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TMW Book Reviews

Review – Hollywood v. Beauty and the Synchronicity of the Six

by

Kirk Henderson

In “Hollywood v. Beauty and the Synchronicity of the Six,” author Kirk Henderson investigates the lives and careers of six iconic actresses: Louise Brooks, Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Payton, Jean Seberg, and Sondra Locke. Despite their lack of personal interaction, Henderson uncovers a complex web of similarities, mirrored occurrences, and shared challenges that suggest a predestined or synchronistic path for these women. This narrative choice elevates the book above a simple biographical account, proposing an entwined destiny shaped by the forces of Hollywood and societal expectations of beauty. The author also has a unique approach in his selection, by choosing one actress to represent the decade in which they were most active: Brooks for the 1920s, Harlow the 1930s, etc. Even though the women never met each other, they were interconnected in synchronistic ways. Henderson identifies patterns and parallels and argues that their stories are not only interrelated but also reflective of larger trends in Hollywood and American culture, both in the context of their time and in the ongoing evolution of film and gender.

The book begins with an introduction to Hollywood’s historical context (the power dynamics between the film industry’s moguls and the actresses). Then it allows each actress’s story to unfold in its own chapter, providing a deep dive into their individual experiences while also revealing thematic threads—their battles with the Hollywood studio system, their struggles with typecasting and public image, their fight for respect in a male-dominated environment, and their efforts to assert agency in their careers. For example, the book draws parallels of the decades past struggles of actresses like Louise Brooks and Jean Harlow with their respective studios and with Sondra Locke in her legal battles with Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. decades later. In the chapters on Barbara Payton and Jean Seberg, Henderson discusses the intense scrutiny and public pressure both women faced due to their looks and how it affected their mental health. These women, often seen merely as subjects of their beauty, wielded a form of power that challenged and sometimes changed the industry. Henderson posits that their influence extended beyond the screen, impacting societal values and norms (evident in Lamarr’s and Locke’s story). Payton’s life is particularly harrowing—from a promising actress to a tragic figure struggling for survival on the fringes of society is a testament to the fragility of success and the transient nature of fame. This industry can really discard its brightest stars once their shine begins to fade.

Henderson’s research is thorough, drawing from a wide range of sources, including interviews, autobiographies and/or bios of all six actresses, as well as bios of the men and the eras that helped or hindered them. Along with these, Henderson’s contemporary accounts paint a detailed picture of each woman’s life while also understanding the patterns that have shaped the film trade. Besides, the author has a personal connection to two of the actresses he profiles. He recounts an encounter with John Rayborn, a man who lived with Barbara Payton during her tumultuous later years, providing an intimate view on her. Also, Henderson shares his email correspondence and eventual meeting with Sondra Locke, offering insights into her character that only someone with direct access could provide.

Another great thing about Henderson’s work is his ability to contextualize the struggles and triumphs of these actresses within the history of Hollywood. He maneuvers through the shifting dynamics of the film industry, from the silent era to the modern day, and examines how societal attitudes toward women, beauty, and fame have evolved over time. In the silent era, there was a societal fascination with the “flapper” archetype and the emerging concept of the modern, independent woman. He discusses how Brooks’ iconic bob haircut and rebellious persona captivated the conservative norms of the time. The pre-Code era was a time when films were more sexually explicit and morally ambiguous. Henderson examines how Harlow’s “blonde bombshell” image and risqué roles in films like “Red-Headed Woman” influenced societal attitudes toward female sexuality. In the Golden Age, Lamarr’s dual identity disconnects her public persona and her intellectual achievements—reflecting how Hollywood and society at large often overlooked the talents of women beyond their physicality. In New Hollywood, Seberg was involved in politically charged films and was associated with the civil rights movement—her activism and controversy reflected the turbulent social and political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. The modern era was about the difficulties women face in asserting their autonomy, and Locke’s story was symbolic of ongoing issues related to gender equality and representation. From exploitation to personal struggles and industry politics, the book sheds light on the darker aspects of Hollywood’s glamour.

Even though he doesn’t shy away from tragedies, Henderson balances these with a focus on the actresses’ professional achievements, innovations, and contributions. Louise Brooks emerges as not only a spectacular dancer and actress but also as a woman with an intense personality shaped by childhood trauma. Jean Harlow’s tragically short life is made all the more poignant by MGM’s exploitation of her personal struggles for cinematic fodder. Hedy Lamarr, renowned for her beauty, is revealed to be a brilliant inventor whose contributions to technology were overlooked for decades. Barbara Payton’s meteoric rise to stardom is followed by a harrowing descent into addiction and destitution—a cautionary tale of Hollywood’s fickleness. Jean Seberg’s iconic role in “Breathless” had women around the world copying her hairstyle, but her subsequent persecution by the FBI expose the dangerous intersection of politics and celebrity. Finally, Sondra Locke’s battle with Clint Eastwood sheds light on the dark underbelly of the film industry, where personal vendettas can derail even the most promising careers.

Henderson blends historical analysis with empathetic narration, but always treating his subjects with respect and sensitivity. The final sections in the book provide a comprehensive overview of each actress’s career and legacy. “Hollywood v. Beauty and the Synchronicity of the Six” is about the intersection between beauty, talent, and the Hollywood machine. Kirk Henderson goes beyond traditional biographies to offer a nuanced look at the lives of remarkable women, whose stories continue to resonate in the world of film and beyond. He reminds us of the need for continued exploration and appreciation of the actors’ impact on the movie business, the evolution of female representation in cinema, and the lasting influence of beauty and talent in the face of adversity.

The book includes an abundance of photographs from the actresses’ movies and life.

– The Moving Words Review

Official Entry: The Most Moving Book Award, Jan. 3, 2025