Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince By Mark A. Vieira (University of California Press, 504 pp., $34.95) There are times of such chaos and promise, danger and daydream, when all of us hope for a superb and flawless leader. If he can swing it, we are off the hook. But he need not be a hero who turns into a tyrant. He is not necessarily strong, fierce, and Herculean. Indeed, it may add to his charm, to his magic, if he is slight, youthful, on the pretty side, and--better still--dying.
As a person, he was the most deferential of the New Wave directors, yet the most persistent. Eric Rohmer. He died yesterday, aged eighty-nine, and he had made 50 films in that time--as regular, as festive, but as resigned as birthdays--and they were all the same film, about men and women looking at each other. It sounds commonplace as a subject, perhaps, calm and contemplative. But consider for a moment. Are you more or less a man or a woman? Are you more or less tied up with someone?
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography By Mitchell Zuckoff (Knopf, 592 pp., $35) Here is your exam question: who is the last American movie director who made thirty-nine films but never won the Oscar for best director? Name the film by that director that cost the most money, and name the film of his that earned the most. Clue: The Departed, which must have been around Martin Scorsese’s thirtieth picture, and did win the directing Oscar, cost $90 million (four times as much as any of this man’s films cost)--so don’t go that way.
On a Wednesday night in San Francisco, opening night, in a theater no more than half full, the truth was as inescapable as rain at a picnic. Johnny Depp just wasn’t cutting it. He wasn’t even making the attempt. Once again, Michael Mann had poured his nearly liquid talent over a gangster picture without ever thinking to ask himself why. That oddly vague title Public Enemies--why isn’t it called Johnny D. or just Dillinger?--was turning into a startlingly detached and affectless movie.
Kazan on Directing Edited and with commentary by Robert Cornfield (Knopf, 368 pp., $32.50) If anyone wants to make the case for Elia Kazan as one of the outstanding twentieth-century Americans, there is a famous text to call in support. I refer to A Life, Kazan's autobiography, published in 1988 at 848 pages (it was cut to make it a reasonable length), and one of the most forceful and engrossing books ever written about a life in the arts or show business.
Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods By Annie J. Randall (Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $24.95) We do our best to keep up, those of us tottering into the back of The New Republic's book once a fortnight. So I have my work and my life as well as those of my wife and children. I have revenues to raise and taxes to pay. On Super Bowl Sunday, I cared just about enough to watch the game, though I was more certain to watch Chelsea versus Liverpool, live, in the West Coast morning. I hope to read a couple of books a month. I worry, but I like to have time for doing nothing.
ISHERWOOD: A LIFE REVEALED By Peter Parker (Random House, 815 pp., $39.95) “FIX” IS A WORD FOR OUR time, blunt and secretive, yet promising transformation. If the “fix” is in, don’t we all suffer because of it? When the World Series of 1919 was “fixed,” the game needed Babe Ruth in order to recover. But if we have a bad knee or a car that won’t start, it is a mercy if someone says they can “fix” it for us. That treatment—we hope—doesn’t involve a cheating fix. It must be a true case of repair or restoration.
Fire By Sebastian Junger (W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $24.95) There is a point in Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon where the old lady turns on the writer and asks: "How is it, young man, that you talk so much and write so long about these bullfights and yet are not a bullfighter yourself?" The writer admits that he did try it once or twice—on bulls with blunted horns.
Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films by W John Mueller (Knopf, 448 pp., $45) Sinatra: My Father By Nancy Sinatra (Doubleday, 340pp., $50) One mercy of living between 1930 and 1960, if you took notice, was the good fortune of having the show put on by Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Not that their worth erased in 1960, when they started to move toward saloon chairs, golf, and more humdrum ways of passing their tune. You can still see The Gay Divorcee, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Blue Skies, or Silk Stockings; and you can listen to In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, or Only the Lonely.