Sunday, July 31, 2005

So They Say: Thoughts on Star Memoirs

The Siren has been devouring star autobiographies since she was knee-high to a prop table. Her first experience was with fellow Alabamian Tallulah Bankhead, as the Siren sought reassurance that being from Alabama need not preclude having a fascinating life. Tallulah gave that reassurance, and how. From there on out, star memoirs were the Siren's literary potato chips.

Blinded by the fun, the stories, the dish of it all, it took me years to discover that the hallmark of most Hollywood autobiographies is inaccuracy. (And ghostwriters, of course. Often I read memoirs imagining the ghostwriter saying soothingly, "But of COURSE I believe you. Everyone knows you're a teetotaler.")

Sometimes you get sins of omission, like Rosalind Russell's Life Is a Banquet, where she neglects to mention the celebrated contretemps over her failure to win an Oscar for Mourning Becomes Electra. You also run into the odd priorities of actresses like Ginger Rogers, who could remember every detail of her costumes for her Astaire pictures and almost nothing about trivia such as the choreography.

The great Lillian Gish gives fascinating details about filmmaking in The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Alas, Lillian has certain blind spots, such as when she assures the reader that D.W. Griffith was "incapable of prejudice against any group" and if he had lived, he would done a film of "affirmation about the Negro." Suuuuuure he would have. Right after Leo McCarey made a film about the ghastly toll of the blacklist.

Other times you detect a certain tendency to elide personal foibles, as John Huston did in An Open Book. Read that one and you would think him the most reasonable of directors, which doesn't quite jibe with most actors' recollections. Gregory Peck once said he had the distinct impression that if getting a certain shot for Moby Dick had required his drowning on camera, that wouldn't have perturbed his director at all.

There are stars like Myrna Loy, whose admirable Being and Becoming shows loyalty to her friend Joan Crawford, but perhaps not that much ability to read between the lines of family disputes. Finally, there are the ones who just lie their little rear ends off, as Frank Capra apparently did in The Name Above the Title.

Despite all this I pounce on autobiographies year after year, including the latest, Tis Herself, by Maureen O'Hara. Ms. O'Hara deserves her own post, and the Siren plans to give her one in the next couple of days.


girish said...

Hope the siren-mother's visit was a smash?

I've read woefully few star memoirs. I paricularly like Liv Ullmann's. Also, David Niven's ("The Moon's A Balloon").

There are quite a few director memoirs that I like. e.g. Von Sternberg's "Fun In A Chinese Laundry".
My two faves are Renoir's "My Life And My Films" and Bunuel's "My Last Sigh". I've read them over and over, writing in the margins, the whole bit.

The Siren said...

Hi there!
Mom is still here, and doing great. Alas, on Mon. the Siren's daughter took a bad spill on the playground. She is absolutely fine now (absurd how quickly toddlers can recover, much faster than their parents) but it really threw the week out of whack.

I read Bunuel's autobiography (my British edition translates the title as "My Last Breath") and it's a hoot, one of the funniest. David Niven's are great too. I read the second one as well, "Bring on the Empty Horses," title from a direction given by the English-challenged Michael Curtiz. I would love to read the Von Sternberg.

One of my most treasured possessions is a signed copy of Liv Ullmann's Changing, so there's another taste we have in common.

girish said...

[admiringly] Campaspe, you are such a compleat cinerudite.

And I'm glad to know your daughter is all well again.

Diane said...

Ahhh, it's so good to be back and reading your blog again, dear! I'm so sorry to hear about your DD, but glad to hear she's all right.

I haven't read too many star memoirs either, but I did read the fabulous one by Liv Ullman. I had no idea yours was a signed copy. How fantastic! I used to have a handle on another site based on Liv's name. Her thoughts on aging, in particular, are wonderfully honest.

Now while I might not have too many star memoirs to my name, I have read my share of director's memoirs and biographies in general. Some favorites are "Godard on Godard," a collection of Godard interviews, Renoir's "My Life and My Films," Von Sternberg's "Fun in a Chinese Laundry," and now for one of my prized possessions--a beautiful book on Fritz Lang with stunning photographs and fascinating documents, tracking his journey from Vienna to Berlin to Paris to Hollywood.

Diane said...

Must add--you know who I wish had a memoir? Max Ophuls! Yesterday I got lucky and caught in the paper that they were playing a double feature of 2 Ophuls films nearby and skipped on over. They were "Lola Montes," which I've already seen and love and one that I haven't seen--"Signora di Tutti." Well, suffice it to say that I had an exquisite time and think I am going to hazard the dangerous notion of nominating a favorite director in Max Ophuls. He cannot seem to make a film that I do not love. His aestheticism and use of camera is unparalleled. Such an eye for beauty and beauty is foremost what inspires me.

The Siren said...

Diane darling, I owe you an email! I didn't realize until I was compiling my 100 list that Ophuls may well be my favorite director. I have never seen a bad Max Ophuls. Not even a mediocre one. I am jealous that you saw Signora, I have never seen it. Now since you also mention the Renoir and Von Sternberg I must definitely hunt them down. If you haven't read the Bunuel I will send it to you.

Diane said...

Oh, I would love that! I have never read the Bunuel book, but would love to, as it sounds like a blast. Thank you so much, darling!

You have to see "Signora"! It's one of his early films, thus not as elegant in structure as "Letter from an Unknown Woman" and "The Earrings of Madame De..." (my two faves by this eloquent master), but it presages the gracefully executed intricacies of his storytelling. It's a gem and I know you'd love it. I'll try to find you a copy.