A Belle With Star Quality

With Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady (ReganBooks, $29.95), author Joel Lobenthal conveys his passion for his subject on every page. Beyond his scrupulous presentation of the facts and events of Tallulah Bankhead's glittering, self-destructive life, Lobenthal has a worthy agenda: to make the case for Bankhead as a great actress, something that has been obscured by her lingering status as a "dah-ling"-spouting camp icon.

The English criticized the untrained Tallulah for being devoid of "technique"; later, brooding Actors Studio types sneered that she was all technique. Lobenthal crushes both theories. Through insightful opening-night reviews, interviews with awed colleagues, and an exhaustive, rewarding analysis of the breadth of roles Tallulah played, Lobenthal evokes a stage actress of not just presence but nuance, vulnerability and range. Having scoured her film and television work, he also nixes director George Cukor's judgment that her movie career tanked because she had "dead" eyes. Her early film career was a washout because of box-office failures and bad scripts, not because she was unphotographable or overly theatrical.

Tallulah's career wasn't all about bitchy repartee, either. She acted onstage with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, was directed by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, and appeared in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Cocteau, Williams and Odets. Lobenthal recreates the excitement surrounding the two peaks of Tallulah's stage career: Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" (1939) and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942). About her work in Wilder's classic, the New York Sun wrote: "Her portrayal of Sabina has comedy and passion. How she contrives both, almost at the same time, is a mystery to mere man." Then came her two best movies: Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944), which finally gave her a Hollywood smash, and Otto Preminger's "A Royal Scandal" (1945), a commercial flop about a libido-driven Catherine the Great that preserved Bankhead's genius for high comedy.

Tallulah smoked, drank and took drugs incessantly, was unapologetically bisexual, and had a penchant for public nudity -- all of which was particularly shocking from a Southern belle born into a respected political family. She was plagued by lifelong insecurity, chronic loneliness and a flair for self-sabotage, fueling her dissipation. But an identifiable persona -- glamorous, caustic, self-deprecating and huskily baritone -- had been cemented. Kudos to Lobenthal for giving her reputation a well-deserved makeover, from female-impersonator fodder to extraordinary artist. Move over Helen Hayes, dah-ling; it's time that Tallulah Bankhead unseated you as the 20th century's First Lady of the American Theatre.

Daddy Was a Crooner

Near the end of Deana Martin's Memories Are Made of This: Dean Martin Through His Daughter's Eyes (Harmony, $24), she writes, "The great thing about Dad was that he enjoyed every minute of the blessings that life bestowed upon him." Really? That's not the conclusion I came to after reading her sincere but dullish book, written with Wendy Holden. Dean was hardly a devoted father and husband, much preferring his golf clubs to his three wives and seven children. Deana Martin wants it both ways: to be honest about how emotionally detached and neglectful Dean was, while strenuously reassuring readers of his good qualities, so that no one will come away thinking she has written "Daddy Dearest."

Unfortunately, Deana wasn't around for any of the things we want to hear about. She's too young to remember much about her father's partnership with Jerry Lewis, and she only rarely saw Dean perform on film sets. Her critical analysis of his talents consists of gushing about how great he was at everything he did. And her stream of anecdotes doesn't constitute a full portrait. Dean is often a peripheral character here -- the flashy guest star -- leaving his daughter to discuss other family members, most of whom are of minimal interest. In a book filled with name-dropping, she illuminates a public personality just once, in her description of a funny reunion with her childhood friend Liza Minnelli at Frank Sinatra's funeral.

Deana was Dean's fourth child, the last he had with his first wife, Betty; he had three more with his second wife, Jeanne. When she was 9, she and her siblings were abandoned by the alcoholic Betty and came to live with Dean and his new family. The most interesting, full-bodied character here is Betty, the discarded first wife. Deana writes poignantly of her beautiful, vibrant mother, who never got past losing Dean. Stepping in and out of her children's lives and drinking steadily, she's the phantom figure hovering over Dean's success. Betty is a real-life Stella Dallas, and it is she, not Dean or Deana, who stays in your thoughts.

Straight-Arrow Success

Lynn Haney's Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life (Carroll & Graf, $26) is very admiring of its subject, but that doesn't prevent its readers from coming to a dispiriting conclusion: Gregory Peck was not Atticus Finch, the Oscar-winning role he played in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). After all, don't Peck's fans essentially believe that he and Atticus were one and the same? Peck was actually driven to climb to the top, was desperate to stay there and paid a price in his personal life, especially in the guilt he felt over his eldest son's suicide.

Haney acknowledges that Peck did a lot with his limited talent. His luckiest break came from being 4-F in World War II, and therefore of interest to movie moguls frantic for leading men to replace the screen hunks sent overseas. Peck was a big star by the war's end, having carved a niche as the screen's intelligent heartthrob, a man of morals and integrity who just happened to be tall, dark and handsome. Atticus, a role model for both fathers and lawyers, was the quintessential straight-arrow Peck character and the climax of the actor's career. Ambiguous, anti-heroic characters would soon become the fashion.

Haney scores in her depiction of the working relationships between Peck and some maverick directors: old-timers like William Wellman, Henry Hathaway and Lewis Milestone, some of whom found the cautious, cerebral actor a real pain. But though straightforward and well-researched, this book rarely rises above the level of the standard film-star biography because Haney doesn't delve deeply enough into Peck's character. Too often she's sidetracked by countless extraneous details and tangents that not only choke her book but interfere with readers' immersion in Peck's story.

Feeling the Love

Each time I set down Edward Douglas's prurient Jack: The Great Seducer: The Life and Many Loves of Jack Nicholson (HarperCollins, $26.95), I expected to see tabloid newsprint on my fingertips. And yet I can't say that the book's two subtitles didn't warn me. Though Nicholson won't like being called insecure, childish and volatile, how mad can he get at a book that stops every few pages to hail him as a great lover? His on-again/off-again relationships with Anjelica Huston and Lara Flynn Boyle are tiring to read about and impossible to make sense of; I guess they kept coming back for all that amazing sex! There are too many bedmates to keep track of, most of them interchangeable to readers (and to Jack), though they all identify themselves as "special."

Douglas does succeed in conveying that moment in American movies, epitomized by Nicholson's "Easy Rider" (1969) and "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), when anti-establishment ideas and characters arrived on-screen. "Five Easy Pieces presented a new kind of male in American cinema," he writes, "one who deconstructed not only the usual he-man stereotype of masculinity but, cutting closer to the bone of contemporary reality, unmasked the counterculture rebel, showing him as a far more intriguing creature than Brando, Dean, or Dustin Hoffman -- or, for that matter, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper -- had ever envisaged." More sentences like that -- bold, incisive, arguable -- and less time under the covers, and this book might have been worthwhile to those who prize Nicholson's screen-acting conquests. *

John DiLeo is the author of "100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember -- But Probably Don't" and "And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies!"

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"Tallulah BankheadDeana Martin with her father, Dean MartinJack Nicholson with an Oscar for best actor in 1998