Saturday, July 08, 2006

On the beach

The best vacations yield time--and, for me, that's time to read books. (I read plenty of magazines, newspapers, and web journals--maybe too many--during the course of a typical week.) I generally read histories and biographies, with an occasional novel thrown into the mix, but I find that movies and TV usually take care of my need for fiction. So I lugged a few tomes into my backpack and plunked myself down at my in-laws' Lake Michigan house in Oostburg, WI, where--between sweeping the beach of dead alewives, dips into the sometimes frigid water (not too much of a problem for an Atlantic Ocean hand like myself) plundering the local strawberry patch, and enjoying a Wisconsin diet of cheese curds, bratwurst, and local Leinenkugel's beer--I cracked open a few biographies.

What turned out to be the disappointment of the bunch, Jon Krampner's Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley (Backstage Books), was up first. Krampner has a fascinatingly elusive subject in his grasp, the much-acclaimed actress who tore up Broadway and live television with her no-holds-barred performances in the 1950s, but who was largely spent by the mid-1960s, never to return to the stage after a disastrous Actors Studio Theater production of The Three Sisters on the West End in 1965. (A handful of TV appearances, mostly with theater acquaintances who tolerated her eccentricities, like Jack Klugman, and her Oscar-nominated turn in 1982's Frances, followed by her vivid aviator barkeep Pancho Barnes in The Right Stuff and a good Big Mama in a cable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, were about the extent of her later output; I was interested to read that she starred in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery and will have to look for it.)

But the author never quite gets a handle on Stanley, which in itself is unsurprising. The many people interviewed for the book seem perplexed by her shaman-like ability to conjure fully lived-in characters, from material ranging from good (her stage triumphs in William Inge's Picnic and Bus Stop, which Marilyn Monroe, who Stanley liked, freely borrowed for the 1956 film) to pedestrian or unpromising on the page, and create astonishing performances night after night...or, those nights she could pull herself together in time for to go on, a constant, career-stunting problem, aggravated by her legendary, lonely drinking. (The grislier episodes Krampner recounts are unpleasant to read.) Stanley was a born actress--from an early age, the New Mexico-born performer pretended to be a more sophisticated Texan, and besides a score of later evasions and half-truths she enacted with producers and colleagues she whipped up domestic drama besides. Her three children remember her graciously, if cautiously, whatever games she played with their true paternity, which she hid. For her, acting was everything; she disdained performers like Julie Harris, who "had it all worked out before they set foot on the stage." (Surprisingly, Harris supplies a warm back jacket quote.) But it was a constantly changing false front she maintained with quarts of alcohol; when it gave out, she taught the craft, as best she could under declining circumstances (friends like Gregory Peck footed the bills), in haphazardly scheduled all-night marathons that amazed students like future L.A. Law star Alan Rachins.

With so much promising material, why isn't this book better? The torn-from-Variety title doesn't help (Brando, who exited the stage early on and never set foot on live TV as I can recall, isn't an apt comparison; Stanley, Krampner says, preferred those mediums as they left no trace, nothing to torment her with her presumed mistakes and errors in editorial judgment, as her four movies did, including the best of them, 1964's Seance on a Wet Afternoon). Nor does the author's insistence on calling his subject "Kim," a fanboy affectation. And there are curious paragraphs where Krampner, highlighting an important moment in Stanley's career, brings in other historical events of the day, as if they were of somehow equal importance. (The forgotten 1960 play Taffy doesn't quite stack up to the U-2 spying incident.) His subject never wanted to be caught acting, but Krampner is frequently caught writing, trying to breathe imaginative life to his no-bottle-unturned research. Female Brando (writing it, I think again, what a dumb, name-dropping, title!) is a necessary book, but it does not rise to the standards of its subject.

If you read enough of these books in succession, patterns form. George C. Scott was in that storm-tossed production of The Three Sisters, at the same time he and one of the loveliest of the screen's love goddesses, Ava Gardner, the subject of Lee Server's Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing" (St. Martin's Press) were in the middle of their own tempestuous relationship. You wonder: Did Stanley and Gardner meet? Did they talk about stealing husbands and boyfriends from Shelley Winters, who stole them right back? Their erratic on-set behavior? And: What did they drink?

For Gardner, like Stanley, was one of the acting world's great imbibers, with an intake so legendary it alarmed even the subject of Server's last Hollywood bio, Robert Mitchum, who hot-footed it from her company when he was trying to stay on the wagon. Gardner tended bar better than she did her fairly careless career. Audiences, alas, perhaps remember her best from her blowsy, clingly turn in the smash hit Earthquake than they do her steely temptress in 1946's The Killers, her breakthrough role; her rowdier, Oscar-nominated performance opposite her childhood idol Clark Gable in John Ford's Mogambo(1953), closer to her actual self than the period pictures she was so often embalmed in; and her more nuanced work in the talky, unsatisfying (except to Truffaut and Godard and the Cahiers du Cinema staff) The Barefoot Countessa and George Cukor's severely shorn Bhowani Junction, both 1954. (This entry's title plays off of one of her better parts, if not better pictures.) Her scandal-sheet press clippings far outnumbered her critical notices, not that she had much faith in her acting ability anyway, and some of the best ("What Makes Ava Gardner Run for Sammy Davis, Jr.?" asked Confidential) make up a full spread of this book's illustrations. Her misadventures with her three husbands (the cagey, horny Mickey Rooney, the misanthropic Artie Shaw, and the impossible Frank Sinatra), and numerous romances with the unbalanced Howard Hughes, lesser lights, and bullfighters kept the tabloids hopping for two-and-a-half decades, and Server diligently keeps tabs on the bar bills and court hearings. (Almost too much so; as with the Stanley bio, a little discretion, and tighter editing, would not have interfered with the facts.)

A noir-ish prose stylist, Server finds words that correlate nicely with the what-the-hell outlook of his blown-sideways-through-life subject, who based on her ineffable beauty made a near-impossible leap from hard-scrabble North Carolina to the pillars of Hollywood at an impressionable age; the men in her personal and professional life, from Louis B. Mayer to Fidel Castro (an almost bedmate, shortly after the revolution, during her Spanish phase in partners) are tangily rendered. There are a few problems with the text: Basic copyediting errors, which crop up more and more in these books as that function is slighted (Paul "Lucas" for "Lukas"), and questionable assertions--Henry King may have stumbled with his Gardner assignments, but the director of The Gunfighter and Twelve O'Clock High was no throwback to the silent era, as Server mocks him. And I was surprised to find no mention of the 1954 Oscar ceremony; surely she had made an appearance or had some public reaction to being nominated?

This is, however, an irresistible volume, and as the ridiculously complicated chapter with the supremely volatile Scott comes to a close, you can imagine Gardner thinking the thoughts Server puts in her head: "She would never understand it. Love was supposed to be such a wonderful thing. How could it cause so much unhappiness? Why did love always have to mean a broken collarbone, 50ccs of phenobarbitol, and somebody fleeing in the night?"

I'm currently finishing up Kenneth D. Ackerman's Boss Tweed, a superb biography of New York's legendary king of graft. My reading coincided, of course, with the death of today's Tweed, Enron's Kenneth Lay, who, unlike his predecessor in crime, left no Brooklyn Bridge or Central Park behind as the money sloshed in and out of Houston. Death robbed Lay of any chance of clearing his "good name" through further court action, which is satisfying in its own way.

On one of the iffier weather days we went off to Smallville-like Sheboygan to see Superman Returns, already last week's hit in the wake of the second Pirates picture. I replied to a blog entry about it at The House Next Door and don't have much to add, except that I look forward to seeing it again, flaws and all, in Imax 3D. Not an origins story, but a remake of an origins story told as a semi-sequel, it's naturally an odd film, with a muffled beginning and ending (surely Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor deserved a more fitting send-off?). And those swooping, 1978-styled credits really don't work when your stars are nobodies like Sam Huntington and Kal Penn and not Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Money spent, I wonder if director Bryan Singer now realizes that it needed to be more of its own thing and less of an homage, however gorgeously rendered. But no one could say "Great Caesar's ghost!" with the aplomb of Frank Langella, not even Jackie Cooper, and it's those elements, which are exactly right, that can stand a revisit. But no "Leinies" afterwards, next time.

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