Back in the days when Shakespeare still meant something to a lot of people, I wanted to be a great dramatic actress. Before I knew it I was in Hollywood . . .
Thus begins Darcy O’Brien’s novel “Margaret in Hollywood” (1992), the story of Margaret Spencer, an early child star of vaudeville and a rising Shakespearean actress, and her reluctant journey to Hollywood in 1927.
Darcy O’Brien (1939–1998) was the son of Hollywood stars George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill. His first novel, the splendid “A Way of Life Like Any Other” (reviewed here), was an autobiographical work that told of a Hollywood prince’s childhood that started out magical and then, as his parents’ careers crashed and burned, turned tragically marginal.
A scholar of Irish literature, O’Brien also the author of several best-selling works in the true-crime genre. “Two of a Kind: The Hillside Strangler” (1985) was adapted into the television film “The Case of the Hillside Stranglers,” starring Richard Crenna.
“Murder in Little Egypt” (1989) is a riveting account of a small-town Illinois doctor whose neighbors overlooked his bizarre and often violent behavior for years until he was unmasked as a ghastly abuser and murderer of his own children.
Just before O’Brien tragically passed away from a heart attack at the age of 59, he completed work on “The Hidden Pope,” a book about the little-known friendship between Pope John Paul II and a Jewish schoolmate in Poland that helped bring about the Vatican’s recognition of Israel in 1994.
In “Margaret in Hollywood” O’Brien seems to be telling the story of his mother, a serious stage actress lured to Hollywood by visions of fame and wealth only to end up as a second-tier character actress, never achieving the brilliant promise of her early career. Like so many other Hollywood players, Margaret/Marguerite is quickly chewed up by the industrial machinery of Hollywood stardom.
Since O’Brien knows Hollywood inside out, he is able, through Margaret’s intelligent and painfully self-aware voice, to realize that:
I was only one among numberless hordes of fatherless girls who, with mothers pinching at their elbows, had descended onto Hollywood as the fruit flies on the citrus groves.
Margaret is the model of a liberated woman: strong-willed, lusty, acid-tongued, and willing to use her body as well as her brains to survive in a ruthless business where the marriage of art and commerce demands a degree of flexibility that can easily cross over into corruption.
Though well written and keenly observed, “Margaret in Hollywood” suffers from a fatal structural problem: Margaret doesn’t get to Hollywood until two-thirds of the way into the book. The bulk of the novel takes place in vaudeville and on stage. By the time Margaret does get to Hollywood, O’Brien’s interest in his narrative seems to slacken.
It occurred to me that in writing his mother’s story — Margaret’s strong libido is front and center, which is, if you think about it, kind of creepy — O’Brien was exorcising his Hollywood demons. But perhaps it all became a bit too much for him. Writers often use their stories to wreak vengeance, to right past wrongs. But sometimes the very act of writing, of exorcising past demons, takes an unexpected emotional toll on the author. By the time O’Brien settles his Margaret/Marguerite in Hollywood, it would appear that he is experiencing contrition or psychological exhaustion. Thus, the Hollywood section of the book feels rushed, almost by-the-numbers storytelling.
This should have been a classic Hollywood novel by an author who knew the town inside out. Instead, we are left with only a promising fragment, much like Marguerite Churchill’s promising but ultimately disappointing career.