Remarkable Hollywood Lives

Stefan Kanfer

The recent Academy Awards presentations remind us again of the fact that film is among our most valuable as well as entertaining art forms. In an article written for the Wall Street Journal (February 12, 2011), Stefan Kanfer recommends his favorite books about what are indeed “remarkable Hollywood lives.” Here are his comments about three: those of Montgomery Clift, Elia Kazan, and Judy Garland.

 

To read the complete article, please click here.

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Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth (1978)

He was a burned-out case, shockingly decrepit at 45, when he died in his Manhattan townhouse in 1966. Patricia Bosworth, in her scrupulous and compassionate biography, is particularly acute about the decade-long decline that preceded Montgomery Clift’s death. Thanks to vibrant performances in movies such as A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), he had become a superstar by the mid-1950s and loved the fast track in every sense. In 1956, after a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house, Monty lost control of his car and slammed into a tree. Surgeons could reconstruct the handsome face but not the wounded psyche; he grew fatally dependent on drugs and alcohol. Bosworth argues convincingly that it was Clift, even more than Marlon Brando, who personified the postwar leading man: anxious, vulnerable, dislocated. His influence can still be seen in the edgy performances of actors such as Sean Penn and Ed Norton.

Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan (1988)

For a period in the 1940s and 1950s, Elia Kazan towered over New York and Hollywood. He co-founded the influential Actors Studio and launched the careers of Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando by guiding A Streetcar Named Desire to Broadway. In Hollywood, Kazan showed an equal facility for directing feel-good productions like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and critical and commercial blockbusters such as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. Yet when Kazan was given an honorary Oscar for life-time achievement, the heavily liberal Hollywood crowd booed. For Kazan had briefly been a communist in his youth, and in 1952, when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hollywood “subversion,” he furnished it with the names of his “fellow Reds.” In his autobiography, Kazan addressed all that and more. The man who emerges is not particularly admirable (he was a world-class seducer of actors, women, journalists—anyone he could use); still his story remains as compelling as any of his productions. It’s impossible to fully understand 20th-century theater or movies without reading this pugnacious self-defense.

Get Happy by Gerald Clarke (2000)

“I’ve lost my audience,” Judy Garland lamented in 1969, the last year of her life. Gerald Clarke begs to differ: “She had not lost her audience. Her audience had lost her; she no longer had either the energy or the desire to stand on a stage.” The tragic story is familiar, from the uppers and downers fed to her as a young star to keep her going to the unhappy marriages and ill health later in life. But there were plenty of inspiring moments, too—starting with The Wizard of Oz, of course, plus many of her later concert tours, when she performed for enraptured audiences in America and Europe (French critics dubbed her “la Piaf Americaine”). There have been a slew of Garland biographies; Get Happy is the most dignified, the least prurient and the best-written.

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Stanley Kanfer is the author of several excellent biographies that include Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando and most recently, of Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart.

 


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