Bright lights, big names
The star names shine particularly bright on the bookshelves this holiday season. Where to begin? How about age before beauty . . .
The good ol’ boys
The life, times and works of an iconoclast filmmaker are examined in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. Author Mitchell Zuckoff rounded up family members (including exes), associates and countless actors who assess the director known for ensemble casts, overlapping sound, a dense and naturalistic style and disdain for the Hollywood system. To Altman, the great films were inexplicable; a moviegoer might not be able to recount the plot, but they knew they’d experienced something. Little wonder Altman’s Nashville is so revered.
A former documentary filmmaker (see 1957’s compelling The James Dean Story) who directed episodic TV in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Altman became a counterculture force with the 1970 film M*A*S*H. (He had nothing to do with the TV series, which he hated.) Critical successes followed, as did flops. But the rollercoaster career was never boring. Neither was the hard-living Altman, who died in 2006 at the age of 81. As confounding as his films, he was alternately gregarious, self-absorbed and bitter. He demanded loyalty from the troops; sensing otherwise, he held a grudge. “His eyes were fantastic instruments of reprimand and reproach,” recalled composer John Williams. But as careers go, Altman gave it his all, and he did it the hard way—by remaining true to himself.
Another famous maverick is the subject of the unauthorized American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood. But this is no “gotcha” tome; author Marc Eliot is reverential as he links Eastwood’s personal life with his professional choices. Based largely on previously published works, the book moves along quickly, fueled by Eliot’s astute knowledge of the Eastwood filmography, including the performer’s three essential screen personae: The Man With No Name (the spaghetti Westerns); nihilistic “Dirty” Harry Callahan; and the good-natured redneck. All “are viscerally connected to the real-life Clint,” Eliot argues. Eastwood’s Army days were a conduit to Hollywood—and beyond. As a base lifeguard and projectionist, he met young actors like David Janssen and Martin Milner, who served in the Special Services. (Like Janssen and Milner, Eastwood became a contract player at Universal.) Being stationed at Fort Ord allowed him to explore the fabulous Northern California coastline—and the quaint city of Carmel, where he would ultimately become mayor.
Like the men he has portrayed, Eastwood goes his own way, and is not to be crossed. Though he had a long first marriage, he was never the faithful type. Over the years and under the radar, he fathered four illegitimate children, in addition to two with his first wife and one with the current Mrs. Eastwood (who is much younger than Eastwood’s 79 years). A palimony suit involving his former lover, actress Sondra Locke, put his unorthodox personal life in the spotlight. But his cinematic artistry on the big screen has remained unspoiled over the years—a testament to hard work, resourcefulness and a deft understanding of moviegoer’s tastes. As for Eastwood’s special allure, the Italian director Sergio Leone once said, “It seemed to me Clint closely resembled a cat.” He’s moved like one, too—pouncing to the top of the Hollywood fence.
Though Liz Taylor long ago lost her perch as a leading lady, her name continues to evoke fame like few others. William J. Mann dissects the crafty machinations of her stardom in the biographical How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. The author, who last wrote about Katharine Hepburn, interviewed Taylor sources and exhaustively examined the publicity that has accompanied the life and career of a woman who once casually observed that she couldn’t recall when she wasn’t famous. Mann concentrates on what he calls the “chocolate sundae” years—those of the great films and great romances. That period encompasses her carefully staged illnesses and botched suicide attempt, the Liz-Eddie-Debbie drama, the scandalous Liz-Dick Cleopatra hookup, her friendships with gay icons Monty Clift and Rock Hudson . . . which all played out publicly, with Liz working the media. Say what you will about her, the woman knew how to be a star.
Grace Kelly knew how to evoke style, class and an on-screen cool. Celebrity biographer Donald Spoto met her in her incarnation as Princess Grace of Monaco, while writing one of his many books on Alfred Hitchcock, director of three films in which she starred. At her request, he waited 25 years after her death to write High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, a respectful take on a woman whose impassive calm hid great passion (there were many lovers) and whose serenity masked her melancholy.
Another screen icon is profiled in Doris Day: The Illustrated Biography, by frequent BBC broadcaster and prolific celebrity biographer Michael Freedland.The book hits the career highlights and personal benchmarks of a complex woman whose life is at odds with her sunny image. First published in the U.K. in 2000, the book doesn’t include recent events in Day’s life, such as the death in 2004 of her only son, record producer Terry Melcher. But the slender volume succeeds as a stocking stuffer-sized introduction to the vivacious actress-singer-animal rights activist.
All about Paul
Ending on a musical note, Paul McCartney: A Life, is a page-turner that depicts McCartney as an ambitious, intuitive musical innovator, ever in competition with the rougher-edged John Lennon. Peter Ames Carlin, author of an acclaimed bio of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, is a journalist-fan who’s dug deep and written authoritatively. It’s all here: the genesis of the Beatles; McCartney’s relationship with the sophisticated and cultured Jane Asher—and her family (with whom he lived); his romances and marriages; the contractual battles with John and Yoko. And of course, there’s the music, with Carlin arguing that it was the “cute” Beatle who was the real force behind the Fab Four. Be prepared to be convinced.
Author-journalist Pat H. Broeske has written about Hollywood for publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly.