I know Los Angeles from cinema, so I know it well. As I flew in I saw Thunder Road from Grease. Offscreen, it’s the Los Angeles River. I have seen Los Angeles collapse into the sea (2012), be beset with tornadoes (The Day After Tomorrow) and sprout a volcano (Volcano). Was a city ever so debased — so used — by itself? That is its glory, and its problem. Los Angeles is better in the movies: more various, more sinister, more beautiful, better lit. You can’t make art, and then stare at a palette, asking for more. The real Los Angeles is just a backlot. The best Los Angeles is seen from far away; from cinemas.
Even so, I try. I am staying in Beverly Hills, a neat fairyland between Culver City and the hills. There are wide, clean streets and houses that jump centuries in the space of a few feet, from Art Deco to Classical to Tudorbethan to Brutalist to Saxon. It looks insane, like Legoland for architecture students, and because it is oblivious of itself, it works. Its many identities swiftly become one: megalomaniac affluence and pride. It is perfectly normal to enter a normal building in Beverly Hills and find yourself in some fantastical palace of sin. It is the normal. My guidebooks are Pretty Woman and Clueless, romantic comedies in which women were redeemed by the application of ready-to-wear clothing; that is, the romantic hero was, as ever, money.
And how much money there is to love! My hotel is the Montage Beverly Hills, a sumptuous golden mountain with a swimming pool on the roof and, in the function room next to the lift, the cast of The Avengers having a press junket. Typed on A4 paper on the wall next to the door of this function room is: The Avengers. As if it is normal for The Avengers to be in a function room, and not even a special function room. It is the normal. Almost all of them walked past me, but I was reading Mansfield Park as they passed, and I missed them. How will I face my four-year-old son?
Stand up in the swimming pool at the Montage Beverly Hills — even in the deep end — and your bust is exposed. I find this odd, but perhaps that is the point. It is not for swimming. It is for exhibitionism; for being seen. Nothing is worth anything in Los Angeles if it can’t be seen by others.
I am a restaurant critic and I am here, at least ostensibly, to review restaurants. Beverly Hills bills itself as a luxury city destination, like Dubai without indentured servitude, but with democracy (sort of), and it has many excellent restaurants, all in competition to be the most luxurious, which the locals then drive to in $1 million cars. They are parked thematically outside: saloons, sports cars, SUVs. The first night, eyes mad with jet-lag, I went to Cut by Wolfgang Puck at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. That’s the hotel in which Julia Roberts made love to money in Pretty Woman, and I would call it a Disney palace for adults, all polished marble and ornamental floristry aweing itself with its own, barely-to-be-believed loveliness. Cut is not a place to hide. The London branch of Cut, on Park Lane, is quite restrained, considering it is gold; but not this. This is a meat barn for rich people screaming their prosperity over every kind of dead cow. The table mats are black leather; the staff are pleased to see you.
Puck comes to speak to us, dressed all in black and wearing spectacles, but I am so jet-lagged I remember nothing, except eating a bone marrow flan and thinking: how can you live at this level of competitive prosperity and stay sane? I remember Sunset Boulevard, my favourite film about Los Angeles. It gives the answer. You don’t.
We also go to Maude. It is filled with good art and good furniture. It looks like an English restaurant: like Kitty Fisher’s in Shepherd Market, and it serves a perfect tasting menu. It would be unfair to call Beverly Hills vulgar because it doesn’t just offer vulgarity. It offers everything people might wish to buy, and at Maude you buy taste.
(Elsewhere you buy at Gucci and Chanel and Tiffany; at a specialist cheese shop where stars hang out late, I am told, eating cheese; and at a chocolate shop whose owner will tell you, if you ask nicely, which stars have been in, and when, and what they like to eat. I could not find a bookshop, but I didn’t really need one. Beauty is a visual medium and if you are reading, who can see your lovely face?)
The last stop is the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. I look for the mansion in Sunset Boulevard but it has gone; it wasn’t even on Sunset Boulevard, but Wilshire Boulevard; in such ways does Los Angeles lie about itself, to make itself seem better. This hotel is old for Los Angeles, at 106, and exquisitely pink. It is older than the city it lives in, and it is surrounded by pink bungalows in which once hot, now dead, movie stars had much sex and room service. Or maybe they just moaned about press intrusion. Elizabeth Taylor had all her honey-moons here. Peter Finch of Network — the best film ever made about television — died here.
I know the hotel’s restaurant, the Polo Lounge — ‘the epicentre of LA power dining’ — from reading Jackie Collins novels as a schoolgirl. It has green and white stripes and, while eating an excellent and very expensive hamburger, I see Kim Kardashian on some sortie from the garden. (I suspect that journalists are not allowed to dine in the garden.) She is the perfect metaphor for Los Angeles. She does not look, today, like a sex clown. That is for the cameras. She is dressed in a grey tracksuit. She is dressed as her own backlot.
When I get tired of luxury I leave Beverly Hills and go to Hollywood: to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the Sunset Strip. (It is now called the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX, but not by me.) It is the most famous cinema in the world. It appeared in Singin’ in the Rain, in Blazing Saddles, in A Star is Born. I paid $16 for a tour and inside, in a lobby that has never seen daylight, I saw the green dress Scarlett O’Hara wore in Gone with the Wind, and the blue dress Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz. Of all the things I saw in Los Angeles, these seemed the most real to me. Perhaps that is because I am an outsider. But if you are looking for Los Angeles’s soul, it’s here.
If you fly to Los Angeles with Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only four-star airline, travelling from the UK via Dublin, you can pre-clear US Immigration before stepping on board your transatlantic flight. This means no queues upon arrival in the States. www.lovebeverlyhills.com