Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, September 11, 2000

ex libris: what I did on my summer vacation, part 1

Well .. It’s a good title, but it’s not entirely true. My summer vacation, as such, was only three weeks long, and three of the books below were read outside that space. But only three of them.

Anyway, the idea is that each of them will be a relatively short capsule review. We’ll see how well that all pans out.

All About “All About Eve”: the complete story of the bitchiest film ever made!
Sam Staggs
New York: St Martin’s Press (2000)

Backstory: All About Eve (television show)
American Movie Classics

The detailed backstage story of the Oscar-award winning backstage film. Staggs’s book goes into extreme detail about the history of the film, including the tale of the story behind the story behind the story—that is, the true story that formed the basis of the short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, by Mary Orr, which in turn is the base of All About Eve.

The tone of the book varies wildly from subjective biography to dry history to drooling gay fanboy. Oddly, it’s the midpoints between the three tones that work best. There is, frankly, WAY too much biography in the story (you find yourself periodically wondering “Now, who is this person again? WHY am I getting Tallulah Bankhead's entire biography? What does she have to do with anything?”) Staggs is frequently fighting with himself to maintain a reasonably subjective tone, because he clearly wants to be drooling gay fanboy real BAD ; as a result, he pulls back so far that he loses some of the informal style that makes the book work, when it works. (When he swings all the way to drooling gay fanboy, he’s just creepy.

That said, the story of the varied and sundry shennanigans happening around the film are utterly fascinating, in the way that Hollywood stories often are. George Saunders, bisexual and married to a Gabor; Bette Davis and Gary Merrill falling in love and carrying on despite the existence (if not the presence) of spouses; Bette Davis and Celeste Holm feuding (if mutual icy disregard can be said to be feuding);the tale of how Anne Baxter’s insistence on being included in the Best Actress category when the studio submitted names to the academy for Oscar balloting probably cost herself the Supporting Actress oscar and Davis the Actress oscar ... it’s all undeniably fascinating.

Given both his orientation and his interest, Skaggs can’t resist major deconstruction of the gay subtext and why the film appeals to homosexual men so strongly. Some of it--the fact that Mankiewicz, the writer/director of the film--quite deliberately made the sexuality of the characters of Eve and Addison DeWitt ambiguous, at best, or as homosexuals in search of cover at worst, is utterly fascinating. And the writing about why the film has always appealed so strongly to gays ought to be fascinating, but comes across as alternately gushing or dry and pedantic. In any event, it is, perhaps, an area that would have been better left alone.

The most interesting, and most peculiar, part of the book is the story of Martina Lawrence and Elisabeth Bergner, the women whose story was the inspiration for “The Wisdom of Eve”. All things being equal, it’s essentially a sidelight; without their story, there would be no All About Eve, but at the same time, since the book is the story of the film, it does get a bit too much attention. This happens because it’s the way in which Staggs can inject himself as a part of a story he dearly loves; he actually meets Martina Lawrence–the inspiration for Eve–and recounts an extraordinarily odd conversation at the end of the book.

Purely by coincidence, as I was starting this review, American Movie Classics was showing Backstory: All About Eve, their version of the story of the same events. Despite lacking a great deal of the detail and information–after all, it was just a half-hour show–it’s overall more satisfying. Partly, that's the nature of film versus the page: you got to see the actors telling their own stories (what they would) in their own words and their own voices; when you can see the faces and hear the voices, the fact that the editing and composition of the program mean that you're essentially seeing someone else's interpretation of the events is much less noticeable. Partly, it was because, despite that, the editor/director/producers of the program had no desire to insert themselves in such an obtrusive way. Partly, it was the paring away of extraneous detail. Mostly, though it's because ... let's face it. Everybody likes to hear the gossip, see the details. But most people don't want to spend all that much time on it. A half hour is just about right; 386 pages is much too much.

Openly Bob
New York: Rob Weisbach Books (1997)

Way to Go, Smith!
New York: Rob Weisbach Books (1999)

Bob Smith, gay stand-up comedian, writer and actor, tells the story of his life and career so far. If you like his act--generally fairly gentle and rather witty--you'll like his books. Unusually for many celebrity autobiographies, if you've heard Smith on the stage, you'll note that his voice comes through very clearly; it's almost like hearing him talk to you. (The audio book of these must make for a very strange experience.) In the two books, he takes you through growing up in Buffalo, realizing he was gay, etc. In the first book, the focus is both on his attempts to make a career as a comic and an actor, and on sustaining a gay relationship. In the second book, he talks more about his family and what it's like to start again after a long-term relationship has failed. (Note: for reasons that I don't remember, I started with the second book, finished it, and then went back and purchased the first book. I definitely don't recommend this approach. In the first book, he talks about the counseling and other efforts he made to sustain the relationship, and reading them in reverse order makes you acutely aware that things didn't work. It makes it feel like there's a vaguely humorous sense of doom foreshadowing the entire book, and it wasn't anything that he put in.)

Of course, just like in his act, Smith suckers you along with easy, gentle wry humor, and then suddenly these sharp zingers come sailing out of left field.

At flea markets, Tom has to examine absolutely everything. Now he's inspecting an old Barbie carrying case and the deaer's giving him a strange look ... As we finally move on, Tom teasingly accuses me of paranoia and of having internalized homophobia. It's not that, I explain. It's just that I don't feel like fighting for your right to come out of the closet of Barbie's Dream House.

Reviewing the worst moments of your childhood in therapy is like looking at a family photo album where all the pictures are negatives. It's excruciating nostalgia: it's neuralgia. It's being sentimental with the emphasis on mental.

If nothing else, Way to go, Smith might give people pause about dating a comic writer. To be fair, Smith is no more merciless to his ex-partner than he is to himself ... but most people wouldn't want to fillet themselves quite that way, either. (Suddenly, I became incensed and threw the stupid thing in the trash can. The vehemence of my reaction surprised me, but I've found that in the limbo dance of pettiness, I can always go a little lower.)

Interestingly, the books follow opposing arcs. The first book starts out generally light, then becomes much more somber when his father dies. The second book starts out with him at a low ebb, figuring out how to make his first meal after his partner has moved out, and then generally becomes lighter as it jumps back and forth between scenes from childhood and scenes of his present.

If you're looking for a generally gentle, generally humorous read, not a bad set of choices at all.

Hardback versions picked up remaindered at Unabridged Books, Chicago, for $5.98 each.

Hmm. Clearly, this capsule thing isn't working out. Oh, well, I made a good faith effort. I'll try to do a couple each day. Ideally, that means I'll finish by ... October or so.

Posted by iain at 09:47 PM in category