Tag Archives: Portrait of an American Rebel

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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Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

“I’m two people.   I’m me, Paul Newman.   And I’m Paul Newman the actor.   The first one is not for sale.”   Paul Newman is quoted as having said this to “the press” in Shawn Levy’s biography Paul Newman: A Life.   This is the point at which your typical review would use a phrase with a descriptive adjective phrase such as “Levy’s adoring biography” or “Levy’s cranky biography.”   I have a hard time coming up with anything other than “apparently well researched and factual biography.”

It’s hard to say because there seem to be more than just two Newmans here, there seem to be dozens.   Perhaps it is because the author never had the chance to interview the man.   What we get are dozens and dozens of Newman quotations in this 474 page project compiled without the blessings of Mr. Newman or his wife (Joanne Woodward).   The different quotes seem to have different tones, differing voices, as if Newman was sometimes factual and sometimes being the practical joker he was known to be.   One also has to wonder if some of the Newman “quotes” were the creations of publicity agents.

There’s a seriousness to Levy’s work which is very, very admirable.   You can almost picture him frowning while typing up the facts of Newman’s life, gleaned from official records and interviews with “friends and associates.”   What seems to be missing is the sense of joy about life and living that Paul Newman seemed to possess; in his own eyes, he was nothing if not a very, very lucky man.

Two key questions went unanswered for me in reading this biography:  Why exactly did Newman become an actor (we get some guesses here and some circumstances but not motivation) and what did Newman get out of acting (in a non-commercial sense) that was so satisfying?   Something else has been missed here, which often needs to be answered in telling a person’s story:  How smart, exactly, was the actor?   The answer would have helped to gauge who he was.   (Newman attended three colleges including Yale.)Paul Newman

As with most life stories these days, there’s a “fair and balanced” approach to detailing Newman’s strengths and positives (especially his philanthropic activities) and his weaknesses and faults.   Fine, but it seemed a bit too much by-the-numbers for me.

There is one small fact that comes through well in the telling which is that Newman felt that he never got to know or achieve the admiration of his quite successful merchant father.   Newman began to attain his professional success after his father’s death, something that appeared to haunt him.

Let me close by noting that I once came within two feet of Paul Newman.   He had just won a celebrity auto race at the Long Beach Grand Prix and – with the help of a couple of young assistants – was walking through the crowd of thousands of race fans…   He and his crew had massive magnums of wine and he was offering a plastic cup full of the libation to anyone and everyone he saw.   His smile was huge, his blue eyes were bright and I thought, “This man really loves people and loves life!”   Sadly, that is the Paul Newman I did not come across in this telling of his life’s story.

Note:   Steve McQueen – Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terill (Plexus trade paperback, $19.95) is recommended as an example of a biography where you will get to know and understand both the actor and the man.

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