I'm behind in my reading. I finally read the February 21 edition of the Wall St. Journal. There is a regular Saturday article called Five Best where guest columnists list five books that are the best in their category (in which the columnist is an expert). The February 21 article was titled Autobiographies by Actresses by Molly Haskell, author of Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited. Here is the link (subscription required).
1. Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister
By Evelyn Keyes
As the title of Evelyn Keyes's exuberantly clear-eyed autobiography makes clear, the woman who played Suellen in Gone With the Wind was more often bridesmaid than star. But what she was denied on the screen she made up for on the page in one of the juiciest and most shrewdly observed books ever to come out of Hollywood. The actress who grew up poor and provincial in Atlanta went knocking on studio doors with nothing more than a vague dream of stardom and a naïveté so thick it was almost a protective armor. She needed every bit of that, and her extraordinary humor, to survive the Daddy figures who served as mentors and something more: Cecil B. DeMille, Harry Cohn, Charles Vidor and John Huston, her third and most flamboyant husband. He takes her out deer hunting in Idaho and fishing with Hemingway in Key West (where the writer's wife, Maria, "cleaned her toenails with a long knife and cut the bread with it afterward"). On the Idaho trip, under Huston's tutelage, Keyes successfully kills a buck -- an experience that her husband later describes as "the best part of our life together." In "Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister," Keyes, who died last summer, raises unflappability to a fine art. Don't be fooled by the throwaway style: The timing is too good, the mots too justes.
2. The Lonely Life
By Bette Davis
Any actress who can expose herself to the flesh-peddling standards of Hollywood -- surviving such confidence-shattering epithets as "little brown wren" and "as sexy as Slim Summerville" -- and still insist on a high-toned career while staring down studio bosses has chutzpah to burn. And Bette Davis, a stalwart New Englander who made three movies a year while using her excess energy to fight with Warner Bros., had it in spades. Even more important than sheer ambition, or perhaps it is one of ambition's hallmarks, was Davis's ability to put aside her East Coast theatrical snobbery and see movies as a different medium and moviemaking as a craft with different technical demands that she was determined to learn. As suggested by the title of her memoir, "The Lonely Life," Davis had little interest in false pride; she describes the highs and lows of her career and marriages, coming to the realization that you can't "have it all." Her attempts to be a "real" wife were doomed to failure, she confesses. The role of the "little woman" was perhaps the only one totally beyond her.
3. My Story
By Mary Astor
Though she made more than a hundred films, most of them silents, the dark-eyed beauty Mary Astor was never a mega-star, but she was more interesting than many who were. Astor was the daughter of an educated, schoolteacher mother and an ambitious German immigrant father so grasping and domineering that studio executives refused to negotiate with him. Sheltered and exploited her entire life, she hadn't had a chance to develop a moral compass or a sense of self before falling under the spell of mentor-lovers both kind (Jack Barrymore) and ambivalent (the rest), and of husbands (four in all) with a lower libido than hers. An increasingly disabling alcoholism led her first to the Catholic Church and then (with the encouragement of a
priest-psychotherapist) to the writing of this remarkable book, in which she comes to terms with the rushed-into marriages, the drinking and above all the furor in the 1930s over a diary -- which surfaced during a child-custody battle with one of her ex-husbands -- in which she recorded her affair with writer George S. Kaufman. In "My Story," Astor displays those unusual and very grown-up qualities -- refined but sensual, stand-offish but come-hither -- that sometimes were a liability in Hollywood casting but make for a complex and riveting memoir.
4. Lulu in Hollywood
By Louise Brooks
After laboring for much of the 1920s in Hollywood, the black-helmeted Kansas-born free spirit Louise Brooks had to go to Europe to become a star. She was a revelation in two mesmerizing German silent films directed by G.W. Pabst, Pandora's Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) -- but then Brooks, independent-minded to a fault, refused to compromise once Hollywood came calling, and she basically threw her career away. By the late 1940s, she was working as a saleslady at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. She was rescued by admirers, chief among them James Card, curator of the George Eastman House film archive in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded Brooks to move to Rochester, where she lived in the 1950s as a recluse, watched films, her own and others, and was reborn as a writer. (She was also rediscovered as an actress by Kenneth Tynan, who championed her work in an influential piece for The New Yorker.) "Lulu in Hollywood" -- Lulu was the ill-fated
innocent who drove men to distraction in Pandora's Box -- is a collection of Brooks's often brilliant essays. Some of the pieces recount her own joyous romp through the 1920s as a Ziegfeld showgirl (a job she enjoyed more than making movies) and party-girl courtesan. Other essays shimmer with insight as she discusses the work of Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish and others. She paints a vivid picture of Bogie, for instance, still showing vestiges of the stiff stage actor in The Roaring Twenties in 1939, when he appears helpless opposite James Cagney, whose "swift dialogue" and "swift movements . . . had the glitter and precision of a meat slicer . . . impossible to anticipate or counterattack."
By Katharine Hepburn
Random House, 1991
Katharine Hepburn, equal to Bette Davis in ambition, seems in this memoir also to share her sense of solitary pursuit: "People who want to be famous are really loners. Or they should be." Like Davis, Hepburn put career first; unlike Davis, she never really fantasized the perfect marriage and the little white house. Until she fell for Spencer Tracy, she kept her lovers -- Howard Hughes, Leland Hayward -- at arm's length and was a shrewd businesswoman from the start. Her writing style consists of a slapdash series of jottings to self and fans, as if she were dictating while striding over a golf course. Yet "Me" captures beautifully that signal Hepburn combination of presumption and insecurity, self-love and abject humility. Should I have done this, done that? Wasn't I a bitch! And, yes, she was, often, but also an enchantress, and she is unstinting in showing us both. A superhuman resiliency allows her (like Davis) to suffer the most humiliating setbacks -- she was once famously declared "box-office poison" -- and continue going forward. Her flinty New England upbringing was both inspiration and protection: At her parents' urging, she was diving off cliffs, wrestling and competing from an early age, turning fear into something she feared so much that it made her fearless.
The Evelyn Keyes and Louise Brooks memoirs look interesting. I discovered Keyes from Noir City and enjoyed her performances in The Prowler, 99 River Street and Hell's Half Acre. The article mentions she passed away last year. Noir City had a montage of film clips featuring actors and directors that passed away in 2008. A great scene featuring Keyes (and I believe Brad Dexter) from 99 River Street is a great example on Noir banter.
As for Louise Brooks...she was so great, they are still wearing her haircut 80 years later. Lulu was not just sexy but she was a movie star meaning I can't take my eyes off her when she is on the screen. It makes you wonder how she would have spent her youth if she hadn't been making films. The synopsis indicates she would have been a Ziegfeld girl.
4 days ago