Movie Stars

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By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Robot-Tamer

One of Patricia Neal's signal achievements was to say "Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto!" with a straight face. With that line, her character tames a stalking alien robot in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," one of the best sci-fi films of the 1950s -- and she delivered it gravely.

Speaking in an out-of-this-world tongue wasn't the only oddity of Neal's career. She had an offbeat, wide-faced beauty that one critic aptly labeled "Appalachian" -- in certain early photos, she resembles the stoic young woman in the famous Depression-era photo by Dorothea Lange. Neal reached Hollywood in the late '40s, as the studio system was collapsing, and she had a stroke in 1965, while still in her thirties. The upshot is that a woman whom The Post's Richard Coe once called "our most undervalued major actress" ended up with about a third of the screen time logged by stars of a generation earlier. She made the most of her chances, though, winning an Oscar for her role in "Hud" (1963).

At the outset of his Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life (Univ. of Kentucky, $35), Stephen Michael Shearer admits to being a friend of his subject's. She urged him to tell her story "warts and all," and he gives full play to her early off-screen work as a home-wrecker. ("In those days," she recalled. "I had no conscience.") As for her marriage to the British writer Roald Dahl, Shearer suggests that Dahl's vaunted role as a tough-love amateur therapist after Neal's stroke has been exaggerated; his prevailing attitude toward her seems to have been indifference.

But Neal's illness is also where Shearer's otherwise solid biography comes up short. What do doctors think caused that stroke? Did Neal change her lifestyle in order to forestall a recurrence? She has been raising money for medical research ever since, but her biographer is mysteriously reticent about her own condition.

Awkward Emcee

When I recall "The Ed Sullivan Show," the performers that leap to mind are two middle-of-the-bill perennials, singer Sophie Tucker and ventriloquist Se?or Wences. Sullivan always introduced Tucker with her Homeric epithet, "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas," as if the world had once teemed with RHMs. The se?or's m.o. was to transform his hand into a puppet and throw his voice into the mouth of a bearded chap who "lived" inside a box. You weren't likely to find Tucker or Wences on any other TV show: They were Ed's people, and they joined the roll-call of acrobat troupes and choirs, boxers and comics, mezzo-sopranos and rock-and-rollers, magicians and ballet dancers, xylophonists and plate-spinners, plus the splashier acts -- Elvis Presley, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones -- that lent the show a kind of channel-surfing effect: You got a rapid-fire sense of the current entertainment spectrum without having to lift a finger.

James Maguire's smart Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (Billboard, $24.95) dwells on the disparity between the Broadway columnist's lust for the limelight and his ill-suitedness for same. Sullivan began cobbling together variety shows in the early 1930s to generate a kind of feedback loop: Performers on his shows gave him tidbits for his columns, and he mentioned them in print and brought them back for more shows. After bombing repeatedly in radio and the movies, Sullivan finally succeeded as an emcee on live TV, where his stiffness and bloopers endeared him to viewers and impressionists alike. One of the latter captured the show's something-for-everybody eclecticism in this riff: "Tonight on our rilly big show we have seven hundred and two Polish dentists who will be out here in a few moments doing their marvelous extractions." But far from resenting his imitators, Sullivan embraced them: Being mimicked was proof that he'd made it.

His extravaganza ran from 1948 to 1971, holding together a national audience that has since fractured. Maguire deplores the loss of Sullivan's big-tent approach to entertainment, but even he admits that each family member watching the show was likely to be "bored in turn." Was it really all that ennobling for Beatles fans to sit through torch songs by Sophie Tucker and antics by Se?or Wences before they got their reward?

Scene-Stealer

Tom Santopietro's The Importance of Being Barbra (Thomas Dunne, $22.95) is not a biography of its subject but a book-length critique of Streisand's multifaceted career: singer, movie star, director and political activist. Not many celebrities warrant such extended scrutiny, but Barbra Streisand may be one of them, and Santopietro, who is described as having managed "more than two dozen Broadway shows," seems qualified for the job. Except for one thing -- his prose.

Santopietro can be shrewd about Streisand's work, sometimes to her detriment, as when he notes how her egotism helped spoil "The Prince of Tides," a film she starred in and directed. When the character played by Nick Nolte comes to grips with his upbringing in what should be his big scene, the camera focuses not on him but on the reaction of his shrink (Streisand). "The breakthrough is the patient's, not the doctor's," Santopietro notes, "but the viewer wouldn't know it."

Such insights, however, are all but lost in the presentation. Participles dangle by the hundreds. Hyperbole abounds. Clich?s pile up into whole edifices of boilerplate, as in this comment on the film "Hello Dolly": "On the plus side of the ledger, there is first-class musical support from soon-to-be Broadway legend Tommy Tune . . . and several individual scenes hit the bullseye." The Importance of Being Barbra shows the importance of being a writer.

One Woman Riot

Lee Server's Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing" (St. Martin's, $29.95) wore me out. It's not just that this biography of perhaps the most beautiful Hollywood star ever sprawls over 500 pages. Gardner was a tireless boozer, fornicator and brawler, and the account of her marriages, affairs, tantrums, sulks, seductions, confessions and generally erratic behavior soon becomes tedious. Especially as you watch Gardner make the same mistakes over and over -- such as agreeing to another reconciliation with her third husband, Frank Sinatra, despite overwhelming evidence that they were poison to each other. You get the sense of someone dancing on a treadmill.

A native of North Carolina tobacco country, Ava Gardner got to Hollywood via a photo in a New York shop window, which caught the eye of an MGM talent scout. The studio signed her up, put her through its in-house finishing school and then all but lost sight of her. It took another studio, Universal, to make her a star, in "The Killers" (1946), a film noir based loosely on a Hemingway story.

Carefully directed, Gardner could turn in an intelligent performance, but most of her 70-odd movies are slop. Off-camera, she gave off sparks of wit, as in her assessment of John Ford, who directed her in "Mogambo": "The meanest man on earth. Thoroughly evil. Adored him!" And she never failed to make an impression. What Server calls "her often desperate joie de vivre" inspired the one-woman riot played by Anita Ekberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." But in the end Gardner epitomizes the empty-vessel syndrome that seems to afflict so many movie stars: Without a script or a director, the poor woman had no idea what to make of herself. ?

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor to Book World.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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