In this riveting popular history, the creator of You Must Remember This probes the inner workings of Hollywood’s glamorous golden age through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Howard Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity trapped, abused, or benefitted women who dreamt of screen stardom.
In recent months, the media has reported on scores of entertainment figures who used their power and money in Hollywood to sexually harass and coerce some of the most talented women in cinema and television. But as Karina Longworth reminds us, long before the Harvey Weinsteins there was Howard Hughes—the Texas millionaire, pilot, and filmmaker whose reputation as a cinematic provocateur was matched only by that as a prolific womanizer.
His supposed conquests between his first divorce in the late 1920s and his marriage to actress Jean Peters in 1957 included many of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, among them Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner. From promoting bombshells like Jean Harlow and Jane Russell to his contentious battles with the censors, Hughes—perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his era—commoditized male desire as he objectified and sexualized women. Yet there were also numerous women pulled into Hughes’s grasp who never made it to the screen, sometimes virtually imprisoned by an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Hughes, who retained multitudes of private investigators, security personnel, and informers to make certain these actresses would not escape his clutches.
Vivid, perceptive, timely, and ridiculously entertaining, The Seducer is a landmark work that examines women, sex, and male power in Hollywood during its golden age—a legacy that endures nearly a century later.
Longworth (Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor), creator and host of the Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, centers this deeply researched look at Howard Hughes around the famed aviator and film producer's exploitative treatment of women. She relates that Hughes was born rich in 1905 to the Hughes Tools family and died at 70 in 1976, even richer but isolated and afflicted by physical and mental health issues. Longworth ably summarizes Hughes's film career and notable productions, such as Hell's Angels, Scarface, and, most pertinently, his scandalously risqu western The Outlaw. Most vividly, she anatomizes his obsession with "collecting" and controlling the women in his life and his films. In addition to his well-publicized romances with established stars, including Katherine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, and Ginger Rogers, Hughes was also given to signing unknown young actresses to contracts, installing them in bungalows with guards posted outside, and then stalling on putting them in his RKO films. Unfortunately, the narrative is weighed down by digressions into Hughes's family, associates, planes, and erratic business sense, and by Longworth's apparent determination to use every single item from her research. This lack of focus dilutes the effectiveness of what could have been a sharp and timely study of film industry misogyny.