The unlimited dream company

Hollywood makes adolescents of us all and provides the role models for the world's top leaders

The Bad and the Beautiful: a chronicle of Hollywood in the Fifties

Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair Little, Brown, 380pp, £20

ISBN 0316847380

Is the main role of Hollywood to save Americans from the need to grow up? The rest of the world has angst, despair, genius and genocide. They have the Hollywood film, a benign dictatorship of optimism, sentimentality and happy endings in which we all secretly believe, until the lights come on and we see the frayed carpet under our feet. Hollywood's influence pervades almost every aspect of our lives, and its amiable yarns mark out our own fault lines. The Blair-Mandelson new Labour project resembles a Frank Capra comedy about a miracle cure first embraced and then rejected by a docile public. Jacques Chirac's Vegas-style boom-boom rallies were pure Ocean's 11, effective until an ugly European heavy muscled in and threatened the cash tills.

Visitors travelling across the US soon become aware of a missing dimension, a gap in the psychological space around them. The strains of pessimism and wariness that everywhere else seem innately human have been erased from the American psyche, presumably by the Hollywood ethos absorbed since childhood. The people one meets, even the beggars who haunt the airport exit roads, are likeable, cheerful and friendly, as if the entire nation had been recruited into a remake of a 1950s Rock Hudson movie.

But no one should be that likeable or that friendly. I suspect that one reason for our out-of-sync response to 11 September is that, after a similar attack, we Europeans would react numbly and do virtually nothing, whereas Americans grieve fiercely but in an upbeat way, while warming up the F-16s. One of the unnerving things about Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, is that he merges seamlessly into the kind of super-patriotic naval commander played by Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines, who is ready to destabilise the entire Balkans and trigger a third world war in order to rescue a downed pilot.

And why not? Because Hollywood has redefined reality as itself, we can sit back and look forward confidently to Armageddon. Any dream that so endures must draw its strength from the deepest survival instincts. The potent spectacle of bright light played against a high wall taps something hard-wired into our brains - memories, perhaps, of the first dawn. Television, by contrast, is a keyhole view of the world, devoid of glamour and forever focused on the mundane.

The Bad and the Beautiful (which takes its title from Vincente Minnelli's lushly paranoid melodrama) describes Hollywood in the 1950s, when it stood at the apex of its power but was about to enter the greatest crisis in its history. People today who never go to the cinema, or who only watch videos at home, have little idea of the godlike aura that surrounded the giant stars such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard. Yet we knew almost nothing about their private lives. Many of the stars were married to each other, but seemed to produce few children, as if pregnancy and birth were too messy and physical for exalted beings who existed only in the electrified ether high above our heads.

Then, in the 1950s, everything changed. Television began to steal Hollywood audiences, and the break-up of the studio system meant the stars were on their own. Disaffected chauffeurs and eavesdropping waiters fed the new scandal magazines with ru-mours of domestic violence, drug abuse and homosexuality. Television had turned the world into a suburban living room, and audiences now wanted to see what the stars got up to when they were at home. Realism was a tangy new flavour, fed by the Kinsey Report and congressional spotlight on organised crime. The bottom- feeding Confidential magazine led the tabloid pack, and spilled the beans on Lizabeth Scott, Tab Hunter and Noel Coward.

A wonderful compendium of sleaze and gossip, The Bad and the Beautiful makes clear that many of the stars were far more interesting off screen than on. Like the audiences who admired them, their main recreations were alcohol and adultery. Lana Turner was a beautiful but wooden actress, whose compulsive man-hunting led her from one abusive boyfriend to another. She ended up with a vile small-time gangster named Johnny Stompanato. Visiting England with Turner, this thug in the lizard shoes was decked by her co-star Sean Connery. Stompanato's rages and wandering hands were too much for Turner's daughter, Cheryl, who killed him with a carving knife, provoking a vast scandal. The story has appeared in numerous films, but none of them gets to grips with Turner's mysterious personality, a myth perpetually dismantling itself in a way reminiscent of Princess Diana.

Burt Lancaster was another strange figure, as brutal and threatening in everyday life as the vicious gossip columnist he played in Sweet Smell of Success. The distinguished screenwriter Ernest Lehman describes first seeing Lancaster, as he stepped in from a side room to a meeting, zipping his fly, with the comment: "She swallowed it."

The sharpest comments on 1950s Hollywood were made by a corpse, that of the failed screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, lying face down in the swimming pool of the deranged actress Norma Desmond. He had realised too late that the Hollywood dream was a nightmare that devoured the dreamer. In the 1970s, Lucas and Spielberg changed the direction of Hollywood film, probably saving it from the slow death by neglect that has overtaken the European cinema. Film returned to its roots, never a bad move at a time of doubt, updating the galloping horses and speeding trains of cinema's pioneer days. Special effects became the real stars. The actors, even Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, are little more than glorified extras. Once again, Hollywood has resumed its historic task of making adolescents of us all.

J G Ballard's most recent novel is Super-Cannes (Flamingo)