The holidays are a perfect time to reach for the stars—of the celebrity kind. This season’s offerings include the cool and the classic.
A COMPLICATED LADY
Before she became a campy caricature as the queen of mean, Joan Crawford was a box office goddess—and one of the hardest-working women in the business. In Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, veteran Hollywood chronicler Donald Spoto helps restore his subject’s reputation by going film by film through her life. Reminding us of her professionalism, he also counters some of the claims of adopted daughter Christina Crawford, of Mommie Dearest notoriety.
The survivor of a hardscrabble childhood, Crawford came to Hollywood as a dancer during the silent era. The former Lucille Le Sueur—her name was changed in an MGM-sponsored contest—ultimately logged a staggering 87 films. (For comparison’s sake, Julia Roberts has made 40.) Some are classics (Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?); many are forerunners of today’s “chick flicks.” Most remain watchable.
Married four times, she once said, “I am a woman with a woman’s needs—a husband.” Yet her men were sometimes other women’s husbands, including Jeff Chandler and the director Vincent Sherman. Yes, she was a clean freak and perfectionist, and vodka became a too-frequent companion. But Crawford was a generous performer and a faithful friend, and her adopted twin daughters told Spoto she was a good and caring mother. (Cathy, one of four adopted Crawford children, is the only twin still living.)
A recluse in her final years, Crawford succumbed to cancer in 1977. Time will tell if her movies—or her daughter’s tell-all—will become her legacy.
THE KING OF COOL
Steve McQueen spent his last days in Mexico seeking alternative treatment for cancer. That, and some unfortunate post-mortem photographs, cast a shadow over his death, at age 50, in 1980. But today it’s the man, his movies and his undeniable screen presence that endure.
The coolest of all the cool movie cats, McQueen was also the most contradictory. His characters were calm, collected. But he was tightly coiled, distrustful of women and ultra-protective of his professional turf. In Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, author Marshall Terrill, who has written previous McQueen titles, delves beneath the public persona.
McQueen grew up fatherless, as his hard-drinking mother bounced from man to man. As a kid he was sent to reform school, worked the carny circuit and hopped freight trains. A place called Boy’s Republic turned him around, as did a stint in the Marines.
He trained as an actor in New York, married popular Broadway dancer Neile Adams (they had two children) and came to L.A. He was starring in TV’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive” when he was cast in The Magnificent Seven. Sensing an opportunity, he gave a still-compelling taciturn performance, stealing the show from star Yul Brynner. With McQueen, less was always more.
Ensuing hits included The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, Junior Bonner and The Getaway. While making the latter he romanced co-star Ali MacGraw—whose husband was the powerful mogul Robert Evans. McQueen and MacGraw later married. While they lasted, glamorous MacGraw stayed home to cook and clean. That’s how McQueen liked his “old lady” to behave—while he tomcatted about.
He could be infuriating, even cruel. And he knew it. While quietly battling cancer, he manned up—seeking out old associates to make amends. And he did it on his terms, cool to the end.
A TALENTED LIFE CUT SHORT
Sal Mineo was 37 when he was stabbed to death in what turned out to be a botched Hollywood robbery. With his 1976 murder came revelations of his closeted homosexuality, and rifts among family and friends who anguished over how he would be remembered.
They needn’t have worried. Sal Mineo: A Biography, written by Michael Gregg Michaud, is a revealing but respectful work that captures his sweetness, likability and artistic passion—and the conflicts fostered by the times in which he lived.
Professionally, Mineo was stuck in a time warp. Though Oscar-nominated for both Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Exodus (1960), he was hampered by his ’50s-era teen idol image, and his mother’s mismanagement of his career.
Personally, his life was a series of private flings with men, and a very public romance with his Exodus co-star-turned-lover-turned-friend to the end, Jill Haworth. Appropriately, the book is dedicated to Haworth as well as Mineo’s longtime male lover, model-actor Courtney Burr. Both gave the author candid, sometimes heartbreaking details about the man they loved.
The book includes some eye-openers, including eyewitness accounts of Mineo’s exploits with a pre-Shindig Bobby Sherman. But Michaud’s delivery is matter-of-fact, not sensational—though he offers plenty of color in capturing the changing eras when rigid mores gave way to the counterculture.
Of course, Mineo will forever be enshrined as Plato, the anguished lonely boy who makes surrogate parents of James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel. Michaud makes a case that Plato was the first gay teenager of the movies. Had he lived, Mineo might have eventually and bravely gone on to acknowledge that, yes, that really was so.
The Elephant to Hollywood is a celebration of survival. Michael Caine (who grew up in London’s tough Elephant and Castle neighborhood) wrote this follow-up to his 1992 memoir, What’s It All About?, when he realized that the career he thought was over, wasn’t.
He credits Jack Nicholson with helping him find his latter-life footing by coaxing him into co-starring in 1996’s Blood and Wine. Now enjoying a more subdued stardom, largely of the supporting actor kind, Caine has found memorable roles—including his Oscar-winning turn in The Cider House Rules, and the part of Alfred the butler in the new Batman franchise—and takes pleasure in working with new talent.
Caine does some double dipping—repeating/embellishing stories from the past book (such as partying with John Lennon, boozing with Peter O’Toole). But he’s a vivid and compelling raconteur, gentle even when he’s barbed.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MAGIC
Were it not for scribes there’d be no stars. Thus, our shout-out to Hollywood: A Third Memoir, by the prolific novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry. (Earlier McMurtry memoirs were Books and Literary Life.) By his estimation, McMurtry has had about 70 Hollywood gigs via his novels, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove, and scripts, such as Brokeback Mountain. In recounting how his relationship with Tinseltown unfolded and flourished, McMurtry writes with a sly wink and an ambling tone, to deliver evocative moments about Southern California, glamour, power—and, of course, stars.