It’s a new year and that means a new spate of books to crack open and consume. Since January’s typical a dead month there’s little in theaters that’s adapted, let alone worth reading. So let’s look at a few picks you might have received at Christmas-time worth reading until the movies become entertaining again.
The Mommie Dearest Diary by Rutanya Alda
If you read my Mother’s Day review of Mommie Dearest (1981), then you’re aware of my undying affection for the 1980s camp classic/loose examination of the life of Joan Crawford. The film’s troubled production has been discussed in numerous forms, but Rutanya Alda’s book, The Mommie Dearest Diary touts a first-hand account of working on the film. The Mommie Dearest Diary has the secondary title Carol Ann Tells All in the vein of something like Jaws: The Revenge. Advertised as the actual diary Alda kept during the film’s production, the slim volume doesn’t necessarily scream “Raging Tell-All” so much as truly showing how stressful the day-to-day filmmaking process is in general, let alone a production where the director feels he’ll be fired by the leading lady at any minute. Alda recounts the minutiae of waiting around to film her scenes, many requiring full makeup that took time to both apply and remove. Most of Alda’s stories about Faye Dunaway’s problematic demeanor is second-hand from those who directly interacted with her and give the diary its scandalous nature. There’s accusations from designer Irene Sharaff that Dunaway did heroin in the past; there’s questions regarding Dunaway’s Svengali-like husband, Terry O’Neill, etc. All of these revelations aren’t particularly shocking if you’ve read anything regarding Dunaway in the past, even Alda makes sure to include comments from classic film stars who cited the actress as the worst one to work with, so really the fun comes from the fly-on-the-wall perspective. Though Alda was on-set the entire shoot – a rarity for most actors – there’s still a staccato quality to her anecdotes due to her lack of interaction with all the actors, so if you want details about stars like Steve Forrest or Diana Scarwid, they’re few and far between since Alda didn’t work with them daily. The Mommie Dearest Diary serves better as the autobiography of a woman struggling up the ladder of stardom during the sea-change that was the heady 1970s into the more conservative 1980s. Her personal struggles far outweigh the film’s, and because Alda remained neutral on-set it does make for questions of exaggeration. Alda’s voice shines brighter than the film, and while the book’s existence stems from one movie, Alda’s story is far more interesting.
Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory
Christmas comes with the promise of presents and joy, but as a classic film fan I’m always excited to see the various holiday promotional photos celebrities used to do honoring the holidays. Whether it’s Ann Miller wearing a bonnet with a live rabbit in it in honor of Easter or the countless photos of Shirley Temple during Christmas, the various holiday-based cheesecake shots are the purest distillation of a bygone era. Authors Karie Bible and Mary Mallory obviously appreciate these photos as they’ve gathered together in a beautiful collection entitled Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays. Showcasing photos from 1920-1970, this book is the perfect gift for the classic film fan in your life that works for any holiday where gifts are required. No surprise, but the photos are what sells Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays. Nearly every inch of the page is taken up by either full size or half size photos in both exquisite color or black and white. It’s surprising to see legendary stills photographers like Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell took photos of stars dressed in their holiday finest when they weren’t making the stars look glamorous. Each photo is perfectly poised and constructed, emphasizing the seriousness with which these photos were taken. Not only were they a means of showcasing the stars’ latest work, but also promoted them as good Americans who treated each holiday, no matter how minor, with respect. Hollywood Celebrates the Holiday is a great coffee table book for the discerning classic film fan. The photos are gorgeous and could only have been taken in the studio era!
The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits and Lawyers Transformed the Magic by David Koenig
Uncle Walt, his movies and theme parks are a staple of our lives, both past and present. But we live in a litigious world and the Magic Kingdom definitely knows how to play hardball when money is on the line. In a world where investigative journalism has received a shot in the arm courtesy of Spotlight, author David Koenig lifts the veil away form the House of Mouse. His investigatory book spotlights a slew of accidents – ranging from slip and falls to death – that Disneyland has battled with over the years. In our world of Citizens United, it’s shocking reading Koenig’s interview with victims and lawyers, all of whom tell stories of Disneyland’s hardball tactics to prevent cases from going to court; in same cases using spies, intimidating or hiding witnesses, and covering up the scene by scrubbing blood off surfaces. I’m a huge fan of Koenig’s work, most of which looks at Disneyland without the rose-colored glasses. He’s fair when he needs to be, and has no problem slyly calling out people who might be looking for a quick payday from the company. Again, the Spotlight, and to some extent Concussion, comparisons are apropos and I’m all for someone turning this into a movie (although it’s doubtful Disneyland would ever allow the use of their name). Here’s hoping for a film about a beloved theme park, totally not Disney, covering up unsafe theme park rides.
The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracey Goessel
Reading Tracey Goessel’s comprehensive biography on Douglas Fairbanks, The First King of Hollywood, reminded me of Scott Eyman’s wonderful book on John Wayne; both books initially put me off only to pull me in towards learning a great deal about an actor I previously knew nothing about. At an impressive 560 pages, Goessel puts us on a breathless, action packed journey charting an actor’s larger than life personality broken and brought down by changing times and age’s cruel inevitability. Those with a bare modicum of classic film knowledge know Douglas Fairbanks as the athletic swashbuckler of silent cinema, famously married to Mary Pickford with a house they house dubbed “Pickfair.” The First King of Hollywood examines, and in many cases contradicts, preconceived notions about the star who had a penchant for turning “trifling facts into glorious myths.” In fact, much of Goessel’s research and revelations come from turning old stories on their head, such as the assertions that Fairbanks seduced or gave jobs to many of his leading ladies. The book documents Pickford’s story as much as Fairbanks, further proof of their symbiotic relationship. Excerpts from Fairbanks and Pickford’s love letters are presented, showing a highly romantic couple unafraid of being vulnerable with each other. Fairbanks’ put-upon first wife initially refused a divorce, but was willing to step aside and let Pickford being maitresse-en-titre. (There’s also some great moments illustrating Fairbanks and his son’s contentious relationship.) Goessel’s biography enters the pantheon of comprehensive, expertly written tomes that inspires audiences towards seeking out the subject’s work. If Goessel doesn’t convince you that Fairbanks truly was “the first king of Hollywood,” nothing will. With immersive passages, beautifully written prose, and a genuine affection for the subject, this set 2016 in a pretty great direction!
Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place by Ardis Cameron
In our biopic heavy cinematic landscape no one deserves their life on the big screen more than Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. Studios have talked about telling her story, but for various reasons haven’t gotten that far. Cameron’s text acts as both research thesis and historical history book, discussing the popularity of Metalious’ soapy tale of small-town New England. In doing this, Cameron interjects discussion on the rise of small presses, allowing women writers to voice their own, hushed stories, and how Metalious, especially, allowed women to realize their presumed shameful pasts didn’t define them. Included are several excerpts from fan letters Metalious sent with women offering, or requesting, hope, advice, money, or just seeking another woman they felt “understood” them. Through it all, Metalious’ own life involved tales of adultery, as well as the media chewing her up and spitting her out for not looking like Miss America. By the end of it all, Hollywood effectively neutered her book, turning it away from being about the facade of small-town life and making it a soapy, preaching tome on redemption and morality, effectively leaving Metalious penniless and forgotten. This would be the perfect vehicle for Todd Haynes. Not only does Haynes show a deep affection for the 1950s, but Metalious’ story is about the imperfect woman, something he’s wonderfully depicted in Carol. In fact, why not get Carol’s leading lady, Rooney Mara, to play Metalious? She’d have to gain a little weight, but doesn’t Hollywood love to reward women for the “struggle” of being unattractive for their art?