Dream machine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 1995, 12:00am

LOS Angeles can be too hot, too dangerous, too sprawled out, too obsessed with fame, and too easy to mock, which is what sophisticated east coast New Yorkers love to do, cracking jokes about how, when you get there, there's no there there, or about how sun-soaked California is a great place - providing you're an orange.

Even Johnny Carson, who lives alongside other screen stars in the beach colony of Malibu, likes to sneer that 'the only culture in LA is yoghurt'.

Where else do you hear a person being described not as 'friendly' or 'a lawyer' or 'a mother of two' but as 'bankable'? Where else can you refer freely in conversation to Arnie and Warren and Goldie and Jack as if Schwarzenegger, Beatty, Hawn and Nicholson were old friends of yours, even though you have only seen them on the big screen? For better or worse, Los Angeles - and the executives who run the film and television studios there - shape much of the way we think about the world.

They prick our desires, mould our expectations, sharpen our prejudices - some of them more than others; some of us more than others.

In New York or London, Andy Warhol's quip about everyone being famous for 15 minutes is either a simplistic joke or a handy cliche for journalists with writer's block. In Los Angeles, it's a biblical commandment.

Even long-time natives jabber excitedly about how they spotted Michael Douglas in the drugstore and saw Cher collecting her dry-cleaning.

Mention, as I did, that you saw Jay Leno driving through Bel Air in a black van with a cat in the passenger seat and you're quizzed for map grid references, make of vehicle, breed of cat, and so on: after a few days in the city you twig that this information is passed on knowingly in chit-chat a few days later as, 'I hear Jay has a new black Ford and has swapped his terrier for a tabby'.

'How can one live in a city,' Woody Allen stammered in the film Annie Hall, 'where the supreme cultural achievement is being able to turn right on red?' - let alone running the risk of being shot at by a bored driver while you're doing it: drive-by shooting is the way that LA people who can't afford lottery tickets keep themselves amused.

Los Angeles is a place where you can be fined US$68 for jaywalking on a deserted street but can carry a loaded handgun, no problem.

Still, it makes no more sense to sneer at LA just because it isn't as highbrow as Manhattan as it does to look down your nose at Delhi because it isn't as rich as Beverly Hills. The city knows it is superficial, and is smart enough to make a feature of its froth.

Raymond Chandler reckoned that Los Angeles was 'a city with all the personality of a paper cup'. But what a paper cup.

If you want to get in the mood for Beverly Hills, for example, wake up on your first morning, stroll straight past the hotel coffee shop, and head for breakfast in Starbucks, which is a paper cup, takeaway coffee bar with attitude: ordering breakfast in Starbucks is about as gruelling as life can get in Beverly Hills. For example: - Cafe latte, please. - Do you want a tall or double tall? - Er . . . - Or a machiato latte? That's where we pour the milk in first and then the espresso. - How does the cafe latte come, then? - That's where we pour the espresso in first.

- I don't want a lot of frothy milk, like in a cappuccino. - Then maybe you want espresso machiato? - No, I want a big cup of hot coffee, but not drowned in milk. - I tell you what. I'll make you a tall double machiato latte. If you don't like that, I'll fix you something else. - Fine. - Now, milk. Do you want half-fat, non-fat, half-and-half? Do want decaff? With vanilla? What about some cinammon? If you take any form of sweeteners - white sugar, raw sugar, Sweet 'n Low, and so on - expect to add another ten minutes to this selection procedure.

But what else is there to do in Los Angeles, especially since you won't be wanting to spend your evenings in the rougher parts of town, where the locals regard you as a mobile shop-window mannequin - only with real money and car keys in the coat pockets, from which they can take what they fancy? In fact, you don't want to spend your days in these neighbourhoods either. There are sleazy parts of every major city. When in Los Angeles, stick to the posh bits and you'll have much more fun.

Even better, hire yourself a stretched limo - which will definitely arrive with a bar, television, video, and may even come with a Jacuzzi - because it could work out much cheaper than watching a taxi meter click up as you crawl through traffic jams from one end of the city to the other. Some of these limos are so long that you are the traffic jam.

Stretched limos with darkened windows aren't just for movie stars in Los Angeles. Teenagers hire them to go to their school prom. So to stand out from the crowd, yours has to be extra-long or extra-equipped. Some are so long that the weather on the bonnet can be different from the weather on the boot.

The adjective they use here is 'over-sized', which is a desirable attribute in LA. The stretched limos are oversized, the steaks they serve in restaurants are oversized, the designer coffees in Starbucks are oversized; even the marble bathrooms in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (where, if you ask nicely, they will let you peek inside the Veranda Suite, which Warren Beatty rented for years before settling down to fatherhood) are oversized.

So are the price tags. If you want to spend as much on a key-chain as you normally spend on a new car, try shopping on Rodeo Drive, which the local hoteliers refer to as 'an area of exclusive shopping', just in case you were worrying you might have to rub shoulders with Mrs Ordinary Housewife buying cornflakes (you often need an appointment to browse around some of the snootier shops, which actually wince at the word 'shop' and prefer to be known as 'designer showrooms').

But if you want to plug into local culture, join a bus tour of the stars' homes and tune into LA's wavelength.

Stare at the present and former mansions of Mary Pickford and Lana Turner, Lucille Ball and Tom Jones, Ronald Reagan and Dean Martin. The guide will even tell you which day the garbage cans are put out if you fancy rummaging in Barbra Streisand's trash.

'Who lives there?' I asked, trying to get into the swing of gawping at mansions. 'That house?' replied the guide. 'Oh, nobody famous,' which is Beverly Hills-speak for 'nobody worth thinking twice about'.

When I asked the guide if anyone had ever jumped off the famous white Hollywood sign overlooking the valley, she said a woman called Peg Entwhistle committed suicide there 60 years ago, depressed at her failing acting career: 'But at least that way she got famous,' explained the guide, without any apparent irony. 'Nobody would have heard of her otherwise.' The lawns in front of these mansions - which range in style from half-timbered Elizabethan, through turreted French chateaux, right up to Bauhaus - run right down to the kerb, to deter anyone who might think of walking down the street (in Los Angeles, walking is something you do on a Treadmaster machine at your gym). And planted in those lawns is a placard that you might expect to announce 'Keep off the grass' but in fact reads 'Any invasion will be met with an armed response'.

In Beverly Hills, beggars and hobos are scooped up like stray dogs and dumped several kilometres away in poorer parts of town, and the local police get to the scene of a crime within three minutes, which is the fastest response time of police anywhere in America.

As Philip Marlowe liked to say, law is where you buy it. In Beverly Hills, they can afford the best.

Hollywood itself is a sleazier quarter than most visitors might imagine. Few visitors linger longer than it takes to look at the famous handprints of film stars outside Mann's Chinese Theatre (known as Grauman's in the days when it hosted glitzy premieres) or to peer at the 1,500 star names studded into the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard - unless they have come to Hollywood to stare at the area's prostitutes, junkies, massage parlours and loonies.

The other big attraction for those seeking to escape the unreality of Beverly Hills is the tour of the Universal film studios, a world of make-believe where old film sets you last saw in Psycho or The Addams Family come back to life.

The tour tram trundles through earthquakes, survives attacks by King Kong and an intimidating lurch from the shark from Jaws, and negotiates flash floods and collapsing bridges. You won't have to walk more than four metres before hitting a food stall or a souvenir shop.

The highlight is the Back To The Future ride, which involves sitting in an eight-seater De Lorean car suspended in mid-air, which ducks and dives in front a movie screen, giving you all the stomach-churning thrills of speeding over mountains, plunging into valleys and crashing through time zones without the bother of clambering on to a roller-coaster.

Santa Monica is livelier than Beverly Hills and has the advantage of being on the coast, although the water can be chilly for swimming and surfing.

South on the coastal road is Venice Beach, which is full of performing artists and kooky beach life on weekends. North is the Getty Museum, which has every sort of art that money can buy - apart from The Three Graces, of course.

Let's face it, nobody needs to go to Los Angeles. All of us brought up on American sitcoms and Hollywood movies feel we already know LA intimately. But for a glimpse of a mirage city built in the middle of a desert with imported palm trees, full of imported people whipping up fantasies for us to watch on our screens, it is a fascinating place to visit. Think of it as a drive-by holiday.