Of course, I'm biased because Jo quotes me in the book. According to her, I said, "I was rinsing off a bunch of raspberries the other day, when it occurred to me that as a kid I always wanted two things: a machine that would play movies and enough raspberries. Now I've got both."
This is true. But I might note that Jo is more impressed with the raspberries -- which as she notes were available to us in Mississippi back when we were kids only in their frozen form -- than with the wonderful movie machine. It's the other way around for me: Though I still prefer raspberries over any other fruit on my morning cereal, it's the movie delivery systems -- first the VCR, then the DVD, and next whatever technology emerges as dominant -- that blow my mind.
I don't know how I would have survived childhood in a small Mississippi town without the movies. They were my tickets out of the place, out of small-mindedness and racism. If I had a boyhood hero, it was Gene Kelly, dancing down the street in the rain, an emblem of joyful liberation from the conventional.
My portals of escape were the ticket booths of the town's two movie theaters, the Lyric and the Ritz. They divided the film world between them: The Lyric showed films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox; the Ritz exhibited Warner Bros., RKO (which meant Disney when I was a kid), Columbia and Universal. Even as a boy, I could identify the house style, the peculiar production values of each of the studios.
I don't go to movie theaters anymore. The last film I saw in a theater -- or what passes for a theater these days, a little compartment in a multiplex that has all the charm and atmosphere of an airline terminal -- was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They tell me that I'm missing out on the community in the dark that's part of the mystique of movie-going. But what I'm missing out on is hearing the attention-deficient guy behind me having his girlfriend explain the plot to him. Since the completion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there has been no film momentous enough to draw me into the theater.
Which means, of course, that I'm behind on this year's Oscar-nominated films. (I can probably squeeze in Michael Clayton before next Sunday's awards show, since it comes out on DVD this week.) But the Oscars still excite me, for reasons I can't quite explain. (Maybe one of them is that I wrote a book about them.) Their record for singling out truly exceptional achievement is poor; they value high seriousness over originality; they reward actors for playing against type instead of for playing well; the craft awards -- cinematography, art direction, etc. -- often go to members of the clique instead of to true innovators, and so on. This week the newspapers will be full of stories about who should have won in the past and why they didn't. Next week, they will be full of stories about who should have won this year and why they didn't.
But that's part of the charm of the Oscars: Everybody knows what's wrong with them, and yet everybody wants one. Ever been to a party where someone brought an actual Oscar statuette? You've seen it happen: Everybody picks it up, cradles it, and gives a thank you speech. One year, the magazine for which I worked received a chocolate Oscar as part of a promotional package for something or other. Our office manager placed it on her desk at the entrance to the offices, and sure enough, everyone who entered picked it up, cradled it, and gave a thank you speech. Needless to say, nobody actually ate the thing after it had been handled so often.
So to celebrate Oscar week, I'm going to post some old reviews of books about the movies. Today, a 1995 review of two movie star biographies -- one of a star who never won an Oscar but probably should have, and one of a star who did win but probably shouldn't have.
GARBO: A Biography
By Barry Paris
PORTRAIT OF JENNIFER: A Biography of Jennifer Jones
By Edward Z. Epstein
Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., out of print, but available
She was a delicious Ninotchka, a stunning Queen Christina, the definitive Lady of the Camellias, but Greta Garbo's greatest role, which she played for more than half a century, was as Enigmatic Recluse in I Want to Be Alone. As Louise Brooks put it, "Alfred Lunt said Garbo couldn't sustain a long scene. But she has probably sustained the longest scene in theatrical history, ever since 1925 -- her private life."
Garbo made her last movie, a botch called Two-Faced Woman, in 1941, when she was 35, and lived on until Easter Sunday 1990. It was an accidental retirement: From time to time, film roles were offered to her, and she agreed to play some of them, but the deals fell through for various reasons, usually financial. So she lived out her post-Hollywood life dodging paparazzi, autograph hounds, interviewers.
Barry Paris seems to be making a specialty of writing the lives of women who have no lives: He previously wrote about Louise Brooks, who retired from films in 1938 and lived in relative seclusion until her death in 1985. But where Brooks was merely a cult figure, celebrated for her performance as Lulu in the 1929 German film Pandora's Box, but otherwise not widely known outside cineaste circles, Garbo is a legend, one of the most famous women who ever lived. In fact,
The success of
The obligatory material of contemporary biography is sex, particularly movie star biographies, which typically revel in such matters as the alleged affair of Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. But
Most of what he has to tell us has been told before: She never married, and the one grand heterosexual passion of her life, with John Gilbert, flared for only a few years in the late '20s. She had a relationship with Mercedes de Acosta, a writer who later moved on to Marlene Dietrich. But de Acosta was "one of the great celebrity collectors of the century," in
Throughout most of Garbo's later life, her relationships with both men and women were predicated on how much she could trust them to maintain her privacy, and not on sex. One such relationship was with
As for Garbo's celebrated reclusiveness, the fuss she made over wanting to be alone was perhaps the only thing that alleviated the boredom of nearly 50 years of doing nothing after her film career ended. True recluses don't subscribe to clipping services, or accept invitations to dinner at the White House, even when the dinner is kept secret, as one arranged by Jacqueline Kennedy was. Garbo tested out the
If Garbo had been a true recluse, she would have found a hideaway in
Given Garbo's apparent lack of interest in sex, she might well have made a marriage of convenience -- both Beaton and Gayelord Hauser, who were gay, proposed one to her -- that would have given her a life of quietly luxurious seclusion. But one suspects Garbo would have found life as a trophy wife far more boring than the daily game of dodge-the-customers.
Occasionally, she was unsettled by evidence that she had played the game too well. Once, in an antique shop, a companion suggested that the notoriously stingy Garbo might get a discount on something she wanted if the owner recognized her. But when Garbo asked the owner, "Do you know who I am?" and he said no, she was shocked.
The photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull once printed up an image of Garbo's face superimposed on the body of the Sphinx, and it suggests more than anything else in
Jennifer Jones, for example, had beauty and talent, and yet she's nearly forgotten today. "Who's Jennifer Jones?" asked my Gen-X daughter, who was brought up on old movies and is familiar with such contemporaries of Jennifer Jones as Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland and Lauren Bacall. I was hard-pressed to think of a Jennifer Jones film she might have seen.
The one I finally came up with, The Towering Inferno, was Jones' last, and she's billed eighth (between Richard Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson) in that fricassee of superstars. The film for which Jones won an Oscar, The Song of Bernadette, isn't much seen today, its Hollywood high-gloss religiosity (Linda Darnell plays the Virgin Mary!) having long gone out of favor. Her other big ones include Duel in the Sun, an overblown, campy Western known to wags as "Lust in the Dust"; Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, a high-'50s soap in which she's a Eurasian woman in love with William Holden, and which is best remembered for the title tune and the brief vogue it caused for the cheong-sam; and several flawed adaptations of literary classics: Carrie (the 1952 film version of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, not the Steven King/Brian De Palma shocker), Madame Bovary (see clip below), A Farewell to Arms and Tender Is the Night. Some would add John Huston's wacky 1954 adventure spoof Beat the Devil, a famous flop that has become a cult favorite over the years. In it Jones, wearing a blond wig, plays a conniving airhead and is absolutely hilarious -- it may be her best performance, but it's not the stuff of which film legends are made.
Still, Jones and Garbo have a few things in common. Both came from provincial backgrounds --
Jones, on the other hand, was so self-effacing that she is in danger of disappearing from her own biography: Edward Z. Epstein spends almost as much time writing about Jones' husbands -- actor Robert Walker, producer Selznick, billionaire Norton Simon -- as he does on the life of his ostensible subject. Did Jones' ambition drive her into the arms of Selznick, or did she passively succumb to his desire for a protégée who would give him a triumph that would surpass his achievement on Gone With the Wind? Epstein sheds little light on this central passage in Jones' life, though it precipitated all sorts of misery: She and Walker, who had married while they were both starving young actors and were the parents of two small boys, split up.
After Selznick's death in 1965, Jones' career came to a shuddering halt. In 1969, she made an unfortunate attempt to restart it with a cheesy exploitation flick, Angel, Angel, Down We Go, in which she played a former porn star. When that flopped, she settled for a life as trophy wife to Norton Simon, becoming the crown jewel of his famous art collection. She emerged from retirement for The Towering Inferno, but
Epstein is a former flack for Universal who has parlayed his contacts with celebs into a string of books on Mia Farrow, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Lana Turner. Most of these are "unauthorized," as is Portrait of Jennifer, which was made without Jones' cooperation, and they draw on Hollywood gossip rather than on
Apparently unable to find a focus for his biography, Epstein fills it with irrelevant quotes and outlandish speculation. Robert Walker's death, for example, seems to have been a medical mishap -- the wrong drug administered to a man already full of pills and alcohol -- but Epstein tries to hype it into a murder mystery, fingering Selznick and director John Ford as possible culprits. When he can't get inside of what Jones was experiencing, he relies on irrelevant analogies from other celebrities: For example, Jones' feelings on the suicide of her daughter are "illuminated" by a quote from Eydie Gorme about losing her own child. The result of this name-dropping and pasting-together of quotes can be called a portrait of Jennifer, but the medium is decoupage.