City Portrait

Los Angeles, California

Finding success in the City of Dreams can be a fruitless pursuit. But for Southerners — on the silver screen and beyond — Los Angeles has long proved fertile ground

photo: Amy Dickerson


Los Angeles loves you, baby. It loves you and your work and wants to talk to you about it. But Wednesday is out. So is Thursday. It wants to just touch base next week, and you do, but next week L.A.’s not in; luckily, L.A. has an assistant who takes down your information and promises to return your call as soon as it can. Not everyone gets their calls returned, of course, but on the whole I would say Southerners have pretty good odds of it. Los Angeles has a real soft spot for Southerners. Without Southerners—actors and actresses, writers, directors, waiters, and the rest of us, you and me—it’s hard to imagine L.A. being able to exist in the mythical dreamworld sense in which it does. Los Angeles, more than any place I’ve ever been, embodies the image it portrays to us, and we, backwoods brethren, constitute a sizable chunk of that image.

The Broad museum's exterior is its own work of art.

photo: Amy Dickerson

The Broad museum’s exterior is its own work of art.

I’ve been visiting Los Angeles two or three times a year for the last twenty years or so. I have family there, two brothers-in-law, both of whom work in show business. One lives in Hollywood, the other in Santa Monica, so I’ve had the pleasure and the pain of traveling a great swath of the city. When my first novel was optioned by Sony Pictures, I saw even more, from Culver City to Universal City, from Burbank to Pasadena. Note that many of the towns and cities I’ve just mentioned are not in Los Angeles at all; Pasadena, for instance, is ten miles away. But all these places exist within the penumbra of Los Angeles. An argument could be made, in fact, that Los Angeles is not a place at all. It’s just the name we give to a whole bunch of places, elegant neighborhoods some of them, others seedy and dark, all strung together like charms on a bracelet. Los Angeles, in many ways, is nothing more than an idea.


SEE MORE: DISCOVER L.A.’S SOUTHERN HOT SPOTS


Palm Trees against the California sky.

photo: Amy Dickerson

Palm Trees against the California sky.

And it’s a good idea, I think. I like it there a lot. It reminds me of my hometown, Birmingham, Alabama, so if you can’t get out to the West Coast, just go to Birmingham: It’s the diminutive version of L.A. We have our own Beverly Hills (called Mountain Brook) and our own Laurel Canyon (Red Mountain), and our own hip and happening Hollywood is a place called Avondale. Maybe this is why I feel so at home in Los Angeles. One essential difference is that there isn’t nearly as much good barbecue, at least not the kind you may be accustomed to. There is no Dreamland Bar-B-Que in the city where dreams are made. But you go to L.A., among other reasons, for Southern food from the even farther South: Mexico. El Cholo is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in town, open since 1923; eating there is like dancing in your grandfather’s shoes. It’s an insult to call El Cholo authentic, because it’s where authenticity was invented. It’s loud and crowded and they make the guacamole right at your table. But it’s only one of probably ten thousand good to great Mexican restaurants within driving distance of wherever you are. Look at a map: Mexico is there, the rest of California is here. L.A. is right in the middle, the Venn diagram of Mexican cuisine. Then there’s Animal, on North Fairfax—one of the origin points of the city’s current Southern-inflected food boom—where your crispy pig head and bone marrow await. And everything in between.

The slaw-topped fried chicken sandwich at Son of a Gun.

photo: Amy Dickerson

Southern-Fried L.A.

The slaw-topped fried chicken sandwich at Son of a Gun.

I’m not a foodie, though, I just love food, and Los Angeles has all the food I feel especially close to, even intimate with: Mexican, Japanese, Thai. And vegan—actually, I don’t much care for vegan. But let’s say you do. You’ll be happy there.

We have to address the traffic, of course—there’s a lot of it—but transplanted Atlantans will get all weepy on the 405 because the highways in Los Angeles are a lot like home. It is dispiriting to go one mile every twenty minutes, but it’s tough to avoid because the city sprawls, and inevitably if you have two places to go in a day, one is near the beach and the other in the valley. The street roads can be just as clogged, but if you take them instead of the highway you’ll at least get a view of the city’s complex personality—fifty-, sixty-, seventy-year-old storefronts morphing into a shiny and splashy newness, like time-lapse photography, that feeling you get often in L.A., of small towns being nudged up the edge of big cities.

Here’s a severely truncated list of some of the better-known Southerners who have come to Los Angeles over the last little while: Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Joanne Woodward, Ryan Seacrest, Kanye West, Julia Roberts, Oprah for God’s sake, Beyoncé, George Clooney. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of one of the first really Southern television series, Designing Women, and close friend and confidant of the Clintons’. Even William Faulkner, whom I’ve always thought of as the Most Famous Southerner of Them All, spent some time in Los Angeles, writing, until he didn’t.

The Julep No. 1 at Hatchet Hall.

photo: Amy Dickerson

The Julep No. 1 at Hatchet Hall.

Without the South, without Southerners, Tinseltown would be practically Nowheresville.

It’s hard not to descend into the world of truisms, banalities, and clichés when you’re talking about Los Angeles; in fact, it’s impossible. Because the truth is, Los Angeles is a place where dreams can come true—and a place where dreams are shattered, just as they say. And there are times when it feels superficially warm, but not a whole lot different from the South: “Let’s do lunch!” can sometimes be translated as “Bless your heart, you really think I want to have lunch with you.”


SEE MORE: NOTABLE SOUTHERN-BORN ANGELENOS


Mount Lee's iconic signage

photo: Amy Dickerson

Welcome to Tinseltown

Mount Lee’s iconic signage

The town casts a spell, though. I feel under that spell in a very large way. All I’d ever wanted to be, since I was the age of wanting to be something, was a novelist, and this is what I indeed became, for better or worse. Never had I even the least interest in writing a screenplay for a movie or a pitch for a television show—becoming, as they say, a “content provider.” But no sooner had I met my Hollywood agent than this is exactly what I wanted to become, what I wanted nothing more than: I had to write a movie. I would say it’s in the water, but they have no water in Los Angeles. I wrote many, many scripts and created an idea for a television show with my manager at the time, and we went from studio to studio together “pitching” it. This is a grueling process writers in L.A. have to endure as a matter of course: walking alone into big rooms where no one knows you or cares about you and making them love you and your idea, in twelve minutes or less.

The writer is at the bottom of the totem pole in Hollywood; the writer whose book is adapted isn’t on the pole at all. Still, my wife got a part in the movie, Big Fish, a small part but still, there she was, applauding in an audience right in front of Ewan McGregor. Exciting! This I had done for her; I wrote a book that got her into the movies. But in postproduction her part was cut, completely; her chance at fame, at a new life in Hollywood far, far away from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was left lying on the cutting-room floor. But she took it well. “I guess I slept with the wrong person,” she said, falling back on that oldest of L.A. clichés, one that probably isn’t even true, unless it is.

>View more photos from the story


tags: