By Michael Korda
Summit. 378 pp. $19.95
By Anne Edwards
The difficulty with this book is that it may be perceived as a roman a` clef which could intrigue readers into falsely believing that they are to be privy to secrets -- otherwise unprintable -- about famous people.
Who the famous people are in this instance is not overly taxing to puzzle out. "Curtain" presents Robert "Robbie" Vane, "the greatest actor of the English theater in a generation," and the beautiful, cat-eyed Felicia "Lisha" Lisle -- his lover and then wife -- a manic-depressive who has won an Oscar for portraying the most famous fictional heroine of all time in Hollywood's most successful movie ever. "Curtain" costars Randy Brooks -- tall, red-haired, fast-talking, well-loved American stage and film comedian. All right, so we have Larry and Viv and Danny. Subtlety is not one of Korda's strong suits.
At the rise of "Curtain," the great theater couple's once impassioned love has cooled, although their obsession with each other has not. Lisha is about to leave private care after a suspected suicide attempt, and Robbie has lost a small fortune in a touring company of "Romeo and Juliet" that had starred the romantic couple. Enter Randy Brooks, closet homosexual, their Hollywood neighbor and Robbie's confidant. After overhearing a private exchange between the two men, Lisha broods secretly on whether they are lovers.
The war takes Robbie and Lisha back to England and the theater. Lisha suffers emotionally and Robbie simply suffers while he renews his position as England's greatest actor and speculation builds as to whether he will be knighted. Marty Quick, the vulgar American producer to whom Robbie owes $400,000 from his Hollywood days, arrives in England and expects Vane to honor this debt by starring in his next film. Randy Brooks, who is on tour entertaining the troops, reenters, provoking Lisha's renewed jealousy. In fact, he and Vane appear not to be lovers, although Randy very much wishes otherwise.
There is very little drama until late in the book, when plot devices clank in an effort to wake up the audience. During a production of "Othello," Vane comes close to suffocating Lisha as Desdemona. Blackmail and murder -- a dagger plunged to its jeweled hilt -- soon follow.
In the opening passages of "Curtain" a deliberate effort is made to describe Felicia Lisle and Robert Vane so that the reader says smugly to him or herself, "Ah -- Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier." Throughout the book extraneous insider bits as well as familiar information are woven into the narrative to reaffirm this impression. But, let no one be in doubt, "Curtain" is a work of fiction and not an especially interesting one at that.
To give Korda his due, the theater scenes with their attention to the minutiae of stagecraft are well described and the writer displays a keen ear for dialogue. But overall this is an unrelentingly disappointing book -- dull-to-tedious in the first two-thirds and unbelievably overdramatic in the final act.
The reviewer is the author of "Vivien Leigh: A Biography" and of the forthcoming "Wallis: The Novel."