Dec 3, 2006

Read It and Weep

...out of sheer joy, that is. As someone who considers myself a dedicated cinephile, my love for, and interest in, classic movies can't be relegated to merely watching movies themselves - it has slowly spanned into the realm of literature, as well. From cliche coffee table books on leading ladies to the most intimate of Tinseltown memoirs (I've learned all I need to know about Jane Fonda's female anatomy, thanks), these reads more than sated my voracious appetite for gaining insight on the bygone days of Hollywood and the many stars that dotted its heavens. Below is the best of what I've read in 2006:

By Myself, Lauren Bacall - The cinema star's 1978 autobiography is unusually candid, alluringly honest, and delightfully insightful. Far from a typical Hollywood recitation of Bacall's film resume, it instead paints a vivid and engaging portrait of her long and interesting life - from her strong Jewish roots in New York City to her foray into acting and her iconic marriage to Humphrey Bogart, describing in heartwrenching detail his struggle with cancer and untimely death in 1957, and touching on the subsequent relationships, career moves, and enlightening experiences she's seen since then. Bacall describes her personal loves and losses, not to mention some famous characters like Adlai Stevenson, Burgess Meredith and Frank Sinatra, in a heartfelt fashion that's refreshingly free of fanfare and makes evident her intelligence and wit. Though it's decidedly lacking in scandal - no bonafide lover of classic film would ever reproach her May-December romance with Bogie - By Myself is definitely anything but dull: it's an endearing account of a strong woman's fascinating life both in and out of the footlights of Hollywood, and its poignance lingers long after it's finished.

Kate Remembered, A. Scott Berg - Opening Berg's Kate Remembered is like gathering with distant relatives for the holiday season: it's just as rife with familiar characters, colorful ancedotes and enlightening new perspectives, only these are all centralized on the inarguably intriguing Katharine Hepburn. While Hepburn's autobiography is a book about a legend, by a legend, Berg's work is a thoughtful, loving, and most humanizing portrait of the elusive star that covers less ground biographically and focuses instead on her day-to-day existence in the final decades of her century-spanning life. As a close confidant and frequent guest of Hepburn's, the author chronicles Hep's life through her own memories and admissions, seamlessly fusing her candid musings on her family, her relationships, and her decades-spanning career with deliciously voyeuristic accounts of her everyday activities and her multitude of idiosyncracies. Dinner parties, shopping excursions, conversation-filled evenings at her private Fenwick - Berg allows the reader to sit in on them all, and the result is an effectively entertaining and moving portrait of this enduring American screen icon.

My Life So Far, Jane Fonda - When my reading of Henry Fonda's mildly interesting autobiography happened to coincide with my first viewing of his daughter Jane's Barefoot in the Park (1967), I was determined to find out more about the perky, notorious offspring of my favorite leading man and soon sought out her autobiography. I wasn't prepared, however, to read such a disarmingly honest account of this woman, forthright and intelligent, who bypasses the typical celebrity dirt-dishing to focus on cathartically examining the first 67 years of her life, including the loss of her mother at age 12, her lifelong body image issues, her marriages and perceived shortcomings at parenting, and her involvement in the political and feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s that she is so identified with. Aside from being a fixture in one of Hollywood's foremost filmmaking dynasties, Fonda is clearly an articulate woman with an engaging sense of humor who has traveled far, concocting phrases and painting recollections so vividly and with such deference to her related emotional, physical, and mental states that one can't help but be captivated by her struggles and self-awareness. With anecdotes about stars like acting coach Lee Strasberg, contemporaries like Anthony Perkins, and Fonda's idols Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn, My Life So Far is a truly engrossing autobiography that reveals a side to the iconic actress, activist, and fitness guru that few would have forseen - a shy, well-educated, self-conscious woman seeking peace and self-acceptance, so different from her public persona. I'm grateful as both an avid classic movie fan and a young woman that I can benefit from Fonda's insight and unabashed frankness; I highly recommend it.

Who The Hell's In It: Portraits and Conversations, Peter Bogdanovich - Comprised of dozens of intimate conversations with some of Hollywood's most celebrated names, Who The Hell's In It is like finding a forgotten scrapbook with juicy clippings from old Photoplays, except the polish of reserved formal interviews and posed photographs doesn't exist here. Each chapter - they're arranged in the general order in which the author came to know and interview each celebrity - is more engrossing than that last, and Bogdanovich's narration allows for the reader ultimate voyeurism into the lives of these larger-than-life personalities we feel we know so well.

As a friend and business associate of the majority of the stars covered in his book, Peter is not only incredibly knowledgeable of the technical aspects of the studio era, but he generously indulges in his behind-the-scenes experiences with some of Hollywood's greatest icons. He dines with Jack Lemmon and wife Felicia Farr in Los Angeles in the 1960's; visits Jimmy Stewart sporadically at his home over the course of nearly forty years; shares a plane ride with Marlene Dietrich - his interaction with these icons is endless, and covers both personal and professional fronts, from private dinner parties to huge gala ceremonies. While Bogdanovich speaks reverently of each person he has written an engaging piece on, he also sheds a most humanizing light on each - his point of view is an alluring mixture of awestruck, devoted fan and respectful, artistic contemporary. His writing is a touch objective, but one can't be critical, as this encyclopedia-like collection is more than likely the only place such a gathering of stars has ever been immortalized in print with such reverence. Check it out now!

Some other titles I hope to find under the tree and enjoy in 2007:
June Allyson by June Allyson
The Way We Wore by Marsha Hunt
Vera-Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery by David Soren
Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds
The Girl Next Door and How She Grew by Jane Powell

All of the above books are available at reasonable rates on, but for those with a stricter budget, I recommend browsing eBay,, or your local library for these titles. You can always find a Half Price Books near you, too!

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