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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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A review of Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan.

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Heart and Soul

One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers (Gallery; $26.00; 272 pages)

Spunky, vivacious and charming are words that easily describe Stephanie Powers, the actress best known for her role in the television series Hart to Hart.   Yes, her character on the series also matches up with these adjectives.   Don’t be fooled by appearances or roles, for when it comes to intellect and curiosity, Ms. Powers leads the Hollywood pack.   Her memoir, One from the Hart, is filled with fully developed recollections of a life lived all over the globe.

Although Powers’ formal education concluded with her graduation from Hollywood High School, readers will be treated to the best in grammar and word selection.   Powers set out to make up for a lack of college education by committing to reading through the literature list for students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   With that goal accomplished, she has maintained a lifelong course in learning.   Her curiosity and willingness to expand as a person has resulted in a remarkable memoir that is well-developed and engagingly narrated.   This reviewer felt as though she had been included in the circle of friends that Powers has grown over the last several decades.

Yes, Powers is talented musically and as an actress.   Yes, she is remarkably beautiful.   Underneath this Hollywood veneer beats a heart that truly loves people and animals.   Her actions speak for themselves for she is the driving force behind the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya.   Given her enthusiasm for education, it is no surprise that Powers founded the organization to honor the efforts of her long-time love William Holden.

This engaging book includes photographs from Powers’ private collection that serve to document the remarkable events in her life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Note:  Hollywood High School, the home of The Pharaohs, also produced two notable actors who would come to be known to the world as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

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A review of One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers.

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The Show Must Go On

Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen (Algonquin; $14.95; 448 pages)

Following a tragic accident, where Jacob Jankowski finds that not only has he lost both of his parents, but everything he owns, he is forced to immediately recreate his life.   Jacob walks out of his Ivy League veterinary medical exams and while wandering aimlessly decides to hop a train, a decision that alters his future.   The train, it turns out, belongs to the Benzini Brothers, a second-rate traveling circus act.   At the ripe young age of twenty-one, Jacob becomes the circus vet, an undesirable position working for a relentless boss.

To make matters worse, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a star performer and the wife of an abusive paranoid schizophrenic, who is in charge of training the animals that Jacob cares for.

Told from the perspective of a ninety-something Jacob, now living in a nursing home, Gruen spares no details as she depicts the story of life with the circus.   Through descriptions of the grimy, disgusting living conditions, the filthy abused animals that eat unspeakable food, and the corrupt coworkers, we wait with bated breath to read what dangerous, life-threatening situation Jacob will be privy to next.

Sara Gruen has done her research and truly brings each circus act alive as you, the audience, watch Jacob’s life in the circus unfold.   The ending is surreal but quite lovely.   I look forward to seeing the film, which will be released this month.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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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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Isn’t It a Pity

13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Reagan Arthur Books; $23.99; 288 pages)

Initially this appears to be a beautifully presented novel based on the possessions of a woman who once lived in the early 1900s (experiencing both World Wars), in Paris.   The graphic reproductions of items owned by Louise Brunet, which came into the author’s possession as a young girl, are reproduced in a high-class manner.   Unfortunately, this story also contains some troubling characteristics which ruined the experience for this reader.

In the early 1980s, the author’s mother salvaged a small box of mementos formerly owned by Mrs. Brunet:  “This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.   The story behind the objects is lost; the objects are now the story…  As I have carried this strange box through life and across the world, I have always intended to make a book out of it.   This book now exists; you hold it in your hands.”

It is a charming and promising premise – fleshing out an unknown life via the author’s imagination.   A great deal of the content involves the lives of French people, men and women, during World War I.   The read is initially quite engaging as we encounter an American historical researcher-professor, living in the present day, who comes across Mrs. Brunet’s possessions and begins – as he charts out the happenings of her life – to fall in love with her.   It will be an unrequited love except for the fact that through a miracle of time travel he comes to meet her face to face.   Having met Mrs. Brunet, the researcher is essentially freed to fall in love with a woman of his own time.

All of this has a Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife aspect to it, which seems wonderful on its face.   And yet, the Louise Brunet that the reader comes to identify with in the first half of the novel turns into a madwoman in its concluding portion.   This is a happily married woman – a woman who has never had a child – who engages in an affair with a married neighbor, knowing full well that it is wrong and that she takes the chance of getting pregnant; something that would destroy her marriage and world.

This female protagonist also engages in crimes and enjoys confessing her sins to a Catholic priest, to the point where she laughs hysterically after confessing her adultery.   It all seems strange and disjointed, as if the two halves of the novel do not fit together properly.   But this is not the biggest issue with the telling.

“She does not understand the power of that man’s body over her…  He is like a poison in her, all the more potent because she doesn’t want an antidote.   She welcomes this disease of desire.”

The major problem with 13 rue Therese is that the sex scenes are described in terms more than a bit reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rude, crude and shocking.   The polite language of an earlier time gives way to terms that appear to be deliberately intended to shock the once comfortable reader.   Perhaps this was done deliberately as an attempt to demonstrate the lack of control that overtakes Louise, a woman ready to destroy her life for a man she’s attracted to even while she does not understand that attraction.

In summary, 13 rue Therese is like one of those schizophrenic films (the movie version of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind) that is quite pleasurable for the first hour, but hard to watch for the second.   This is a novel with great potential that simply self-destructs, and concludes in a rather mundane fashion.   It’s a pity.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This novel was released today.

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