The best books on Hollywood history

Reid Mitenbuler Author Of Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation
By Reid Mitenbuler

The Books I Picked & Why

The Moon's a Balloon

By David Niven

Book cover of The Moon's a Balloon

Why this book?

This book opens with an absolutely breathtaking passage, one of my favorite openings in any book ever. One imagines Niven narrating his memoir poolside, gripping a cigarette and a martini in the same fist, his pince-nez mustache dancing up and down while he describes, in sordid detail, old-school Hollywood at its most louche. If you want a book that brings alive the atmosphere of a bygone era, this is it.


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Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

By Mark Harris

Book cover of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Why this book?

This is a richly layered book that stacks stories upon stories, as if they were Russian nesting dolls. Using five films that were nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, Harris dissects a waterfalling cascade of cultural trends happening in America at that time—all of them somehow revealing themselves in these five movies. At the core of this book is a story about generational change, as old Hollywood was ushered out the door and new creative types took over the industry.


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The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

By Sam Wasson

Book cover of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Why this book?

Sam Wasson is simply a good writer, crafting tight narratives that help this book read like a novel. The best part of this book is its examination of the creative process: in order for Chinatown to get made the way it did, a million (maybe two million) things needed to align in just the right way. The movie easily could have failed, but Wasson shows how the contributions of its many collaborators saved it.


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An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood

By Neal Gabler

Book cover of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood

Why this book?

Using detailed portraits of the moguls who built Hollywood, this book tracks the rise of an industry while also telling a unique story about American business and culture. It bristles with insights, particularly about how the moguls (almost all of them immigrants) helped create and amplify many of the popular narratives that Americans tell about themselves. It’s wonderfully written, scholarly but not dry, and serves as a time machine taking you back to a fascinating era in our national history.


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We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Film

By Noah Isenberg

Book cover of We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Film

Why this book?

This is a page-turner book that I can easily imagine being adapted into a movie of its own: one of those story-behind-the-story kind of affairs. At its heart, this book is about using stories to address current social and political issues (something that is often done with a ham fist). In the lead-up to WWII, most movie studios were too cowardly to offend Germany, Europe’s biggest market. But with Casablanca, Warner Bros. decided to fight back. It’s a lesson we could use again today, as American movie studios meekly cower before Chinese censorship demands. Their behavior is pathetic, but this book could help remind them what courage and integrity actually look like.


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