“We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” was how Shakespeare spoke about intimately knowing yourself in a moment, while our future selves remain a mystery. That dual sense of understanding and bewilderment is what characterises the best movie memoirs I’ve read, each book allowing the reader to reach a conclusion as much by what is on the page by what is left out. My poison is the Golden era of Hollywood, an industry that blossomed thanks to creative souls that came from far and wide to be part of a dream-making factory. It’s part nostalgia, intrigue and remorse for a bygone era and how it stands for a particular moment in time. These biographies and autobiographies are a juxtaposition of the human condition and artistic determination who lived unapologetically during a historical time to create works of art that still stand up today.
Elia Kazan – A life
Known for: On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire
Elia Kazan’s marathon autobiography at nearly 700 pages is entitled “A Life” for more than one reason. Kazan’s pages are filled to the brim with ravishing streams of consciousness, starting with his Anatolian family’s odyssey from Turkey to the United States where his uncle loaded up a donkey carrying the family’s wealth and settled in the U.S before bringing the rest of the family over later. His recollections of this time are depicted in his seminal work, America, America in which Kazan had complete ownership of the script and production. That film brought him back to Istanbul on a nostalgic trip years later after finding success as a director in America. On the trip, he lodged in the best hotels with his wife and was brought around the city by the ambassador. He re-acquainted with his cousin Stelios, a relative he hadn’t seen since he’d emigrated and Kazan recounts the epiphany he had, stemming from the guilt at having been given the chance at a new life in America; Stelios represented to him what he could of been had he stayed.
Kazan’s younger years in New Rochelle, New York are compelling as he recounts his disapproving father’s protestations when he revealed his choice to pursue acting rather than stay with the family business in the rug trade. We see his college years play out, followed by his time at the Group theatre and then his part in founding the infamous Actor’s Studio. It was during this time that he became a competent stage handler, nicknamed Gadget or Gadj after his unique ability to place actors, manage the props and set arrangement – the “actor’s director” was born.
His time in the communist party is detailed extensively, and it becomes clear how it was possible to be a young man and get caught up in a movement that felt progressive at the time. A defining moment in the autobiography and in his life, is Kazan’s controversial testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee where he named names of peers that had had ties to the communist party. Kazan wrote that “the big shot had become the outsider,” and his sense of being the outcast was reflected in his magnetic direction in On the Waterfront two years later. His societal status plummeted during those dark times, falling out with playwright Arthur Miller in the process.
Kazan is staunch in his defence of his actions, a decision which plagued him even during his honourary Academy Award nearly fifty years later in 1999. Kazan is unapologetically direct in his recollections, remorseful of his misdemeanors and transparent with his rampant infidelity, a vice which he failed to control. Towards the end, there’s a sense that Kazan was relaxed and content in the last years of his life, while still dealing with the fallout of a decision that altered the course of his life irrevocably.
Robert Evans – The Kid Stays in the Picture
Known for: The Godfather, Love Story and Chinatown
Without a doubt, Robert Evans’ book is one of the most outrageously embellished and heartwarming autobiographies I’ve ever read. Evans was Paramount’s Chief during its heyday in the 1970’s and is credited (or credits himself) with reviving the ailing studio that had been caught between the death of the studio system and a new kind of movie-making. From the first page, Evans blows his own trumpet in a way that he becomes almost a parody of himself.
He writes of his “big break” encounter with the widow of Irving Thalberg, a former MGM mogul who is alleged to have run into Evans poolside in Los Angeles, insisting that the young chancer plays her dead husband. Word for word, Evans exaggerates conversations, name-dropping James Cagney and Jack Nicholson at every opportunity. Even the name of the book supposedly came from Darryl Zanuck himself, the producer who allegedly shouted across a film set “hey, the kid stays in the picture,” when Evans’ place in a film was being questioned. Despite all the misgivings you have about if any of these ludicrous happenstances actually took place or if they stand for an embellished figment of his memory, Evans’ way with words is remarkable and you get a glimpse into how persuasive he was. His recollections are cinematic in their retelling and you can see how predisposed he is to visuals.
His relationship with Ali McGraw was short lived in the end, but ironically his relationship with Love Story, the film which made her a household name and which he produced, was everlasting. Evans and McGraw were only married a short time, but more credence is given to the film which runs in parallel with the failures of the marriage to his star off-screen. In a not-so Hollywood ending, his wife begins an affair with Steve McQueen, her co-star for the Evans’ production The Getaway. Although magnanimous in his defeat, it showed how much clout Evans had in the editing room, while he could do little to escape what reality threw his way.
After successes like The Godfather and Chinatown, what followed was his desperate attempt to stay on top of that iconic Paramount mountain. Through a string of high-profile affairs and even a cocaine bust, Evans runs into darker times in the 1980’s as he attempts to cling on to a zenith of success that was so intrinsically linked with his personality. Evans’ narration style isn’t for everyone, as he recounts conversations and interactions with a self-indulgent, rose-tinted tinge (supposedly Mia Farrow came into his office in floods of tears over her marriage to Sinatra, crying into Evans’ arms saying, “Oh Bob, you know what Frank’s like”). Despite all these events that are purported to have happened, you can’t help but give credit to the man for putting on a highly memorable and enjoyable production. There’s no doubt that Evans’ had the gift of the gab, a lucky streak and a talent for focusing on the vision for a film – and he won’t let you forget it.
Billy Wilder in Hollywood
Known for: Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity
It’s no surprise that Billy Wilder prefers to be behind the camera than in front, and that’s echoed in Maurice Zolotow’s biography, who does his best to explore what made this man tick. Wilder’s early life began in Austria, eventually moving to Berlin to pursue editorial magazine work. Work was scarce and he resorted to becoming a gigolo, accompanying elderly ladies to dances in the city. Years later at a Hollywood party amidst the decadent surroundings, he’d make the dancefloor his own by impressing the crowd and teaching female guests how to tango. “Where did you learn to dance so well?” they’d ask in his arms. ‘Oh, I worked as a gigolo, dear,” Billy would cynically answer as the guest would howl at his comment, recounting the story to her friend, “That Mr Wilder – he has the most exquisite sense of humour!”
There’s wonderful accounts of cinema history to be found, as you get a glimpse into on-set antics of classics like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, two of Wilder’s great masterpieces. Oddly enough, those moments like how many takes it took to get Marilyn Monroe to correctly say the line “where’s that bourbon?” don’t stick as much as others. More intriguing is his offscreen life when he finds love with a young ingenue actress, Audrey who Wilder was with until he died.
By the end we’re no closer to a rounded picture of Mr Wilder, but the recurring presence of his wicked and cynical sense of humour reveals itself as an integral part of his life. A full life, well-lived that has seen many things, is manifested in dry humour that he infused into his film noir repertoire. We see an image of a talented man that left Europe for a new life at just the right time and to create an interesting life, sometimes that’s all it takes.