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Between the Lines: Going Hollywood
(February 2004)
By David Pitt

In case you're one of those people who can't get enough of Hollywood, especially around Oscar time (go Johnny Depp! go James Horner!), here's a handful of books you might like.

Alfred HitchcockAlfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (ReganBooks) is a very thick biography of the noted director of such films as Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author, Patrick McGilligan, has written biographies of Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Fritz Lang and George Cukor -- all of them directors with bags of talent. Clearly, the subject is of more than passing interest to him.

I've read a few biographies of Hitchcock, including Donald Spoto's authorized bio, and this is one of the better ones. Not only is it crammed with detail, not only is it very well written, not only does it take us behind the scenes of some of our favourite movies, McGilligan also does what many writers are afraid to do: he actually compares his book to other biographies.

For example, barely eight pages in, we find McGilligan pointing out what he perceives to be an error in Spoto's book: where Spoto 'chose to stress' how Hitchcock's family didn't have a bathroom in their house, the truth is that 'only wealthy people boasted luxurious indoor bathrooms at the turn of the century. Although Spoto harped on Hitchcock's toilet fixation, it's a national fixation ...'

Similarly, discussing a dining-room scene in Jamaica Inn, a lesser-known Hitchcock film written by J.B. Priestley, McGilligan writes (in a footnote): 'Donald Spoto blames this scene on the director ... but Priestley wrote it straight from the novel.'

It's interesting to watch a biographer work to set the record straight, to correct mistakes he perceives were made by other writers. The book is thoughtful, illuminating, rigorously documented, and, for Hitchcock fans, it's a must read.

Edith HeadSpeaking of Hitchcock, here's a name you should recognize: Edith Head. She was the costume designer on Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, Topaz, The Trouble with Harry, Marnie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, and I'm sure you get the point. (She also worked with many other great directors, designed some of the truly great films, and won eight Academy Awards.)

Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer (Perennial), by David Chierichetti, Head's friend for twelve years near the end of her life, is one of those movie bios that manage simultaneously to be dishy and respectful.

Clearly, the author is a great fan of Head (both as a person and as a designer), and he treats her with nothing but respect. But, at the same time, he fills the book with tales of difficult, temperamental, and hard-to-deal-with stars and starlets who wandered through Hollywood. (Would the book be materially affected if, for example, he did not tell us that Jane Fonda 'was so difficult and made so many changes' in a designer's ideas that the designer had her name taken off the picture?)

Head, despite being a familiar name to anyone who's watched movies made from the late thirties through late seventies, is pretty much unknown to most of us. Did you know, for example, that she got her first job in the movies (a sketch artist at Paramount) by taking a bunch of sketches by other people and putting her own name on them? I sure didn't, and I'm glad to have learned it.

In fact I'm glad to have read the whole book. It describes an aspect of Hollywood -- the competitive, sometimes vicious, world of costume design -- we really don't know much about. Somebody should make a movie about the life of Edith Head.

One of the films for which Head won an Oscar was The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who Chierichetti describes as 'easy to please'). Although he's one of Hollywood's most recognizable faces, in the late seventies Redford decided to do something a little different with his influence: he decided to make a place where independent filmmakers could learn their craft. Now, the name Sundance is known around the world, and many moviemakers (like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Matt Damon) owe a substantial part of their success to Redford and the movement he kick-started.

Down and Dirty PicturesDown and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster), by Peter Biskind, chronicles the evolution of American independent cinema. And, if you believe Biskind, it has not exactly been a smooth evolution. While Redford's Sundance Institute may have promoted freedom for filmmakers, the other great name in independent film, Miramax Studios, is not quite so well respected.

Miramax, the studio that leaped onto the Hollywood stage virtually overnight, and catapulted small films to big success (they distributed Pulp Fiction, for example, and many other hits), comes off as something of a corporate ogre. And the studio bosses, brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, come off as, shall we say, unpleasant people to work with. (Biskind tells us how, while producing the recent film Bad Santa for Miramax, the Coen Brothers -- who've directed some fine movies, by the way -- had so much trouble with the Weinsteins that 'one or both of them' said, 'We've spent our whole careers avoiding Miramax, and this is the reason.' This was after Bob Weinstein booted the director off the picture and hired somebody else to reshoot the ending.)

The Weinsteins dominate the book, in part because Biskind seems genuinely to dislike them, and to want us to dislike them, too. But, ultimately, Down and Dirty Pictures is an insightful and revealing look at the progression of independent films from little-known, low-budget movies few people ever saw to highly-promoted, frequently award-winning Hollywood products.

At the Cannes Film Festival, two famous independent films, Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, won the Palme D'Or, the festival's grand prize. This, film critic and historican Barry Norman says, is a good thing: it shows that festival juries can sometimes be 'much bolder' than, say, the Oscar voters.

Norman's new book, and why not?: Memoirs of a film lover (Simon & Schuster), chronicles his life as an entertainment journalist, sports writer, novelist, television host, film critic, and, oh, just a whole lot more. I didn't know much about Norman -- he's British, and not too well known over here, which is seriously unfair -- and I'm really glad I read his book. He's likable, he's not especially interested in dishing dirt, and he's got interesting things to say about movies and the people who make them.

There. That oughta hold you for a while.

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