Like countless hopefuls before her, Carla Valderrama headed to Hollywood fueled by a dream, only to crash headlong into reality upon arrival.
For Valderrama, acting was the dream that brought her south from Seattle in 2011. The reality was months of crashing on friends’ couches after she arrived.
She survived through odd jobs and acting classes, auditions and the friendship of those she met through improv comedy work at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Five years later, a video she made went viral, landing her an agent, and then … nothing.
Down in the dumps, Valderrama says she had a meltdown on the Hollywood Freeway while stuck in traffic one day, and her thoughts drifted to an Instagram account she’d opened a few years earlier but never used.
She’d called it @ThisWasHollywood because the current version seemed so alien to the Hollywood she’d loved as a child. Classic movies on cable channels or VHS tapes offered an escape into a world of black-and-white glamour and soft-focus closeups.
These were stars when the word still meant something, she says. Movies when the flickering lights on the silver screen could carry you far from the humdrum existence of real life.
“I was at my lowest point,” she says from her home in Sherman Oaks. “Really down. So I just decided to post something to make myself feel better.
It was 2017 when she posted her first photo, a Technicolor closeup of actress Joan Collins, unusual in that her freckles were visible, Valderrama wrote in the caption.
Today, more than 1900 posts and nearly 750,000 followers later, Valderrama is a star herself, a chronicler of old Hollywood through photos and video clips.
As her Instagram account grew, it gathered attention — and not just from fellow fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In time, a publisher wondered if she might want to turn it into a book.
The book “This Was Hollywood,” published this month, fixes its focus on the subtitle: “Forgotten Stars & Stories.”
“I’m really excited,” says Valderrama, 33, of both the book and her role as a guest curator on TCM. “It means so much to me.”
An uncommon child
When she was 6, Valderrama says she saw “Gone With the Wind” for the first time. Or most of it, anyway.
“I got so mad because I had to leave to go my abuela’s,” she says, laughing. “I had to know if she made it back to Tara!”
In the way that some kids are entranced by Disney classics or Nickelodeon TV series, Valderrama was obsessed with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
If she saw it in the TV listings on a weekday, she’d fake an illness to stay home from school, she says. Finally, her mother bought her a VHS copy so her schoolwork would not suffer.
“I would circle the TCM listings and record them on VHS,” Valderrama says. “It was escapism, pure and simple.”
Her family was loving, her childhood good, but Valderrama says she also felt a little bit off-kilter.
“I was always a little bit of a sad kid,” she says. “The movies were escapism, a way to escape the present to somewhere wonderful.”
She was working as an assistant pre-school teacher, having left college without graduating, when she decided she wanted to write a book about the glamorous and funny actress Carole Lombard. She took several trips to Los Angeles, staying at the Biltmore Hotel and conducting research at the Central Library, both places that fit neatly into the era that so fascinated her.
“I’m probably going to get into trouble for saying this, but I don’t really feel like there are movie stars anymore,” she says of the reason why she tracked down thousands of documents and original photographs of Lombard in those early visits. “Not like the older ones.”
Birth of a book
When the publisher Running Press and its partner TCM asked Valderrama what kind of book she wanted to write, her answer was quick: Forgotten stars.
“And they were like, ‘We love the idea, but we’ve got to get some big stars in there,’” Valderrama says. “I was like, ‘Guys, I don’t know if you realize, but the book is about forgotten stars — it’s going to be kind of hard!’”
Eventually, she compromised and agreed to expand it to forgotten stories as well, in order to include a chapter on the debut film that almost killed Paul Newman’s career before it got started or the scoop on how the studios molded Rita Hayworth into a screen goddess.
But the story of stars who were forgotten by Hollywood and the public is where her true passion always lay, and her enthusiasm bubbles up as she starts to talk about names such as Lois Weber, a pioneering woman filmmaker, or Robert Goldstein, a director whose career and life were destroyed in ways that would be considered absurd if the results weren’t so tragic.
“Lois Weber’s story always bothered me,” Valderrama says. “That every film school, every film book was all about the men and nobody ever talked about her. And I had seen her work at the same time as D.W. Griffith and she was far superior at it I thought.
“Robert Goldstein, that was an accident,” she says. “I was at the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and somebody handed me the wrong folder.
“I looked at the folder and the first thing I saw was this telegram that was to the effect of, ‘I’m the only producer who’s ever been sentenced to jail for making a movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s this?’”
Because she was determined not to include stories that could be found on the Internet, Valderrama’s research took her to archives and libraries around Southern California, and sometimes into the field for interviews.
Goldstein’s 1917 film “The Spirit of ’76” landed him in court for a farcical trial for violating the Espionage Act after overeager authorities decided that his portrayal of British atrocities during the American Revolution was somehow his way of helping the Germans in World War I.
The scandal was so huge that the Goldstein family shunned him for life, Valderrama learned when a genealogical search located the grandson of the long-dead filmmaker’s brother.
“I call this person and said, ‘Hi, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m writing about your grandfather’s brother,’” she says. “He said, ‘You’re mistaken; my grandfather was an only child.’ And I said, ‘Oh OK, so sit down, because I’m going to change your life.’”
The man was the former president of Yale University, she later learned to her own chagrin.
“I have no idea who I’m talking to so, of course, I’m myself,” Valderrama says. “I’m cursing up a storm. He gives me an email and it’s at Yale, and I’m dragging him, like, ‘Oh, Yale, look at you, so fancy.’”
A Hollywood tragedy
Valderrama says she doesn’t have a favorite story included in “This Was Hollywood,” but acknowledged that the saddest chapter to write involved the actor John Garfield, whose life and career were destroyed by baseless allegations that he’d been a Communist Party member back when the Red Scare witch hunts swept through Hollywood.
For that chapter, she unearthed documents such as a never-published Garfield wrote gossip queen Hedda Hopper in which he plaintively talked of his love for America, as well as thousands of Freedom of Information Act documents that for decades had been redacted but now were made whole.
On a trip to New York, she interviewed Julie Garfield, the actor’s daughter, who shared documents as well her sadness that her father’s once-acclaimed movies are now mostly unknown.
“I think with John Garfield — and a lot of these people — they’re forgotten or the same reason that made them a star in the first place,” Valderrama says. “It was just kind of chance. But for him, I just think there’s also just so much shame by so many of his Hollywood ‘friends.’ They don’t want to talk about it. Everybody was complicit.”
The pandemic scuttled plans for a traditional book tour, though Valderrama takes solace in the knowledge that the many fans of her Instagram page make for a large potential audience. And her appearance on TCM, where she introduced four films with connections to the book — including Garfield’s “Body and Soul” — is a thrill, too.
Mostly, though, she sees the book serving the same purpose that “Gone With The Wind” and “Singin’ In The Rain” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” did for her as a child and ever after.
“The important theme for my book is ‘Escape 2020,’” Valderrama says. “Just go back to basics, just an escape.”