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Just Another Day in the Valley 

Where ordinary homes are put to extraordinary use

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Text and images by Larry Sultan

It’s time for lunch. The sounds of clattering plates and muffled conversations drift upstairs. In cool, dark rooms, amber light glows through shades drawn in the middle of the summer day. Someone is napping fitfully. He’s bored rather than tired. He wakes up with a feeling of dread. In those first moments of confusion, he tries to assess which house he is in and what he’s doing there.

Downstairs, everyone has gathered in the large two-car garage. Folding tables have been set up with an array of cold cuts: stacks of wheat and rye bread, potato salad, paper bowls filled with cashews and M&M’s. There is a large platter of jumbo shrimp arranged in a circle around a head of lettuce. A tall woman wearing a T-shirt and thong spears one with a toothpick. Balancing paper plates filled with food, people drift into the back yard, a large grassy area with uninterrupted views of the San Fernando Valley. They look like friends and lovers having a Sunday picnic as they lie about in small groups in the few areas shaded by sycamore trees. To the far side of the yard, crew members are beginning to set up movie lights and a stand with a large silver reflector. On the lawn is a huge wind fan, and next to it Michael, the director, is talking with his wife, Julie Anne, who’s wearing a flowing pink dressing gown with a white fur collar. Her clear acrylic high heels are sinking into the grass, and he offers her his arm as she reaches back to pull off her shoe. Directly behind them, near the edge of the yard where the lawn ends abruptly in a vertical drop, stand 5-foot-tall letters cut from plywood, painted white and anchored in the ground with diagonal supports. DOOWYLLOH. It takes a moment to make sense of it, but then it’s as clear as the day: Facing out toward miles of subdivisions and malls, a miniature version of the sign — Hollywood in the Valley.

Hayvenhurst Drive (1999)

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The house is a big, two-story “old hacienda”–style place, built sometime in the 1970s. When I called to get the location for today’s shoot, the production assistant assured me that I would like it. “You’ve really got to see this house: high ceilings, enormous rooms, a spiral staircase. It’s a real mansion with an incredible view.” In the past 10 years, homes in the Valley have become the preferred locations for adult-film companies, which rent them from their owners for the two to three days that it takes to make a porn film. In reality this house is just an oversize variation of a tract home, with sliding glass doors and cottage-cheese ceilings. It’s been customized with dark wood paneling, overbearing stonework, marble counters and other features that give it the appearance of the “good life,” of wealth and taste. Wandering from room to room, I get the feeling that something went wrong, that the owners have left suddenly in the middle of the night. They’ve abandoned the entertainment center with their mega-TV and sound system, the exercise room that has been converted into an office, the bleak master-bedroom suite with its Jacuzzi and statuary. They’ve left behind some evidence, personal effects, notes by the phone, shopping lists and “things to do” stuck to the refrigerator. In the living room there hangs a formal portrait of the family standing in the back yard in late-afternoon light. It’s been printed on textured paper and framed in gold to give it the appearance of an oil painting. Throughout the house there are more casual photographs, 8-by-10s of smiling sons and daughters, the family dogs, the big anniversary party on the cruise ship. They cover all available surfaces and stare down at us from nearly every wall in the house.

 

Boxers, Mission Hills (1999)

A few years after we moved from our first house in working-class Van Nuys into a new house in Woodland Hills at the far western edge of the Valley, my mother hired an interior decorator. With marble-tile floors, Formica kitchen counters, and 12-foot fireplaces in the den and living room, the house felt cold and needed to be “cozied up.” The decorator was from South Carolina, and, as my father would say, she was “quite a dish.” She had piles of brassy red hair and wore tight white pants that revealed faint traces of either beige or pink panties. I remember my fascination with her lipstick, which covered her mouth well beyond its natural borders. She had my mother completely under her spell.

It didn’t take long to see the results of her handiwork. She painted a grape vine on the kitchen wall and attached real rubber grapes to its tendrils. She was crazy about gold leaf and applied it freely, on the upholstered footstools, the end tables, the oversized candleholder standing next to the sofa, and on a big wooden box that sat on the coffee table with no discernable purpose. She brought in bright green shag carpets and a massive coffee table adorned with gold and black paint, and she filled the gaps on our bookshelves with Reader’s Digest compilations. But the real pride and joy for all of us was the painting she made that hung over the length of our flesh-colored Naugahyde sectional: a sweeping panorama of an Italian landscape. In the foreground jesters danced with bare-breasted women in the courtyard of imagery Florentine villa. It was bold and magical — too bold, it seems. After a year or two my mother had it cut into two parts and each was reframed. One piece appeared in the dining room and the other in the living room, where no one ever ventured.

Cabana (2000)

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