Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “movies”

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #49: The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, by Tony Curtis

“Some people say that Some Like it Hot is the funniest movie ever made. I don’t know. All I know is that it gave me a chance to work with four comic geniuses: I.A.L. Diamond, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, and Marilyn Monroe.”

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

In Tony Curtis’s memoir, The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie the well-known Hollywood actor tells his version of what went on behind-the-scenes of one of the funniest movies ever made. Written with the assistance of film historian Mark Vieira, the book is packed full of great color and black and white photos from the set.

Curtis, who died in 2010, had already written two memoirs, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir (2008). So why write a third? Two reasons. Some Like it Hot’s recent heralding as the #1 American comedy of all time by The American Film Institute (AFI).  And cashing in on the enduring popularity of Marilyn Monroe, which would certainly guarantee book sales.

While Curtis is always an entertaining read, his never-ending ego does grow tiresome after a while. He tries to sound humble, but can’t help pondering that he was possibly “the handsomest” actor in Hollywood: “Some Like it Hot did a lot for my development as an actor. It was enough for me to be a handsome actor, maybe the handsomest in town. It wasn’t enough to learn the lines and show up. Being around artists like Jack and Billy and Marilyn affected me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to get closer to the source of the art. I wanted to know how to create that magic, like stars did in the pictures I’d seen when I was a kid.”

Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and director Billy Wilder

He complains endlessly about the “special treatment” that Marilyn received. “I looked at the film and I thought that in the beginning of it I was weaker than I really was. Everything was done to keep Marilyn happy. She was chosen, favored over Jack and me. That’s what colored my perception of the film for a long time. Too long. But I finally got past that.” He may have gotten past those feelings, but that didn’t stop him from writing about them, repeatedly. He clearly felt that Lemmon was director Billy Wilder’s favorite and that Marilyn’s difficult behavior earned her special privileges. But for all of the stories about Marilyn’s reputation for keeping people waiting or blowing lines, Curtis has just as many instances where she was letter-perfect or got a scene in one take. The scene where Sugar meets Shell Oil, Jr. on the beach had to be filmed quickly, as noisy jets from a nearby naval base were taking off every ten minutes. Marilyn got everything right on the first take.

Marilyn seemed to flub her lines more often when the camera shot was a close-up, when the pressure was on her and her alone. There are numerous accounts of how well she did in group scenes, getting everything right, and right away. As Curtis recounts, “I had seen her last picture, The Prince and the Showgirl. She did long scenes where the camera kept moving and there were no cuts. She was excellent, holding her own against the great Laurence Olivier. We saw the same thing in our film. She did well in uninterrupted scenes, yet when it came to two-shots or close-ups, she suddenly lost confidence.” Billy Wilder observed, “I’ve noticed that if she gets past the first two or three lines she sometimes can go on and on, even if it’s a long speech. She doesn’t seem to get tired. She’ll do take after take. She poops out the other actors, but she blooms as the day goes on. She’s at her best in the late afternoon, when the other actors are dropping like flies.”

Jack Lemmon had a different perspective on why Marilyn needed multiple takes to get a scene right: “Marilyn had a kind of built-in alarm system. It would go off in the middle of a scene if it wasn’t right for her, and she would stop. It would look like she was doing exactly what she’d done in the previous take. But for her, something wasn’t clicking. She knew she was limited. She knew what was right for Marilyn. She wasn’t about to do anything else. So would stand there with her eyes closed, biting her lip, and wringing her hands until she had worked it out.”

Joe E. Brown and Lemmon

Curtis repeats the now-infamous anecdotes of the “Where’s the bourbon?” scene which took 59 takes; and how the studio wanted a “big name” like Frank Sinatra to star (who didn’t seem at all interested). What I hadn’t heard before was that Danny Kaye wanted to be in the film, but that Wilder turned him down and requested Jack Lemmon. Curtis comes up with an elaborate explanation for his “like kissing Hitler” quote; and is still smarting from jokes about his line reading, “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah,” from an early film, Son of Ali Baba.

Even with all of his grand-standing, Curtis can’t help but be interesting on how Hollywood shaped his life. He describes how intense ambition for Hollywood success was the cornerstone of his marriage to Janet Leigh, “Our marriage changed that [feeling like he was a long way from stardom]. The explosion of publicity pushed both of us much farther than we would have gone in the same amount of time if we hadn’t gotten married.” He is unapologetic about his countless affairs — he had a reputation for having affairs with his leading ladies, and wife Leigh was used to it — it was part of the territory.

But he always comes back to Marilyn, which does make for the most interesting stories in the book. He claims to have had an affair with her, when they were both just starting out in Hollywood. That seems possible, but all such claims are suspect when they appear so long after the other party has died. What doesn’t ring true at all are his claims that later he had a one-night stand with her on the set of Some Like it Hot,which resulted in her becoming pregnant, complete with a show-down scene with her husband Arthur Miller.

Curtis signing autographs

Curtis clearly had no love lost with the famous playwright. He repeats a wicked quote from Wilder about Miller, “In meeting him, I had at last met someone who resented Marilyn more than I did.” Ouch, but observant. Curtis can’t wait to share another story which shines an unflattering light on Miller. At at a pre-movie Hollywood party he witnessed Miller being pretentious to Billy Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. “Izzy” Diamond, pontificating on comedy and tragedy. “Billy and Izzy just stood there, with faces down, listening to this bullshit. Finally Billy rolled his eyes and shifted his weight. Arthur backed off. I could see Marilyn. She was standing off to the side, watching. She looked uneasy. She knew that her husband had made a fool of himself and had insulted Billy’s intelligence. It was not a happy scene. It was not a happy way to start a picture.”

He’s alternately full of praise for Marilyn and knocking her down, saying she had hips “like a Polish washerwoman” and “an incredible, unique body.” Like so many, he couldn’t understand why she found some things so difficult. “She was the most important star in movies, she didn’t really understand that. She had so much power. She could have used it in so many ways, become so great. … So much of Some Like it Hot rested on her. If only she used her power to bolster her self-confidence. But she didn’t. Even if she was turning in this miraculous performance, she was losing her sense of self.”

Fun facts he includes about Marilyn:

Marilyn “stole” one of Jack Lemmon’s black dresses from wardrobe for herself to wear in the film.

She recorded her songs for the picture and then, unsatisfied, re-recorded them, “A picture has to be great to be good.”

She posed for countless publicity stills but only approved a few, as she was self-conscious about her weight gain — of which the press was unremittingly unkind. Marilyn had to put up with a lot of crap during filming about her weight. Wilder asked if she would consider losing a few pounds. She used humor to deflect the insult. “You want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack, don’t you? And besides, my husband likes me plump.” She was pregnant at the time.

She traveled with an entourage — secretary May Reis, acting coach Paula Strasberg, dance director Jack Cole, and hair designer Sidney Guilaroff.

Marilyn was unsatisfied with her first scene in the film, which consisted of just walking past the train, and complained to Wilder. He and Diamond then came up with the burst of steam that gooses her — and makes a much funnier, more memorable entrance.

Everyone came to see Marilyn on set, from extras to Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton — they all were enthralled with her.

Curtis, Lemmon, and Montgomery Clift

Possibly the most important thing that Curtis reminds us of is that the two guys being in drag for most of the picture was quite daring and unusual for its time. That edge is exactly what makes Some Like it Hot still so brilliant, so entertaining, so funny today. But Curtis can’t just end his story there. His ego demands additional soothing. He quotes a review of the film by Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times: “‘Curtis is good enough … But his Cary Grant accent (not his doing) annoyed the hell out of me.’ Some actors never read reviews. I do. Mr. Scheuer’s review annoyed the hell out of me. To make myself feel better, I bought the rights to the autobiography of the Italian poet Gabriel d’Annunzio, a wild, sexy artist not unlike myself.”

Photos from Some Like it Hot

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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Baxlala’s #CBR4 Review #25: Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

OK, you know what’s weird? Up in the Air the book is NOTHING LIKE Up in the Air the movie. Not really. I saw the movie when it came out and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. Though…I don’t remember a whole lot about it, other than George Clooney rides a lot of airplanes and sometimes has adorable interactions with Anna Kendrick and other kinds of interactions with Vera Farmiga. Also, George and Anna spend a lot of their time firing people. And Anna types all crazy, like this:

Um. Wait for it…

Huh, I can’t actually find a video of it. Here is a GIF of an otter instead:

Photobucket

ANYWAY. I’m not here to talk about Up in the Air the movie, no matter how much I liked it, so please disregard all of my above ramblings (I could just delete it all but look at how many words I’ve already written…I’m not starting over). I’m here to talk about Up in the Air the book. The book I read over a month ago and therefore remember almost none of, because in between reading Up in the Air and now, I’ve read The Mists of Avalon and EVERY SINGLE FABLES BOOK EVER. Which is great and all, but that’s a lot of fake-universe knowledge I now have knocking around in my brain, leaving very little room for Ryan Bingham’s exploits but WHATEVER, let’s see what I remember.

Ryan Bingham (who has one of the most forgettable names ever, I’ve had to look it up like five times now) has a really boring job that he tolerates because it allows him one major perk: constant travel. Now, those of you who have had to travel for work, especially those of you who travel frequently, are probably thinking, “that sounds awful, what’s wrong with this guy?” Well, I can’t tell you what’s wrong with him because that would ruin the entire book, so just read it already, geez.

Or don’t read it. I don’t care. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about this book, honestly. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. I didn’t really feel anything, good or bad, about any of the characters. I’d probably be mad about all of that if the book had taken longer to read, but in the end, it probably only took up a few hours of my life, so no big deal, right? I’ve spent far more time than that watching and rewatching my favorite TV shows PLUS ALSO I’ve spent at least 38 billion hours this week watching Olympics coverage so what I’m saying is…I don’t remember.

So. Yeah. Twoish (threeish?) stars and a big fat MEH for this one.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #36: Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe, by Richard Buskin

In Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe author Richard Buskin chronicles all of Marilyn Monroe’s thirty films, highlighting the dramas that occurred behind-the-scenes, as well as giving details of the casts, crews, and plots of each film. He also includes quotes from some of her directors and costars over the years, including Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, Jean Peters and Jane Russell. Buskin also includes some interesting quotes from the actress herself:

“I think cheesecake helps call attention to you. Then you can follow through and prove yourself.” — MM, 1951.

Not only Marilyn’s movies but her surviving screen tests, her one television commercial, and an appearance she made on Jack Benny’s television show are included in the volume. Because of the nature of her film contract, Marilyn could not appear Whenever she chose on television, radio, or record music – she could not appear in different mediums as interchangeably as today’s stars can. One of the reasons modern movie stars have more freedom is because Marilyn fought hard to win hers.

With David Wayne in How to Marry A Millionaire

Marilyn’s notorious “difficult” behavior is put into context by people who worked with her before she became a worldwide sensation. Marilyn learned early on in her career that people would wait for her.

“She was only making $500 a week but she enjoyed a remarkable position because she could come in at any bloody time she wished. … I mean, all of the studio personnel were alerted that no matter what time Marilyn came in, nobody was to bark at her or ask her where she had been, and the reason for that was that Joe Shenck, who owned 20th Century-Fox, was head over heels in love with Marilyn.” — Actor David Wayne, who worked with Marilyn in four films, starting in 1951 with As Young as You Feel, and then in We’re Not Married (1952), O. Henry’s Full House (1952), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

Interspersed in the behind-the-scenes sections on various films are some of the familiar stories that have appeared in many other biographies of the star, including her failed marriages and struggles with barbiturates.  But Buskin is most interested and most interesting when he is chronicling Marilyn’s struggles and legal wrangles with her film studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.

“[After Marilyn fled Hollywod and formed her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions] Fox verbally promised to give her a $100,000 bonus for appearing in [The Seven Year] Itch, while also agreeing to pay drama coach Natasha Lytess, vocal coach Hal Schaefer, choreographer Jack Cole to work with her on [There's No Business Like] Show Business. What’s more, a new, more financially rewarding seven-year contract would be implemented in August 1954. Round one to Marilyn – at least in terms of her dealings with the studio.”

Perhaps the most fascinating and tragic story that Buskin tells in Blonde Heat is how completely insane were the dealings of the studio with their stars, especially Marilyn, during the making of the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give, the film that she was never able to complete before her untimely death in August 1962. The production had been troubled from the start. A remake of the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne comedy My Favorite WifeSomething’s Got to Give had an unfunny script that was constantly being tinkered wth, which added to the tension and dissatisfaction of everyone on the set. Things went crazy, and fast as the shoot progressed.

Because of the over-budget spectacle Cleopatra, Fox was going bankrupt, and decided to take its wrath out on an easier target than Elizabeth Taylor, who was still needed to complete the bloated extravaganza. Fox execs fixed on Marilyn, deciding to teach A lesson to all of its “wayward” stars, through her. Marilyn had missed many days on the set, due to a recurring sinus infection, and when it became clear that Something’s Got to Give was in serious trouble, Fox decided to fire her for breach of contract. They filed a suit against her for $500,000 and hired Lee Remick to replace her. But costar (and producer) Dean Martin refused to work with anyone but Marilyn, so Fox sued him for $500,000, too. Costar Cyd Charisse sued Dean for $14,000 for lost earnings. Not satisfied, Fox raised its lawsuit against Marilyn to $750,000, and sued Dean (as producer) for $3,339,000. Dean counter-sued for $5,885,000.

Even with all of this crazy litigation by August 1 the astute Marilyn had managed to patch things up with Fox. The lawsuit was dropped and she was rehired. She also signed a new two-picture deal — a raise on Something’s Got to Give, from $100,000 to $250,000 (the most she had ever made on a picture) and $750,000 for her next picture. Marilyn had also been busy, meeting and planning some other new projects — I Love Louisa (which became What A Way To Go!Harlow, a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and some potential projects with Brigitte Bardot, to be filmed in Europe. What a combo they would have been.

A set photo from Something’s Got to Give, taken by Lawrence Schiller

But as we know, Marilyn never was able to complete any of those films, or Something’s Got to Give. Her unfulfilled promise is why she still remains so elusive, so enigmatic. Buskin has done a great job covering her life and her films in his enumeration of Marilyn’s career in Blonde Heat. Marilyn is long gone, but her films remain, and what seems universally agreed upon is how she loved the camera and it loved her back. Marilyn was simply born for the camera.

“No matter what her lack of technique was every shot of her — as long as she didn’t back out of her light — was a treasure. She just could not be badly photographed. It was impossible.” — Actor David Wayne

“She doesn’t do anything right and she drives everybody crazy, but then you go in the projection room, look at her on screen, and go ‘Wow!’” — Director Jean Negulesco (How to Marry a Millionaire), to actress Jean Peters (As Young as You Feel, Niagara)

“She was practically perfect to photograph. … No two eyes are alike on a human face — one will be a bit smaller or a slightly different shape — and a real artist will capture the essence in getting the likeness of the person. However, if you could measure Marilyn’s eyes and facial features, they were almost perfect. The end of her nose was tipped up a bit, but it was charming, and she was absolutely lovely. She photographed perfectly from any direction.”— Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Prince and the Showgirl)

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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ElCicco#CBR4Review#30: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

 

 

… [T]rue quests aren’t measured in time or distance … so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant — sail for Asia and stumble on America — and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along. 

Beautiful Ruins is a story of quests. Spanning a 50 year period starting in 1962, the characters in this novel each have a quest or dream of some sort — for fame, success, love. It is a humorous and charming novel that moves back and forth between a small Italian coastal village in 1962 and the West Coast of the US today, with special focus on the movie industry.

The action starts in a small coastal Italian fishing village called Porto Vergogna — Port of Shame. Pasquale, age 20, is trying to build up a beach so that the family hotel, the Hotel Adequate View, can become a jet setters’ vacation destination. He has big dreams to build a tennis court on a cliff, attract Americans and so on. The local fishermen think he is crazy as he piles up rocks that get washed away with the tides. Then one day, a gorgeous American starlet shows up at the hotel. Within a few short days, Pasquale’s dreams and his life undergo a dramatic shift.

In modern day LA, Claire, an assistant to a once successful movie producer named Michael Deane, is growing restless over her job and her porn-addicted boyfriend. She wants to make meaningful, important films and not the dreck that Deane produces. She is ready for a change, but should she leave her boyfriend? Should she leave her job to work for a film museum that the Scientologists are building? On a fateful “wild pitch” Friday, when friends, acquaintances and people owed favors by Michael Deane are given an audience to pitch truly outlandish film and TV ideas, Claire meets a young writer and an old Italian gentleman. Within a few short days, her dreams and life undergo a dramatic shift.

From here, Walter artfully weaves the stories together, fleshing out his characters (including actor Richard Burton, filming Cleopatra in Italy in 1962) and unfolding the events that link the first two chapters together. While much in the story is sad — separated lovers, betrayal, death — there is a generous amount of humor in the writing, such as this interchange between Pasquale and his mother:

“You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”

Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at university.”

She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”

“No. It’s not a saying. There’s no such saying as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?”

“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

And this description of Michael Deane:

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, but I won’t tell more than that. It’s an enjoyable read and perfect for summer vacation if you are looking for a good book.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #25: MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, by Lois Banner

I have been researching Marilyn Monroe for a project I am working on, so have been immersing myself in the iconic Hollywood star’s life via a lot of different books. MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe presents the contents of two file cabinets that were left after Marilyn died in June 1962 as a peek into the star’s private and professional life. Author Lois Banner and photographer Mark Anderson have reverently presented everything from letters, memos, and telegrams to jewelry that may have belonged to Marilyn, and even items of clothing. Some of the items are photographed placed on rose petals, which is admittedly kind of corny; but page after page of piles of saved receipts, although mundane items, still serve as a touching reminder of Marilyn’s brief but compelling life.

There is a bit of a mystery behind how these files and the book came to be. When Marilyn was married to Joe DiMaggio he helped her find a new business manager, Inez Melson, to help take care of her mother, Gladys Baker Eley, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life. Inez not only managed Gladys but also Marilyn’s burgeoning career, helping her with her financial affairs. When the marriage with DiMaggio went bust and Marilyn left California for New York, she soon also severed ties with Inez, apart from her continuing custodianship of Marilyn’s mother. But Inez didn’t want to lose Marilyn and managed to stay connected through the years.

When Marilyn died Inez was called, and there is some dispute over whether she may have tampered with evidence in the apartment, as far as removing prescription medicine bottles in an effort to protect Marilyn. She did help plan the funeral with Joe DiMaggio. She managed to immediately secure one of Marilyn’s two file cabinets, and then bought the other at auction, using her nephew’s name for the purchase, even though they both rightfully belonged to Lee Strasberg, the major beneficiary in Marilyn’s will.

What Inez did was clearly fraud, but if she hadn’t maneuvered getting hold of Marilyn’s belongings the contents of the file cabinets would have certainly been tossed or scattered by now. Instead, readers get to flip through these intact, daily records of Marilyn’s life. At times it’s admittedly a little creepy, like going through her drawers, shuffling through her papers. Drugstore receipts for enemas and colonics tell the tale of quick weight loss methods, common to Hollywood actresses, but did we really need to know that? Marilyn surely wouldn’t have wanted to tarnish any mystique she may have had with her public. Some of the items are frankly boring or indecipherable. But some, mostly letters, are interesting, and shed a light on Marilyn’s personality, as well as her more familiar Hollywood persona.

- Marilyn wanted Frank Sinatra, not Tony Curtis as her co-star in Some Like it Hot (a terrible idea, as Sinatra just wouldn’t have worked and we would have lost the Curtos/Lemmon dream team). She had an affair with Sinatra much later, shortly before her death, after she broke up with husband Arthur Miller.

- In a typewritten (probably by a secretary) note to magazine illustrator Jon Whitcomb, who did an illustration of the actress that appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitanin March 1959, Marilyn’s distinctive voice and humor comes through, as she apologizes for the hold-up in their getting together:

“Please forgive the long delay in answering, but I have been up to my derrière in preparation for two movies for the near future… I would love to have the picture from you and I repeat ‘at last to be a Whitcomb girl!’ .… I am looking forward to meeting with you and I want you to meet Arthur [husband Arthur Miller].”

Her sense of humor also shines through in letters to Miller’s son and daughter, which she wrote as if from their dog or cat.

- In a telegram to director George Cukor after she was fired from Something’s Got to Give, she blames herself and offers to make it up to him, by cleaning his house, “I can dust.”

- The are some intriguing fan letters that she chose to keep, including the offering up of a newborn baby girl for adoption. It makes one wonder if she was seriously tempted to accept the baby.

- One of the more interesting letters is an apology from public relations man Joe Wolhandler in reaction to her anger at a magazine article quoting Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Billy Wilder about how difficult she was to work with during Some Like It Hot.

“As you know, TIME Magazine is, of all the ghoulish press, in a class by itself for unmitigated nastiness and inaccuracy. It has been a “middle-class confidential” for a long period. I don’t believe they are quoting Wilder and Curtis accurately. We have asked for a retraction…”

- More poignant is a letter from April 1952 that she taped to her stomach before an appendectomy, begging, “Dear Doctor no ovaries removed – please again do whatever you can to prevent large scars. Thanking you with all my heart, Marilyn Monroe”

- Some of the receipts do tell heartbreaking stories — gifts of roses and a bed jacket from a maternity store from Arthur Miller, given right before two separate miscarriages.

So much has been written about how difficult Marilyn was to work with, with the focus in most biographies on her addictions, men in her life, and instability, but the more and more I learn and read about her this behavior seems to also speak of her quest for power. If she wasn’t considered such a valuable commodity to the studio, she would have been fired and replaced, and that would have been that. She used her frequent illnesses and perpetual lateness to protest scripts she didn’t like, or too-controlling studio executives. Marilyn used many different methods to have more control of her career and her life, not an easy thing for a woman of her time.

History professor Banner frames the bits and pieces of Marilyn’s life in biographical sections. Her text jumps around chronologically and at times is a bit repetitive, as the reader is told in at least three separate sections about her infamous stroll from one end of the studio to the other in a see-through negligee. Apparently that exhibition of her sexual power made quite an impression on the author. She even repeats the anecdote in another book she wrote on the star, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. There are no major revelations here in the oft-told story of Marilyn’s tragically short but eventful life, but some of the items photographed by Anderson and selected by Banner do help frame her life in a more easily relatable and approachable context.

MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe is by no means a definitive text on the star, but it is an interesting glimpse into the actress’s life, and it makes one wonder how our own lives might be pieced together by the detritus of our daily lives.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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rdoak03′s #CBR4 Review #16: The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks

Recently made popular by the hit movie, this book is worth the read. For a run-down of the memorable characters, check out my blog.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #20: Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, by Frank Langella

In Frank Langella’s new book, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, the stage and screen actor does just that. The actor, who is perhaps best known for his sexy version of Count Dracula in Dracula and his recent turn as Richard Nixon inFrost/Nixon (he won a Tony for the play and was nominated for an Oscar for the film) has not only had a varied career, but spent it with some interesting and unexpected people.

Dropped Names has its share of bitchy moments — Langella doesn’t like everyone he writes about (cough, cough, Lee Strasberg), but it’s not a mean book. Because the majority of the subjects have passed on, it feels more like a series of tributes. As Langella is concentrating on his impressions of other people, it isn’t strictly biography, either. Facts about his life and career as an actor can be pieced together from the disparate stories, but the book is (mostly) free of ego, which is remarkable for an actor’s memoir.

In the role that made him a star, Dracula

Each chapter is in the order of the actor or entertainment figure’s passing, so the chapters jump about a bit in chronology. This adds to the feeling of just sitting around with Langella and listening to him drop names, one story leading to another. It makes for an entertaining read, and as the author suggests in his preface, the reader could hop around the book, from subject to subject. There is a kaleidoscope effect at times, as certain profiles overlap, as if Langella, by focusing on a different person at the same event, is telling the same story from a slightly different perspective.

The gossip and anecdotes flow freely. The chapters that prove the most interesting are usually about people Langella knew well, such as his close friend Raul Julia. He includes a touching tribute to a fellow actor who started as a man-crush and then turned into a deep, loving friendship, “In this era when young male stars seem a sexless set of store-bought muscles set below interchangeable screw-top heads with faces of epic blandness — sheep trying to look like bulls — Raul defined real masculinity.”

His chapter on Julia crosses over with ones on Jill Clayburgh and George C. Scott. The three actors were appearing in a play together in 1984, Noel Coward’s Design for Living, directed by Scott. In quite a few instances Langella proves himself to be on the touchy side, as friendships flounder, “For a year or more afterward Jill and I stayed in contact … But an incident so small and petty; a series of unreturned phone calls not worth the ink to explain, caused us to drift apart. I will forever regret the loss of those irretrievable years.” We have all had similar experiences. You don’t need to be a temperamental actor to throw a hissy fit that you regret later.

Al Hirschfeld’s illustration of Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia, and Langella in Design for Living

Sometimes he just hints at an actor’s identity, as he does in a passage with George C. Scott, who shares his disdain for The Method. “I had worked recently with one star who was on the rise. A street-smart wise guy and Actors Studio devotee. I mentioned his name. ‘An asshole,’ said George, ‘a talentless fucking asshole. The guy wouldn’t know syntax if it came up and bit him. You need brains to be an actor.’” Most likely the actor, who the reader can have fun trying to guess his identity, is still alive, and Langella doesn’t want to drop his particular name just yet.

Dropped Names can be best enjoyed if you have a love and knowledge of Old Hollywood and a passing knowledge of New York theater. Langella is as much of a fan of actors as his audience, which makes him especially endearing. He can be bitchy, too — frustrated with their egos, alcoholism, and tantrums. His glimpses into behind-the-scenes film and the theater convey how especially hard Hollywood can be on an older actor or actress:

Miss [Ida] Lupino’s need was of no matter to our director and his producers. When I asked him why they had let her go, he said: “Oh she’s brilliant, but we just don’t have time for her.”

It is generally true in my profession that a faulty camera or an incorrect prop will often be given more attention and time than a worthy actor in need. And also true that idiot actors who come on the set stoned or drunk with petty or moronic demands are far more indulged than ones who calmly ask intelligent questions. Management likes to feel superior to actors and Miss Lupino’s searching mind was clearly intimidating to them.

He also gives a knowing peek into Hollywood filmmaking at its most excessive:

Cutthroat Island … remains, in my film experience, the single most egregious example of excess I have ever witnessed in the movie world. Writers being paid $100,000 a week to punch up horrible dialogue with inane jokes, private cooks serving gourmet food to the Harlins under a cozy tent while hundreds of extras being paid less than minimum-wage stood in the freezing rain for hours …

As Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

And that was just for starters. Langella is most amusing about his own perceived failures. About a film called The Wrath of God, which co-starred film legends Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth, he says, “The worst is my performance, terrible dialogue, and a horse who hated me.” He did enjoy the deadpan cool and wit of Robert Mitchum, “Get out your pencil, Frank, and take this down. Herewith a list of the ten dullest actors in Hollywood. They are: Gregory Peck.” I have to say I agree with Mitch 100% on that one. Langella also managed a brief liaison with Hayworth, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers, although he didn’t know it at the time.

Movie buffs will be interested to hear about his close encounters with Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, etc. Some of his interactions are not much more than fan encounters, which is refreshing. What may be surprising to some is how he came in close proximity to Jackie O and her friends, the wealthy high society family the Mellons, through a youthful theater apprenticeship and friendship with Bunny Mellon’s daughter Liza. This opened up an entire lifestyle, and even a brief relationship with the former First Lady.

Langella is not afraid to name names — as long as the subject is deceased. But after reading Dropped Names it’s impossible not to wonder how many more stories he could tell, if he included people who are still living.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #6: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

I don’t know about you, but I love all the behind-the-scenes details of the film-making industry. I don’t necessarily mean the bloopers and deleted scenes you get on the DVD, but rather the nitty-gritty of how the movie went from an idea to the images on the screen. The changes, the deals, the failures and successes … it’s all so interesting. I also like thinking about movies in a greater context; where they stand in the history of film and in the broader narrative of society. Well, if you get into that stuff too, then do I have a book for you!

Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution follows five movies from their inceptions to their “highlight,” the 1968 Academy Awards. The five films in question are Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. The main argument being put forward is that these five films exemplify Hollywood at a crossroads between road-show movies, old-style cinematography, censorship, and social neutrality; and the worldly influences of European film, new creative ideas, and a greater social awareness. In truth, each film is characterized by elements of both Old and New Hollywood (ok, except maybe Doctor Doolittle), but Harris makes a valid point in showcasing the ways in which their differences define them, and went on to define movie-making in the decades to come.

This is a fascinating book. I have to admit that as of this writing, I have actually only seen one of the five (that being Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), but in the course of a movie-viewing project I’m working on I’ll pick up a few, and I plan on watching at least four of them in the near future. A friend forced me to promise I’d never watch Doctor Doolittle. Anyway. Harris has compiled the “true Hollywood story” of each of these movies, and they’re all completely engaging. It’s so interesting to learn about how some of the iconic names and titles of today’s landscape got there. Mike Nichols was a stand-up comedian turned stage director whose first film credit was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Warren Beatty was a “difficult” actor, more known for his real-life exploits with women than for his desire to produce and eventually direct movies. Dustin Hoffman couldn’t catch a break to save his life, and went through the entire production of The Graduate believing that he was completely the wrong guy for the role. There’s also the stories of how the ideas changed hands, struggled to find directors or stars or distribution,  went disastrously over-budget, and were either critical or public failures upon release. In particular, too, the story of Sidney Poitier’s struggles as a trailblazer for actors of color is a really fascinating read. I’m pretty sure you could get an entire book out of his experiences. Also of note is the brief focus on the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was the last film in which Spencer Tracy appeared; the film wrapped two weeks before he died.

The ways in which these movies were influenced by what had come before, by the social and political climate in which they were created, and (mostly) by the workings of the industry and the monetary hopes of their creators is at once more simple and more complicated than one might expect. In many ways, movies are perhaps even less culturally relevant by design than we think, and it is mostly the public lens through which we view them that makes them appear important. When you consider that a script may have been written several years before it finally makes it to the screen, the point is driven home. Particularly in the volatile atmosphere of the 1960s in America, for some movies, their relevance happened by sheer accident; events that could not have been predicted lent a color or deeper meaning to a film released at the same time for good or ill. By expanding his focus to include the outside factors that helped to shape these five movies, Harris gives one a real sense of the place of film in our culture. It’s a complex position, both influential and reflective by turns.

The only complaint I have about Pictures at a Revolution is that the chronology can be difficult to follow at times. Often the same people are involved, and the chapters are laid out so as to stitch the five movies together, so there were times when I had to check back a paragraph or two in order to understand that I was now reading about a different movie. All in all, though, a really great read. If you’re interested in movies at all, I would highly recommend it, although it’s another one that will expand your Netflix queue out of control. So many movies, so little time!  When I grow up, maybe I’ll finally convince people to just let me watch (and read about) movies for a living.  Someday…

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #16: Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla, by Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer

Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla, by Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer, starts off with a great concept — the long-term collaboration between Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe and her most trusted costumer, William Travilla, who was known merely as Travilla during his design career.

The book includes many images of Travilla’s original sketches for some of Marilyn’s most famous costumes — the white pleated dress she wore while standing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, the pink confection she wore during the production number “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and many more. As many close-ups as there are of Marilyn’s dresses, the 192-page book leaves one wishing for more.

Author Andrew Hansford befriended Travilla’s business partner Bill Sarris, and now manages Travilla’s design archive. Travilla died in 1990 after a long career in Hollywood that started in the early 1940s. Hansford also organized a 2008 exhibitionfeaturing Travilla’s fabulous costumes and designs. His goal to make Travilla and his talent more widely known is an admirable one. But Hansford is not a writer. His over-long introduction takes the focus off Travilla and even Marilyn, for no apparent reason other than to share his personal fascination of traveling to Hollywood. Not helping matters are a few errors in the text and multiple typos, which seem to become more frequent as the book goes on.

Instead of a section by and about Hansford, why not include a longer, more in-depth essay on Travilla, possibly written by someone who worked with him in film or on television? Beyond the films he made with Marilyn, Travilla had a quite successful career on network television, creating costumes for The Thorn Birds, Dallas, Knots Landing, and many more. He won an Oscar in 1949 for the costumes he created for the film Adventures of Don Juan, starring Errol Flynn. There is a nice anecdote about Flynn included in the book, but sadly no images of any of the costumes, even from film stills.

Probably the most surprising missed opportunity in Dressing Marilyn is the complete absence of any biographical information about the star. Certainly there have been tons of books that have covered the actress and her movies, but it is still silly to assume that readers already know the facts of her life and career. There is a lengthy filmography included at the back of Dressing Marilyn for Travilla, but nothing for Marilyn herself, who is certainly helping sell many copies of this book.

Dressing Marilyn does include some interesting insight into how intricately constructed some of her costumes were. Travilla truly built a framework beneath the deceptively simple dresses to highlight the actress and her shape. A dress like the famous pleated gold sheath that has become one of the most iconic images of the star had interior wires structured to mold to her body, and was made from a fabric that can not be replicated today. Marilyn had a great grasp on how to promote herself, and counted on Travilla to create form-fitting dresses and gowns that would show her off to her best advantage, both on-screen and off. He even created a version in white of the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her own personal collection.

It will be interesting to see how Dressing Marilyn compares to the upcoming book,Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe, by Hollywood biographer Christopher Nickens and Marilyn memorabilia collector George Zeno, and how much they focus on Travilla. Travilla was undoubtedly an extremely talented designer, and Hansford should be congratulated for trying to bring his talent to the fore. One wishes that he had just enlisted the help of a more experienced biographer or historian and taken the time to interview others who could have shed more insight on this interesting and fruitful collaboration.

Article first published as Book Review: Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer on Blogcritics.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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