Thursday, March 2, 2017

TCR on Film: "Unsinkable: A Memoir" by Debbie Reynolds

In tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds, one of the last stars produced by the old Hollywood studio system, The Committee Room takes a look at her memoir Unsinkable (William Morrow, 2013).

In the preface to Unsinkable, Reynolds mentions her first book, Debbie: My Life (William Morrow, 1988), written when the actress was in her fifties and, it would seem, still had a lot of living left to do.  "I can't believe how naive I was when I wrote it," Reynolds in Unsinkable says of the earlier book. She explains that at the time she was writing the first book she was in what she believed was a happy marriage to her third husband, a Virginia real estate developer named Richard Hamlett.

In Unsinkable, Reynolds offers a detailed portrait of Hamlett as a handsome, smooth-talking scoundrel who, she maintains, cold-heartedly entered into marriage with the intention of swindling her. The first third of the book is Reynolds' painstaking and angrily told account of how Hamlett's unscrupulous behavior led to the bankruptcy of her Las Vegas hotel, a venture which she hoped would provide a regular venue for her talents along with a steady income. Consequently, in Unsinkable there is much talk, perhaps too much talk, of lawyers and property deeds and promissory notes.

Bankruptcy auction, Debbie Reynolds hotel, Las Vegas, 1998
 (photo/Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
After her movie career dried up in the late 1960s, Reynolds focused on her nightclub act. Reading Unsinkable, one gets the feeling that variety entertainment -- song and dance, jokes, imitations -- before live audiences was the ebullient Debbie's first love and true calling, not the isolated world of movie acting. Hollywood stardom was just an avenue to being famous enough to sell out a Vegas showroom or some regional auditorium. Anywhere she was wanted. Despite serious health issues in her later years, Reynolds continued to perform concert dates up to just a few months before her death.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, 2011.
(Photo: Jason LaVeris/Film Magic)
Reynolds' famous offspring, the writer/actress Carrie Fisher, contributes the foreword to Unsinkable. She calls her mother "a good person, a kind person -- which would be a fine thing if these were the qualities that are consistently rewarded. But as most of us know, they are not." Media coverage of the recent deaths of Fisher and Reynolds, which occurred one day after the other, made much out of their mother-daughter bond. However, Carrie is only briefly mentioned in Unsinkable. It is Reynolds' not famous child, Todd Fisher, a sometime director and lighting designer, who stalwartly stands at his mother's side through the tribulations detailed in the book. Todd plays a major role in her business affairs -- rather reluctantly on his part, it seems. The dutiful son escapes to his ranch in Northern California whenever possible.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

An Interview with Brian Kellow, author of "Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent."

Superagent Sue Mengers. Do any other three words better conjure up the enormous energy, creativity and free-wheeling social life of Hollywood in the 1970s?

Mengers is the subject of an excellent new biography Can I Go Now? The Life of Hollywood's First Superagent by Brian Kellow. The title of the book comes from Mengers' passive-aggressive way of ending phone conversations.

Kellow's previous work includes books on Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Ethel Merman: A Life, 2007) and film critic Pauline Kael (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, 2011). He was also on the staff of Opera News for many years.

The idea of writing a biography of Mengers came to Kellow from his own (literary) agent. At first Kellow was skeptical, thinking that there wasn't enough substance in the life of Sue Mengers to warrant a biography. "My last book had been a biography of Pauline Kael, and I was very keen to follow it up with another biography of a writer," Kellow told The Committee Room. "To write a book about an agent seemed like a questionable project, especially after having written about someone as complex and brilliant as Pauline. But I was wrong: Sue was complex and brilliant in her own right, and once I began the research, I knew that this was a great topic. It was also a wonderful opportunity to write about the films and stars and filmmakers of the late '60s, the '70s and early '80s--still, to my mind, the most stimulating era in American movie-making."

Sue Mengers with Jack Nicholson, 1977.
Photo/Getty Images
Even by Hollywood standards Mengers had an outsized personality.  As a young woman in New York in the early 1960s, she earned her stripes as an agent by booking B list clients in theater and television gigs. A zaftig, blue-eyed blonde and highly ambitious, Mengers was willing to do whatever it took -- incessant phone calls, sleeping with a producer  -- to get a client a part or to land a new client.

In her Hollywood prime, the middle aged Mengers worked and partied non-stop in a haze of tobacco and pot smoke, and offered blunt, profanity-laced career advice to those she considered worthy enough to be her clients. Kellow told TCR --  "[Mengers] wielded enormous power. So many stars wanted to be represented by her, and a lot of studio heads and producers hated and feared her, with good reason...She also had a very keen gut-level understanding of the New Hollywood--of the change in material, the move toward more provocative and unusual topics. She knew that there was an audience for that sort of thing.  And it was a great audience, while it lasted."

Monday, October 26, 2015

TCR on Show Business: "Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + ME" by Stevie Phillips

"What is an agent?" asks Stevie Phillips in her recently published memoir Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + ME  (St. Martin's Press). Phillips knows the answer. She was once among the most powerful talent agents in the entertainment industry, having shepherded Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford to superstardom.

"An agent is a fraud, but a fraud with good intentions...someone totally willing to sublimate herself to be the person the client wants her to be. Do you want me to be angry on your behalf? Here I am. Do you want me to be docile for you? Here I am. But regardless of what role-playing takes place, an agent must always maintain integrity and never lead a client knowingly in the wrong direction," Phillips writes.

Unlike the legendary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, whose Oscar night parties were the height of Hollywood A-list gatherings. or the world class schmoozer Sue Mengers, such a big personality that she was brought back to life in 2013 by Bette Midler in the one-character Broadway play I'll Eat You Last and is the subject of a just published biography (Can I Go Now? by Brian Kellow) Phillips never became more famous than a lot of her clients. Her stock in trade was cool, calm, behind the scenes efficiency.

Stevie Phillips, 2015.
In classic pre-feminist days style, Phillips begins her career in a secretarial pool, this one at ABC-TV in New York in the late 1950s. Her competence, willingness to work long hours and, she admits, her good looks, get her a temporary gig as a production assistant on the ABC game show Who Do You Trust?, hosted by a not yet famous Johnny Carson. The pretty and hardworking Phillips is included in regular pre-showtime drinks at Sardi's. "The way that guy knocked back two double shots showed me he'd had a lot of practice," Phillips recalls of Carson.

Carson appears only fleetingly in Phillips' narrative and he doesn't seem to have done anything bad to her, yet she pauses to take a swipe at him. Hostility runs through the whole of Phillips writing. This still contemptuous after all these years edginess gives Phillips' memoir a compelling vitality. Decades old events seem as if they happened yesterday.

Friday, September 4, 2015

TCR on Television: A Salute to Two Great TV Stalwarts: Dick Van Patten and Anne Meara

Meara plays a big part in husband Jerry
Stiller's autobiography.
In recent months, American television lost two of its most familiar faces: Dick Van Patten and Anne Meara. The careers of these hard-working performers began in television's earliest years. Their passing takes us farther away from the days of huge audience broadcast TV, when even flop shows (and both Van Patten and Meara had their share of failures) drew more viewers than the biggest hits of today.

Van Patten, who died on June 23 at age 86, is best remembered as the father on Eight is Enough, a comedy-drama that ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981. However, those four years were just a short chapter in a remarkably busy career in theater, television, and film that spanned more than seven decades.

Meara, who died on May 23 at age 85, rose to fame in the early 1960s as partner to her husband Jerry Stiller in the comedy team Stiller and Meara. However, she always considered herself an actress, not a comedienne. Meara made numerous appearances in both comedic and dramatic acting roles mainly on television but also on film and stage from the early 1950s onward.

In his breezy autobiography, Eighty is Not Enough: One Actor's Journey Through American Entertainment (2009), the upbeat Van Patten shares happy memories of being one of Broadway's top juvenile actors of the 1930s and 1940s. Billed as Dickie Van Patten and sporting a great shock of blond hair, Van Patten made his Broadway debut at age seven in a play called Tapestry in Grey. While still a boy Van Patten appeared the original productions of the classics On Borrowed Time by Paul Osborn and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. As a teenager Van Patten spent three years on Broadway and on tour with the legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Terence Rattigan's O Mistress Mine and became one of the many young actors over the years, including Montgomery Clift, who the Lunts took under their wing.

18-year old Van Patten with  Lunt and Fontanne, 1947.
(AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
"I enjoyed my life as a child actor," Van Patten writes in Eighty is Not Enough, adding that his employment provided his family with a comfortable existence while others were suffering through the Depression and gave him the opportunity to work with legendary stars of the era. He points out that while many child actors, including some of those who played his children on Eight is Enough, fall prey to drug addiction and other misfortunes, such problems are also widespread among people with supposedly normal childhoods.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

TCR on Film: An Interview with Edward Z. Epstein, author of "Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden"

In Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, just published by Running Press, veteran film journalist Edward Z. Epstein creatively uses the personal relationship between Hepburn and Holden as a starting point for a wider look at how these two very big stars of the 1950s maneuvered through the changes that came to their lives and to the film industry in the 1960s and beyond.

"Both stars are charismatic screen personalities, favorites of mine, and I’d thought for a long time about writing a book on the largely untold story of their romance," Epstein, who is the author of numerous books on film subjects including Paul Newman, Clara Bow, and Marlon Brando, told The Committee Room. "As New York press contact for MCA/Universal, I worked with many people, over the years, who knew both Audrey and Bill, and who were familiar with the problems they faced and the pressures of the business they were in."

Today Hepburn is an icon recognizable even to those not so familiar with her film work. Holden, though he had a much longer career than Hepburn and his once tremendous box-office clout earned him the nickname "Golden Holden," has not been so well remembered.

Bogart, Audrey and Bill in publicity shot for Sabrina (1954).
Bogie seems left out.
"Hepburn’s iconic stature, to a large degree, is a result of the revolutionary impact she’s had on the world of fashion," Epstein told TCR. "Young women still strive for her 'look' in Sabrina, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Combined with her radiance on screen, her talent as an actress (although she never thought she was a good actress!), and her lilting, unique speaking voice, her appeal has stood the test of time  It’s tougher for a man to achieve iconic stature. Those that attained it -- Wayne, Bogart, Cagney among them -- were archetypes of their age, projecting an appeal that went beyond their looks and their films. Holden was the ideal All-American man [and] every bit the superstar that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Bradley Cooper are today."

Friday, May 1, 2015

TCR on Television: An Interview with Mike Thomas, author of "You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman"

In the recently published You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, journalist Mike Thomas examines the life of a major figure in American comedy. This engrossing read is at once a knowledgeable show biz biography and, considering Hartman's violent death, a sensitively put together true crime story.

Phil Hartman was all over American television in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably as a pivotal cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1986 to 1994. He also appeared on the sitcom News Radio, the children's show Pee Wee's Playhouse, and voiced numerous characters on The Simpsons.

The book's tentatively worded title -- taken from a line spouted by one of Hartman's Simpsons characters, a has-been actor named Troy McClure -- reflects the fact that Hartman, even at the height of his career, was more of a reliably humorous presence than a big name comedy celebrity.

"Even though Phil never became a huge star, he still looms large — as is immediately apparent if you plug his name into Google, Twitter or any number of online portals — in the consciousness of countless fans," Mike Thomas told The Committee Room.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TCR on Films -- "Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters" by Kirk Douglas

In Life Could Be Verse, a brief and often affecting volume, actor Kirk Douglas, who recently turned ninety-eight years old, shares poems he has written over the course of his long life and recounts the experiences that inspired the verses.

Kirk wrote his first poem -- about a sailing ship, though he had never seen the ocean -- for an English class assignment as a high school student in upstate New York back when he was still Issur Danielovitch, the child of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants. He discovered that versifying helped him better understand his thoughts. "Throughout my life I have written poems that express my true feelings," Kirk explains in the book's acknowledgments.

The poems are simple but perceptive reflections set in singsong rhyme and might be called wise doggerel. Here are the opening lines from "Luck" -- They call it 'luck'/It can't be taught/It can't be borrowed/It can't be bought'. Kirk's movie stardom, though discussed in the book, takes a back seat to his roles of son, husband, father, and grandfather.
Kirk Douglas now (photo/Dan MacMedan/USA TODAY)
Kirk Douglas is among the few classic studio-era stars still with us in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Olivia de Havilland, Maureen O'Hara, and Doris Day are others. His trademark thick blond hair has turned thin and white and is worn in a ponytail.

In Life Could Be Verse Kirk quickly runs through the highlights of his acting career which began on the New York stage in the late 1930s. There were a few years of struggle and a stint in the Navy during World War II. The big break came in 1945 when producer Hal Wallis (following a tip from young Lauren Bacall, who Kirk had briefly dated when she was a Manhattan teenager named Betty) caught Douglas's performance in the play The Wind is Ninety and lured him to Hollywood.