Feb 7, 2007

Easy To Love

To be honest with you, I’m surprised Esther Williams is even alive. It’s not her age, mind you (84 is a spring chicken compared to some), or that her fame has expired in the years since her films brought her worldwide stardom (it hasn’t), but after reading of her life as MGM’s biggest swimming sensation and the numerous potentially-fatal accidents she endured in the name of glorious Technicolor spectacles, it truly is a miracle that she’s living, let alone a healthy, active businesswoman, still gracious to her legions of fans.

Williams’ 1999 autobiograpy Million Dollar Mermaid is a revelation for classic film lovers, despite the book’s tendency to gloss over such unsavory aspects as Williams’ suspension for refusal to star in the film The Opposite Sex or her rocky marriage to Fernando Lamas (truly, though, how many chapters of the Argentine brute could you bear?). From Ava Gardner to Victor Mature, Williams has a story to tell involving nearly everyone, and her engaging narrative and attention to detail will engross even the rare reader who isn’t particularly a fan.

From her modest beginnings as the youngest of five children in a rural, Midwestern family to her present-day success as a Los-Angeles-based swimwear executive and grandmother, she covers it all: her teenage swimming triumphs, the ruined Olympics bid, her failed marriages (the stormiest of which were to two other stars, Ben Gage and Fernando Lamas), the serious injuries she sustained while shooting some of her most memorable aquatic stunts, turbulent relationships with her three children, and of course, her years as one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, the irreplaceable Million Dollar Mermaid. Swimmers will love Williams' descriptions of her most intricate and stunning underwater choreography (and the sore legs and chlorine-stung eyes she earned in the process), savvy sartorial enthusiasts should savor the details of her glittering costumes and consultations with her wardrobe designers, and burgeoning fans will appreciate the synopses of her films in chronological order and the anecdotes that accompany their production. Juiciest of all, though, are Williams’ accounts of behind-the-scenes tactics at MGM, whether she’s going head-to-head with Papa Mayer over shooting details, getting locked in an underwater soundstage, or listening at the wall of Lana Turner’s dressing room – it’s a voyeuristic view of Tinseltown’s biggest backlot.

Critics of the book denounce its dialogue, as the word-for-word accounts of decades-old conversations do become tiresome and read somewhat contrivedly, but when weighed against the veritable vault of Hollywood backstories that Williams pours forth in a most absorbing fashion, this complaint is truly trivial. A hardworking star both wet and dry, Esther Williams has led a fascinating life – and her manner of telling her story makes her all the more easy to love.

Labels: ,