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Books about Movies and Film Celebrities

Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (by Mick LaSalle)

This book is a great overview of American film before the 1934 Production Code went into effect. Between 1929, when "talkies" came about, and 1934, when the Code was enforced, films became racier and racier, and numerous women emerged as strong actresses, unafraid to flaunt their sexuality on screen. Many viewers would be surprised at how bold these early films were.

LaSalle tells us the story of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo as well as many others, how they flourished or faded after the code. It does make one sad to think of what kind of creativity thirty years of censorship extinguished in America. And it makes you yearn to see a festival of these old films on the big screen.

Eyes Wide Open By Frederic Raphael, Stanley Kubrick's screenwriter for "Eyes Wide Open". This paperback memoir is a unique look at the eccentric genius behind "2001" and "Dr. Stangelove" in the last years of his career. Raphael gives us the perspective of someone working with the overly-secret director; for example, when first asked to adapt a novel for Kubrick, Raphael was given photocopies of the book pages with the title and author hidden.

The book was controversial when it came out because comments Kubrick supposedly made trashing friend Steven Spielberg were grossly exagerated. In truth, Kubrick as quoted by Raphael doesn't have much bad to say about anyone, though the little Kubrick does have to say about fellow filmmakers is interesting.

Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas By John Baxter.

Baxter has created another well-written book about a prominent filmmaker. Baxter takes us through Lucas' life in Modesto, California to his rise as a talented young filmmaker at USC to his rocket through the stratosphere with "Star Wars".

It is interesting to contrast this with Baxter's Woody Allen book. Though he reveals Lucas' short-comings as an artist (such as the fact that he "borrowed" many things from other filmmakers), it's obvious that Baxter admires Lucas personally much more than he does Allen. Baxter goes out of his way to point out, for example, that Woody Allen likes young women. He seems more eager to uncover dirt on Allen, though perhaps there is just less dirt to uncover (or that has been uncovered) on Lucas. Both are intensely private people, but only one has been the victim of public scandal.

Still, if you are interested at all in Lucas' life and work, this is a good choice.

Rat Pack Confidential Shawn Levy's biography of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and (sometimes) Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. More extensive biographies have been written about all of these celebrities; Levy focuses on their work and lives together as the Rat Pack. It's a well-written book, fun to read, and it gives us a great flavor of the times.
Truffaut: A Biography By Antoine de Baecque. (Translated from French by Catherine Temerson) Because this is a translation, I worried that it might not read well in English, but I was wrong. This is a fairly well-written book, despite that, and fun to read.

De Baecque avoids some pitfalls of recent celebrity biographers who pretend to be trained psychoanalysts, deciphering their subject's behavior as the result of some childhood trauma. Instead, de Baecque merely tells what happened and when, without much reflection with the benefit of time fifteen years after Truffaut's death. We learn how Truffaut came to acquire this or that novel that he later filmed, how a particular shoot went, or how well his films did at the box office.

We also learn which women Truffaut dated - and there were many. Though this might seem sensationalistic, let's face it: he was French. Plus, because Truffaut dated most of his leading ladies, understanding his relationships with them sheds some light on how these films were made.

All in all an entertaining book, particularly if you know nothing about the director.

Woody Allen: A Biography By John Baxter.

In 1978 writer Lee Guthrie pubushed "Woody Allen: A Biography" (subsequently withdrawn after a lawsuit by Allen about misuse of material). Eric Lax tried again when he published his then-definitive "Woody Allen: A Biography" in 1991. Coming just before the Soon-Yi scandal, it was comprehensive but quickly became out of date.

Now, John Baxter has written a new book about Woody Allen with the clever and innovative title "Woody Allen: A Biography".

Baxter's book is not the first on Woody Allen since Lax's, but it is the first true biography since then. Of course, Baxter has been able to cover the decade after Lax's book ends. But unlike Lax, who was a member of Woody's inner circle for years and whose books have a respectful, worshipful quality, Baxter is much more balanced and, at times, critical of the man and his work. Lax would never mention that Woody has always liked young women, such as the three-year relationship he had in the late 70's with a 17-year-old girl. Thus, by the time Soon-Yi is introduced, it's no surprise at all that Woody would date someone that young. Nor did Lax mention that one of Woody's first indulgences when he made it big was a white Rolls Royce - not something his uninformed fans would have imagined. And, not surprisingly, Baxter includes comments from people possibly with axes to grind with Woody.

Some of the stories about Woody the director are debunked - such as the fact that he's an "actor's director" who lets his actors ad-lib casually. The reality, according to Baxter, is that Woody is very controlling of actors and lets actors change lines only when he feels their dialogue not important. One person is quoted as saying Woody knows less about actors than Robert Altman (i.e. nothing).

Baxter's book ends abruptly with a chapter hastily added covering "Celebrity"; there is no summation or analysis of what Woody Allen might mean to American film (Baxter is presumably British). How will Woody Allen be remembered in 30 years? Which films are remembered and why? How has he influenced other filmmakers? If Baxter contemplated any of these questions, he negelected to mention his conclusions.

"Woody Allen: A Biography" is well-written and comprehensive, but because Baxter did not have Lax's direct access, Baxter has trouble getting close to Woody the artist, even if his account is more balanced. Lax has a better understanding of Woody Allen - having spent many years with him - and Woody Allen the artist hasn't changed all that much since 1991. If you want to understand Woody Allen, best to read both books, truly.