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review 2018-09-20 16:59
Peter O'Toole: the Definitive Biography (Sellers)
Peter O'Toole : the definitive biography - Robert Sellers

Is this really "the definitive biography"? It's certainly the best in a very disappointing field since O'Toole's death. Notably absent amongst the people interviewed as original sources: any of O'Toole's surviving family, including ex-wife Sian Phillilps (mother of his two daughters) or ex-partner Karen Brown (mother of his late-life son). So this is definitely not the "authorized" biography, which can be a good or a bad thing. In this case, I think it has been detrimental to any real understanding of O'Toole's family life (Sian Phillips' autobiography is a useful corrective for the years when they were married).

 

I was dubious when I saw Robert Sellers to be the author, because he has also written books with such unpromising titles as "Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed" and "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World". In other words, he gives every appearance of being one of those bloke-ish biographers who delight in chronicling promiscuity and drunkenness, as if they were something necessarily associated with great talent and in some way admirable. Mind you, to be fair, if you're going to write about Peter O'Toole, you're going to have to address both of those major factors in his life and career. But I was pleasantly surprised at the relative absence of celebratory adjectives about the alcoholism that most certainly contributed to O'Toole's dreadful health in the second part of the career (not to mention his very poor reputation amongst landlords and other property owners).

 

The sources for this book are chiefly gossipy minor players in the entertainment world, most of whom doubtless have dined out on their O'Toole stories for some time, so we must take into account the natural human tendencies to embellish and generalize. The other people involved in the best anecdotes are by and large gone from us, and can't issue any refutations (if indeed they would wish to). But in addition to O'Toole's mischief, drinking, and occasional completely thoughtless cruelty, I found that there was also a ring of truth - through repetition from different sources - in the accounts of his deep thoughtfulness about his craft, his extensive and intelligent reading, and a generosity that could be as extravagant as his narcissism. As I think I remarked in my review of "Hellraisers", O'Toole still comes off, like Burton, as someone you could see wanting to associate with, as opposed to some of the nastier drunks in his circle of contemporaries. (And lest anyone wonder, it does seem that he dabbled in drugs as well.)

 

Sellers puts to rest the old controversy of where O'Toole was born, Ireland or England, by digging up the actual birth certificate from Leeds. But he does also acknowledge throughout that O'Toole became Irish, almost by dint of wishing so very much to be Irish (he always claimed himself that he did not actually know one way or the other).

The book has a decent apparatus (index, bibliography, list of film and theatre credits), and there are citations at the end for most paragraphs, though since most of said citations are to "author's interview with X", there's really not much verification that can be done. Sellers also took the time to view the historical record in the form of TV talk show utterances (now much more available to us through youtube), and he relies relatively little on previous biographical work as far as I can see, although Sian Phillips is of course fairly heavily cited.

 

"Better than expected" doesn't seem like particularly high praise, but in fact I'm quite pleased to give this book a place on my shelves. Since O'Toole will unfortunately never continue his slim, whimsical, fascinating autobiographical efforts into the most riveting years of his career, we must rely on the more prosaic expressions (and perhaps more reliable memories?) of the people around him who may not have been his nearest and dearest, but for that very reason may have been reliable observers.

 

Recommended to fans of O'Toole and people who enjoy anecdotal biography about London and Hollywood in the mid to late 20th century.

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review 2018-04-23 17:14
Insights into a cinephile
Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief - Mark Feeney

Mark Feeney's book is a difficult work to describe. At its core it provides its readers with an analysis of Richard Nixon's cinephilia, the consequences of which Feeney gleans in order to explain various aspects of Nixon's psychology. This he does in a series of interconnected chapter-length essays, the majority of which are built around a particular film Nixon watched during his time as president. Feeney uses his examination of these movies as a springboard for an extended exploration into specific aspects of Nixon's life and career, such as his relationship with Ronald Reagan or his time in Congress. Drawing upon his background as a film critic, he weaves together his examination into a study of the films themselves and their related works, which he breaks down not just to draw out the elements that relate to Nixon's life but to illuminate the America in which he lived.

The result is an engrossing read. Though Feeney provides no new details about Nixon's life or his time in office, he draws out connections that deepen our understanding of the man and provide some interesting interpretations of his character. It also has the effect of humanizing the 37th president in a way that that few other books have before, showing how, at his core, Nixon was a person who enjoyed losing himself in movies as much as anyone else. While this is not the first book people should seek out to learn about Richard Nixon, the originality of Feeney's approach and the insights it provides make it one that nobody seeking to make sense of the man can afford to neglect.

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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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