Galloway on Film: Hollywood's Secret Class System

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Magic Johnson and his wife Cookie held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at their exclusive and gated Beverly Park home on Aug. 22.

Hollywood has been loud in objecting to Trump’s wall. But it’s built a series of impregnable walls of its own.

In the early evening of Aug. 22, hundreds of Hollywood insiders set forth for the Beverly Hills home of Magic and Cookie Johnson, where they would get the chance to meet Hillary Clinton and hear what she had to say about the world.

Most of them had shelled out $2,700 apiece for the privilege of being at the fundraiser, which not only gave them the opportunity to support their favored political candidate, but also to achieve the covert purpose of any Hollywood gathering: to network and advance their own careers.

Driving high into the hills, all the way up to the 14,000-square-foot house located in the exclusive and gated Beverly Park community was not just a literal ascent but also, at least for several, a metaphorical one: They were going up in the world, up to the place where they belonged or felt they should belong.

Being there would allow them to pat themselves on the back for what they had achieved and also send a subliminal message to the others present: They were part of the same club, the haves rather than the have-nots; the insiders rather than outsiders; the A-list rather than the B-list or below.

So it was with some surprise that, after parking near the Beverly Hills City Hall and then boarding a shuttle to the Johnson residence, many of the attendees realized there wasn’t just one club, but rather three. Three different groups were having three parties in the same place and at the same time, each one accorded different privileges according to how much people had paid.

The larger $2,700 group was kept outside the Mediterranean-style home, locked in a big tent, where they had to stand for much of the evening. Their dinner? Boxed noodles. A smaller group that had paid 10 times more were spotted roaming around Magic’s pool. And an even more exclusive group — those who had paid or raised $100,000 or more — later were served an elegant meal, with valet parkers at the ready to bring them their cars.

These three groups intermingled briefly, but all knew there was an invisible wall, an unstated and undefined barrier just as real and insurmountable as any wall their bugaboo Donald Trump has ever spoken about building between the United States and Mexico.

It was just one of many walls that Hollywood has erected to separate its workers into classes as distinct and unassailable as any in the Old World. You don’t need to go south to the border in search of walls: Hollywood has a fine assortment of its own.

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There are walls that separate assistants from their bosses, agents from their clients, junior executives from senior ones, operatives from owners.

There are walls between those who send their kids to private schools and public schools, those who live north of Sunset Blvd. and south of it, those who live in L.A. and the Valley, those who fly commercial and private, those who drive east of La Cienega and those who emphatically remain to its west.

There are walls between men and women, Caucasians and people of color, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor. And there are walls within these walls, adding layers of complexity. Sending your kid to a regular private school is one thing; sending him or her to the Center for Early Education is quite another. Driving an electric car is middle class; driving a Tesla puts you in a more rarefied category.

These walls are not made of brick and mortar, but everyone knows they’re there.

They exist hidden behind the words we use and the symbols by which we define ourselves. They are made clear by such things as who arrives first for lunch; who’s invited to whose house for dinner; who has to wear a suit and who can dress casually: (You wear suits as you go up, then go casual when you’re at the very top.)

The walls remind us of the very thing Americans fought to eliminate: An entrenched system that was built on the belief that one person was better than another. The class system may be on shaky ground in the old country, but it’s alive and well and flourishing in Hollywood.

You can blame the industry’s founding fathers for that.

Most of them did not come from money or land or privilege. They were scrappy individualists, often having fled Eastern Europe and the anti-Semitic persecution that was rampant there for the chance to make good in America. And make good they did: At his peak, Louis B. Mayer was the highest-paid executive in America, wining and dining with presidents.

You’d think these men (they were almost all men) might have had a greater sense of equality. Far from it. They went to pains to mark the divisions between them and the lesser beings they employed. Even their most brilliant staffers — writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, the latter a Nobel prize winner at that — were kept outside the inner circle. Fitzgerald could only gaze from afar at Irving Thalberg, whom he used as the model for The Last Tycoon; he knew him no better than the average one of us knows Ari Emanuel or Ron Meyer.

These founding fathers were self-made, but they embraced all the trappings of the aristocracy.

They built homes as lofty as any European houses, MacMansions before the “Mac” part of the term came into being. These were stately homes that dwarfed even the greatest ones on the East Coast, the Monticellos and Mount Vernons. Pickfair, the most famous of them, was converted from a hunting lodge by its owners, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who bought it in 1919 and spent five years remodeling the 18-acre estate off Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, adding a screening room, a billiards room, a bowling alley, stables and servant quarters. (It was demolished so that an even grander place could be built by its new owner, Pia Zadora.)

Such estates sent a message of superiority to the outside world and also to their owners, who needed to be reminded of their worth. Unlike the landed gentry, who had inherited wealth and property — who’d had it for generations and knew their descendants would have it for generations more — they were only too aware how quickly it could all disappear, how tenuous their positions were.

And so they surrounded themselves with all the trappings of the lords and ladies they sought to emulate— Darryl F. Zanuck even had his own fleet of polo horses —trying to persuade themselves they were safe. Across the ocean, aristocrats lived in fear of another revolution; but Hollywood’s aristocrats lived in fear of something just as deadly: failure.

* * *

The fear of failure is omnipresent in Hollywood. You can almost sniff it in the hungry producers and executives and writers and agents who’ll tout everything they’re doing in an attempt to make it more real. And even when they’re on the brink of the precipice, they’ll make sure appearances convey the opposite.

Everyone’s preoccupied with sending signals of success, messages that allow others to pin them on a precise rung of a ladder just as precisely as Henry Higgins could pin Eliza Doolittle thanks to her speech patterns alone. The emblems and codes are everywhere and none of us can avoid them.

The car you drive, the restaurant where you eat, the private plane you rent (or don’t), the island where you vacation and the people you vacation with — these are the symbols of Hollywood’s current class system.

When Michael Ovitz commissioned I.M. Pei to design CAA’s office building (and then had Roy Lichtenstein create a whopping big painting for the lobby), he knew this told the world CAA was bigger and better than everyone else. It belonged in a class apart.

His successors at CAA followed his strategy. Ever been inside the Death Star, as their Century City headquarters is not-too-fondly known? Its Mussolini-inspired grandeur might have made even Ovitz blink.

In the old world, the aristocracy did not flaunt its position — it didn’t need to. Indeed, it was afraid to do so, following the uprisings of the late 18th century and mid-19th century. It had to keep most of its wealth under wraps. Let the nouveaux riches buy their Rolls Royces and Mercedes; the establishment favored subtler indicators of position.

Hence they adopted secret codes that allowed one aristocrat to communicate his rank to another, just as special handshakes conveyed a sense of belonging to the Masons.

Why else would they line their dinner tables with rows and rows of elegant knives and forks — a dozen or more per person? Nobody really needed them. Except to communicate who was in the know. Regular people were clueless about which one went with each course; but the aristocrats knew. And they knew who didn’t.

Hollywood has no need for silverware. It has its Barney’s and Soho Houses and Clinton fundraisers that do the trick just as well, the boxed noodles reminding the hoi polloi that, even at $2,700 a head, you’re still just a working stiff.

For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.

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