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.

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