Star Light, Star Bright

With grace, passion and tongues occasionally in cheeks, these four silver screen idols made dancing and acting onscreen look easy.

Reviewed by John DiLeo
Sunday, October 5, 2008; Page BW08

PIECES OF MY HEART A Life By Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman | HarperEntertainment. 326 pp. $25.95

There won't be too many more first-person accounts coming from those who knew and worked with Hollywood's golden-age stars, and for that reason Robert Wagner's autobiography, Pieces of My Heart, is a treasure.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Wagner dreamt of becoming a movie star from an early age. Once he entered the business, he compensated for a difficult relationship with his father by collecting an amazing contingent of surrogate dads, including Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra and especially David Niven and Spencer Tracy. What impressed the kid about these role models was not just their talent but their ability to lead successful personal lives with interests outside the biz, such as Astaire's passion for horses and Gable's love of hunting. With palpable pleasure and deep fondness, Wagner evokes all these larger-than-life figures as generous mentors whose lessons have stayed with him. Wagner was also chummy with Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, had a satisfying one-night stand with Joan Crawford and kept a four-year affair with Barbara Stanwyck secret because of their 23-year age difference.

Most readers will be waiting for the arrival in this narrative of Natalie Wood, whom Wagner married twice. Theirs was one of Hollywood's great true-life romances, and Wagner's portrait of Wood is adoring and poignant. Their first marriage (1957-62) failed because Wood's stardom eclipsed her husband's. Their 1972 remarriage was a more mature union and, with their three daughters, apparently idyllic.

But we know what's coming: Wood's accidental drowning in 1981. Wagner reconstructs what he remembers of that mystifying night aboard their yacht, but no one will ever know what really happened. He pulled himself together for his children and later found marital contentment with Jill St. John. With admirable strength and honest self-awareness, Wagner makes plain that there's much more to him than his handsome face.

REAGAN The Hollywood Years By Marc Eliot | Harmony. 375 pp. $25.95

Hollywood is where Ronald Reagan molded his public image and honed his communication skills, yet his years as a contract player for Warner Bros. have received little attention because few of his movies during the period are better than mediocre. In this book, Marc Eliot sets out to fill in the gaps, but in doing so he overrates his subject's acting ability.

Reagan achieved success in the early 1940s as "the Gipper" in "Knute Rockne, All American," a performance Eliot delusionally calls "electrifying," and in the impressive melodrama "Kings Row," a solid performance over-hyped by Eliot as one of "grandeur and mystery." Most people would be hard-pressed to name another Reagan movie except "Bedtime for Bonzo," and, aside from "The Hasty Heart," there are no sleepers languishing in his filmography.

Eliot is on firmer ground when describing the frustrations of a second-tier star panicked into finding alternative ways to maintain national attention. Reagan's stalled career became more problematic when his actress-wife, Jane Wyman, surpassed him after years in his shadow. They divorced soon after she won her Oscar for "Johnny Belinda" (1948).

Nancy Davis, who became Reagan's second wife and eventually first lady, was much less of a professional threat (check her out in "Donovan's Brain" if you doubt me). The Nancy depicted here, fueled by ambition and opportunism, sets her sights on Reagan and quickly becomes the woman behind the man. She ditches acting when she finds her true calling, which appears to have been social-climbing, in the course of which she moves Reagan away from left-leaning actors and toward high-rolling businessmen with political access. Eliot's portrait of Nancy, unflattering as it is, is the book's fullest, whereas Reagan himself seems to coast along as blandly as in one of his hazily remembered movie roles.

CLAUDETTE COLBERT She Walked in Beauty By Bernard F. Dick | Univ. of Mississippi. 329 pp. $30

This biography subjects a scintillating actress's career to diligent film-by-film analysis. French-born and Manhattan-raised, Claudette Colbert was a star on Broadway before bringing her light touch and breezy sophistication to 1930s Hollywood. Though best remembered as one of the movies' premier comediennes in sparklers like "The Gilded Lily" and "Midnight," Colbert also scored in straight drama, notably in "Since You Went Away" and "Three Came Home," a pair of World War II-themed pictures.

Colbert showed her versatility in 1934 when she lent her tongue-in-cheek wit to the title role in Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra"; contributed an Oscar-winning performance to Frank Capra's romantic comedy "It Happened One Night"; and played the lead in the tearjerker "Imitation of Life." That trifecta inspires Bernard F. Dick's most perceptive and absorbing writing, particularly the detail with which he charts each film's transition to the screen from source materials. But Dick botches his discussion of another Colbert peak, her role as the practical wife of an impractical inventor in the screwball classic "The Palm Beach Story." He painfully overanalyzes that high-spirited lark, joylessly beating out every laugh.

Whispers about Colbert's lesbianism make Dick uncomfortable, but the irony is that he inadvertently presents a believable case for it. Dick doesn't find it bizarre that Colbert and her first husband, Norman Foster, never lived together, accepting the excuse that Colbert's mother hated Foster and wouldn't have him in their home. Each fact Dick dredges up makes the marriage sound more like one of convenience. Regarding her second husband, Joel Pressman, we're told that Colbert never had the passion for him that she had for Foster (a passion that denied itself overnight stays). Pressman vanishes from the book for decades, having no discernible connection to Colbert's life; theirs is described as a relationship in which "companionship and compatibility take on greater importance than sex," even though Colbert was merely 32 when they married. Dick accuses those who would "out" Colbert of wishful thinking, but he may be guilty of that tendency himself: Colbert left most of her fortune to her longtime female companion.

FRED ASTAIRE By Joseph Epstein | Yale Univ. 198 pp. $22 (to be published later this month)

Joseph Epstein wants to know, "Whence derived Astaire's sublimity, his magic? That is the great, happy question at the center of this little book." No one expects a definitive answer, but one does expect more than just another appreciation of one of our most appreciated artists, a cinematic dancer without peer and a singer who introduced more standards than anybody else of his time. Epstein makes the obligatory comparison of Astaire to another great dancer, Gene Kelly: Kelly let his effort show, while Astaire made everything look easy. Epstein is more astute on the subject of Ginger Rogers, Astaire's dancing co-star who appeared with him in 10 films: "Only with her did there seem to be genuine emotions passing between partners." Astaire never found a partner to equal Rogers, and Epstein rightly notes that her acting talent added depth to their dances.

In his most original (and wrongheaded) passages, Epstein blasts most of Astaire's post-Rogers partners. Unable to savor how lucky we are that Astaire challenged himself with so many varied ladies, Epstein slams the knockout routines Astaire did with Vera-Ellen in "Three Little Words," calls gifted Leslie Caron "chunky" and "klunky," and criticizes Cyd Charisse's "unapproachable chill." But overall this book offers more in the way of familiar praise than of fresh insights, and by the end Epstein is still asking if Astaire's magic can be pinned down. That's where we came in. ยท

John DiLeo's latest book is "Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery."

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