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

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

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

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

La Jolla Playhouse hosts the world premiere of the play Hollywood this month. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says it uses the still unsolved murder of a silent film director as a jumping off point for a larger story about Hollywood and celebrity.   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. 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. CLIP 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… do you solve many crimes? JOE DiPIETRO 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 how Hollywood for the next 30 years, what could and couldn’t be shown on screen. Will Hays was brought in by the Hollywood studios to do damage control says director Christopher Ashley. CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY We are watching a man arriving in Hollywood to clamp down on the Sodom and Gommarrah aspects of Hollywood to insure that everything that comes out of Hollywood is clean as a whistle. That meant cleaning up not just what was shown on screen but also how celebrities behaved off screen. CLIP I was summoned here to save an industry… do not blaspheme in my presence…all you understand is money, this country is tired of filth… I am the people back home. JOE DiPIETRO In trying to write Will Hays I really wanted to write a real person. Playwright Joe DiPietro. JOE DiPIETRO 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 says Hays was trying to represent the perspective of Middle America. PATRICK KERR Hollywood was a product was too illicit, too elitist, too permissive. And people in the middle of the country were finding Hollywood too immoral. As the actor playing Hays, Kerr needed to find his humanity. Ashley confesses that before reading the play his first impulse was to demonize Hays. But as presented in the play, Hays is more complex than that. CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY We are watching this guy accumulate power 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. CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY We have a live pianist on stage that’s scoring the play like a silent movie. CLIP Transition… music plays And there are moments onstage that play out like a silent movie. CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY 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. The play Hollywood captures a city and an industry in the midst of tumultuous change says DiPietro. JOE DiPIETRO 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. Hollywood proves to be more than just a murder mystery, it’s a meditation on art, censorship, and the dawn of modern celebrity. Beth Accomando, KPBS News. Hollywood is in previews this week and runs through June 12 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Listen to Beth’s podcast on the play at kpbs-dot-org-slashjunkie-podcast.

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

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It was a scandal that had everything, youth, beauty, sex and fame. It almost destroyed Hollywood. When director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in the 1920s it exposed the scandalous lifestyles of some of the early Hollywood's biggest stars. Now the scandal is the subject of a world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse created by "California Counts-Race for the Senate" -- Joe DiPietro . Your new play, "Hollywood", draws on a famous scandal. What drew you to this? I've always been an old movie buff. I love movies that are made in the 30s. I've always been curious about when Hollywood was new and movies were new. I had gotten obsessed with this case that I've been reading about, about the murder of William Desmond Taylor. He was a very prominent director, his best friend was Mabel Norman, the Jennifer Lawrence every day. One night she came to visit, he walked her to her car, came back into his bungalow, shut the door and there was someone waiting for him that shot him. It was a case that stunned Hollywood and the world. I think it's about the dawn of modern celebrity. Was one of the things that appeal to you that it was unsolved, so you could play with it? The case was never solved. The LAPD did not want the case solved. All the -- it was a terrible investigation, all the evidence was lost. You did get all the fingerprints. Not after the film people took it all. Your men didn't bother to take a picture of the original position of the body. Do you catch all the criminals you pursue? They don't catch all the criminals in the motion pictures. I'm determined to change that. The one character who I inserted earlier than influence was Will Hays, the famous sensor. That affected how Hollywood could show on-screen and could not show on screen. He was hired away from Washington by the studios to become a public relations man. He also took more power than they ever imagined and became a sensor for Hollywood. Nobody told me there would be amateurs running it. Calm down. You are a business run by Hebrews who are assaulting the values of Americans across the nation. All day I have to listen to you smear the people back home. The people back home don't like Hollywood. You don't understand that. All you understand his money. This country is tired of filth, your box office is in steep decline. If you don't listen to the people back home, your industry will disappear. I'm the people back home. I wanted to write a real person, I might not agree with his politics he was very right wing. I wanted to write a real person who believed in something. I will say is a fan of the movies of that area -- era, there is something to be said about artists being given limits. You mentioned that Will Hays is not a character through that you agree with in terms of his politics. How difficult was it to make him this lead character that you follow through, when he might not be the most appealing character that you identify with? I love writing people who aren't me. It's a wonderful thing. Writing drama you get to write people that you agree with and people you disagree with. He was someone that was not out to do evil, it was his morality. He thought this was the right thing to do. The gift that writing has given me, is that I realized we are all the same. We are in different bodies, we all want the same thing, we want to love someone, we want a purpose in life, we want to feel like what we are doing matters. Once you figured that out, you put yourself into his point of view and see what he wants and how he goes about it. The thing about Will Hays, he was charming, he was very good at public relations. I thought, well if he can charm the newspapers and the studio heads, he must be able to charm a lot of people. He was a guy from Indiana, a local guy who made good. I thought, can you imagine being this guy coming to Hollywood and seeing all these famous people. How do you get control of them? You have to be steel and your reserve and believe in what you do. Lowlifes don't scam their way into someone else's life and then someone else just kills the guy. You go back to Oklahoma. I'm from Indiana. I gave him a Midwestern charm, that maybe he puts on as the actors who come to Hollywood do. Will Hays and the rise of conservatism and Hollywood gives the play a real conflict. He is the conflict on top of the murder. The Will Hays character makes it a play not a law and order episode. Thank you very much. Hollywood began preview performances last night and will run through June 12 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Checkout bets cinema junkie podcast at KPBS Checkout bets cinema junkie podcast@KPBS.org/junkie podcast.

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.

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