WITH MICHAEL KORDA, nothing succeeds quite like excess. Queenie, a very thinly disguised portrait of film star Merle Oberon, suffers -- or flourishes, depending on your point of view -- from ladle after ladle of Hollywood necrophilia and Dallas/Dynasty wish-fulfillment fantasy. It has everything, in fact, except an editor's touch, which is amusing since Korda himself is the editor in chief of the very house which, through an affiliate, is publishing the 650-page Queenie.
But a novel packaged as a blockbuster with a huge paperback sale is not insignificant, and predisposed readers may find Queenie's multitude of sins deliciously sinful -- the chocolate box of poison that Korda left out of his celebrated Charmed Lives.
In Princess Merle (Coward, McCann, 1983), biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, intrigued by Merle Oberon's evasiveness when questioned about her early life, unearthed Oberon's birth certificate in Bombay, not in Tasmania where Oberon claimed she was born to English parents traveling through Australia. Oberon was actually the daughter of an Indian mother and British engineer who worked on the railroads -- a fact the actress was able to hide by weaving an elaborate made-up past, even going as far as having her mother pose as Oberon's maid or "nanny."
Once she shed her "chee-chee," a derogatory term for Anglo-Indian background, Oberon enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle with enough romantic turbulence to crack up an entire air field of jet-setters. She married Alexander Korda (Michael Korda's uncle) and under his tutelege became a major British star. She next married cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who lit the actress in her films so wondrously that a new light was named after Oberon, the "Obie." It was patented and widely used thereafter in the industry. She later became involved with Giorgio Cini, a Venetian count, then married Bruno Pagliai, a wealthy Mexican industrialist, and later Robert Wolders, her much younger co-star in Interval -- a 1973 vanity comeback flop bankrolled by Pagliai. She died in 1979.
Oberon's colorful life seems ripe for a smashingly provocative roman set one's sights lower -- at least a bang-up enjoyable trashorama. Korda has many themes to choose from; among them is a woman so desperate to conceal her past she can't enjoy her present or make plans for the future. Another approach would be to picture the heroine as a female Dorian Gray, obsessively clinging to her fading beauty with the acute self-knowledge that her talent was her beauty: Merle Oberon was no actress (although she was an eerily beautiful, ecstatic Cathy in Wuthering Heights), but her lovely features and regal stillness were mesmerizing if her performances were not. And when she went through reconstructive surgery after an auto accident, her dilemma was magnified, driving her to seek experimental cosmetic therapy, including injections of silicone and fluid from uteruses of pregnant animals.
HOWEVER, Korda's approach is literal and unimaginative except at the outset. There the heroine is headstrong and winsome, pushing others to compromise as she climbs out of her "class" and into a world of elegance. She cajoles her loving uncle into stealing a bracelet from an aristocratic cobra woman so they can secure passage to England. Later, she kills him accidentally and covers up the manslaughter in the same way she hides her heritage. This is melodramatic but contains the ingredients of good popular fiction and is at least an attempt at characterization.
But that's where the fictional Queenie ends and the Oberon-inspired, unsympathetically presented Queenie takes over. The rest of the novel is bits and pieces from the actress' life, with stick figures stepping forward only to be slapped into shape. Korda sometimes doesn't even bother to change first names. When Oberon was growing up she was known as "Queenie" and so is his heroine. Lucien is Lucien, etc. What he does do is to compress most of the important incidents in Oberon's life into the five-year period before World War II. Lovers and husbands from over a 30-year period bump into each other; there's a Von Sternberg type browbeating her or a Selznick type trying to rape her or a Goldwyn type exploiting her -- everything except one of Thelma Ritter's hounds snappin' at her rear. It's like 50 years of Guiding Light played out in a single weekend -- a bit much.
How does Korda pad out this relatively short period in the next 450 pages? There's one interminable scene after another of business intrigue, studio politics, and high power wheeling and dealing. (The scenes seem like work-ups from Korda's nonfiction works Success! and Power!) There are more dreary scenes in which the romantically disposed Queenie dreams of "Lucien's hard, muscular body lying beside her." After months of reconstructive surgery, Queenie wanders out into the street and is approached by no less than a count who convinces her to marry him. Trouble is, when she catches a gander of the painting of his former wife, she discovers that the deceased (suicide? murder?) countess is a dead ringer for herself!
Part Harlequin, part gothic, and part Carol Burnett movie skit, Queenie is so derivative and predictable that Korda even succumbs to retelling the behind the behind-the-scenes Gone with the Wind saga for what has to be the umpteenth time, changing a few names but few of the well-known details. This section ends with the last-minute arrival on the set of a British actress to play the irrepressible southern belle. Myron Selznick's famous introduction of Vivien Leigh to his moghul brother David, "Here's your Scarlett," is changed to "Here's your Caresse, Myron." To paraphrase Truman Capote, that's not writting, it's word processing.