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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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Fast Company

Breaking the Rules: A Novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford (St. Martin’s Paperbacks; $7.99)

“She is a top supermodel, one of the world’s most beautiful women.   Men love her.   Women adore her.   So why is someone trying to kill her?”

Who are these people?

Fortitude, commitment and romance are the main ingredients of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Emma Harte series.   Breaking the Rules is the seventh and most recent book in the series.   Considering the squeaky clean virtuous heroine, M, readers will soon realize that she isn’t the one breaking the rules.   Yes, our spunky and independent English lass has some felonious thoughts; however, since M does not follow through with putting them into play, she is able to retain her image.

Author Bradford seems to abhor loose ends and she takes 488 pages to provide her reader with a neatly bundled story.   What this reviewer wants to know is who are these people populating the story?   Surely there is a family with extreme wealth and power headed by gorgeous women whose great loves are lurking just around the corner.   Maybe they exist in never, never land, but not in the real world.

Maybe that’s the draw of romance novels.   They are geared to transport the reader away from the mundane and, in recent times, painful reality of every-day-life.   What is the target audience?   Is there an age group that Bradford aims to please?   If so, perhaps happily married, grandmas-to-be aren’t  part of the group.   Too much fantasy, just like too many cooks, can spoil the story for a reader who takes pleasure in the small joys of life.

By the way, the costly pink champagne used throughout the story is a not-so-subtle indicator that Bradford’s characters are more than a cut above the average celebrant.   Too bad she had to hammer the reader over the head with the reference!   The Hermes Kelly handbags were proof enough that these people are not at all like you and me!

Recommended if you like that sort of book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.   Barbara Taylor Bradford’s new novel is Playing the Game (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages).

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Almost Everything

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell (Henry Holt and Company; June 2010)

“We got what we needed.”

This novel tells the story of one Birdie Baker, a young woman from a small eastern town and a deeply religious upbringing.   She marries young – a huge mistake – and decides to escape the life that others have planned for her.   So she “(comes) to Los Angeles, running from something.”

Birdie has a fantasy, that in the big western city recovered from the desert she will find everything lovely, effortless, safe.   She dreams of becoming an actress, being discovered, walking on red carpets and having young girls envy her.   But L.A. can be a tough town for those without money and fame.   Years pass as Birdie exists as a stand-in for a famous actress and a sometime body double.

Important men, men with power in the movie trade, find Birdie attractive but even they can see that she’s aging fast.   Now time has passed and “she was thirty, almost everything, almost nothing.”

Similar stories have been told in other novels about Hollywood, and this reader worried that the story was running out of gas before the halfway point.   Birdie seems less than totally interesting and often unlikable, and she spends too much time with older men.   Fortunately, Birdie eventually meets Lewis – a young male actor who believes in the same things that Birdie once did.

First-time author Hollowell comes up with some great lines detailing how Birdie sees Lewis as a younger version of herself; a fellow traveler haunted by his past but filled with hopes and optimism:  “How young he was, afraid of forgetting the tragedies that made him.   He did not yet know that he will never forget, that he will want to forget but will not be able to.”   With the character of Lewis, Hollowell finds a sweet spot.   Birdie will, of course, become romantically involved with Lewis but even she understands that this will end up like a brother and sister relationship.

Birdie is at first confused about life in L.A. and about why she is not getting what she wants and needs.   She goes on to become a woman who literally comes to believe that having a life – at least the life she wants – is impossible.   And yet she knows she has certain powers.   While producers and directors may not chase after her (pretty girls in Hollywood being a nickel a dozen), a lot of average men do want to be with her.   Why?   Well, because Birdie “did not talk about the future or ask them to be in it…  She did not seem to want them so they pursued her to discover the reason.”

The second half of the novel is strong as Hollowell discovers a way to give Birdie most of what she wants out of life, if not all of what she once dreamed.   And the conclusion – the final words – of Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe cannot be improved upon.   “This is how everything should end:  with the forgotten remembered, the wounded healed, and the sinners forgiven.”

This is a nice debut for Jenny Hollowell.   This reviewer hopes that her sophomore effort is built around a more engaging (and intelligent) protagonist, and that she finds a unique story line.   She’s a self-professed fan of Bob Dylan (“He is so good at summing things up…”) and perhaps she will find some inspiration there.

Recommended.

Take Away:   This story is not very original and it is not close to perfect, but there’s enough here to make it an engaging and satisfying read.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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Seeing Stars

The thing about Hollywood is it makes you doubt yourself – your identity, your judgment, you motivation, your parenting…

Ruth Rabinowitz had a waking nightmare that she had hit a transvestite crossing Highland at Hollywood Boulevard.   In her mind the transvestite would be lying in the crosswalk surrounded by Shreks and Dorothys and Princess Fionas; Batman would call 911 while Japanese tourists took pictures of the fallen one with their cell phones.   The transvestite would be fine, of course – it was a waking nightmare – and when s/he was set upright on his/her extremely tall platform shoes, s/he would look down on Ruth from six feet up and say kindly, Go ahead, honey – you cry if you want to.   Ruth would break down right there, and the transvestite would take her gently in his/her arms – and his/her skin would be wonderfully silky and toned from hours at the gym – and smooth her hair from her face while she wept.

That’s how much pressure she was under.

Driving into Hollywood was always harrowing, and though she and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Bethany, had been in Los Angeles for only three weeks, she had already learned that the smoothness of the trip to a casting studio was inversely proportionate to the importance of the audition.   Right now it was three o’clock, Bethany’s callback time had been two forty-five, and they were stuck in choking traffic on Highland near Santa Monica.

Admittedly, some of their tardiness – all right, most of it – was Ruth’s fault.   She had a tendency, even under routine circumstances, to dither.   She’d changed clothes twice before they’d left, even though no one would care or even notice what she was wearing.   She’d checked and rechecked an e-mail in which Mimi Roberts, Bethany’s manager, had forwarded the callback’s time and location.   She’d printed out, misplaced, reprinted, and then found the original copy of the MapQuest directions she’d pulled up – even though they’d driven to the same casting studio just yesterday.   Now she heard the same maddening refrain looping endlessly inside her head:  You should have left sooner, you should have left sooner, you should have left sooner.   Her blood pressure was so high she could feel her pulse in her feet.   “I just can’t believe there’s this much traffic,” she said.

“Mom,” Bethany said with newfound world-weariness.   “This is LA.”

“Well, you can certainly see why it’s the birthplace of road rage.”   They moved up a couple of car lengths and then stopped, still at least eight cars short of the intersection.   Beside them a young man in a BMW cursed energetically into his Bluetooth…

This is an excerpt from the opening of Seeing Stars: A Novel by Diane Coplin Hammond.   This entertaining and charming book will be reviewed in the near future on this site.   Seeing Stars was released by Harper on March 23, 2010.   This trade paperback sells for $13.99, and is available as a Kindle Edition download for $9.99.

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American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood

It seems that the majority of biographies of famous actors and musicians – like To the Limit, this author’s earlier look at the Eagles – come off as flat and cold.   Such is not the case with American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood.   Here Eliot, who is clearly a student of the film industry, paints a fascinating portrait of an interesting individual.

American Rebel shows us an Eastwood who’s a talented actor and director, while also being a very human person with a complex and troubled personal life.   To his credit, Eliot praises and criticizes Eastwood in seemingly equal measures.   This hefty biography is strengthened by detailed appendices and an impressively comprehensive index.

The Eastwood in Rebel comes off as an icon who struggles between independence and control – something that was also true of his contemporaries Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.   He’s an actor-director who wants to be recognized for his achievements while not being viewed as part of the motion picture establishment.

Marc Eliot has painted a multi-dimensional portrait of a rebel who became a legend.   Kudos!

Highly recommended.

Harmony, $25.99, 400 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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