Published in paperback this month The Hollywood Sign by Leo Braudy (part of Yale’s Icons of America series) is a fascinating account of how a temporary real estate advertisement erected in 1923, took on a life of its own and become a permanent icon of American culture. In this exclusive extract from the book’s ‘dazzlingly enjoyable exposition’ (The Independent) Braudy gives some essential background on the history of the sign, and discusses what separates it from other American icons.
Extract from The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon by Leo Braudy
The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons. It is a landmark whose white block letters are familiar around the world as the prime symbol of the movies. Day after day tourists with cameras wander into surrounding Griffith Park or troll up and down the streets of the Hollywood Hills, looking to position themselves for the best possible angle on the sign. More than any other sight in Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign in the background of your photo proves you were really there. To movie goers and so many others, the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity—the goal of American and worldwide aspirations to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign itself, instantly recognizable.
But in contrast with the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore, the Hollywood sign doesn’t depict a human image, nor is it in the form of an immediately familiar object, like the Liberty Bell or the Washington Monument. It may signify a place, but it’s not the place itself, as is Valley Forge or the battlefield of Gettysburg. Nor does it commemorate a moment in time, as do the submerged USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor or the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Instead it is a group of letters, a word on the side of a steep hill that, unlike so many other cherished sites, cannot be visited, only seen from afar. Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself. Resembling the urge it inspires to the secular form of transcendence we call fame, the Hollywood sign embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape. It reflects the impulse to performance and singularity that has been a part of the American psyche since our country first appeared, unprecedented, on the world stage in the late eighteenth century. At the same time, its ubiquitous place in the eyes and digital cameras of the world shows how thoroughly that urge and impulse has pervaded so many cultures other than our own. As a character in the German film Kings of the Road says, “The Americans have colonized our subconscious.” The Hollywood sign immediately evokes the movie capital it looms over, and the configuration of its letters has been imitated by cities and towns everywhere to trumpet their own imitative uniqueness. But it is its mere wordness, its lack of any tangible image that would pin down and restrict its meaning, that particularly invites the veneration and admiration of every hopeful candidate for fame, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, if only for the snapshot of a moment.
In its religious origins, an icon, as its Greek meaning indicates, was a resemblance, a portrait, worshiped not in itself but as a pathway to another reality. Thanks to its contemporary use in the computer world, however, the word icon has been applied to an enormous number of instances, sometimes almost losing its basic meaning as a visual symbol that refers to something else, by likeness or analogy. When icon is applied to a person, it has come to mean a legend, a superstar beyond normal categories of fame. Even in the series this book is part of, we have historical icons (the Founding Fathers), book icons (Gone with the Wind), and food icons (the hamburger). Basically icon has come now to mean something special, something easily recognizable, something that has a distinguished or at least notorious history, something essential to the idea of the United States of America.
But the original meaning of icon continues to be powerful. Like every icon, modern and ancient, the Hollywood sign has both a physical and a metaphysical life, reaching beyond itself to unspecified wonders in an invisible world of potential and possibility. Instead of enhancing our sense of patriotism and history, as do so many other American icons, the Hollywood sign focuses on our dreams and our inner life, for good or ill. Where other icons are anchored in the times and national events they celebrate, the Hollywood sign floats above its setting and its circumstances, open to anyone’s interpretation.
Even by these expanded definitions, the Hollywood sign is a strange sort of icon. It isn’t an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever “Hollywood” might be—with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning. The Hollywood sign might therefore seem to be the perfect symbol of modern celebrity, the sign that celebrates itself, spelling out “Hollywood” for all the world to see.
Can there be icons before they are pictured and those pictures are widely disseminated? In great part the Hollywood sign has become an icon because so many people have seen it that way, and it would mean little without all those who photograph it or want to be photographed near it. Iconized, canonized by innumerable repetitions, its enhancing aura makes people feel better about themselves. Unlike the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore or the goddess image of the Statue of Liberty, the blandness of the sign, its lack of representing anything but itself, makes it easier to project upon and associate with. To call the Hollywood sign an icon is to recognize the icon as a distillation of meaning, an unchanging essence that pervades the shifting world it seems to represent, hovering above the streets—sometimes even above the clouds—and the day-to-day specifi cs of the industry called “Hollywood.”
Where did this urge, this strange pilgrimage to a collection of white sheet-metal block letters, come from? What is the point of seeing the sign or being photographed nearby? Few know much of its history. Some may recall that it once read “Hollywoodland,” and others have also perhaps heard the often garbled story of the actress Peg Entwistle, who, it is said, disappointed in her search for Hollywood success, committed suicide by jumping from the “H” in 1932. Over the years the letters of the sign have been parodied endless times, including alterations sacred and profane: HOLLYWEED in 1976 to celebrate a new California law that changed the charge for possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor; HOLYWOOD in 1976 to celebrate the Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl; PEROTWOOD to promote the presidency of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996; and various permutations of USC and UCLA for their annual crosstown football grudge match. Even in 2010, when developers threatened to subdivide the land surrounding the sign—which the City of Los Angeles had carelessly never managed to acquire for itself—the sign, seemingly so permanent and otherwise so open to the eyes of the world, had plenty of mysteries to explore.
From my home in Los Angeles there are several ways to get to the Hollywood sign, even though there are also many streets with prominent signs stating “No Access to the Hollywood Sign.” Tired of the congestion, neighbors have petitioned City Council to stop the tourists in search of the sign from traipsing down streets from which you can only glimpse it, not really get near it.
Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object, the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon. But it makes up for its short life in the frequency of its reproduced images, from every possible angle, hardly as artistically resonant as Hokusai’s Thirtysix Views of Mt. Fuji, although much more widespread in its influence. Like our relation to movie stars themselves, the relation of the tourists with their cameras to the Hollywood sign is a complex mixture of intimacy and self-enhancement. Seeing the sign lets you know you are in Hollywood, that special place. Photographing it enhances your sense of your own identity, like glimpsing a movie star in the supermarket. As a character on the animated cartoon show King of the Hill says when introduced to a celebrity, “You must remember me. I’ve seen you on television.” We know them, we think, even though they don’t know us, just as the hollywood over the shoulder of visitors lends an aura of status and prestige because they are near it. Instead of looking at the Liberty Bell or the Lincoln Memorial and appreciating their importance and the history they represent, we look at the Hollywood sign and it looks back at us, enlarging our sense of our prestige by its symbolic aura.
Was any icon immediately accepted as such? The way significance gathers on some revered objects is always a function of the time in which it is “seen.” Even Stonehenge wasn’t of interest to more than a few antiquaries until, in the seventeenth century, it became a symbol of arguments over the relative political power of the king and parliament. Manufactured icons especially always seem inadequate or ersatz at first: The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower were heavily criticized when they initially appeared; the Liberty Bell did not receive its common name until it was almost a hundred years old. Part of the accumulation of feeling and celebration around an icon is based not on a fixed meaning but on the number of ways it can be viewed and interpreted. We might call this shifting meaning the icon’s framing, as it rotates through the different perspectives of those who look at it, photograph it, and buy images of it on postcards. But the Hollywood sign again differs from most other icons because its original purpose was so transitory—an advertisement for a real estate development. Only over the years has it accrued the multiple meanings now laid upon it. Like one of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” ordinary objects turned into art by being placed inside the frame of a museum or art gallery, the Hollywood sign gathers its meanings from where it is placed and what people think of it, more than what it is in any intrinsic way.
Originally a grandiose sort of billboard, the Hollywood sign’s material existence became only a casual springboard to its later significance. Like the Eiffel Tower, also at first slated to be only a temporary structure, an object on the landscape that was designed to be impermanent made over the years a permanent impression on the national and international imagination. Even though the sign we now see is not the original sign at all, it still carries the same weight of meaning. Just a few of the film studios in the past were physically within the confines of a town called Hollywood. But the sign has come over the years to stand for them all, wherever they are. The story of the Hollywood sign is therefore inextricably intertwined with the story of Hollywood itself, how a business largely run by immigrants for an immigrant audience, filmmakers who had run away from the East Coast to escape legal pressures or to seek a climate more conducive than New York or Chicago to year-round filmmaking, created in a few short decades a world-embracing industry of dreams.
Leo Braudy is among America’s leading cultural historians and film critics. His most recent book, From Chivalry to Terrorism, was named ‘Best of the Best’ by the Los Angeles Times and a ‘Notable Book of the Year’ by the New York Times. Among his previous books, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Jean Renoir: The World of His Films was a finalist for the National Book Award. Braudy’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, American Film, and Partisan Review, among others. He currently is University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California.