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Hollywood Nights

Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)

“(The Hollywood social scene) was…  made up of Republicans.   The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”

It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan:  hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer…  And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors.   It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.

Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man.   This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys.   Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics.   And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s.   (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)

Is Eliot’s biographical account credible?   Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue.   On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer.   He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history.   It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography.   Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.

In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication.   On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least.   (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)

In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1.   But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.”   Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.

“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”

This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman.   He once said to  her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing:  Don’t think.”   But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter.   He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink.   In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.

Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else.   For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.

In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.”   It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make.   One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis.   The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity.   In this sense, actors are like politicians…”

Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/

The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot.

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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Three Rivers Press; $16.00; 432 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might well – and should have – been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – lurid accounts of Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and engaging in three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, truthfully, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with the late actor’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under the tons of details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick and specific example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner in the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant and lurid titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400+ pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography, and – it might be said – a bio about tricks.)

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud also misses a great opportunity here.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 373 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this  bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sal Mineo: A Biography was released in a trade paperback version on October 10, 2011.

Note:   We mentioned in this review that the writer did not contact former prosecutor and author Michael Genelin (Requiem for a Gypsy).   We asked him to give us his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is his response:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

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All Good Things

Paul Newman: A Life by Lawrence J. Quirk (Taylor Made; $16.95; 360 pages)

“Sometimes God makes perfect people, and Paul Newman was one of them.”   Sally Field

“This country is better for his being in it.”   Robert Redford

I may have met Paul Newman twice, although it is far from certain.   According to family legend, I was one of the children in the park at night in Stockton, California watching as the filming of Cool Hand Luke took place in front of the Catholic church.   This was the scene in which a very drunk Luke chops off the heads of parking meters.   Whether I was actually present or not, I do not know.   What I am certain of is that years later I met Newman, for a few seconds, as he walked around the spectator grounds of the Long Beach Grand Prix.   It seems that he had just won a celebrity race and he was celebrating.   With the assistance of two younger men, he was offering plastic tumblers of fine wine – or red party cups filled with beer – to everyone he encountered.   It took only a couple of seconds to see that this was a man in love with life and living.   The joy in his blue eyes was one-of-a-kind.

Perhaps it’s precisely because Newman showed us the sparkle of joy in simple living that he had such an impact on so many.   As I purchased a Newman’s Own product yesterday, the grocery clerk told me, “I can’t believe that he’s gone.”   It’s a feeling and sentiment shared by many.

Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography is one of two with the same title; this is the superior one.   It’s the better account because Quirk is a movie expert and he does a fine job of explaining why Newman went into acting, and of reviewing the highs and lows of the actor’s career.   This Paul Newman was not perfect, he was human, but a very lucky one.   As Quirk relates, Newman – who was certain in his belief that he would  never win an Oscar – rose to the very top of his profession.   And so, “his greatest dream came true.”

Quirk, with his expertise, does not fawn over Newman as an actor.   For example, in writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he opines that, “although Newman is very good in the film, he’s not quite as good as Redford…  (and) neither actor is exactly convincing as an old-time outlaw…”   Yet it’s this tough standard that makes Quirk’s sometime praise of Newman so valuable.   And he reminds us that Newman was not just an actor, he was a philanthropist whose Newman’s Own Foundation has never failed to raise and distribute less than $55 million a year for charities around the world.

If Paul Newman had just been terribly handsome, he would have been loved only by women.   But he could also be a man’s man, a guy’s guy:

“…he was essentially a likeable, friendly guy, especially with several beers in him, and he frequently bought the beer, (which) just made him even more appealing to his buddies…  (There were those who felt) extremely flattered by the attention of famous people, who feel proud and somehow legitimized that someone the whole world knows is taking an interest in them.”

“Newman has personality to spare; he loves practical jokes, having good times with his buddies, and lots of beer…”

Quirk notes that while Newman the actor usually starred in “macho fantasies,” as a director of movies like Rachel, Rachel he “showed a more sensitive side that he seemed determined in all other aspects of his life to keep hidden.”

Paul Newman was a fascinating man, something which Quirk affirms so well in this biography, and he was – Quirk never lets us forget – first and foremost an actor.   He was an Academy Award-winning actor, and loyal husband (“Newman was never really a skirt chaser…”).   He was a man who lived each day with gusto until he left us at 6:45 p.m. on September 26, 2008.   It was such a loss for this country, and for the world.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A copy of this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Crown Archetype; $25.99; 421 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might have been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and actresses and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, actually, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with Mineo’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under all of the details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On Friday, February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner at the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400 pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography.)   Sal Mineo, the actor and artist, the person one hopes to learn about by reading this hard R to X-rated tome gets lost in the sad process.

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.  

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud misses an opportunity.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 372 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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