Hollywood memoirs have been movie industry currency for decades. Recently there has been a flurry of books by aging actresses and actors.
The newest is “My Mother Was Nuts” by Penny Marshall, which was published by Amazon on September 18th. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story,” which will be for sale in October, promises the whole truth about his affair with his housekeeper and the birth of their [now 14-year-old] son a week after his wife, Maria Shriver, gave birth to their fourth legitimate child.
The juciest of the bunch is Frank Langela’s “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them.” Among the names dropped by Langella (“Robot and Frank,” Oscar-nominated as Richard Nixon in “Frost Nixon”) are Rita Hayworth with whom he had a brief affair as the alcoholic actress, 20 years older than the young actor, began her long slide into Alzheimer’s; Richard Burton “a crashing bore” who recited poetry when he was drunk; Paul Newman, a nice guy but “a pretty dull companion;” and Laurence Olivier, “a silly old English gent who loved to play camp and gossip.”
Memoirs have always been a way of settling scores. The adopted daughter of Joan Crawford started the tell-all books in 1978 with “Mommie Dearest.” According to Cristina Crawford’s memoir, the Academy Award-winning actress was a sadistic alcoholic. Then, in 1983, came Gary Crosby’s “Going My Own Way,” which described bloody beatings and emotional battering by Bing Crosby, the most successful singer of his era. Both Cristina and Gary waited until their parents were dead before writing their books. Bette Davis’s daughter, B.D. Hyman, gave her mother a chance to fight back when she published “My Mother’s Keeper” in 1985. That Academy Award-winning actress did fight back by publishing her own memoir, “This ‘N That” (1987) in which she described the “shattering experience” of reading her daughter’s book, and disinheriting her daughter.
Although readers turn the pages of these books in hopes of finding sex and scandal, not all actors use their memoirs as a club. Diane Keaton is more than merely kind to her mother in her justly praised 2011 memoir, “Then Again.” The book has the requisite affairs, but it leaves the reader outside the bedroom doors of Woody Allen and Warren Beatty. (“I wanted to be Warren Beatty, not love him. And that become our central problem,” Keaton writes.) And she is angry at the pop psychology that says her mother, Dorothy Keaton Hall, must be responsible for Keaton’s bulimia. “Then Again,” which draws on her mother’s journals, is, in one sense, the story of two women. Keaton has never married and until, at the age of 50, she adopted the first of her two children, the mother/daughter relationship was the richest in her life. She writes gracefully and passionately of watching her mother’s slide into the far away woods of Alzheimer’s disease.
Penny Marshall’s mother, who taught dance and rehearsed her children on subway platforms, never caring if people stared at them, is not treated as kindly. And the former star of television’s “Laverne and Shirley” lets it all hang out – drugs, an abortion, freebasing cocaine, an early shotgun marriage, miscarriages and sometimes not knowing who the father was. A somewhat accidental actress – when that shotgun marriage broke up, “I wasn’t going back to my parents who hated each other,” she told an interviewer for the LA Weekly – she went instead to her big brother, director/producer Garry Marshall, in Hollywood.
Penny Marshall has the distinction of being the first woman director of a movie that grossed $100 million at United States theatres. She followed that movie, “Big,” with “A League of Their Own.” Diagnosed with brain and lung cancer a few years ago but insisting that she is cured, Marshall wrote this breezy, name-dropping memoir as an antidote to people who kept saying she was dying.
Three more memoir writers fall in a different category. Shirley MacLaine has published a dozen books that make large and small points about her spiritual journey. Whoopi Goldberg’s last irreverent book, “Is it Just Me?” is about the decline of civility and the havoc it is causing her as well as the rest of us. And, a few months ago, Ryan O’Neal tried to come to terms with the death of Farrah Fawcett three years ago by publishing “Both of Us,” an unvarnished look at their on-and-off 30 year relationship.
With so much to choose from, what should a reader do? In an essay in The Daily Beast several months ago, former book editor Michael Korda — himself the author of a memoir, “Charmed Lives,” about growing up as a member of England’s movie royalty — has one suggestion. “Almost all ghostwritten books are dull, homogenized, bland, and sanitized, a kind of mass product, like Kleenex,” he wrote.
And he added, “The ones actually written by a star, though few and far between, are likely to be much more interesting, though sometimes crazy, self-indulgent, and full of attempts to settle old grudges.” Korda tips his hat to two memoirs: Christopher Plummer’s “wildly self-revealing” “In Spite of Myself” (2008) and Diane Keaton’s “moving, real, honest” book.