Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland
By Duke Haney
Delancey Street Press
$15.95, available on amazon.com
Duke Haney has been banging around in “Filmland” for the better part of three decades. After studying acting in New York, he moved to Los Angeles and became an actor/screenwriter.
He has more than 20 movies and 20 screenplays to his credit, many for B movie king Roger Corman. His disillusionment with the Hollywood paradigm shift, away from character-driven drama to CGI-driven comic book superhero franchises, led him to turn away from the movie industry. Since then he has a novel, “Banned for Life,” and an essay collection, “Subversia,” to his credit.
His new collection, “Death Valley Superstars,” is a look back at some stars, misfits and antiheroes of a less gym-sculpted Hollywood. In painstakingly researched detail, the book takes you on a street-level tour of Los Angeles and vintage pop culture by way of the characters he explores.
These subjects include familiar names, such as Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison; some less familiar names like Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and film noir heavy Steve Cochran; and often, the author himself.
There are roughly three types of essays here. The first are personal, chronicling Haney’s formative experiences in the movie industry, from frequenting a Paramount movie palace as a child and becoming enamored of the movies of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, to a very brief, but affecting, encounter with Elizabeth Taylor, to the hilariously horrifying experience of doing a nude scene.
A second group of essays involve a quest: chasing ghosts, both living and dead, around L.A. Among these is “Room 32,” in which Haney rents out the very motel room on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Jim Morrison of the Doors lived for a few years and hires a clairvoyant to try to summon his spirit.
In “I Want to Take You Higher,” he tries to find funk singer Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone fame, who was reported to be broke and living in a van in some ramshackle neighborhood in south L.A.
Spoiler alert: Haney doesn’t find Sly, nor does the ghost of the Lizard King appear in that motel room and sing “Riders on the Storm,” but the journey is the reward here and you learn a lot about the subjects along the way.
Finally, Haney dives deeper into some Hollywood characters who are not now household names, but were, briefly, in their time and whose stories are fascinating, sometimes disturbing and “occasionally fatal.”
The above-mentioned Sean Flynn, for instance, had all of his dad’s dashing looks and then some. But he wasn’t a natural actor, so he turned to photojournalism in the Vietnam era and ultimately disappeared in Cambodia, presumably killed while in his line of work.
And there’s Steve Cochran, who parlayed his movie stardom into a life of fast cars, hard partying and womanizing with young starlets, as well as the likes of Joan Crawford.
His self-destructive appetites run him afoul of the Hollywood establishment and he ultimately meets his demise in a seafaring misadventure worthy of a Melville or Jack London story.
Taken as a whole, “Death Valley Superstars” forms a kind of homage to a grittier, pre-gentrified Hollywood. But it’s also a pretty good coffee table book.
You can read the essays that spark your interest or thumb through and enjoy the many illustrations and images sprinkled throughout.