The View from Babylon


Whilst browsing suggested titles on my Kindle, one book jumped out at me: The View From Babylon: Notes of a Hollywood Voyeur by the late Donald Rawley. My Kindle cost £60 and can hold more books than the Vatican Library. It knows me as a Rawley lover.

Rawley was a Hollywood person, a screenwriter, poet and novelist who loved the intoxicating world of the movies and bemoaned wistfully of the end of the Studio system and the old school movie stars.

Among the elite in Los Angeles you can never be too clean, smart, together or rich… …you know how to play the game, and you are always covered. The game is still on in Los Angeles. In this world poverty and racism are meaningless, but the fluctuation in real estate values is not.

The book consists of a series of personal journalistic bon mots that cover everything from a dreamy lunch at (the jeweller to the stars) Harry Winston’s to the aftermath of an LA earthquake.

I believe in ultimates. I believe in glamour, in danger. I believe in diamonds, held up to the light, that make me cry.

Even though Rawley was an unashamed Hollywood queen, who at the age of 18 spent an evening in London endlessly rebuffing the attentions of Tennessee Williams, he makes for a thoughtful journalist. One essay, Little Ghosts, investigates the spate of child murders amongst the methamphetamine-addicted poor communities on the outskirts of Hollywood:

There is a place beyond Los Angeles, where dreams are simple… I am here to listen to the wind, and to ghosts. There are over fourteen little ghosts in the Antelope Valley. In this high desert infants and small children have been murdered by their parents and guardians, at a rate, according to the Los Angeles Times, that places it amongst the highest in the United States.

Rawley archly observes the power plays at the premiere of Madonna’s Evita, where the wives of industry types cattishly hate on Melanie Griffiths (whose then husband was the gorgeous Antonio Banderas). He visits Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren’s big cat reserve, and randomly sees a drag queen dressed as Norma Desmond being driven down Hollywood Boulevard in an Isotta Fraschini, the stately car from Sunset Boulevard.

Particular memories stand out, not because of what happened but what didn’t; often they say more about myself than I am willing to admit.

One gets the impression throughout this mesmeric book that Rawley is collating these episodes together in order to preserve a literary legacy, and confesses late on in the book that he has A.I.D.S. This colours the preceding with a deep wistfulness, a sense of times changing and dreams fading out of view.

(In Hollywood) there is little time for the elegance of entertaining at home, or for personal friendships…. People in the business tend to view their work, industry status and connections as more important than riots, earthquakes and floods. The only two things that will ever shut down the film business are lack of funds or a nuclear war.

With an avid interest in American cinema since I was a child, obsessively watching 40s Film Noir and cultishly devouring the exotica of Hollywood memoirs and movie history, The View from Babylon is a book that attempts to celebrate a minor life held thrall to the limelight, a dying man’s quiet commentary on a life of light and shadows. If you are a fan of Old Hollywood, if you cannot stand the CGI virtue-signalling nonsense thrown up by the hacks in the post-digital industry, click purchase on your Kindle and disappear to a more sophisticated, yet somehow less complicated time.

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