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Under Pressure

Mike Wallace: A Life by Peter Rader (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 309 pages)

“Day by day, Mike was losing his bearings – slipping inexorably into a darkness that would soon envelop him.”

Like the news anchor in Don Henley’s song “Dirty Laundry”, Mike Wallace could have been an actor but instead he wound up as the attack dog on CBS-TVs vaunted and often over-praised show 60 Minutes.   As clarified by biographer Peter Rader, Wallace was in fact an actor, a performer and not an actual investigative reporter.   That’s because he did not do his own research, his own homework – he relied on others to do the dirty work and write his material for him (including two supposed autobiographies)…  And yet, Wallace was very good at what he did.

To this reader and TV watcher, Wallace always seemed one-dimensional – the type of character so easily satirized on Saturday Night Live.   Tick, tock, tick, tock…  To Rader’s credit, this is a bio that presents Wallace as an actual three-dimensional man; a gifted and seemingly fearless performer who was actually very fearful of a lot in life.   He very much feared the notion of retirement and the prospect of trying to survive out of the public’s eye.   Rather managed to stay on past CBS’s mandatory retirement age (receiving an exemption that had not been granted to Walter Cronkite), and continued doing interviews for 60 Minutes until he turned 90!   This meant that he outlived his co-workers and friends, and led Wallace to admit:  “I think I’ve lived too long.   But I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

“Beneath the brash, unnerving persona, the master of the jugular…  lies a more hidden man, a man of scars and storms and deep black melancholies.”   Eve Berliner on Mike Wallace

As detailed in this frank account, Wallace may not have felt sorry for himself but he constantly dealt with depression.   Wallace was to make multiple suicide attempts, he divorced three wives before marrying a fourth, and he was generally – even close to the very end of his life – estranged from his children.   On the small screen, Mike Wallace was a tiger – but in his own life, in his own skin, he was often afraid of the shadows of the night.

This is one of those biographies which does not ask you to change or revise your opinion on the subject.   If you were not a fan of Wallace (and this reader/viewer was not), this book will not make you an admirer.   If you were a fan of Wallace, this book will not require you to dislike the man that he was.   Like a great political compromise, it provides enough for those on both sides of the argument to feel both vindicated and not quite pleased.

In Mike Wallace: A Life, Rader has met his self-stated goal of producing a comprehensive bio of a public figure which “sheds light on our understanding of both the world in which we live and also on what it means to be human.”   It seems that for the legendary, on-stage performer Mike Wallace, living the day-to-day existence of a normal human being – away from the stage lights, without makeup – was the toughest of all his assignments.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mike Wallace: A Life is also available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.

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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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I Feel the Earth Move

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (William Morrow, $12.99, 352 pages)

In all the world I had never seen anything so strangely inhumanly beautiful.   In this place, man would soon seem simply extraneous.   I shivered.   I did not think I would feel welcome for long in this world where the very earth spasmed and the great trees would not acknowledge my presence.

Between finishing college and starting graduate school, I was lucky enough to have a summer job that involved taking young people camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.   This is a unique area – a special place – filled with ancient redwoods and wild animals, including bears, and being there is an other-worldly experience.   If you can’t take a trip there, you may wish to read Fault Lines, which permits the reader to experience the place via the eyes of a Southerner making her first trip to California; and, for good measure, Siddons throws in visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco in this novel about a woman whose life is shaken up – a woman who experiences “an earthquake in the soul.”

Merritt Fowler is a proper Atlanta housewife, married to a succesful physician named Pom, and mother to Glynn, her sensitive sixteen-year-old daughter.   For years she also served as a pseudo-mother to her younger sister Laura, an actress who fled to southern California after finding it impossible to live in the household of the stern doctor Fowler.   Pom turns out to be one of those good men (he provides free health care to the poor of Atlanta) who practices good deeds everywhere except in his own home.   He’s also unable to face reality when his mother – whom he insists be referred to as Mommee – is afflicted by Alzheimer’s and her actions become literally life-threatening.   When Glynn insists that Mommee be placed in a residential care facility, Pom becomes so hostile toward his daughter that Glynn runs away to join her aunt Laura in Palm Springs.

Merritt has been the responsible and forgiving one her entire life, but this single incident permits her to see that her husband has become (in the words of Jackson Browne) a “perfect fool”   She stands up to Pom for the first time, and elects to go and find her daughter and bring her back home.   Once she gets to California, she sees that both Glynn and Laura are different people there than they were in Georgia…  and the environment begins to also take hold of her actions, and of her very being.

In California, Merritt – who is said to resemble the late actress Kay Kendall – realizes that she and her sister and daughter are all viewed as great beauties, even in a city (Los Angeles) filled with actresses.   And she begins to become fascinated with the notion of earthquakes, especially after experiencing her first one.   She’s unaware that the big earthquake, in her personal life, is soon to hit.

Oh, it was such a day, it really was.   A pinnacle day, a ball bearing on which a life turns.

While this novel starts slowly, filled with dialogue that initially seems to be both clumsy and awkward (I had an image of actors practicing their lines off-screen – never able to get them right), the reader’s patience is rewarded with an engaging story that warms up to the point where you don’t want to put the book down.   If Merritt begins as a cardboard figure, she soon turns into a person alive as you or me…  Merritt’s a person – a mature person – who is still trying to find her place in the world.   She’s lost herself in the air somewhere between Atlanta and LAX, and now she has to decide if she’s the Merritt of Old Atlanta or the Merritt of the New West.   The way in which she finds herself will surprise you.

Highly recommended.   Siddons is a writer who wisely pulls her punches before delivering a knockout blow.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A literary meteor shower…  One great read.”   Detroit News/Free Press

Note: There is one glaring error in the novel.   The college in Santa Cruz is called USC Santa Cruz on page 274, when it is actually the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC, Santa Cruz or UCSC).

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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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19th Nervous Breakdown

Perspectives on the Publishing Trade

A Disturbing Trend

Increasingly, I’ve been bothered by a new trend in fiction that’s not at all positive.   This is the creation of the novel that has no plot, no true story line.   Such books – which are often actually novellas – revolve around a few days, weeks, months or years of a character’s life.   The reader-purchaser is often fooled by front jacket blurbs that promise exciting plot twists, and sometimes mention “crimes,” and indicate that one absolutely must read through to “the last page.”   Ah, yes, but when the reader has completed all of the 240 or so pages, he/she may find that nothing happened in the space between first page and the last.   No crimes have been committed, no major characters killed, no cities threatened, no buildings or homes firebombed, no fictional characters have had their lives transformed.

Why is this happening?   I have no idea, but it’s made worse by reviews that actually praise the author for being “clever”!   This type of review will read something like this, “Author Betty Robinson really had me fooled this time, thinking that her character was going to commit a heinous crime; the story’s conclusion was a clever one.”   Except that the clever conclusion involved an absence of events.

I, for one, would like to see some truth in advertising.   Firstly, books that are novellas should be clearly labeled as such, not subtitled “A Novel.”   (Recently, even a couple of short story collections have carried the designation of novel.)   Secondly, I’d like to see a Reader Advisory sticker that reads:  Warning – Nothing actually happens between the covers of this novel/novella.   It’s a book about nothing.   Purchase it at your own risk; there will be no refunds.   Thirdly, how about requiring the purchaser to sign a waiver of his/her expectations?   (“I understand that I’m not going to be satisfied by reading this story.”)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it might be a start in making things better.

Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or too strange?   If the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible, then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   The story may have some positive features but if it’s lacking feasibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a great job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it remains a pig.

What does the reviewer do in this situation?   Focus on the writing while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer up some hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing, as I’ve learned from experience…  If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel, the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never.   Ever.   Ever.   Nope.   The writer’s response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened, and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine, but that’s the author’s perspective  not the reviewer’s view.

In a courtroom, it’s often said that the prosecution has the burden of proof.   Well, when it comes to drafting a novel, I think the author has the burden of drafting something that’s plausible.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a book reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it’s critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he/she sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – it’s either on the written page (“On all fours,” as law professors say) or its absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent, the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal.   Your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Life: A Memoir by Keith Richards, which is now available in trade paperback, unabridged audiobook, Kindle Edition and Nook Book forms/formats.

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(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

Exposure: A Novel by Therese Fowler (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 384 pages)

Author Therese Fowler has written the 21st century version of Romeo and Juliet.   Fowler portrays the complexities of the modern-day teenage romance highlighted by cell phones, computers, and on-line social networking.   She does an excellent job demonstrating the dangers of our advanced technologies when it comes to teenagers and the sharing of personal information in her upcoming novel, Exposure.

The star-crossed lovers, Anthony Winter and Amelia Wilkes have everything in common, excluding the financial status of their families.   Their shared passion for theatre brings them together in their affluent high school’s production of As You Like It, which in verse summarizes their own love story:

No sooner looked but they loved

Their commitment to one another begins with a secret romance shielded from Amelia’s arrogant father, Harlan, who shelters Amelia with the primary goal of ensuring that she ends up with the ideal partner who will provide her with a rich life, not the poor unfortunate one he had as a child.   He hopes for Amelia to pursue a business degree at Duke University and to find a shadow of him, a man with money and power who will provide her with the wealth that he finds essential for happiness.

Anthony, the talented and non-conformist son of a single mother was abandoned by his father before he was born.  He is fortunate to attend Ravenswood, the esteemed private school where he meets Amelia, only because his mother, Kim, has been hired to teach Art and French.   Kim, a supportive mom doing the best she can to raise Anthony with the limited resources she has, supports the relationship between her son and Amelia, knowing all too well the power of love and romance.

As Amelia and Anthony spend their time contemplating their plan for the future they become closer and, as a result, intimate.  Following graduation Amelia will reveal both their relationship and plans to attend New York University for drama while they both pursue careers on Broadway.   Months away from graduation their relationship becomes physical and, being the artists that they are, commemorate their relationship through writings, texts, e-mails, and photos.   This intensifies their relationship, which is presumed to be private and innocent (Anthony is 18 and Amelia 17), while they are away from one another…

One unfortunate day Amelia’s father hacks into her computer and finds explicit photos of Anthony.   Outraged and presuming that his innocent, naive daughter has been the victim of a heinous crime, he instinctually calls the police and begins an investigation that results in a series of events altering the lives of everyone involved.

Fowler expresses the true nature and concerns of sexting, and the repercussions of the open access that our children have to the Internet and other related avenues for sharing information.

Yes, Exposure may also take you back to relive the story of your first love… or the one that got away.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Exposure will be released on May 3, 2011.

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