Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Nixon's Life to Live

I'm glad Agnes Nixon, who died last September at the age of 93, wrote her memoirs. She's an important figure in television history, and it's good to have her memories recorded in her own voice. I just wish I could have found the book more satisfying.

What I found most bothersome was the way this book skims the surface, studiously avoiding controversy and unpleasantness. Ms. Nixon once again relates proudly how One Life to Live, in 1968, did what was a groundbreaking story for its day: the tale of Carla Benari, a light-skinned African-American woman trying to find her way in a bigoted society. Ms. Nixon recalls the difficulty she and her colleagues had in casting the role, and the excitement she felt when they found Ellen Holly, who played Carla so beautifully. Included in the book's photo section is a picture of Tony-winning actress Lillian Hayman, who appeared as Carla's mother, Sadie.

What's missing is any acknowledgment of the poor treatment Ms. Holly says she received from producers at One Life, the low pay she received compared to her Caucasian colleagues, and the nasty way she and Ms. Hayman were fired when bigwigs decided the actresses, and their characters, were no longer useful. Whether all of Ms. Holly's allegations, which she made in her own memoirs and in Jeff Giles' excellent oral history of One Life, are true is open to speculation. But I was disappointed, as a reader, that Ms. Nixon utterly ignores the controversy, of which she was certainly aware. In fact, One Life receives little attention here, compared to All My Children, and Ms. Nixon's third ABC serial, the less-successful Loving, is absent altogether.

I also hoped to learn more about the somewhat enigmatic Irna Phillips, often called "Queen of the Soaps," who largely invented the genre, and was Ms. Nixon's mentor. Others have depicted her as a complex, demanding woman, without probing much beneath the surface, and I wanted to hear from someone who knew her perhaps as well as anyone did. Ms. Nixon's brief discussion of Phillips is disappointingly bland and superficial.

Ms. Nixon was elderly and apparently in shaky health when she completed this book, and that may explain some of its shortcomings (including some odd factual errors about her own shows and characters). Still, she does offer an interesting account of her personal life, and the ways in which her father and others were reflected in her TV characters. It's just a pity that, for once, the story stops before she's finished telling it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The 95-Year-Old Man

Here's wishing a very happy 95th birthday to the comedic genius Carl Reiner, born March 20, 1922. He can take great pride in creating and producing The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom classic that is still fresh and funny more than 50 years after its debut. What a legacy -- and he's not through yet!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Lightner on Lightner

I'm always predisposed to like a show business biography covering someone who hasn't already been the subject of a dozen books. On that score alone, Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies (University Press of Mississippi) starts with an advantage. In fact, author David L. Lightner, a history professor, says that one of the book's goals is to alleviate the "public amnesia" that has left Lightner, a popular star of stage and screen in her day, largely forgotten today.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lightner was a musical comedy star at Warner Brothers, often cast as a fun-loving golddigger. But her film success was short-lived. As the grim realities of the Great Depression (not to mention the Motion Picture Production Code) set in, Lightner's best opportunities began to slip away. She was soon demoted to supporting roles, usually as the heroine's best friend, and by 1934 she threw in the towel altogether, saying she "never gave a hang for fame" anyway.

Lightner (the author) does a fine job of bringing out his subject's personality, as well as the life she lived before, during, and after her film career. Her relationship with film director Roy Del Ruth (with whom she had a son) is covered in detail. This book is well worth a look for film buffs.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Your Sister Did WHAT?

That look you reserve for your sister-in-law. The one played by Joan Crawford. The one who's coming to live with you. The one who was just released from a mental institution after twenty years. For committing axe murders...

Happy birthday, Rochelle Hudson! Born March 6, 1916, she became a movie ingenue in the 1930s, named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931. Some thirty years later, having paused along the way to play Natalie Wood's mother in Rebel Without a Cause, she made the acquaintance of flamboyant director William Castle. He gave her two of her last movie roles, in his shockers Strait-Jacket (pictured above) and The Night Walker. Miss Hudson died in 1972.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Gale Alert

Yesterday I signed a contract with McFarland & Co. to publish my seventh book, which covers the life and career of actress/singer Gale Storm. I've been working hard on this book for nearly a year, and have uncovered some intriguing new information, both professional and personal, that I'm eager to share with her many admirers.

Look for a Gale headed your way in early 2018!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Meeting Some Real Characters

Granted, I'm a little behind on my reading, since Scott Voisin's Character Kings: Hollywood's Familiar Faces Discuss the Art and Business of Acting (BearManor Media) came out a few years ago. But I enjoyed this opportunity to "meet," through full-length interviews, several actors whose work I've appreciated over the years.

I tend to prefer an earlier era of filmmaking, and perhaps different genres, but I certainly know the achievements of performers like Ronny Cox and Robert Forster, to name two. Voisin's familiarity with his interviewees' films allows him to ask meaningful questions. He elicits intriguing revelations that remind us how much goes on behind the scenes that affects the finished product we see. I was struck by the candor of Martin Kove, who said of one of his early roles, "I hate the movie like I hate bleeding," and surprised to hear Ronny Cox, whose work I've always respected, say, "I'm not really a well-trained actor."

Happily, there's a follow-up volume, Character Kings II, with another strong lineup of interviews. So many of the terrific character actors who enriched vintage Hollywood movies are no longer available to question, and in many cases their memories went largely unrecorded. I'm glad writers like Voisin are stepping up to capture the experiences of these gentlemen before the opportunity passes us by.

NOTE: I was furnished a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sing Out, Florence!

Finally got around to seeing Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, a few days ago. My interest in what Variety used to call "longhair" music is pretty limited. But there was something intriguing about this woman who made it all the way to Carnegie Hall as a singer, despite every indication of lacking the requisite talent.

The part of me that relates things to classic comedy couldn't help envisioning what Carol Burnett in her prime could have made of this as a skit. Watching the film, I was picturing Harvey Korman in the Hugh Grant role, with Tim Conway taking Simon Helberg's place as the hapless accompanist.

But even if Florence Foster Jenkins was, as one memorable character declared in the film, "the worst (expletive) singer I ever heard," the filmmakers, with Streep's considerable assistance, find something touchingly human in her story. Many of us, in our younger years, had big dreams, whether they involved a concert hall or some completely different arena. When we reach middle age, or beyond, what will we do if they haven't quite come true? Do we adjust our expectations? Resign ourselves to disappointment? Or do we do as this woman seemingly did, and forge ahead undaunted? As she purportedly said, "They may say I can't sing, but they can't say I didn't sing!"