''Vulgar Proust'' that's how French film director Louis Malle described Jackie Collins' trash-a-rooney "Hollywood Wives," a description so revisionist that it may well take divine intervention to restore the sanity of a nation of book reviewers. Now two new Hollywood novels have entered the Lotusland sweepstakes: "Tinseltown" and "What the Movies Made Me Do." And while the novels are neither vulgar nor Proustian, they still have enough down-and-out narrative and high energy to perhaps qualify as gentrified Nabokov, if not pain-in-the-backside Updike.
"Tinseltown" zeroes in on one Christine DuRand, a TV entertainment journalist who'll do anything to get a story. Her nemesis is Jewel Crosse of the "bulletproof" hair and the reputation of naughtily cornering young male stars and groping their thighs. The battle is over The Big Story: bagging an interview with the reclusive Roland Williams, an international singing sensation who suggests a wacky fusion of Julio Iglesias and Michael Jackson.
With the help of her "humongous" friend Maggie (who dons a black leather caftan and beats the daylights out of a whip-loving movie producer), Christine discovers that Roland is enjoying a homosexual affair with the chief fundraiser of the Democratic Party. Christine vows to parlay this juicy tidbit to a zoom to the top.
Are there really people like this in Hollywood? Don't play dumb. In this genre anything goes, and usually does. What matters is that the books don't pretend to be something they're not, like Michael Korda's "Queenie," or don't fail to deliver, like the recent lethargic efforts from Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins. Catherine Mann delivers. Her heroine battles through three lovers, a sacking from the network and a potential comeback when she exposes a kidnaping orchestrated by the White House and the Mafia. (So unrelentlessly busy is Miss DuRand in the music scandal, she should be known as Christine DuRun Run.)
Mann's shamelessness, however, does get in the way of some of the fun. While all her plots are strongly launched, each subsiding for a time until all the story lines come crashing together into a knock-your-socks-off trashorama, the reader may find himself tripping over a few boners. We know that singer Roland Williams was a foundling who remembered hearing his natural mother sing Spanish lullabies, so when the maternal Diedra, head of an international call-girl service (she uses computers) pops up on the scene, it isn't surprising that the Hispanic version of "Danny Boy" will be crooned before fade-out.
Roland, falling in love with the female escort set up by the call-girl service (a virgin -- this book has everything), is also more than a little fanciful, but no matter. Catherine Mann knows her territory, right down to the cauliflower and pumpkin-chunk soup served in the swanky L.A. bistros and to movie producer chatter. Mann hangs out in the same playpen as Jackie and Joan Collins, and if all that calculated misery doesn't love the company, then the money that will follow sure will.
In "What the Movies Made Me Do," Susan Braudy is less witty than Mann, but a far more elegant stylist, as demonstrated by her excellent "Who Killed Sal Mineo?" a few years back. Her new novel, though, gets off to a terrible start, aping the comedic sad-sack style of Susan Isaacs and Gail Parent, as heroine Carol Young sees the world crashing around her with an overdose of precious, self-deprecating humor. Film producer Carol has all her marbles set on her new project on the life of Jesus, but the production is turning into the kind of loony, disastrous biblical epic that results in a Richard Gere essaying a dance scene clad only in a diaper.
Carol and her story only come to life when Carol flies to Israel to supervise the production. What she finds is a stoned director who refuses to photograph the star's face. But this is less a Hollywood novel than a novel about relationships. When Carol and her friend engage in a bitch-fest worthy of Clare Boothe Luce, Carol zaps her opponent with, "You want everything, male power and female privilege," then Carol, shamefaced, gets the "horrible feeling that these words had been said to me."
It's all a pretty standard women-questioning-their-power scenario, but Susan Braudy gives her novel, even with the inevitable 15-page kissy-kissy romantic interlude, a razor-sharp edge. Where else do you find a 40-year-old heroine outfoxing the male-dominated studio power structure, insisting that her best female pal get a major directing job, and bedding down the leading man on her own terms? It's Cinderella at -- and having -- a feminist ball.