May 13, 2007
Family Travel | Los Angeles
Adventures in Dreamland
By A. O. SCOTT
ONE pleasant April afternoon, I found myself, along with my wife and our two children, in the middle of a quintessential American scene. There was a quaint town square, a sturdy shade tree flanked by cozy shops and Victorian houses. As we surveyed this idyllic tableau, it was pointed out to us that many of the buildings were empty shells, and that the leaves on the trees were bits of green plastic wired to the branches.
The news was not altogether shocking. We had, after all, reached this New England hamlet via a five-minute drive from downtown Chicago, which was itself nestled up against a block of New York brownstones not far from an overgrown patch of jungle. The mountains in the distance seemed real enough. They were the Hollywood Hills, and our immediate surroundings, the Warner Brothers back lot in Burbank.
As a tourist destination, Hollywood is a bit of a tease, at once wide-open and hermetic. It's all around you — the magic of the movies, the homes of the stars, the big sign in the hills — but where, exactly, is it?
Before I became a film critic, I never spent much time in Los Angeles, and my subsequent acquaintance with the city has been colored, and perhaps distorted, by my job. It is all too easy, when you write about movies, to wrap yourself in a carapace of cynicism; you don't want to come off as too star-struck, too susceptible to the glamour that still emanates from Hollywood. And so you learn to inflect the word “Hollywood” with a certain disdain, to show that you don't buy all those clichés about Tinseltown and the Dream Factory. If you come from New York and have seen “Annie Hall” as many times as I have, you may also retain certain snobbish prejudices about the place.
But who am I kidding? Hollywood may connote shameless commercialism, but it also conjures a powerful, undimmed spell of romance. The paradoxical mystique of movie stars — we feel like we know them so well, even as their lives seem so fantastically distant from ours — extends to the place where they are hatched and raised.
Luckily, my children, now 8 and 10 years old, provide an antidote to my put-on professional world-weariness. They are voracious, indiscriminate consumers of popular culture, and while I can't always share their enthusiasm — in the interests of family harmony, we tacitly agree not to bring up my reviews of “Madagascar” or “Chicken Little” — I am always happy to feed it.
And so when work calls me out to Southern California, I try whenever possible to take the family along. Over the last few years, the four of us have developed a collective crush on Los Angeles.
Earlier this spring, I left behind my critical agenda and, inspired by “Little Miss Sunshine,” the National Lampoon “Vacation” movies and a half-dozen relevant episodes of “The Simpsons,” assumed the role of affable tourist doofus dad. In this script my wife, Justine, was perfectly typecast as the voice of skepticism and good sense. Our children adopted pseudonyms, both to protect their anonymity in the newspaper and to pay tribute to the local tradition of self-reinvention that turned Issur Danielovich Demsky into Kirk Douglas and Norma Jeane Baker into Marilyn Monroe. The boy renamed himself Wayne Bruce, in triple tribute to Batman, the Duke and the star of “Die Hard,” which he'd recently seen part of on cable and which is, not coincidentally, a movie about a New Yorker coping with life in Los Angeles. His younger sister chose to inscribe herself in the tradition of single-named divas; we'll call her Melody.
We took an afternoon flight to LAX and found ourselves in the rental car lot just in time for rush hour. Wayne Bruce, true to action-hero form, wanted to roll out in the red Hummer. I'll admit to ogling the Dodge Magnum. Half an hour later, thrift and good sense prevailed and we were crawling north on the 405 in a silver Impala under a disconcertingly cloudy sky. We checked into our cozy suite in West Hollywood, ordered hamburgers and quesadillas and set about storyboarding the days ahead.
The plan was to balance present and past, sensation and education, indoors and out. We wanted not only to explore movie-related tourist sites, but also to score a vicarious taste of what our movie-saturated imaginations pictured as a Hollywood lifestyle. Thus a certain amount of time would be allotted for lounging beside the pool, for being seen in trendy restaurants, for driving aimlessly in the hills, for staring at the Pacific Ocean.
“Will we see any celebrities?” Melody wondered. As it happened, we would not. There was one of those I-know-I've-seen-him-somewhere encounters, in an aisle of the Whole Foods in Santa Monica, with an actor who had the good grace to show up in a rerun on the hotel TV that night. And our guide on the Warner Brothers studio tour did make eye contact with me in his rear view mirror and ask, “Did anyone ever tell you you look like Paul Giamatti?”
But I'm ahead of the story. A studio tour was to be the first order of business. We had done Universal Studios — more of a theme park ride than a tour — on a previous visit; Disney doesn't offer tours of its studio lot, and neither does Fox (D'oh!). Paramount and Sony don't accommodate children under 12. That left Warner Brothers. The voice message said that reservations were accepted for the first tours of the morning (at 8:30 and 9), and that the rest of the day was first come first served.
So after a leisurely breakfast at the Urth Caffé on Melrose in West Hollywood, surrounded by script-readers and -writers and other aspirants to Hollywood glory, we made it to Burbank by 10:30. “Do you have a reservation?” we were asked. Well, no we didn't. Rather than wait three hours, we made reservations for the next afternoon and headed back over the hills, touching down at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland.
This turned out to be a good place to start — the epicenter of Hollywood tourism, an open-air theme park and pilgrimage site. Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame, the Kodak Theater shopping-mall complex where the Oscars are handed out: they're all right here.
We began with the Hollywood History Museum, which occupies a handsome Art Deco building that used to house the Max Factor makeup company. As I bought tickets, Justine pointed her digital camera at a poster in the lobby — an advertisement for the museum itself — and was immediately accosted by a man who seemed more like a junior production executive than the security guard he apparently was. “Ma'am, I'll have to ask you to erase that picture,” he said, explaining that “everything in this museum is a copyrighted piece of intellectual property.”
This was a useful object lesson, a reminder that we were visitors in a company town. We tend to think of movies as public property. Who do they belong to, if not the fans? But of course they are made, distributed, owned and fiercely protected by large commercial interests. And so we checked the camera at the front desk and worked our way through the jumble of memorabilia that is the Hollywood History Museum.
History is not, in that museum or anywhere else in Hollywood, a sequential, chronological affair. The Max Factor Building has been made over into a glorious attic, where posters, costumes, autographs and props line walls and fill vitrines according to no discernable principles of organization. John Garfield, John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp, Elvis Presley, Janet Gaynor, Jodie Foster — they're all thrown together, along with thousands more, just as they would be on the shelves of an especially chaotic video store. That may be the idea: movies exist in an eternal present, which is to say whenever you happen to watch them. And who has ever watched them in chronological — or any other logical — order?
My favorite room was filled with pictures of old-time stars, and also of the city itself, taken at various points in its evolution from a sleepy Western outpost into a sprawling postmodern metropolis. But the feeling was less one of nostalgia than of continuity and equivalence.
The Hollywood tourist experience creates the impression that legends of the past are equal to the glories of the present. This is quite deliberate. If the golden age were located too firmly in the past, then how could the appetite for novelty on which the entertainment industry depends be sustained? Wayne and Melody, big fans of “Some Like It Hot,” were happy to see Marilyn Monroe at the Hollywood Wax Museum (our next stop), but they were more excited by Spiderman and Freddy and Jason and the crew of the Black Pearl.
And the Walk of Fame, which stretches along Hollywood Boulevard in both directions, expands on this happy heterogeneity. Critics and historians can evaluate quality and importance, but the sun shines on the legendary and the forgotten, the great and the awful — Judy Garland's square of pavement and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's — alike. You can follow their names from the Chinese to the Egyptian, home of the American Cinematheque, a shrine to serious cinema art, and stop on the way to have your picture taken with a guy dressed as SpongeBob or Homer Simpson (him again!) and buy a hollow replica of an Oscar statuette with the inscription Best Dad.
As we walked east, the homogenized atmosphere of chain restaurants and licensed merchandise turned seedy, as if the New Times Square were adjacent to the old one, rather than on top of it. We debated joining an organized walking tour of Hollywood sites, or boarding a bus that would take us past movie star homes, but decided to wander instead. We gazed at windows full of wigs and costumes, and were happy, for most of an hour, to trade the magic of Hollywood for Hollywood Magic, a marvelous old-style novelty shop. There, a man behind the counter performed card and coin tricks, much to the delight of Wayne and Melody, who spent some of her allowance on a Whoopee Cushion.
BY dinnertime, we were ready for more refined amusement, or at least a good dinner. Did we have a reservation? No, but when we called Lucques, a highly rated restaurant a short walk from the hotel, we were told that a party of four had just canceled. Justine and Melody shared the seared breast of duck, and Wayne polished off a plate of short ribs.
Justine likes movies, but she loves birds and trees, and so the next day, on our way to Warner Brothers, we drove into Griffith Park, where trails wind through the wooded hillsides toward the Hollywood sign and the Observatory. Scrambling through brush and the rocks, we could imagine ourselves in the Old West, or deep in the jungle, or, once we reached the Observatory terrace, in “Rebel Without a Cause.” All of which were perfectly apt. The varied natural and human topography of greater Los Angeles — desert, forest, suburb, seaside, slum — has made it almost infinitely adaptable. One of the reasons so many movies are made here is that it can so easily pass for just about anywhere.
And what Hollywood cannot find, it builds and recycles. This was the theme of the Warner Brothers tour, which took us through empty back lots and sound stages, further scrambling our sense of location and history. Since it was a holiday, no one was working except the tour guide, who talked as if he was not an employee of Time Warner but one of the original Brothers. As he drove us past the bungalows that once housed writers and actors on contract, he recounted that Bette Davis had once demanded an entire building to herself. “She was one of our biggest stars,” he said, “and since she'd made us so much money we were happy to give her whatever she wanted.” I'm sure he was.
But the tour, in keeping with the endless scrambling of past and present, was less about Bette Davis than “The Gilmore Girls.” We stopped in Stars Hollow to take permitted photographs, and wandered through the Gilmore mansion, which is housed in a sound stage. But Stars Hollow used to be Walton's Mountain, and before that, part of it was Kings Row, where Ronald Reagan lived before he went into politics. And the “Gilmore Girls” sound stage used to be “Casablanca.” Much of the lot was built in the early years of the sound era, and its city streets and country towns have been used hundreds of times — in bad and good movies and (more frequently now) in television shows — ever since.
It began to occur to us that what we were encountering was raw materials and byproducts, none of which were quite as satisfying as the movies themselves. It isn't so much that Los Angeles saves its best face for the camera, but more that its ubiquity on screen creates a strange sense of familiarity. The Richard Neutra houses and Spanish-style bungalows; the Capitol Records Building and the Santa Monica Pier; Rodeo Drive and Skid Row — I see them every week, juxtaposed in ways forbidden by traffic and geography, and framed and filtered by more evocative lenses than the ones on my glasses.
Happy as we were to be in the real Los Angeles, we found that what we really wanted to do was go to the movies, and our attempt was thwarted in a quintessentially Hollywood fashion. According to the papers, there was an early-evening screening in the Cinerama Dome, a refurbished 1950s showpiece (now part of the Arclight complex) built for the three-projector wide-screen spectaculars that were meant to save the movies from television. But the Dome is a popular place for premieres, and when we arrived the red carpet and velvet ropes were being prepared for that night's “Entourage” gala.
The next day, Melody and Justine, having decided that some movie-star-grade pampering was in order, went for hot stone massages at a day spa. Wayne and I took a power breakfast in Larchmont Village, a neighborhood that seemed eerily familiar. Dads pushing jogging strollers; moms lugging yoga mats: it was Park Slope, but with palm trees.
Then, hungering for a glimpse of the ocean, even through the persistent cloud cover, the four of us drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, and pushed the Impala through hairpin turns into the Santa Monica Mountains, where we found the Paramount Ranch. Now part of a national park, the ranch was where the studio shot many of its westerns. The Western Town, most recently home of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” is still there, and Wayne shot me down, just as if I was Liberty Valance, on its dusty main street. The town wasn't big enough for the both of us.
We wound along Mulholland and then turned toward the Pacific, to follow our western with a surfing movie. At Point Dume State Beach we dug our toes into the sand, stared dreamily into the distance and spotted dolphins frolicking not far from shore, a sight more thrilling than any movie.
As the sun set, we turned off the highway onto Sunset Boulevard. The sandy children dozed in the back and I could sense the glow of a Hollywood feeling I had sought without quite knowing it. Maybe it was the feeling of finding myself in a perfectly cinematic moment, as the road snaked through Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Beverly Hills, past the grand, gated homes, the hand-lettered signs advertising Star Maps and the bored dreamers selling them. The drive was mundane and romantic at the same time, and as we descended onto the Sunset Strip in search of dinner (which we found, without reservations, at a Japanese restaurant where Jim Jarmusch's “Dead Man” was silently projected on a courtyard wall), we felt lost and completely at home.
A few weeks later, back in her third-grade classroom, Melody wrote an essay about her trip “to a place I like to call Hollywood.” I'm not sure exactly which place she meant, but I like to call it that too.
The unassuming Le Parc Suite Hotel blends into its quiet residential block in West Hollywood. Its spacious, reasonably priced suites, which make the hotel popular with musicians and film crews in town for extended stays, also make it appealing for families. The studio and one-bedroom suites can sleep four people comfortably, with varying degrees of privacy, and have kitchenettes and small balconies. Meals can be taken at the Knoll restaurant on the third floor; you can also order food on the rooftop terrace, where there is a small heated pool, a hot tub and tennis courts. (733 North West Knoll Drive; 310-855-8888; www.leparcsuites.com. Rates vary seasonally. Current rates begin at $229 for a studio.)
Groceries can be purchased at Trader Joe's, a 10-minute walk from Le Parc at 8611 Santa Monica Boulevard. Urth Caffé, not far away at 8565 Melrose Avenue, has excellent coffee, healthy and generous breakfast and lunch offerings and good opportunities for movie-industry eavesdropping. Le Parc is also within walking distance of the trendy Melrose shopping district, and from Lucques (8474 Melrose; 323-655-6277; www.lucques.com), which serves creative and thoughtfully prepared Cal-French cuisine in a carriage house once owned by the silent-film star Harold Lloyd. Another memorable meal was at Yatai (8535 Sunset Boulevard; 310-289-0030; www.yatai-bar.com), an Asian tapas bar whose sleek, dark ambience seemed much less child-friendly than its selection of small dishes (including satay, vegetable rolls and addictive nuggets of fried chicken) turned out to be. The mojitos are good, too.
Reservations for the Warner Brothers VIP studio tours can be made by calling (818) 972-8687 or at www.warnerbros.com. The tours last a little more than two hours; children must be at least 8 years old. Tickets are $42 a person.
Tickets for the various sites near Hollywood and Highland can be purchased individually. Or, at any of them, you can buy a Walk of Fame City Pass that includes the Hollywood History Museum or the Kodak Theater, the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Hollywood Behind-the-Scenes Walking Tour and the Starline bus tour. It costs $49.95 and is valid for nine days. Star Maps can be purchased for $5 from anyone sitting in a folding chair under a sign that says “Star Maps, $5.”
Griffith Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Park information is at www.lacity.org/rap/dos/parks/griffithPK or 323-913-4688). Admission to the Observatory (www.griffithobs.org) requires a timed ticket ($8 for adults; $4 for children 5-12) and a shuttle bus ride from Hollywood and Highland. Reservations: (888) 695-0888. The Paramount Ranch is part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (805-370-2301; www.nps.gov/samo) in Thousand Oaks. It is open daily from 9 to 5. There is a covered picnic area and a performance stage behind the Western Town.
Hollywood Magic is at 6614 Hollywood Boulevard (323-464-5610). Collectors, souvenir hunters and comic-book geeks should not miss Meltdown (7522 Sunset Boulevard; 323-851-7223; www.meltcomics.com), which has an impressive and eclectic selection of action-figures, memorabilia, comics and graphic novels.