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Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos Paperback – February 7, 2019
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In film agentry there was an art to everything--locking up depressed writers in hotel rooms with coffee and booze until they finished a script, and it they couldn’t do that, taking over the typewriter and banging out an ending for them. Agents, apparently, had to be unscrupulous, willing to take an actual punch from rivals and be able to throw one in return, just to earn a reputation as someone willing to do anything for their clients. But they also had to have enough writing talent of their own to maneuver in a world of storytelling. Sigal could do all of this, and he could tell a story in strokes of rapid-fire dialogue, a talent that makes Black Sunset play in the mind like a movie edited with jump cuts, a fast fly of a read, bouncy with laughs, as when he confesses that at one point he had something going on the side with the redoubtable matronly star of the Ma and Pa Kettle film series, Marjorie Main.
Marjorie Main! His portrait of this strong, funny, sexy (in real life) mature woman is irresistible.One longs for a moment to have been able to have a drink with her and hear (in real life) her half-strangled voice erupt in horse laughs. Likewise, Sigal’s tale of an encounter with Barbara Stanwyck on the set of a TV Western he managed to wrangle for her in her graying days is given a tiny misfired love story told entirely at his own expense--not the only time in the book he reveals a generous heart.
But the book’s title is the signal that Black Sunset is not a divertimento. As he circles the 342-page story into the Pacific twilight for a landing, Sigal brings the reader face to face with the underbelly of the Hollywood blacklist, which followed close on the Holocaust, whose effects he witnessed first-hand as a GI in the occupation of Germany, and the renewal of scarcely disguised anti-Semitism in the U.S., perhaps expressed most directly in the film blacklist and the trail of personal betrayals and suicides it left behind. Hanging over everything was the impending threat that the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which empowered the president to confine loosely defined political dissidents in “emergency detention,” would be set in motion.
One of the historians of the blacklist period, Patrick McGilligan, has underscored the importance of personal politics to explain the tragic endings in a period in which many of the most talented members of the film colony were radicals vulnerable to exposure from jealous husbands, abandoned lovers and bosses looking to protect themselves from not so sotto voce threats from the FBI. Sigal is the rare writer willing to evoke this rarely told personal side of the story.
One day, Sigal and a friend were driving down Melrose when they spotted a cherry-red Mercury coupe upside down in the middle of the street. Inside is Sigal’s girlfriend, “sprawled all over the inside of the Mercury’s roof.” They pull her out of the wreck, which, Sigal later learns after going through a similar experience, was likely caused by an agent of the U.S. government on blacklist duty. Even though she is badly bruised and shivering from shock, she refuses to be taken to the hospital. Sigal takes her home, where she insists that he make love to her. She eventually recovered. Sigal describes this scene as an example of “boxcar love”--”the frantic homicidal coupling of the transported women and men whose distant fate in wartime Eastern Europe haunts our nightmares”--referring to the death camps of WWII. Some readers will put down the book at this point and let their eyes dissolve into sightless reflection to wonder: If, as Theodore Adorno wrote, “After Auschwitz, poetry is barbarism,” what is love?
What a strange and haunting book this is--about a strange and haunting period in our history. . It’s a book that could only have been written by someone with long experience and an ability to make his story almost as complete an act as living itself.