Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: The Films of Agnes Moorehead

Having enjoyed Axel Nissen’s two previous books about character actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, I was eager to read his newest effort, The Films of Agnes Moorehead (Scarecrow, $75). Happily, it's a book worthy of both the author and his much-admired subject. Though he provides the basics one expects in a "Films of" book (credits, synopsis, reviews, etc.), his sixty-three mini-essays are as varied as the films themselves, reflecting his wide-reaching appreciation for classic cinema and its players. Several entries are enriched by interviews with Moorehead colleagues like Olivia de Havilland, Dean Jones, and Michael Pate, and the use of her personal papers held at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Each film is represented with a cleanly reproduced production still.

Unlike too many film writers besotted with their subjects, Nissen doesn’t try to convince us that every performance Moorehead gave was flawless. (Of her role as "the Leona Helmsley of retail" in Who’s Minding the Store? he writes, “Though it is almost impossible to imagine an actor being over the top in a Jerry Lewis film, Moorehead comes close.”) But he clearly appreciates the best of her work, and writes about it in a style that’s approachable, informed, and often very funny. "Her every scene as Emily is a joy to behold," he says of Since You Went Away, "as she brandishes her steel-edged, rapier tongue as a weapon to inflict wounds large and small but always under the flimsy cover of the best intentions..." Though Citizen Kane and All That Heaven Allows receive more attention than, say, Dear Dead Delilah, the lesser films are not neglected – if you want to know more about Agnes’ 1972 ax murder saga, Nissen delivers; he even interviewed a crew member for behind-the-scenes information.  

The book’s price tag, which may understandably be a barrier for some readers, reflects its issuance from an academic publisher that primarily serves libraries. Unfortunately, mainstream publishers seem to have little interest these days in publishing much more than the latest helping of scandal about Marilyn Monroe, or (Lord help us all) Shirley Jones’ TMI memoir (Google it if you really gotta know). But if you’re a Moorehead fan, this is well worth your time, and pairs nicely with Charles Tranberg’s biography of her.

NOTE: I was provided a review copy in exchange for an honest and fair review.

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