One of the puzzles facing the film historian (amateur or professional) occurs when a child climbs upon the parental knee and asks, “Well, Dad, what was the black list?” The parent struggles to explain that, once upon a nervous time, the Hollywood movie was said to be rife with un-American suggestions and the energetic insinuation of socialist alternatives. The child blinks, and says, “Father, isn’t that preposterous?
Twice in a season, Hollywood has broken its self-protective silence on social questions to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, in many ways the nastiest of them all. Crossfire was a melodrama in which an instance of race hatred contributed to murder, and as the first film to challenge a basic taboo, it was a courageous piece of work. Gentleman’s Agreement, however, goes much deeper into the subject to offer the anatomy of anti-Semitism in an entire social group. Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of the Laura Z.
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America By Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster, 627 pp., $30) Warren Beatty has not done a lot for us lately. Town and Country, his last movie, was nine years ago. The absence is such that some of his old associates have concluded that he may be happy at last. But I doubt that such a hope lingered more than a few seconds: Beatty’s entire act has been the epitome of dissatisfaction.
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.
Arthur Miller By Christopher Bigsby (Harvard University Press, 739 pp., $35) I. Arthur Miller could hardly have hoped for a more sympathetic biographer than Christopher Bigsby. He is the director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, and the author of a long commentary on Miller’s work and a book-length interview with the playwright.
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.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (Random House, 300 pp., $23) The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 750 pp., $25) In the spring of 1983, a flock of wild ducks carrying a strain of avian influenza virus settled on a pond in a chicken farm in eastern Pennsylvania. The virus was excreted in the ducks' feces, which meant that it got onto the ground and then onto the boots of a farmer, which is why in turn it soon found its way into the chicken barn.