In ‘Seduction,’ Howard Hughes’ Hollywood no haven for women

This cover image released by Custom House shows "Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood," by Karina Longworth. (Custom House via AP)

(AP) — Hollywood history for the #MeToo movement, Karina Longworth’s “Seduction” is an astute and entertaining takedown of the movie industry, the press and the multimillionaire turned wannabe filmmaker Howard Hughes. Hardly anyone emerges from the pages of “Seduction” unblemished by selfishness and greed once they are touched by the movie business and its promise of wealth, power and fame.

If that promise was kept, it was mainly for the benefit of men even though, as Longworth writes, women were integral to the rise of the movies. Her book recounts what happened to some of the many, many women who fell into the orbit of Hughes, for better and often for worse.

Howard Hughes is remembered today, more than four decades after his death, as a weirdly eccentric, incredibly wealthy man living in seclusion in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel. Or as the oddball character Leonardo DiCaprio played in 2004’s “The Aviator.” But for many years, mainly in the 1930s and 1940s, the press presented Hughes as a handsome if shy heir to an oil industry fortune, a creative maverick behind the camera, or an innovative and daring aviator — at times all three. The mental illness that appeared to gain on him as the years went by was hidden or downplayed as quirkiness.

The better story for readers and listeners in those years of economic depression and war was how practically every beautiful young actress was on Hughes’ arm at one time or another. That was certainly the image he sought to convey — and the public ate it up with the help of his publicists and a lazy, compliant and sometimes paid-off news media. In his day Hughes didn’t have to point and shout “fake news!” because he was too busy manufacturing it.

The mind games and sex games that permeated Hughes’ movie career help make “Seduction” an engaging read. But don’t let that overshadow Longworth’s real focus — not so much Hughes but what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood back then. The women were pretty, the times were not. And whether that much has changed for them remains debatable.