Though Sam Shepard’s True West premiered nearly 40 years ago, the image of Austin typing furiously in his mother’s house in the outskirts of Hollywood was already familiar to us, and continues to be recognizable today. We see characters like Austin in everything from Singin’ in the Rain to La La Land: the scrappy, maverick innovators who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and represent America’s most valued traits and tenets.

Established in the late 1800s, Hollywood’s beginnings resemble an old Western movie: its founders were literally on the run from the law and trying to strike it rich in the emerging film industry. Back on the East Coast, Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company had a stronghold on patents for film camera design. If filmmakers didn’t use Edison-brand equipment, they were subject to heavy fines and were frequently sued, bringing production to a halt. In an effort to dodge Edison’s lawyers, most filmmakers moved west. Sheer geographic distance effectively prevented litigation.

, and extraordinary advancements in animation and special effects. This period saw the creation of some of America’s most influential films, from Disney’s delights and Hitchcock’s horrors to MGM’s array of movie musicals (spanning from The Wizard of Oz to Brigadoon and

In 1917, Hollywood entered its Golden Age, named so for its incredible innovation: over just half a century, Hollywood saw its first “talking film,” color film, the implementation of the Oscars®

1937's Born to the West starring John Wayne and Marsha Hunt

beyond). This prosperity stretched through the 1960s, and by the time Austin was trying his hand, most of Hollywood’s Western beginnings had been forgotten. Though Hollywood still had ruthless varmints, they were the briefcase-carrying type. And while coyotes still circled the hills at night, Shepard noted that these were “city” coyotes, capable of carrying off a cocker spaniel at best. The spirit of the West that created Hollywood had been stripped away, or hidden, or made invisible by modern invention; that is, until Austin’s brother Lee arrives.

Fresh from a three-month solo journey through the Mojave Desert, Lee’s entrance electrifies the atmosphere of his mother’s suburban home. His presence evokes a cowboy movie, where vandals step into saloons they know full well aren’t big enough to contain them. Lee is representative of the old American West: less of a trickster, his arrival signals the appearance of a real and present danger. While Austin is dressed in clean clothing, Lee is in “tatters,” shoes scuffed with dirt and cheeks covered in days-old beard growth. In the latter half of the play, when Austin suggests that perhaps he, too, could make it in the desert, Lee scoffs: his younger brother, soft and inexperienced, would “burn up.”

The Hollywood sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and is seen here just after its construction in 1923.


A John Wayne-type, Lee brings to mind the boisterous side of America’s vision of the West. Often, this period in the United States’s history is seen through rose-colored glasses, and countless 20th century scripts and comic books serve as proof of a nation’s obsession with Manifest Destiny, the right to bear arms, and vigilante justice. In the span of time

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