December 2008

Names in lights

By Robert Wagner
By Tony Curtis
By Donald Spoto
By Jeffrey Hyland
By Richard Schickel
By Edited by Verlhac
By David Sterritt
Review by
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Leading men tell all

There are similarities to the careers and lives of Robert Wagner and Tony Curtis. Both were contract players who went on to 1950s – era stardom and a cool '60s ride. Each reaped the rewards of fame by paling with starry names – and enjoying women galore. After wedding famous actresses, both were in "storybook" marriages breathlessly covered by fan magazines.

That's where the similarities end, as detailed in Wagner's Pieces of My Heart, written with Scott Eyman. This holiday tell-all delivers the goods. Wagner grew up privileged, just off the Bel – Air Country Club golf course, where he caddied for the likes of Clark Gable and Fred Astaire. Just 22 when he began a four – year affair with the much older Barbara Stanwyck (she was 45) he later famously married and divorced and remarried Natalie Wood. Her 1981 death in the waters off Catalina Island continues to haunt him. Yet Wagner, who went on to find fame as a TV stalwart and is now married to Jill St. John, knows he's had an amazing ride.

A star is born

Tony Curtis enjoyed all the amenities a life in the Hollywood spotlight can bring – but you wouldn't know it to read his story, told in American Prince: A Memoir, written with Peter Golenbock. But then, the former Bernie Schwartz had a hardscrabble New York childhood: he's always been quick to use his fists. Curtis came to Hollywood by way of acting school, following a Navy stint. His pretty boy looks were his calling card-and date bait. Opening with a tryst with young Marilyn Monroe, his book does considerable bed – hopping. It was an affair with a 17 -year-old leading lady that put an end to his marriage to popular actress Janet Leigh. (Curtis says Leigh's treatment of him had left him "emotionally vulnerable.") The ugly split may have turned some of Hollywood's powerful figures against Curtis. Or so he believes. He had a string of marriages and saw his career spiral downward, despite starring in bona fide classics, including Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success.

He left Hollywood when the phone stopped ringing. Now living in Las Vegas, he's been happily married for 10 years (wife Jill has a horse ranch). For the record, he's not on the greatest terms with daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. But he's working on it.

Inside a curious mind

Alfred Hitchcock didn't go for happy endings, but he sure liked blondes. But what was behind the master of suspense's obsession with actresses including Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren? In Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, Donald Spoto offers a compelling psychological examination. As the author of two other Hitchcock tomes, Spoto has the credentials and sources to explore how Hitchcock's psyche impacted his films and their casting. Self – loathing and friendless with unresolved issues toward women, Hitchcock could be a cruel taskmaster. What he did to Hedren (mother of actress Melanie Griffith) during the making of The Birds and especially Marnie, was nothing short of sexual harassment – even physical abuse. (Class act that she is, Hedren eventually made her peace with Hitchcock.) The plot of Vertigo (in which James Stewart "remakes" Kim Novak into his dream woman) played to his habit of making actresses "to his dream ideal of blonde perfection." Of course, those blondes often wound up in nightmarish situations in Hitchcock's iconic films.

The Hollywood lifestyle

In the world of show business, some of the hottest properties aren't on the screen but, rather, in the rarefied worlds of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Holmby Hills. Leading Beverly Hills real estate broker Jeffrey Hyland knows that terrain better than anyone, as revealed in the massive, lushly illustrated The Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills. This amazingly researched and illustrated history of nearly 50 incredible estates, from the ground up (as they were built), includes a who's who of notables involved, as well as an authoritative look at the convergence of architectural styles (and audacity) that are as integral to Southern California as palm trees – and it comes in a carrying case with attached handle. For looky – loos, this may be the ultimate home tour.

A studio revealed

If you saw and enjoyed PBS's five-hour documentary about Warner Bros. Studios that aired in September, you only skimmed the surface. You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story by Richard Schickel and George Perry, gives the complete saga, with a wealth of images from the archives of the 85 – year – old studio. Founded by four brothers, Warner Bros. famously popularized sound with 1927's The Jazz Singer. Its first big star was Rin Tin Tin. The studio also claimed the esteemed John Barrymore (grandfather of Drew Barrymore). But its key performers were as gritty as the movies that became the studio signatures. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart were among those who made their mark here. Moving decade by decade (the '70s were as exciting as the '30s), the book takes us right up to The Dark Knight and Sweeney Todd, and charts the evolution of modern legends, including Clint Eastwood, who penned the foreword.

Eastwood's own metamorphosis is captured in Clint Eastwood: A Life in Pictures. Edited by Pierre – Henri Verlhac, with a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich, it follows his journey from hubba – hubba beefcake model to his status as a revered filmmaker – actor, accepting accolades and statuettes at Cannes and the Oscars. Now there's a Hollywood ending.

Beyond the best

The B-List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre – Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love is edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson. The National Society of Film Critics is known for highbrow taste (in 2002 they turned out The A-List: 100 Essential Films). But in this entry, the members fess up about the guilty pleasures on their DVD shelves. A chapter on "Provocation and Perversity" goes bonkers for Nic Cage's loony tunes performance in Vampire's Kiss. Another on "Dark and Disturbing Dreams" salutes The Rage: Carrie 2. Here and there, a title's inclusion gives pause; Platoon a B-movie? But the bulk of the lineup reminds us why it's OK to love movies that have never made a "10 best" list.

Some of the B-titles are included in David Thomson's "Have You Seen… ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. It's a welcome companion to his authoritative Biographical Dictionary of Film. Arranged alphabetically, titles from 1895 to 2007 are examined on varying levels (audacious themes, forgotten performances, the tenor of the day, etc.). The erudite Thomson isn't without a sense of humor. Of Liz Taylor in Cleopatra, he notes, "Her eyelashes needed cranes!"

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