I was raised a fan of movies. My dad loved movies and wanted to share all of his favorites with us whenever he could. By the time I was 8 or 9, I had seen all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, preferred Gene Kelly to pretty much any other movie actor (except maybe Harrison Ford), and could quote freely from Auntie Mame. And I still love spending a cozy night at home watching a Burt Lancaster movie or Rock Hudson comedy.
This is probably why I always am intrigued by stories of “old Hollywood” — in particular, the kind of story where fame is a dark and dangerous trait to acquire: James Ellroy’s books about 1940s LA; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; The Sweet Smell of Success; or any number or strange and sad biographies of stars, directors, producers, and failed productions. And there was no bigger a failure in Hollywood than Cleopatra.
When I first picked up Beautiful Ruins, I had no idea that part of it was about the filming of Cleopatra, but I had seen it on several “best of” lists at the end of Summer. (My library had it on the “great reads for the beach” shelf, which on the day I saw it, was being packed up and replaced by “back to school” suggestions.) It tells several interweaving stories — between World War II and the present, in Europe and the US, Idaho and Hollywood — that all come together in the end.
I don’t want to get into the plot too much, as I think it is better left as a surprise for the reader. The story starts out in rural Italy in 1962, when an actress filming the movie Cleopatra comes to a small hotel on the coast to wait for her boyfriend so that she can tell him that she’s dying of cancer. Chapters jump through time from 1962 to present day Hollywood, where an idealistic young producer wonders if she should stick with her job working with a Hollywood legend, or curate a film museum for the church of Scientology. And somehow, these two stories become one. Characters include a young Italian hotel owner, a beautiful Hollywood starlet, a failed writer, an alcoholic rock musician, a ridiculous Hollywood producer (think Robert Evans), and an entertaining and inebriated Richard Burton.
A lovely story, with beautiful descriptions of Italy, and horrible descriptions of Los Angeles. I really enjoyed it.
By the way, I never looked at the bookflap with the Author blurb until after I finished the book…I was completely surprised to find that Jess Walter is a man. Weird that I assumed all along that Jess is a woman.
You can read more of my reviews on my blog.