Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Screen Lives

In his explanatory afterward to American Titan, celebrity multi-biographer Marc Eliot says he sought to write the story of John Wayne using his work in movies, treating Wayne as an auteur according to the theory of film criticism given that name. Usually, the label is restricted to directors, who are seen as the source of a movie's creative vision in the same way that an author is the source of a novel's creative vision. Actors usually aren't seen as auteurs, since they are responsible for only the part of the movie they're in.

The idea that an actor could create a body of work that speaks of his or her creative vision and views about the human condition in the way directors do isn't outlandish. And Wayne, who directed two movies and served as an uncredited assistant director on three others where the director fell ill, does have something that might indicate his vision as an auteur. His essentially unchanged character in the latter part of his career could also help establish that vision -- no matter who the director was or what the movie was called, he was pretty much John Wayne from dimmed lights to end credits.

The problem is that Eliot doesn't really do that. He explores Wayne's early career with some detail, but once he begins the "famous years" following Wayne's breakout in Stagecoach, he recites a fairly standard newspaper account of the Duke's career, throwing in some personal-life anecdotes. In Eliot's telling, Wayne's preference for the free and easy time of shooting movies and location living made him a most unreliable husband to each of his three wives, although he he participated as fully as possible in raising his children. His unflinching anti-Communist and pro-American viewpoint fueled both of his directorial efforts, which were slammed by critics and one of which, The Alamo, nearly bankrupted him.

Again, while it's most definitely possible to look at Wayne's work, understand how he saw humanity and the questions it faced and from that draw some understanding of his life, Eliot's book doesn't dig into that work enough to really accomplish that. He references too many movies briefly and too few important ones deeply to offer much more than the history on top. Titan also suffers by competing for shelf space with Scott Eyman's much more thoroughly researched and extensive John Wayne: The Life and Legend, also released in 2014.

As a tool for understanding the impact of Wayne the actor on the movie business and cinematic storytelling, American Titan is a metric wrench turning an English-measurement nut -- it creates as much, if not more, work in doing its job than you'd have if you used no tools at all. The presence of better equipment for the job means it can be set aside without much care or loss.
April 1997 also saw dueling biographies of a famous move icon, as celebrity biographer Jeffrey Meyers' Bogart: A Life in Hollywood arrived almost the same day as Eric Lax's completion of A. M. Sperber's Bogart.

The Lax-Sperber Humphrey Bogart bio was by far the more detailed and almost twice the size of its competitor, drawing on the 200 interviews Sperber conducted with Bogie associates, friends and family before her 1994 death. Lax finished the manuscript and had Bogart ready for publication during the year marking the 40th anniversary of the actor's death.

Bogart details the actor's early life as the son of a well-to-do surgeon and commerical illustrator who did not show much affection to their three children and whose own indifferent academic and naval career didn't promise much. Beginning onstage in New York City, he found himself drawn to the fun of acting and the late-night lifestyle of show business. He drifted to Hollywood after the stock market crash diminished theater work in New York. His depression over a stalled career, a bad second marriage and the loss of his father eventually fueled his switch to heavier and darker roles, culminating as Duke Mantee in the play The Petrified Forest. When the play hit the screen, star Leslie Howard insisted Bogart play the role there as well, providing him the break his career had needed.

Sperber and Lax then detail how Bogie worked through a ream of B-movies until 1941's one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, followed in 1942 by Casablanca. Professional success didn't translate to personal happiness, as Bogie's third wife was an alcoholic whose jealousy of his leading ladies often reached paranoia levels. It wasn't until meeting the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in 1944 that he was able to find a home life as good as his professional one; they wed three months after Bogie filed for divorce.

Bogart also describes Bogie's relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee and its single-minded pursuit of Communists working in Hollywood. A liberal Democrat, he opposed what he saw as the harassment of people for their points of view even though he disagreed with many of the things they believed and said.

Lax, working with the Pulitzer-nominated Sperber's interviews and outline, writes clearly and efficiently, and the pair "collaborate" across time to create the definitive biography of the man who many have been America's most unique movie star.

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