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review 2018-01-23 22:29
Richard Burton: Prince of Players (Munn)
Richard Burton: Prince of Players - Michael Munn

This biography of Richard Burton is, I would guess, highly unreliable as to details. Although Michael Munn, the author, was indeed in the entertainment business in minor capacities, I very much doubt he had the kind of access to Burton himself (or to his circle) that would allow him to quote, apparently verbatim, whole stretches of actual conversation so very focused and illuminating about Burton's life. My suspicion that in fact Munn was paraphrasing cribbed versions of secondary sources was confirmed when I compared his account of an incident involving John Gielgud with Sheridan Morley's Gielgud biography, and discovered word-for word-borrowings but written as if told to the author directly by Burton (the tip-off was the idiosyncratic phrase "idiot boards"). That said, Munn does seem to have had some access to Burton (though not perhaps in the chummy way he claims), as well as to some of the more notorious gossips in Hollywood like Roddy McDowall. He also actually gives us a bibliography of sorts, though only a "selected" one; so I suspect he did his reading.

 

This, then, was a quick read with a hefty dose of salt, reliable for at least the bare outlines of Burton's career, and likely also a pretty good reflection of the gossip about Burton over the years. It's not a very happy tale. Indeed, given whatever illness of the mind (or brain) he was suffering from, as well as his lifelong alcoholism, what strikes me about Burton is not the brevity of his working life but the fact that he managed to get as much good work done as he did.

 

I was relieved to read that despite his reputation of having slept with every leading lady he had, Julie Andrews (who shared the stage with him in "Camelot") was notoriously proof against his boozy charms.

 

There's got to be at least one better biography out there, and I remember hearing that Burton's own diaries have been published, so I may come back to him at some point. I'm really far more interested in Peter O'Toole (upon the subject of whom this particular book was pretty light, though apparently they were quite good friends), but reading this book has at least revived in me the desire to go back and watch "Becket" again.

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review 2017-11-27 16:22
My seventy-ninth podcast is up!
The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox - Vanda Krefft

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Vanda Krefft about her new biography of the silent era movie mogul William Fox. Enjoy!

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review 2017-10-07 18:11
Skewed by a flawed premise
De Gaulle: Lessons in Leadership from the Defiant General - Michael E. Haskew,Wesley K. Clark

Michael Haskew's book is less an analysis of Charles de Gaulle's leadership style than it is a compact overview of the French leader's life with a concentration on his military career. In it, Haskew details de Gaulle's service in the French army, his experience in both world wars, and his relationship with other key contemporaries, most notably Philippe Pétain. Haskew writes well, and peppers his text with insightful anecdotes that are both engaging and illustrative of his subject. Yet perhaps because of its place in a series on "great generals" the book is based on a flawed premise: though de Gaulle spent over three decades in uniform, he was a general in direct command of French army units for only a few weeks before he transitioned to the more political role of leader of the Free French. This Haskew does cover as well, but then he glosses over the postwar era in which de Gaulle created a political movement and served as president of France for a decade. To glance over de Gaulle's more significant role as a politician in a book ostensibly dealing with his leadership is inexcusable, and limits the value of Haskew's book as a study of his fascinating subject. Readers seeking an introduction to de Gaulle's life and career would be far better served by reading Julian Jackson's de Gaulle, which in terms of coverage and analysis is everything Haskew's book is not.

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review 2017-08-07 00:22
And Furthermore (Dench)
And Furthermore - Judi Dench

"Do not consider this an autobiography. I have neither the time nor the skill to write one," warns Dame Judi right at the beginning of her introductory remarks. She points to the 1998 biography by John Miller, and it is that same John Miller who has the "as told to" credit on this book. That said, "And Furthermore" is chatty and not obviously ghost-written in tone, and the assistance to its celebrated author seems to have been chiefly rendered in keeping names, dates and projects straight. Unlike a later-in-life memoir with a similar title, Lauren Bacall's "And Then Some," this book does not confine itself just to the years since the last biographical outing, but instead covers off, in an orderly and comprehensive, if fairly superficial way, all of Judi Dench's long life. There is a solid emphasis on her performing rather than her personal or emotional life, though of course she talks a bit about major events like the passing of her much-loved husband, Michael Williams. The narrative is mostly anecdotal, sometimes funny but not exclusively so, and very generous to her co-workers in theatre, film and television. She also reveals a somewhat surprising penchant for misbehaving on stage or set - practical jokes and the like.

Dench, if she is generally apt to suppress criticism of other people, makes no secret of her dislike for certain material. She loathes "The Merchant of Venice," for instance. And even at the distance of more than 40 years, she has no hesitation in pronouncing a minor play from French, "Content to Whisper," "the most terrible play known to man."

The names are not so much dropped as just wonderfully, gloriously omnipresent. Judi Dench has worked with everyone from Gielgud onwards. She can say of two productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "What was so uncanny for me was hearing Rachael Stirling as Helena, the part her mother Diana Rigg had played with the RSC when we did it before." She knows and has worked with all the British classical actors who have crossed over to Hollywood celebrity - Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Craig, you name 'em. A little to my surprise, she also has a solid resume in musicals; she was only prevented by a rehearsal injury from being in the original London cast of "Cats" and she played big houses in "Cabaret" and "A Little Night Music."

Judi's right though, in a way. This is an autobiographical work, but it's not "the autobiography" or "the biography." Like many actors, she shies away from analyzing or even watching her own work. And, likeably enough, she doesn't indulge in a lot of introspection, at least not for public consumption. I shall probably end up trying Miller's 1998 biography in hopes for more insights to add on top of this entirely amiable work.

Oh yes, there's a decent collection of photos from her collection too, including some in colour. Definitely a keeper.

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review 2017-01-30 12:23
Behind the scenes of B-movie's silver age
It Came from the 80s! Interviews with 124 Cult Filmmakers - Francesco Borseti

If the 1950s and 1960s were the golden era of the exploitationist "B-movie," the 1980s was its silver age. Thanks to the growth of both cable television and home VHS players, low-budget productions had new outlets for their films, and producers leaped at the opportunities that they provided. While many of these movies were forgettable, some have attracted followings by those who enjoy their charms or for whom the films are a nostalgic artifact of their lives back then.

 

It is this audience to whom Francesco Borseti's book is directed. It is a collection of interviews with the men and women involved in making 28 English-language films from the decade. The interviewees are a range of people from writers and directors to actors and technical personnel. The main criteria for their inclusion seems to be a willingness to speak with Borseti about their memories of working on the film, which offers a unique glimpse into the process of creating a B-movie back then. While the eclectic nature of interviewees and their responses (some of which tend more towards self-promotion than recollection) doesn't provide a systematic account of their production, fans of these films will find this an entertaining glimpse behind the scenes of the movies they enjoy.

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