What is it about movies? Well, just about everything. They are popular entertainment, a universal vehicle for storytelling, a reflection of society, a window into the past, a source of iconic imagery and, finally, lastingly accessible documents of our times. Books about movies and movie stars only extend and inform our fascination, and just in time for Oscar season, a new crop offers both challenging and lighter reading guaranteed to engage film fans.
Originally published in Great Britain, the Faber & Faber Great Stars series presents mini-biographies of some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. Noted film historian and lexicographer David Thomson is the author of the first four entries in the series. Each paperback is named for its subject—Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman. Each is priced at $14, with the compact coverage tapping out at 130 pages. In this case, brevity might be the soul of wit, presuming that Thomson’s somewhat affected insider’s tone and penchant for titillating sidebars—Davis’ abortions, the size of Cooper’s manhood, Bergman’s affairs and failures as a mother, Bogart’s harridan of a third wife—don’t distract the reader too much from the coverage of his subjects’ early lives, career development and greatest on-screen efforts. As to the latter, Thomson is solid in his assessments, and each key film is well placed into its unavoidably gossipy but often very eventful production context. Each volume features the star’s filmography, plus a smattering of black-and-white archival photos researched by Lucy Gray.
The director’s chair
Actors and actresses may draw the public’s obsessive attention, but the great guiding genius in filmmaking is the director, and two new coffee-table books offer riveting rundowns—in both bounteous pictures and incisive text—of the lives and careers of essential masters. Federico Fellini: The Films offers a keenly detailed narrative by Italian film critic, screenwriter, playwright, actor and Fellini biographer Tullio Kezich. With its rich selection of photos, mainly from the archives of the Fondazione Federico Fellini, this volume soars in its analysis of the man, his movies (often autobiographical in inspiration, focused on societal extremes and, in his later period, politically aware) and the vibrancy of his personalized filmmaking culture.
Coincidentally—or maybe not so—Fellini shared many traits with legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa: Both fortuitously avoided service in World War II, both were accomplished graphic artists (a skill that factored directly into their cinematic visions), both worked extensively and very consciously with a veritable family of performers and technical talents, and both, quite ironically, spent their later years making TV commercials. Furthermore, and perhaps most amazingly, both stayed married to one woman their entire adult lives. Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema shares with its sister volume the same reverent regard for its subject: his dogged devotion to his craft, his unique position as an important postwar commentator and his huge influence on later filmmakers. Film historian Peter Cowie’s thorough, erudite coverage accompanies some 200 photographs, mostly black-and-white (Kurosawa’s predominant milieu), though striking color shots from the auteur’s later films are well represented. Introductory essays by Martin Scorsese and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie help set the stage for the book’s pictorial and verbal one-two punch, exposing and explaining the director’s thematic approach to the human condition, Japanese society in particular and the traditions of the ancient samurai that infuse his best-known works. Both books argue forcefully for the rediscovery by younger generations of the vast scope and power of these artists’ great achievements.
Up in lights
Finally, for the more determined movie fan, we have Ira M. Resnick’s Starstruck: Vintage Movie Posters from Classic Hollywood. Long an aficionado of movie posters and other ephemera, Resnick followed up a Tinseltown stint as a photographer by founding the Motion Picture Arts Gallery in Manhattan and launching his more lasting career as a collector and dealer. This volume features nearly 300 glorious examples of promotional movie artwork and stills from Resnick’s impressive personal collection, with the items spanning from 1912 to 1962. Resnick’s text incorporates his personal story along with profiles of marquee film stars, important directors and history-making movies. The ubiquitous Scorsese, who many years before was Resnick’s instructor at NYU’s film school, contributes the introduction.