As we slowly head towards what comedian Bill Bailey once called the “gifting period” i.e. Christmas, lots of things are getting ready to hit shelves, including the consistent best-sellers that are celebrity biographies and autobiographies. So let’s take a look at some.
Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life
Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life by Ira Wells takes an affectionate look at the director of Hollywood classics such as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Rollerball (1975), beginning with his youth in 1940s Ontario where his inspiration came from his Aunt Bea as opposed to his WASP parents who had trouble expressing their feelings. Jewison rose from Canada’s CBC-TV to New York and CBS, working on shows with Andy Williams and Harry Belafonte, and Wells offers plenty of speakers happy to laud Jewison’s skills as the director of “one of the most culturally momentous hours of American television”.
Jewison would eventually make his way to movies via actor Tony Curtis, who hired him to direct 40 Pounds of Trouble in 1962. It was nothing but a footnote for Curtis, who wanted a director who was “talented and cheap [and] who would not become a rival for power over the picture,” with the film the first to come from Curtis’ own production company, but for Jewison, it led to the Doris Day vehicle The Thrill of It All (1963) and the beginning of a career directing for the big screen. A notable incident saw the director take over from luminary Sam Peckinpah for the Steve McQueen gambling picture The Cincinnati Kid (1965) because of an apparent extraneous nude scene Peckinpah wanted to shoot, and the book covers correspondence Jewison had with screenwriter William Rose for the 1966 caper The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, which brought the director his first Oscar nomination, for best picture.
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The book has a nice balance of getting into a fair amount of detail on the important pictures like In the Heat of the Night but not overdoing it. Wells also presents a lot of insight into Jewison’s reputation in Hollywood – he’s often called boyish, but at the same time a tiger – and his relationships, including a long-distance correspondence with casting agent Boaty Boatwright and his mentorship of Hal Ashby, who edited several of Jewison’s films, with the director producing his debut picture, 1970’s The Landlord. The author frames the relationship nicely by including Jewison’s sponsoring of Ashby and wife Shirley as prospective adoptive parents.
A Director’s Life understandably focuses meaningfully on In the Heat of the Night because of the film’s significance, with Sidney Poitier stating bluntly that the film was “so fucking revolutionary we don’t realize it now”, It also looks at Jewison’s dissatisfaction with America’s turbulent political times in the ’60s and ’70s, which eventually saw the director move to the UK, and the later films he made, including one – 1989’s In Country – on the lasting effects of Vietnam, a war he swore he’d never make a film about. A fascinating, if occasionally dry read.
Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life is out now from Sutherland House.
Warrior: Audrey Hepburn
Robert Matzen’s Warrior is the follow-up to 2019’s Dutch Girl, which took an interesting narrative look at Audrey Hepburn’s life in the Netherlands during World War II, where her town of Arnhem was under occupation by the Nazis. Warrior picks up Hepburn as she came out of retirement in the 1970s to star with Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976), the production of which she found disastrous. With the actress reduced to being offered “inconsequential” parts, she would instead follow Danny Kaye into a new world – that of UNICEF ambassador.
Hepburn’s war experience was a factor in her wanting to help the children of the world, while UNICEF saw her worldwide celebrity appeal, the glamour she could bring to help their cause. Surprisingly to some, Hepburn inside was a nervous wreck who saw herself as a woman with “small eyes and a square face”, which led to the nickname Square by one of her closest friends, model Doris Brynner (yes, the wife of Yul), but Matzen efficiently describes her success at a UNICEF event in Japan that drove home Hepburn’s suitability as the face of helping kids around the globe. It’s here that we’re told about the actress’ effect with young women in ’50s Japan who had cut off all their hair to rebel against tradition, a knock-on effect from the famous haircut scene in Roman Holiday (1953).
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Matzen also emotionally conveys her suffering from PTSD from the war at a time when the term hadn’t even been invented and the lack of food and nutrition available for adults and children, memories brought back into play with the Ethiopian famine in the ’80s. Going there as an official goodwill ambassador with her partner and several officials from UNICEF, Hepburn cemented her suitability for the role by showing her logistical and emotional strength amidst the chaos that had ripped the country asunder, while journalists in London tried to posit her as a Hollywood diva out of her depth. They would all meet their match with Hepburn and come out converts.
What Matzen also does well is communicate the physical and emotional toll the role had on Hepburn. She helped usher in a post-007 Roger Moore as her replacement in 1990 before taking on the shadow of Vietnam and later Somalia, which was a particular target for her given the horrific state of the war-torn nation. The book describes her pain at seeing the people suffering, especially the children, as she visits Baidoa, the “city of death” that had been affected severely by the civil war, while she was in agony from a disease that, four months later, would see her dead of abdominal cancer. A warrior indeed, and this book does her tale justice.
Warrior: Audrey Hepburn is out on 28th September from Goodknight Books.
Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood
Leonard Maltin is one of the few movie critics that has achieved canon status; I was first introduced to him when he interviewed George Lucas on the 1995 VHS reissue of the Star Wars trilogy, but by then he was already a celebrity, even sending himself up in films like Gremlins 2 (1990). Here he tells his own story, with an auspicious start in Manhattan with his own ‘zine and the luck of a chance phone call to ask for an interview with director George Stevens, which kickstarts a life of joshing with movie stars and the likes.
Maltin talks eagerly about starting his book career and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, first published in 1969, and his subsequent appearances on Entertainment Tonight and teaching his 466 class at the University of Southern California, where he says he taught Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige and paraded Gloria Stuart and Sidney Poitier in front of the students.
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There is a lot of namechecking and it does feel sometimes like it flies by, but there are some lovely parts dedicated to his friendships with people such as Harlan Ellison (who he met at a showing of The Terminator, which had plagiarised some of the writer’s work) and Freda Sandrich, widow of Mark Sandrich who had directed several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures. Here is where Maltin’s heart lies, and there’s a wonderfully affectionate tribute to the late actor James Karen, who starred in many, many films, but is known to me and most people I know from his role in 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, which thankfully gets a mention. It’s an interesting book with some fun anecdotes, but far from what I’d recommend as essential.
Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood is out on 12th October from Goodknight Books.