“The female body has always been a key building block of cinema- a raw material fed into the machine of the movies, as integral to the final product as celluloid itself.”
-Karina Longworth, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, pg 5.
A biography is a very specific, very delicate balancing act. A biography has to walk a fine line of truth, skepticism, and empathy. A biographer needs to be constantly vigilant against the seemingly unceasing tendency towards hagiography and sensationalism. In an era oversaturated with information, a biographer needs to find a compelling way in which to connect and convey information, a way that is unique and that doesn’t render the information stale. Karina Longworth has done just that in Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. Hughes, an almost mythic figure in American culture, has been written about and dramatized for decades, so it seems an almost impossible task to find a new way to explore his life. But Longworth is able to accomplish this by writing about the women who fell or were forced into Hughes’s orbit. By doing this, she is able to explore the man and his career at various stages. Among the women discussed in detail are Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Faith Domergue, Ava Gardiner, Jane Russell, Jean Peters, and Terry Moore. These women were often lured into Hughes’s life with expectations of fame and a career in film. They were then molded and groomed into Hughes’s ideal-a woman whose sexuality was up for display and rabid consumption. They were stripped of their autonomy. They were made just for Howard and they languished under his control. He was a man, it is made clear, that manipulated his way into people’s lives, offering them a career or marriage, things that he would never deliver, in order to get what he wanted. The book offers a telling look at Hollywood and dynamics that, until recently, operated without criticism.
Throughout the book, we are shown Hughes as he goes about molding women, their identities, personas, and images, to a disturbingly uniform image of what he thought sexuality and womanhood entailed. The book illustrates how women’s bodies become the site of power struggles and of men’s fantasies. Playing out many of his own desires on screen, Hughes was then able to use the success of Jean Harlow and Jane Russell, the only real successes he had in Hollywood, as a way to lure other young, aspiring starlets into a web of deception and isolation from which it was nearly impossible to get out.
Much of the book is focused on Jane Russell, and for good reason. Russell became for Hughes the ideal woman and further cemented the notion that his star-finding power was unparalleled. In fact, as Longworth is able to show, much of his later predation on young starlets can be charted back to his handling of Russell’s career. Most famously, or infamously, Russell starred in The Outlaw, a film unremarkable in all ways but its publicity campaign. Hughes mounted a campaign based solely, much as the movie is, on Russell’s sultry demeanor and her breasts. His resulting fight with the Hollywood Production Code, a self-policing body that deemed movies either fit or unfit for exhibition based on a code fully entrenched in the morality of the times, further piqued audience interest in the film. Hughes was able to manufacture anticipation by exploiting these things and by holding the film from being shown for years. The film was eventually shown and while it was not considered a critical success, Russell was deemed a star. Through Longworth’s research we are able to see Hughes’s behavior towards the women he had under contract. Russell, Longworth notes, was put through publicity shots and scenes that were both humiliating and grueling, not to mention a whole film arc that rests solely on a rape fantasy. In one story, Hughes demanded that Russell bounce on a bed in a nightgown for publicity photographs. She remembers the day with a deep humiliation. When she asked Hughes for help to end the shoot, he refused (195). Of course, all of this was under his supervision and done at his request. When The Outlaw was released it became a success of sorts. In this, he felt justified in his actions. A woman was reduced to her most basic and anatomical parts, humiliated at the hands of men, and its success only served to fuel Hughes’s behavior and his notions of what a movie-going public wanted. Later on, he would leverage the fame of Russell, and what he saw as his role in crafting said fame, in order to sign aspiring actresses to contracts. While ostensibly taking measures for their careers, Hughes set them up in bungalows that served as virtual prisons. The women were guarded by detectives and chauffeurs that reported their every move to Hughes. Additionally, they were allowed to leave their bungalows only to dine with Hughes. Of course, these women never starred in any films and never had a chance at the stardom they so desired. They were idealistic and trusting, not aware of what they had fallen into. Hughes was able to leverage his persona as a star-maker in order to lure women into his orbit where he kept them for his own use. By telling the story of Russell, Longworth is able to expose the machinations of a predatory man, showing us the threads of his decades long plotting; how one success begat whole volumes of atrocious behavior. Through the book and the research, we are able to see Hughes as a microcosm for the larger film industry, to see that while horrendous, he is not singular. His behavior is a symptom of larger ills.
Raising issues of power dynamics, sexism, the male gaze, and predatory masculinity, Longworth offers us a fresh and relevant portrait of a man who exploited all of these things as well as the Hollywood system in order to act out his own desires. It is apparent that this type of behavior is not a solitary occurrence but should be viewed as a symptom of a system that values women solely for their bodies and the reactions that they are able to elicit in men. Hughes played on and exploited these things and was able, for a time, to become a force in Hollywood. Longworth highlights the women whose lives intersected, for good or ill, with Howard Hughes’s and by doing so, she gives a voice to the previously silenced. These women have lived their lives in the shadow of Hughes, largely and mistakenly considered a boundary-shattering entrepreneur and an all-American hero. These women are now centered in the narrative. It is finally their story, not his.
Longworth, Karina. Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. New York, Custom House, 2018.