"I'LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU," Elizabeth Taylor told Michael Wilding by phone. "But it's no longer ring-a-ding-ding anymore. Do you understand?"
In The Wilding Way, Michael Wilding understands, perhaps too well. Like his fellow British memoirists-- Olivier, Gielgud, Bogarde, Ustinov, et al.--he is a gentleman first and foremost, sometimes maddeningly so. While American female stars in their autobiographies often view themselves as mad creatures of fate--Hardy heroines against a vast heath--Wilding and other actors just as dramatically, but in a much lighter tone, accept full responsibility for personal mishaps. If the American male stars generally avoid applying quill to paper (which is another story), the Britishers write with an adventurish gusto but always with a cloak over puddles where the ladies are concerned. They are expert raconteurs in this light, anecdotal form, but often their memoirs (part wit, part melancholy) have little depth, as if these modest actors see their legacy to the world is, as in the Noel Coward song, a simple "talent to amuse."
Much of The Wilding Way's sketchiness is probably due to the death of Michael Wilding in 1979, before the manuscript was finished. It has been given a prologue and epilogue and was prepared for publication by Pamela Wilcox, the daughter of Herbert Wilcox, who produced and directed Wilding's popular British films. The book is a leisurely, affectionate series of remembrances, endeavoring to please, and mostly succeeding. It skips quickly from Wilding's childhood as a British military attach,e's son in prerevolutionary Russia (a fascinating period that fairly begs to be expanded upon), to glimpses of the English theater, to a first marriage ("I take all blame for the failure . . .") to choice vignettes about Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby's first wife. Long quotes from the autobiographies of Herbert Wilcox and his wife Anna Neagle (who co-starred with Wilding in his best-known films) pad out Wilding's memories and fill in gaps caused by the actor's touching modesty.
However, two sections have the detail, depth and emotional honesty that cut through the light, best-foot- forward memories. The first is about life with Elizabeth Taylor, who is the only woman other than Joan Crawford who waltzes through the pages in less than complimentary fashion. (Taylor is ferociously funny, calling Wilding "Mr. Shilly-Shally," and urging him to ditch grandma Marlene Dietrich to marry her, a teenager. Wilding is fairly gallant discussing their marriage and Taylor is canonized as the world's greatest mother.)
The Wilding reserve is further cracked by a description of his happy marriage to Margaret Leighton and her subsequent battle with multiple sclerosis. This moving tribute brings to mind similar sections in Lauren Bacall By Myself and Elsa Lanchester, Herself in which deaths of famous spouses are related simply and without a hint of affectation.
In Charles Boyer: The Reluctant Lover, veteran film biographer Larry Swindell doesn't dwell on the tragedies of the star's life--the suicide of Boyer's playboy son, the shattering death of his wife after 44 years of marriage, and Boyer's own suicide two days later. In fact these events aren't mentioned until the last eight pages. His discretion in this and other areas is refreshing but doesn't make for a comprehensive biography.
Instead, Swindell concentrates on Boyer's life on film, suggesting that the actor was much more than a great screen lover--like Wilding and other imported European purveyors of romantic charm, civilized sex--but a consummate actor as well. Swindell points out that Boyer excelled in a variety of roles, especially on the French stage, but was a captive of the "Come wiz me to zee Casbah" image. (John Cromwell, who directed Algiers, insists Boyer must be a great actor to get such a responsive performance out of "no personality" Hedy Lamarr.) Swindell has some fun with image, reporting that Boyer experimented with toupees from picture to picture, and the great lover was forced to play romantic scenes standing on a box opposite Ingrid Bergman.
Swindell uses the same format he employed so skillfully in The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper, discussing huge chunks of film history while keeping the actor firmly in perspective, comparing Boyer to other stars of the era, and spinning off smart mini-biographies of the show business personalities the actor rubbed elbows with. Since Boyer's offscreen life was seemingly uneventful (until the end, that is), and Swindell admits he was unable to get associates to open up about the star's private life, these gossipy, frequently long spin- offs are welcome but often get the narrative off the track. It's as if the author has lost interest in his subject. Swindell captures Boyer the actor beautifully, but Boyer the man remains elusive.
In Dustin Hoffman: Hollywood Antihero, a skimpy, awkwardly written biography, Jeff Lenburg swoops down on a career, but all he finds is a bare skeleton, some stray bones, and a couple of ruffled feathers. Every Hoffman film role except Tootsie is perused, the plot interminably summarized, a smidgeon of background information is offered (On Lenny: "Actress Valerie Perrine, who had been a smash in Slaughterhouse Five, was signed to star as Honey, which was okay by Dustin, thank you"), production costs and box office receipts noted ("Some bargain, eh?"), and critics' comments reprinted with grammatical abandon (Eliot Fremont- Smith "enthused," Stanley Kauffmann "enthused," Vincent Canby "enthused," etc).
When Lenburg ventures into Hoffman's private life, he is characteristically sophomoric: "He likes someone who's sexy and beautiful but whose exterior is secondary to the inner self."
If that reads like a caption under a pinup in Tigerbeat, it is nothing compared to the rhapsody the author creates over Hoffman the womanizer. (This should come as no surprise to Meryl Streep who remembers her introduction to the star: "He (Hoffman) came up to me and said, 'I'm Dustin--burp--Hoffman,' and he put his hand on my breast.") As for the author's critical acumen, it is at best naive and unfortunate: "Kramer (Hoffman's character in Kramer vs. Kramer) appears to be the strong male model audiences can identify with in the 1980s, much the same as filmgoers did with Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry in the 1970s." If a decade of young filmgoers identified with Dirty Harry or seriously considered him a strong male role model, perhaps it's time for mothers to lock up their sons.
One in need of a quick antidote to this biography will find it in Making Tootsie: A Film Study with Dustin Hoffman & Sydney Pollack, which manages, in addition to being an intelligent account of the production of the hit movie, to be a remarkably full portrait of Hoffman the actor. Susan Dworkin, a contributing editor to Ms., details the well-publicized brawls--the squabbles over dialogue, improvisation, style--between Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack. She sees neither man as being right or wrong but views their "artistic differences" as part of the movie-making process, the on-the-set bluster where egos are on the line and a thousand details must be attended to.
Besides focusing on Hoffman's work methods and approach to acting, Dworkin traces the evolution of the Tootsie script through an assembly line of writers, examines the complex makeup procedure which transformed Hoffman into the perky Dorothy Michaels, and takes quick peeks into nearly every area of the production including the studio politics at Columbia Pictures. Because Tootsie, which has grossed over $100 million at the box office and received 10 Oscar nominations, is about a man who poses as a woman and learns how to be a better man, Dworkin's analysis has an appropriate feminist edge, and not entirely a humorless one. For the "No Comment" department: When Hoffman as Dorothy vamped for cameras in a fashion show sequence with the male staff shouting suggestions and encouragement from the sidelines, Hoffman's female stand-in muttered to Dworkin, "Twenty women in this room. One of them is a professional model. And all these men are telling a man how to pose for a picture in a long black dress and a lynx coat." This book isn't in the same class as Lillian Ross' Picture, about the making of The Red Badge of Courage, or even Pauline Kael's long dissection of The Group included in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but it is informative, crisply written and worthwhile.
Burt Reynolds: An Unauthorized Biography is terrible, but since its author Syliva Safran Resnick seems so blithely unaware of its tabloid tackiness and seems to be having such a good time, the book can also be terrible fun. Resnick, an editor for Rona Barrett's Hollywood and author of a recent biography of Kristy McNichol, zooms in on Reynolds' beleaguered love life, indefatigably following the star's romantic sojourns, from pillar to post, from field to shore--Sally Field and Dinah Shore, mostly. Resnick's method is to examine, through press clippings, it seems, each relationship one at a time, quoting both of the principals gushing about each other (thus hanging themselves), and then speculating about the reasons for the breakup. Before the finish, Judy Carne, Miko Mayama, Inger Stevens, and Tammy Wynette get their day in court. Will Loni Anderson be next?
Very little of this is illuminating, but it is not uninteresting and it sometimes is amusingly contradictory. Resnick says of the Shore-Reynolds liaison that "neither of them ever gave a thought to the age difference," then quotes Reynolds as saying, "I was terribly lucky to have met her at the crossroads of her life." All this nonsense is punctuated regularly by the ubiquitous exclamation point as in the bulletin annoucing the release of Norma Rae: "Sally (Field) was suddenly news!" But when an exclamation point is truly called for--as in the story of Reynolds' loss of innocence to a Palm Beach woman (he was 14; she was 42 and also supposedly seduced a teenage George Hamilton)--lively punctuation goes into retirement.
When Resnick gets around to analyzing Reynolds' success in films, which is less frequent than the appearances of those exclamation points, the results are, well, ring-a-ding-ding. "Burt Reynolds was not only a talented actor, he was the kind of person you would want for a friend. Men and women adored him. Men wanted to look like him, to exude that macho essence that seemed to ooze from every pore." As Burt Reynolds wrote on a photograph for the author, "Sylvia, you're much too much." This, alas, is the problem with most show business memoirs and biographies. They're either too much, or too little.