BOOK REVIEW: Death Valley Superstars by Duke Haney

An entertaining collection of essays that is hard to put down and forget about, Duke Haney’s Death Valley Superstars isn’t just another book about Hollywood. Using his unrivalled and unique experiences, Haney exposes the reader to some of the lesser known people to be captured by the allure of film making, acting and the promise of infinite stardom. A darkly humorous work that partly doubles as an autobiography, Death Valley Superstars is a bleak look into the fascinating world of old Hollywood and its stars.

Haney begins his collection by lamenting the state of blockbuster film as it stands today. He gives the reader some insight into how his obsession with the movies started; as a young boy, he believes he viewed film with the same perception and depth of opinion as adults, seemingly turning to movies to further his knowledge about the human body, relationships, and real environments. He did not seem interested in anything that was remotely unrealistic – the modern day fascination with and recreation of superhero movies are therefore particularly unappealing to him, he later explains. This initial essay helps set the scene of the collection. Haney isn’t someone to hold back on his feelings, however badly received they may be (those who asked if he intended to see the highly praised film Iron Man, were met with his scathing reply of “I don’t see movies for children”). His sarcastic tone is refreshing in a collection that could have taken a more serious, perhaps less directly engaging route. In Death Valley Superstars, Haney further uncovers the fakery of Hollywood, and how we as a society have amped up certain events due to nostalgia. There is, in fact, a seedy realness to it all, that Haney does everything but shy away from.

Like a lot of books centred around the rise and fall of that great Hollywood era though, it does touch on some familiar, frankly overdone, subjects. Marilyn Monroe’s story is featured near the beginning of the collection, and while her life was undeniably fascinating, this essay did very little in the way of revealing something new. Haney mainly goes through the many ways in which she was entirely her own self-created image, arguing that very little sat beneath the surface. She was first and foremost a model, and a brilliant one at that, but this essay argues that these talents did little at the time to cement her as a respected actor. Of course, this may well be the case – Haney always provides ample evidence for his claims and quotes from other members of the film industry, showing he has done his research. But I felt that his rhetoric surrounding women – in particular this essay about Monroe – could have been picked apart even more. Were people right to scrutinise her skills, or were the damning comments about her another example of the sexism we know existed (and still does) in the industry? If so, what exactly made her a good actress? The issue of a troublesome Hollywood is certainly recognised in this collection, but it is often instead turned into comedy or merely just mentioned. It would have been interesting to hear from someone like Haney as to what his personal insight surrounding the treatment of major women like Monroe, is, giving this essay that added layer of something more.

Despite this criticism, Haney has produced a fantastic, thoroughly readable book. When I first picked it up, I knew very little about the topic and many of the celebrities mentioned were entirely new names for me, or just people I had heard about in passing but knew next to nothing about. His best essays are on these lesser known faces – Sean Flynn, Elizabeth McGovern, and Stephen Cochran – and also the ones where Haney himself is the main character in his story. He ran around L.A to unearth more about famous murders, suicides, and characters most of us would do anything to avoid. Because of the way it was done, the research behind the stories is actually one of the most interesting parts of many of the essays. And he doesn’t just disclose that he undertook this research; instead, he goes into the hilarious highs and lows of just how painstakingly difficult uncovering Hollywood’s seedy past can be.

A highlight of the collection is the essay on Jim Morrison, in which Haney books out his infamous hotel room turned shrine and attempts to hire a medium to communicate with the spirit of Morrison. It isn’t what the medium eventually says that is the story here, but the frustrating (and funny) journey Haney had to go on to reach that point. The reader ultimately concludes that perhaps Morrison was a misunderstood musician that maybe wasn’t happy with being famous in a place like Hollywood – a largely predictable ending. However, what isn’t predictable is just how difficult it would be to find and keep a local medium willing to communicate Morrison’s beyond the grave musings. Who knew that someone in such a profession would be so flaky?  

Haney’s obsession – which he admits at one point could be mistaken for stalking – with Liz McGovern is also a standout in the book. Again, McGovern isn’t the star of the essay here – it’s Haney and the lengths he would go to, to have a chance at meeting one of his biggest stars. The reader learns that the saying of ‘never meet your idols’ rings true in this instance, but we nevertheless develop a deeper fascination with Haney and his story-telling.

The final essay is arguably the best of the bunch. While the first essay may have introduced us to the collection and the kind of tone it was going to take, the end one gives the reader a deeper insight into why Haney decided to write this book in the first place. Here, Haney admits how his initial intentions were halted after he found out some unsavoury information about a person of interest to him – Stephen Cochran. He reveals that he put that book on hold after conducting many interviews with those whose lives Cochran affected, but did however finally decide that it was their stories that needed telling, in particular the one of Cochran’s ex-wives, Faye McKenzie. A new star takes centre-stage, and therefore a new basis for a different, more inviting book. Faye is portrayed as a strong-willed woman with her own beautiful story to tell, away from anything Haney thought he was obtaining initially. Haney’s openness about the making of this new book is insightful and one that many other writers would benefit from adopting.

Of course, like the subject matter itself, the collection is not without its flaws, particularly when it comes to comically dismissing some of the major problems which ultimately shaped Hollywood into the problematic place it is today. However, that certainly doesn’t make the book any less entertaining and readable, which I assume – due to the dark nature of the themes of the collection – is ultimately what Haney wished to achieve. As a film novice, I was captured by not only the lives of the celebrities I was learning about, but the life of Haney too. His unique literary flair and his obvious passion and knowledge makes for a rich and interesting collection, no matter how much or how little you may know about the subject.

Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland is published by Delancey Street Press and is available here.

Duke Haney

Duke Haney, aka Daryl Haney, has spent most of his adult life working in the movie business, with twenty feature-film credits as an actor and twenty-two as a screenwriter.  He used pseudonyms for some of the screenplays and went by “D. R. Haney” as the author of a novel, Banned for Life, and an essay collection, Subversia. After he was struck by a car in a crosswalk on Sunset Boulevard, a friend claimed he walked like John “Duke” Wayne and gave him the nickname by which most people know him and he has adopted belatedly as his pen name. He plans to follow Death Valley Superstars with a novel tentatively titled XXX.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria 

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