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The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights epitomizes golden-age Hollywood romance. However, the process of making the film was another matter entirely. It was a miserable set, in large part because Laurence Olivier, the brilliant British actor playing Heathcliff, hated his co-star, Merle Oberon, and regularly undermined her. But he would have hated any co-star who wasn’t his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, whom he had failed to get hired for the part and with whom he was wildly in love.

As any movie buff knows, Leigh was about to become a star in her own right in another 1939 film, Gone With the Wind (also a miserable set). Olivier and Leigh had left their respective spouses and children for each other and would marry in 1940. They were the supernova show-biz couple of their day, paving the way for Liz-and-Dick and Brangelina. With Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century, Stephen Galloway, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has written an astute biography of that marriage, with wonderfully dishy details of productions such as Rebecca and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Oliviers’ fabled partnership reached its peak on stage in the 1940s and ’50s before ending in chaos in 1960. The biggest factor in the marriage's collapse was Leigh's bipolar disorder, which was little understood at the time and ineffectively treated. Medical understanding has evolved immeasurably since Leigh’s death in 1967, and Galloway reexamines her mood swings, public mania, infidelity and alcohol abuse in light of psychiatric advances.

In the early days of their relationship, Leigh was the more likable of the two. Olivier had enormous talent, but he was shallow and deceitful. However, he did “truly, madly” love Leigh, and he tried his best to help her before her unfathomable behavior finally confounded him. Leigh died at only 53 of tuberculosis. Olivier, afflicted by multiple painful illnesses, lived until 82, and Galloway’s account of his last years is moving.

Olivier dominated the English-language stage and reinvented Shakespearean cinema. Leigh’s film acting remains incandescent, although her indifference to Gone With the Wind’s racism receives due criticism in this book. Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Galloway’s perceptive history of this iconic duo.

Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Stephen Galloway’s perceptive account of supernova show-biz couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Entertaining yet substantial, briskly paced yet informative, these celebrity memoirs and biographies are perfect for the busy month of December.

In Inside Out, actor Demi Moore comes to terms with her troubled past. As the daughter of alcoholic parents, Moore had an unstable and traumatic childhood, and her early career as a model left her feeling insecure about her appearance. Although she went on to achieve success in Hollywood, starring in such films as St. Elmo’s Fire and Ghost, she struggled for years with drug addiction. Throughout this candid, accomplished memoir, Moore is upfront about her marriages to Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher, and she provides fascinating insight into the movie business.

Esteemed actor Sally Field shares her personal story in her memoir, In Pieces. Born in Pasadena, California, in 1946, Field opens up about her solitary childhood, her alcoholic mother and the stepfather who abused her. She began acting as a teen, going on to star in blockbusters including Norma Rae and Forrest Gump. With sensitivity and a wonderful command of narrative, she reflects on important past relationships, including her romance with Burt Reynolds, and on the impulses that drive her acting. The result is a well-rounded, well-written portrait of an artist that will appeal to anyone who loves a good celebrity memoir.

Written by bestselling biographer Sheila Weller, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge is an illuminating study of an American icon. Carrie Fisher, perhaps best known for portraying Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, was the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actor Debbie Reynolds. In this well-researched biography, Weller chronicles Fisher’s Hollywood up-bringing, her rise as an actor, her marriages and her experiences with bipolar disorder and drugs. Fisher’s intelligence and strength shine through in this lively narrative, which is rich with movie history and personal anecdotes, as well as themes of family and feminism.

Illustrator and author Edward Sorel revisits the golden age of Hollywood in Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. Sorel explores the life of actor Mary Astor, star of The Maltese Falcon and other classics, who kept a diary of her sexual affairs. In the 1930s, her ex-husband discovered the diary and used it against her during his legal battle for custody of their daughter. Sorel digs in to weighty topics including public image, the power of journalism and the female experience in show business, and his nifty illustrations add to the book’s appeal.

Entertaining yet substantial, briskly paced yet informative, these celebrity memoirs and biographies are perfect for the busy month of December. In Inside Out, actor Demi Moore comes to terms with her troubled past. As the daughter of alcoholic parents, Moore had an unstable and traumatic childhood, and her early career as a model left her feeling […]

In 1970, a few weeks before he turned 17, Barry Sonnenfeld was at the Winter Festival for Peace concert at Madison Square Garden. It was after 2 a.m., the latest the teen had ever been out. Jimi Hendrix was warming up, and the audience buzzed in anticipation. “We were about to witness history,” recalls Sonnenfeld. Suddenly he heard his own name over the loudspeaker. “Barry Sonnenfeld. Call your mother.” The crowd took up his first name as a chant. Barry rushed to a phone, convinced his father had died. No, his mother said, weeping. She was calling because Barry had said he’d be home at 2. Barry’s father lived into his 90s.

Sonnenfeld, legendary cinematographer on the first three Coen brothers’ films and director of The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black, among others, does more than name-drop or recall Hollywood vignettes in this funny, wry and thoroughly entertaining memoir. Sonnenfeld is, above all, a storyteller, and while his own journey from a skinny, French horn-playing kid to a successful director drives the breezy narrative, he takes time to bring supporting characters irreverently to life—his overprotective mother, Kelly, who spent years threatening suicide, and his father, Sonny, who tormented her with his many affairs. Against this backdrop, Sonnenfeld’s loving and happy family life with his wife, Sweetie, shines through.

Movie buffs, of course, will be most pleased with anecdotes from Sonnenfeld’s time at NYU film school, his work with the Coen brothers and actor Penny Marshall, as well as the growth and development of his own directing style.

At the outset, Sonnenfeld shares what might be his life philosophy: Regret the past, fear the present, dread the future. Yet, somehow, he reflects, “I’ve managed to live an unusual and amazing life.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Barry Sonnenfeld and seven other new and emerging memoirists.

Barry Sonnenfeld, legendary cinematographer on the first three Coen brothers’ films and director of The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black, among others, does more than name-drop or recall Hollywood vignettes in this funny, wry and thoroughly entertaining memoir.

In celebration of Memoir March, we asked the authors of eight groundbreaking memoirs what readers will love about their life stories—and which parts are even stranger than fiction.


author photo of Dolly AldertonDolly Alderton, author of Everything I Know About Love

Dolly Alderton recounts her many mishaps—including a drunken evening when she thought she was in Oxford, not London—through essays, satirical emails and recipes. Alderton isn’t afraid to share unflattering moments or to laugh at herself, and readers may find solace in realizing they aren’t alone at the party. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I am happy about how truthful it is—which makes it uncomfortable for me to read back sometimes, but it’s a really honest account of an ebullient, rocky, unpredictable period of my youth that a lot of people go through, and I wrote it truthfully.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book? 
Someone who is after riot and revelation in equal measure from an imperfect antiheroine. 

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
That I took a taxi across 100 miles at 4 a.m. Both me and my student bank account overdraft wish that was a made-up anecdote.

 


Barry Sonnenfeld, author of Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother

In this funny, wry and thoroughly entertaining memoir, the legendary cinematographer and director does more than name-drop or recall Hollywood vignettes. Barry Sonnenfeld is, above all, a storyteller, and while his own journey from a skinny, French horn-playing kid to a successful director drives the breezy narrative, he takes time to bring supporting characters irreverently to life. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
That people tell me they laughed out loud reading it.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
Readers looking for a surprisingly good time. Or a sad time. Anyone interested in films and how they ever get made.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
There are so many unbelievable but true things: Being paged at Madison Square Garden during a Jimi Hendrix performance; surviving a plane crash; surviving my mother’s cooking; being bar mitzvah’d in a Catholic church; selling M.C. Hammer my ’62 Lincoln Continental; becoming a successful director.

 


Erin Khar, author of Strung Out

Any book about addiction is actually a book about feelings and the lengths that people who are suffering will go to avoid feeling them. Erin Khar’s memoir is a compassionate account of her illness and will surely be the gold standard for women writing about heroin addiction. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
What I love most about my book is the way readers have told me they connect with the story. For people who’ve struggled with addiction, it helps them feel seen, feel less alone. For people who have not experienced addiction, it helps them understand addiction in a way they hadn’t before.

Readers have also told me how much they found they could relate to, and that surprised them. I love that! I wanted the narrative to reflect a human experience, to present addiction not as an aberration but as a human condition, one that 2 million Americans struggle with. Reframing how we view addiction will go a long way in helping people.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
Definitely memoir readers and fans of addiction and recovery narratives. But beyond that, anyone who is interested in understanding what is at the heart of the opioid crisis.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
I think it’s hard for people to believe that I was able to hide my addiction for as long as I did, but the people who were closest to me were absolutely shocked when I went to rehab. In my teenage years, I didn’t display the “warning signs” of addiction. I got straight A’s in school, participated in lots of extracurricular activities and had plenty of friends. We have ideas about what a drug addict looks like or acts like, but the truth is addiction can happen to anyone, can look like anyone.

 


Alex Halberstadt, author of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

Beginning with childhood memories of his parents’ troubled marriage and divorce, resentment toward his absent father and embarrassment over grandparents who made no effort to conceal their foreignness, Russian American author Alex Halberstadt slowly pulls away the curtain draped over his family’s unhappiness. What he finds is startling: a grandfather who served as a bodyguard to Stalin, and who became known to Halberstadt as a fragile man who still wrestles with the truth of the atrocities he at least witnessed, if not perpetrated. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
One of the themes my book deals with is the relationship between personal lives and the larger currents of history, and what I love is the way my book braids together personal stories with episodes from Russian history while telescoping back and forth in time. For me, nonfiction is always most compelling when it’s grounded in the specifics of people’s stories.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I think my book would particularly appeal to readers interested in family stories, 20th-century history, Russia, the Holocaust, immigration and intergenerational trauma.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
My grandfather was very likely Stalin’s last living bodyguard and for years operated as a double agent, splitting his loyalties between Stalin and the head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Some days it seems unbelievable to me, too.

 


Evan James, author of I’ve Been Wrong Before

The ragged ways we fall in and out of relationships are at the center of these dazzling autobiographical essays, as Evan James ponders the complexities of love, lust, sexuality and longing against the backdrop of his world travels. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love that I set out to write a lighthearted book of comedic personal essays and that, over the course of years spent tinkering with them, I upended many of my own assumptions about myself and my loved ones in the process. As I say in one essay, “We settle for so little knowledge of each other.”

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
A reader with an open mind and a sense of curiosity about life in all its absurdity. A reader who wants to have a laugh while reading about world travel, past lives, psychic mothers, drag queens, drugs, dating, ghosts, day jobs.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
Readers might find it incredible that I’ve had so many fascinating love affairs—or that I was, apparently, Lord Byron in a past life.

 


Philip Kennicott, author of Counterpoint

Philip Kennicott’s engrossing memoir explores his impressions of his late mother. But even more than these grief-stricken reflections, it is Kennicott’s intimate insights into the way Bach’s music speaks to all our lives as they wind their way toward our inevitable deaths that makes this book an unforgettable triumph. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I thought I was going to write a book about Johann Sebastian Bach and his magnificent keyboard work “The Goldberg Variations,” but as I started writing, it became a book about my mother and the grief I felt when she died almost 10 years earlier. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m an art critic who writes for a daily newspaper, and I try not to use the first-person voice too often. But the process of writing this memoir kept drawing me ever deeper into memory and forced me to think about what had been a complicated and difficult relationship. I kept wondering, can anyone possibly be interested in this? When I was finished and showed the manuscript to a few people, they said it was the family part they enjoyed most. That was a relief, because I struggled to weave together anecdotes about my childhood and the original idea for the book, which was a memoir about learning how to play a complex piece of music. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. If we really dig into the emotions we feel in the present, we find that they have deep roots in our past. Writing about Bach, and my struggles with his demanding music, inevitably led me back to some of my earliest memories, to a time when my mother and I used to make music together. It refreshed things that had been buried for a long time, mostly in a good way.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
If you took music lessons as a child or are studying an instrument as an adult, I think you will love this book. And I hope readers who are interested in memoir and have a general curiosity about music will find something of interest here. I tried to write about music in ways that are specific but not technical, and to explain why Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one of the enduring masterpieces of Western music. But this is also a book about something we all know or will know in life: the pain of losing someone close to us. As I write in the last chapter, grief brings us meaning, it makes life more intense, and it makes us impatient with silly, trivial things. It binds us to other human beings. I hope those things are of universal interest to readers.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
There’s a chapter in my book about a month I spent alone in an old house practicing the piano and reading. Except for a few trips to the grocery store, I saw no one during that period, and the isolation was seductive. I realized after a few weeks that I was thinking more about my mother than I had at any other point in my life, thinking about her more sympathetically and working harder to piece together who she had been and why she had been so unhappy. It was an emotionally volatile few weeks. And one day, as some of the darker clouds in my head were lifting, I went on a long walk and heard a strange flapping in the grass along the roadside. It was a bird caught up in some kind of netting or plastic. I managed to free it, and it flew away. I thought, what a cliché. And then I thought, well, it happened, and it is the sort of story my mother, who was a passionate bird-watcher, would have loved. So I included it in the book.

 


Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings 

Cathy Park Hong offers a fierce excavation of her hardships as an Asian American woman living and working as a poet and artist. Historical traumas and cultural criticism are woven through this erudite collection of personal essays on family, art history, female relationships and racial awareness. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love it because it’s my most honest, vulnerable and bravest book to date. It’s also my personal intervention against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story,” which is basically the same tired racial narratives that we hear over and over again that comfort us rather than makes us rethink how we perceive others.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I’m writing directly to Asian Americans, rather than writing about Asian Americans to a white audience. But I think so many people would enjoy this book: other people of color, immigrants, women, millennials, the curious-minded, people who don’t mind being challenged.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
That I had a brief and unfortunate foray into stand-up comedy.

 


Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of Children of the Land

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s powerful, poetically infused memoir adds a soul-searing voice to the canon of contemporary immigration narratives. Undocumented as he crossed over the desert into California as a child, temporarily blind from the stress, he grows up riddled with the shame of his family’s invisibility. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love that I was given the freedom to cordon off sections, or chapters, or even single scenes as complete units in their own right and, more so that they are all of different sizes. Something special happens when text is placed alone in a sea of blank space like a tiny island made of language.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I don’t think I could say who will enjoy my book most, but perhaps I could say who might get the most out of my book, and for different reasons. I am not afraid of critics looking from the outside in (I can shut away that noise) but rather of disappointing people who share similar experiences with me.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
I think it might be difficult for readers to accept how little healing there is in the book, and they may think I cherry-picked only the most emotionally difficult parts of my life with the belief that it would automatically translate into empathy for the reader. I truly wish that were the case, that somewhere out there, I’m living a life where I’ve moved on and put all of this behind me. I was always keenly aware of presenting joy that is at times enmeshed with grief.

In celebration of Memoir March, we asked the authors of eight groundbreaking memoirs what readers will love about their life stories—and which parts are even stranger than fiction. Dolly Alderton, author of Everything I Know About Love Dolly Alderton recounts her many mishaps—including a drunken evening when she thought she was in Oxford, not London—through essays, […]

A glamorous person deserves a glamorous present.


These four books, created by cinephiles for cinephiles, are perfect picks for the film buff in your life: They usher readers behind the scenes and offer a bit of dish, a lot of insight and plenty of glam Old Hollywood fun.

The Hollywood Book Club by Steven Rea
Steven Rea’s The Hollywood Book Club: Reading with the Stars is filled with black-and-white photos of actors from Tinseltown of yore reading at home and on set, poolside and at kitchen tables. The stars’ artful poses and occasional sly grins keep things interesting, a la Gregory Peck looking up from To Kill a Mockingbird. Film critic and photo archivist Rea’s witty captions add color and context. He explains the meaning behind the featured books and offers insider details (Edward G. Robinson collected French Impressionist art; Bette Davis’ husband wanted a divorce because she read too much). This fascinating dive into Hollywood history is a splendidly starry way to add to your TBR pile.

Letters from Hollywood by Rocky Land & Barbara Hall
Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall know movies. Lang, son of a studio executive, is a producer, director and writer; Hall is a film historian and archivist. Their compendium Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking is an excellent reference and engrossing exploration of American film from the silent era through the 1970s. Letters to and from famous actors, directors and more (Bela Lugosi, Katharine Hepburn, Claudia McNeil, Irving Berlin, Tom Hanks) are augmented by photos and other ephemera. Film buffs will revel in flipping to favorite luminaries, checking out surprising pen pals, admiring vintage stationery design and pondering the vanished art of writing letters. As Peter Bogdanovich writes in the foreword, “What a great idea!”

The Movie Musical! by Jeanine Basinger
At the beginning of The Movie Musical! Jeanine Basinger writes, “I was raised on musicals, and I love them.” That affection is evident in this 650-plus-page master class and love letter to the form and its practitioners. The author, a film historian and author of 11 other film books, takes readers on an edifying journey through the evolution of Hollywood musicals, from “the arrival of sound” in 1927’s The Jazz Singer to present-day extravaganzas like Bohemian Rhapsody (and La La Land, which she Does Not Like). She offers insight on what makes a musical, reveals the ways in which art and business collide and assesses the appeal of everyone from Gene Kelly to Diana Ross to Channing Tatum. Devotees will delight in revisiting beloved films—and making a list of musicals to watch ASAP.

Home Work by Julie Andrews
In this follow-up to 2008’s Home, Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton dive into Andrews’ movie-making era, which began in 1962 when Walt Disney offered her the lead role in Mary Poppins. In Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, the authors bring us along on Andrews’ thrilling movie star journey with fascinating revelations about films like The Sound of Music, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, and Andrews’ second husband Blake Edwards’ 10 and That’s Life (the latter was their final film together; he died in 2010 after a 41-year marriage). Andrews was initially insecure in front of the cameras, but that soon gave way to using stage-honed instincts to inhabit characters from the outside in—via costumes and wigs, as well as, say, giving Ms. Poppins stiffly turned-out feet “to punctuate the impression of Mary’s character when flying.” Andrews shares diary entries, too, as she muses on the perpetual tug-of-war between family and work; the depression that plagued so many colleagues, including Edwards; and memorable trips abroad. Home Work is a multifaceted and absorbing 20-year tour of Hollywood through the eyes of one of its most beloved players.

These four books, created by cinephiles for cinephiles, are perfect picks for the film buff in your life.

These three books offer peeks behind the scenes of our favorite on-screen entertainment, making them the perfect gifts for the TV aficionados and cinephiles among us.

Much like RuPaul himself, GuRu defies easy categorization. There are 80 beautiful photos of the author in his many drag guises, plus life advice on everything from conquering childhood pain to style. These highlights of RuPaul’s journey from hardworking unknown to influential and successful multihyphenate are at once fascinating, funny and inspiring. RuPaul urges readers to “stop trying to fit in when you were born to stand out” and offers insight into how drag has allowed him to express himself and feel truly seen. With multiple records, books, Emmys for his show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and more under his flatteringly waist-cinching belt, he’s no stranger to sharing his message. This scrapbook of his life so far is another example of the power of authenticity, no matter what it looks like.

WE WERE ON A BREAK
Readers who had “the Rachel” haircut, can sing all the words to “Smelly Cat” and have celebrated “Friendsgiving” are the natural audience for journalist Kelsey Miller’s I’ll Be There for You: The One About Friends. However, even those who didn’t immerse themselves in the 1990s television phenomenon “Friends” will appreciate her perspective on how it influenced pop culture. Miller was 10 when “Friends” debuted, and “its enormous impact was baked into my DNA like radiation.” When she recently found herself timing her workouts to “Friends” reruns on her gym’s TV, Miller decided to explore why the show still resonates so strongly (16 million Americans watch reruns every week, she notes). The book is a delightfully mixed bag: Miller shares the players’ origin stories and gives insight into how TV shows are made. She also considers the show’s impact on everything from advertising to fashion to coffee culture and thoughtfully examines the show’s fatphobia, lack of diversity and depictions of gay characters. It’s an entertaining read for fans of all ages.

COMPLETELY COEN
Adam Nayman’s The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is a colorful, comprehensive tribute to the movie-making duo. The author, a Toronto- based film critic, is intrigued by the interconnectedness of the Coens’ work, which spans some four decades. He asserts that, while their films may seem to be wildly different, “nothing in the brothers’ vise-tight, magisterially engineered movies could be happening by accident.” And so, from 1987’s Raising Arizona to 1996’s Fargo to 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, et al., Nayman sets out to identify “some Grand Unified Theory of Coen-ness.” Readers can follow along on this quest, or they can flip around and dive into specific movies, read interviews with Coen collaborators or page through the photos and illustrations. Even if there’s no singular answer to what makes a Coen film a Coen film, this detailed compendium is a cinephile’s delight.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

These three books offer peeks behind the scenes of our favorite on-screen entertainment, making them the perfect gifts for the TV aficionados and cinephiles among us.

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