(as printed in the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best Books Column” on July 7, 2007)
“THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE”
By Frank Capra
This is the best show business autobiography to date, bar none, written by a man who for many years was one of only three directors in Hollywood (the others: Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock) whose name meant as much on a marquee as any star. The life of Frank Capra (1897-1991) is a dazzling American success story, filled with more peaks than plateaus. But by the time the three-time Academy award winning director was 64, he writes, “the Marquis de Sade had taken over the movie industry,” and “the kind of people I once ate for breakfast were maneuvering me out of pet projects I wanted to do and out of the studio I had helped build into a major company,” So Capra called it a day. Regretfully for us. What he has to say about his time in the sun is filled with all the verve and intrigue of a great mystery novel.
“MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK”
Edited by Rudy Behlmer
Apparently no one ever wrote more memos, with carbon copies, than producer David O. Selznick (1902-65) and no one’s mail has ever been more fascinating to read. The memos flew out of his office at an alarming rate, whether about the casting of “Gone With the Wind” (“Would Warners give us a picture a year with Errol Flynn if we give him the lead?”), or telling Ingrid Bergman how much makeup to use. Deftly assembled by Hollywood historian Rudy Behlmer, the bopk shows us how the obsessively hands-on Selznick was able to produce so many outstanding movies (in addition to “Gone With the Wind,” he was behind "Dinner at 8, “Nothing Sacred” and “Rebecca”). It also makes it clear why people ran screaming whenever messenger showed up with another memo from DOS.
By Moss Hart
Random House, 1959
Moss Hart (1904-61) was one of the marvels of Broadway and Hollywood, renowned as a playwright (“The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “You Can’t Take It With You”), screenwriter (“Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Star is Born”) and Broadway director (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”). He was also a famous wit, a devoted friend and a man prey to deep depressions and mood swings. His autobiography, “Act One,” is a treasure, an extraordinary treat and the perfect answer for anyone who ever wondered why a person would devote his or her life to such an unstable and erratic line of work. The book covers only Hart’s early years, before the success kicked in, but tantalizingly promised two more volumes which, alas, never came.
“LION OF HOLLYWOOD: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LOUIS B. MAYER”
By Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, 2005
Soon after MGM’s big boss, Louis B. Mayer, died in 1957 his name became a symbol of Hollywood hierarchy at it’s most monstrous. I have always found this confusing, since many of those who knew him well and worked for him were fond of the man who shepherded “more stars than there are in heaven.” Scott Eyman’s excellent Mayor biography, “Lion of Hollywood,” helps explain these divergent views: in 1961, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote a book about Mayer (“Hollywood Rajah”) with much negative input from one of Mayer’s two daughters, Edie Mayer Goetz, who had, ah!, been left out of his will. Eyman’s meticulously researched book never panders to Mayer but does a great deal to balance our perceptions of him. Along the way, we learn how a boy born in Russia in 1882 joined a generation of refugees, glove salesmen and refugees and other ambitious young men to built an American empire industry dictated much more by need and passion than meanness and malice.
“THE GRAND SURPRISE: THE JOURNALS OF LEO LERMAN”
By Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman (1914-94) never produced a movie or directed a play, but as a writer, editor and critic at Conde Nast, he ran in glamourous circles. His celebrated friends included many identifiable by just one name: Marlene, Tru, Jackie, Nureyev, Jackie, Cary. Lerman kept detailed journals tracking his social scamperings (even before he could afford it, he entertained constantly). But in the journals he also confessed to fears of failure and inadequacy alongside those glittering souls. “The Grand Surprise” (edited by Stephen Pascal), with an intoxicating mix of gossip, anecdotes and character sketches, will for many be a grand surprise. Lerman writes with just the right touch of brio and bite as he evokes a vanished time.Read less