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Hollywood gets its groove back

  • NEW YORK TIMES
    The Hollywood area of Los Angeles is not what it once was, but it remains a cultural touchstone for anyone who grew up on movies. The lights of Los Angeles as seen from behind the Hollywood sign.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    A Starline Sightseeing bus on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    The Chateau Marmont is a surviving remnant of old Hollywood.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    A classic martini at the Sunset Tower Restaurant in Los Angeles.
  • NEW YORK TIMES
    The Sunset Tower Restaurant in Los Angeles is a surviving remnant of old Hollywood.
  • MORGUEFILE
    The landmark from the front.
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Hollywood’s grande dame the Sunset Tower and the Chateau Marmont stand like stone sentries on Sunset Boulevard, less than 2 miles from the decidedly less stylish stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that hustles from morning to night with camera-toting tourists and Spider-Man and Batman impersonators. The Tower and the Chateau are as romantic, seductive and happening as ever, at once guardians of an imperiled history but very much of the moment, with deal-making lunches and opening parties drawing clumps of paparazzi outside the driveway of Chateau Marmont, and limousines backed up along Sunset Boulevard in front of the Sunset Tower.

Above Sunset Boulevard there is a maze of narrow, curvy roads cutting through the legendary heart of the Hollywood Hills, each turn revealing another home, sky-high hedge, view of the Hollywood sign and, on a good day, a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. A few miles away, you really can run into Natalie Portman picking through vegetables at the beguiling Hollywood Farmers’ Market, as I did one recent Sunday — which, of course, is part of the draw.

"Let’s go say hello to Justin Timberlake!" Andrew Williams, a bubbly tour leader for Star Line Tours, shouted as he hung a right turn off Mulholland Drive, the San Gabriel Valley to our left and the Los Angeles basin to our right, before heading up the cul-de-sac where Timberlake lives, marked by a guardhouse with darkened windows — and three bins from the Department of Public Works: blue for recycling, green for garden debris and brown for garbage. "Justin Timberlake has trash, too," Williams exclaimed to the 12 people sitting in the back of his van.

There was a time when visiting Hollywood was a glance-at-your-guidebook kind of adventure. The corner of Hollywood and Vine. The studio tour. The open-air van ride through Beverly Hills to gape at the famous mansions of celebrities (or at least the gates and hedges blocking some supposedly famous mansions). With any luck, you might find yourself behind a rope on Hollywood Boulevard, watching the flash-and-dash red-carpet arrivals at a gala movie opening.

But Hollywood today is not the place it was 50 years ago, even as it prepares to celebrate itself Feb. 22 with the 87th Academy Awards presentation. Movies and television shows are as likely to be produced on the streets of Queens, N.Y., or Toronto as on the back lots of a Hollywood studio. There are as many star-studded premieres at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York as there are at El Capi­tan in Hollywood. The corner of Hollywood and Vine is, for all its celebration in song and screen, really just a street corner‚ anchored by a Starbucks, no less.

Many handsome Hollywood neighborhoods that recall a gilded age of Hollywood — the noirish apartment buildings where, say, Marilyn Monroe once lived or which provided the backdrop for classics like "Sunset Boulevard" — are now shoulder to shoulder with bland apartment complexes and shopping centers, assuming they haven’t been knocked down completely. And hurray for Hollywood Boulevard for making something of a comeback, cleaning up nicely with spruced-up sidewalks and streetlights, but it’s still not Times Square: Even with the dope dealers and prostitutes chased out, it can still feel a little cheesy and a little seedy.

"People love to take tours of Hollywood and go to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre — TCL Chinese Theatre — and all that stuff; it was all part of the movie industry when they were having their golden era," Robert Osborne, a film historian who began his career working for Lucille Ball, told me as he reminisced about his years here. "But there is not much of that Hollywood that still exists."

"It’s still a great place to go," said Osborne, who is host of Turner Classic Movies. "But going to Hollywood today is akin to going to Washington, D.C., because Lincoln once lived there."

Hollywood is not a city, town or village (it is a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles), but a cultural touchstone for anyone who grew up on movies, for those people for whom Los Angeles really means Hollywood, with its celebrities, mansions, swimming pools, palm tree-lined boulevards and movie studios. Those Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies that ended with the tag "Made in Hollywood USA" were actually produced on a back lot in Culver City. The Hollywood sign, which draws hundreds of tourists onto the winding canyon roads of Hollywood every day, to the understandable chagrin of people who live there, was put up by Otis Chandler, the visionary Los Angeles Times publisher, to announce the development of elegant homes built on the hill known as Hollywoodland. (The last four letters disappeared long ago.)

But that is not to say Hollywood is not worth visiting; it most certainly is, as I can attest living a 15-minute walk from the center of it all. Just keep in mind that as the film industry has changed, Hollywood as a tourist destination has as well — less defined and more dispersed, not so much a neat geographical dot on the map as a mindset, a particularly useful prism through which to explore this vastly interesting city.

MUCH MAY BE GONE BUT MUCH REMAINS

Hollywood still is and will always be the Walk of Fame, the hawkers standing on Sunset Boulevard selling suspect guide maps to celebrity homes, and the Musso & Frank Grill, which seems to have defied all the laws of nature to remain not only in business, but worth stopping by for a martini, prime ribs and a celebrity sighting. And it is filled with endearing characters like Williams, the guide who announced that he had been leading this tour for 25 years, is the son of parents who worked in the industry and (brace yourself) writes screenplays during the day.

But Hollywood is also the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, home to the Golden Globes, and the dark and mysteriously romantic Tower Bar in West Hollywood with its view over the glistening Los Angeles basin and where shadowy corners are filled with directors, agents and movie stars. It is the Hollywood Bowl, as splendid an outdoor venue as you’ll find anywhere, with its tributes under night skies one evening to John Williams, the prolific American film composer, and to "Star Wars" the next, and it is Point Dume in Malibu, scene of countless film shoots. Hollywood is the ArcLight movie complex on Sunset Boulevard, as rewarding a place to see a film as you’ll find anywhere, and where actors and directors who can’t afford their own screening room go to see movies. It is even a burial ground: Hollywood Forever is the cemetery to the stars, worth gravestone gawking by day — Rudolph Valentino, Mickey Rooney, Bugsy Siegel — and even open at night for movie screenings and concerts by bands like Spoon, whose lead singer, Britt Daniel, has a home up in Beachwood Canyon.

With no real center of gravity, Los Angeles can be baffling for first-time visitors (it’s often been remarked that this is a wonderful place to live but an awfully tough place to visit). It’s only slightly less confounding when it comes to Hollywood: There is no end to argument about what the boundaries to Hollywood really are, which leads to some basic challenges for those Hollywood-bound travelers: Where do I go?

I typically take out-of-town guests first to the famous stretch of Hollywood Boulevard — with all its familiar if shopworn touchstones: the Walk of Fame, with its 2,500 stars embedded in the sidewalks; the Dolby Theater, where the Academy Awards take place; the TCL Chinese Theatre, with the handprints of stars; and, if you must, the Hollywood Wax Museum. There’s a popular outdoor walkway view of the Hollywood sign in the Hollywood and Highland Center, an otherwise unfortunate shopping mall on a site where a hotel once stood, whose construction marked the beginning of a largely successful campaign to scrub an area once known for drug dealers and prostitutes.

The best way to see Hollywood is to get lost: Drive up into the canyons off Sunset Boulevard or Laurel Canyon Boulevard and turn into any street that grabs your sense of mystery, the narrower the better. Hollywood Boulevard actually continues as a barely two-lane road on the west side of Laurel Canyon Boulevard; follow it until you lose it, which you will. No matter: Los Angeles helpfully posts signs indicating which streets are not through streets, and when lost, just head down the hill. "There are pockets of Old Hollywood that are still out there," said Robert Hofler, a former Variety columnist and author who has written about Hollywood scandal and social life.

Particularly at night. "The darkness helps you blot out the strip malls," Hofler told me from New York, where he lives now. "When you’re driving in the hills at night, it is very easy to think you’ve entered a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel."

HOLLYWOOD HOTELS MAINTAIN GLAMOUR

The two survivors that have held hard to the reins of Hollywood’s past and present, of course, the Chateau Marmont and the Sunset Tower, are within walking distance of each other in West Hollywood. The hotels have long been in competition to be the town square for Hollywood. You would be well advised to stay at either one of them (and you would be equally well advised to check before booking to see whether any of the restaurants or pools are off-limits that night for a Hollywood affair; you decide whether that is a draw or a turnoff).

The Sunset Tower is an art deco treat to the eyes, rising on a bend on Sunset Boulevard. It is where, until recently, Vanity Fair held its Academy Awards party, not that the hotel needed that for its cachet. As my partner, Ben, and I walked up the steps to check in a few days before the Golden Globe Awards, Eddie Redmayne, the raffish British actor, rushed past, accompanied by three assistants, and climbed into a black SUV, presumably on his way to interviews to promote "The Theory of Everything," for which he would receive a best-actor award a few days later.

The hotel is steeped in Hollywood mystery and history. Clark Gable, Frank Sina­tra and Ava Gardner all lived there, as did John Wayne, who kept a pet cow on his deck. (It’s in the information pamphlet handed out by the hotel, so it must be true.)

Against this stiff competition in the glamour-stakes, the Chateau Marmont more than holds its own. Formerly an apartment building, it was turned into a hotel that is a tribute to a Loire Valley castle, with a lush garden that serves as a setting for breakfast or dinner or, at the right time of year, for the opening-night party for "Mad Men" or the post-Emmy celebrations for Netflix. It is also more, shall we say, snooty. There is a priceless scene in "The Comeback," the HBO series about a fading actress played by Lisa Kudrow, where the maitre d’ inadvertently punches Kudrow in the stomach as he tries, unsuccessfully, to stop her from barging into the garden to pay her respects to a network executive, Andy Cohen of Bravo, having lunch with RuPaul, the drag queen.

Hollywood is no longer marked by a traveling posse of movie stars who move from night to night to familiar haunts like the old Spago or Dan Tana’s: They have been scared off by the rise of the paparazzi and cellphone cameras. And in truth, many celebrities who lived in the Hollywood Hills have moved west to Brentwood and Malibu or (if they are younger) east to Los Feliz and Silver Lake — or split their time with homes in New York or Montana. "People don’t make commitments to Hollywood the way they once did," said Osborne, the film historian and Turner Classic Movies host. "It used to be a place where everybody lived, and they were all very clubby and they all got along."

Adam Nagourney, New York Times

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