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La Jolla Playhouse Hosts World Premiere Of ‘Hollywood,’ A Tinseltown Murder Tale

Playwright Joe DiPietro looks to Hollywood, scandal and the arrival of Will Hays

Credit: Nancy Showers

Talene Monahon holds a gun as Mary Miles Minter in La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of "Hollywood."

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of the world premiere of "Hollywood" at La Jolla Playhouse.

Transcript

GUESTS:
Joe DiPietro, "Hollywood" playwright
Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

Transcript

Playwright Joe Di Pietro and director Christopher Ashley collaborated before at the La Jolla Playhouse for the acclaimed "Memphis." Now, they're teaming up again to look at a scandalous Tinseltown murder from the 1920s for the play "Hollywood," which has its world premiere at the Playhouse this month.

In 1922, silent film director William Desmond Taylor was shot in his home and the murderer was never found. Among the suspects were a Mack Sennett comedienne, a child star, a drug pusher, and of course the butler. The fact that the case was never solved intrigued writer Joe DiPietro.

“The case was never solved, clearly because the LAPD did not want the case solved. It was a terrible investigation. All of the evidence was lost,” DiPietro said.

In his play he has the character of Will Hays reprimand the district attorney about the handling of the case: “Of course you did get all the fingerprints you needed. Oh wait. No. You didn’t, not after all the film people took all that stuff. I even hear your men didn’t take a picture of the original position of the body. Wow! Tell me, do you catch all the criminals you pursue?”

Trailer For 'Hollywood'

Like Taylor, Will Hays was a real person but DiPietro admits he took some dramatic license with the character as he created him.

“The one character who I inserted a little earlier than he was an influence was Will Hays, the famous censor who came up with the Hays code in the '30s I believe that really affected Hollywood for the next 30 years, what could and couldn’t be shown on screen,” DiPietro explained.

Will Hays was brought in by the studios to essentially do damage control after a series of scandals rocked Hollywood.

“We are watching a man arriving in Hollywood to clamp down on the Sodom and Gomorrah aspects of Hollywood to insure that everything that comes out of Hollywood is clean as a whistle,” director Christopher Ashley stated.

That meant cleaning up not just what was shown on screen but also how celebrities behaved off screen.

“I was summoned here to save an industry,” Hays says in the play.

“In trying to write Will Hays I really wanted to write a real person,” DiPietro said. “I might not agree with his politics, he was very right wing, very conservative but I wanted to write a real person who believed in something.”

Hays becomes the unlikely person who guides us through the moral morass of Hollywood in the 1920s. Actor Patrick Kerr said Hays was trying to represent the perspective of Middle America.

“Hollywood as a product was too illicit, too elitist, too permissive. And people in the middle of the country were finding Hollywood too immoral,” Kerr said.

Ashley confessed that before reading the play his first impulse was to demonize Hays as the censor of Hollywood. But as presented in the play, Hays is a more complex character than that.

“We are watching this guy accumulate power,” Ashley said. “But he enters with a great degree of charm and humility but as the play goes on he sheds both of these things.”

Perhaps because Hollywood is a place where people are constantly reinventing themselves. Ashley wanted Hollywood to be a character in the play and to have the audience aware of the medium of film.

“We have a live pianist on stage that’s scoring the play like a silent movie,”Ashley explained.

Credit: Nancy Showers

Scott Drummond as William Desmond Taylor, whose murder is at the center of La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of 'Hollywood."

Ashley creates moments onstage that play out like a silent movie.

“Whenever we are in a silent film onstage, we project onto actors imperfections of hairs and blemishes that old film had, so suddenly people have an old film look to them actually projected onto their skin,” Ashley said.

The play “Hollywood” captures a city and an industry in the midst of tumultuous change, DiPietro said.

“Will Hays and the rise of conservatism in Hollywood gives the play a real conflict in the center for all of these characters who otherwise just want to be movie stars and artists and express themselves and live this very glamorous life. I think the Will Hays character makes it a play and not an episode of ‘Law and Order,’” DiPietro said.

“Hollywood” proves to be more than just a murder mystery, it’s a meditation on art, censorship, and the dawn of modern celebrity.

"Hollywood" began preview performances May 10 and will run through June 12 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Listen to DiPietro's full interview as well as interviews with Ashley and actor Patrick Kerr (Will Hays) on Cinema Junkie's Podcast Episode 72.

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