there’s anything interesting about the Walk of Fame it is the parade of names you don’t know, cast in brass; each a reminder that markers of success meted out by the establishment don’t mean much in the end. Only one photo in Hollywood Boulevard actually shows a star: in closeup, strewn with debris.

  1. Muhammad Ali is the only honoree to have his plaque placed on a wall instead of the sidewalk. He didn’t like the idea of people walking on his name. 

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