In Contention


When not watching films, reading about them

Posted by John Foote · 12:41 pm · March 29th, 2009

Cover of Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in ArtMy wife has often called film my heroin, as I confess to be more than just a little bit addicted. When not watching and writing about cinema, I can usually be found either in our family room in the winter months or on the deck by the pool in the summer with the latest new film book or biography in my hand.

I have always loved reading, discovering Classics Illustrated, that incredible comic book series at a young age in the 1960s, and laying eyes on the first Famous Monster of Film Land shortly after that. My grandmother took me to the library where I followed a sign that said “film.” Thinking they were showing a movie, I wandered over and found an entire floor devoted to books on movies.

Talk about a wet dream for that 11- or 12-year-old kid! She got me my own library card and I took out six or seven books at a time, focusing on my first love at the time, horror, and then absorbing John Wayne, Elia Kazan, John Ford, Orson Welles, everything I could find.

As a film critic and published author, I receive many film-related books to read and comment on, which I do when time permits. So I thought I might share some of the best reads I have enjoyed lately in this week’s column.

“Victor Fleming: An American Master” by Michael Sragrow is the best film biography I have read in a long, long time, likely since Richard Schickel’s seminal work on Elia Kazan. Fleming, of course, is the director behind two of Hollywood’s most essential classics: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind,” both in the same freakin’ year. He was a man’s man, who took no garbage from anyone and was known to bully the talent into doing their job. The research for this book is superb because Fleming left no personal papers, making the writer’s job a massive jigsaw puzzle, but one he finished to utter perfection. A master work of a bio.

David Sheward’s biography of George C. Scott, “Rage and Glory,” is also very good, but not on the level of the Fleming book. Sheward gives us a lot of information we already knew, but does provide some insights into a deeply flawed man who funnelled his rage into his work when he could. Scott was an enormously gifted actor who did not understand himself at all. His treatment of his wives was harsh, abusive in fact, leaving one to wonder why they ever stayed with him in the first place. Great actor, but as a person, Sheward’s book paints an awful picture of the man.

Eric Lax gave us “Conversations with Woody Allen,” a superb collection of discussions and conversations Lax has had with the director over the years. Very likely the most insightful and honest piece of work on Allen you will ever encounter, I could not put this one down and have read it two or three times since. Reading Allen’s opinions of his actors, how he works with them, how the films develop, how the screenplays get written — pure magic.

Seeing as it was “The Ten Commandments” that forever hooked me on film, first seen at a re-release in 1971 or 1972, in the days before video, I try to read everything I can get my hands on about the film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille. Likely the finest bio I have read about the man was Simon Louvish’s “Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art,” in which the writer makes clear DeMille believed himself to be a consumate artist rather than the master showman he really was. Pious, arrogant and self-absorbed, he gave us some outstanding films and some real turkeys. But I’ll be damned if that parting of the Red Sea doesn’t grab me every time.

“The Complete Making of Indiana Jones” is a massive book that explores the making of all four Indiana Jones films in extaordinary detail. Writer J.W. Rinzler does an amazing job of conveying detail after detail, from the creation of Indiana SMITH by George Lucas to the tiny details added by Steven Spielberg during a five day story conference in 1978. Out of that meeting was born a character who was almost played by Tom Selleck because Lucas never really wanted Harrison Ford like Spielberg did. Lots of storyboard accompaniments as well.

There are two books coming up on the great Hal Ashby, the first entitled “Being Hal Ashby,” by Nick Dawson. Penetrating, insightful, with keen and precise discussions of each of the director’s films, this book is a celebration of Ahsby’s work and his rebellious spirit. An Oscar winning film editor for “In the Heat of the Night,” he became a director at the urging of Norman Jewison, diretcing “The Landlord” to critical success.

Ashby’s best films are among the finest of the 1970s, beginning with the cult classic “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound for Glory,” “Being There” and his Vietnam masterpiece “Coming Home,” a film only the Los Angeles Film Critics Association had the courage to name the best of 1978. Is there any other forgotten director deserving of this sort of attention? I can’t think of anyone. A second Ashby book, “The Films of Hal Ashby” by Christopher Beard, is coming from Wayne State University Press in the fall, but I must confess to knowing little about it.

When I was ten I discovered, quite by accident, John Willis’s film annual “Screen World,” an encyclopedia of the year’s releases with a list of credits and lots of photos of the films released in the calendar year. I bought my first copy in 1973 and have bought each and every one since. “Screen World 2008″ was skipped due to some sort of troubles with the content, so right now the 2007 volume, focusing on the films of 2006, is unavailable until May. It’s an incredible piece of research material that I have to recommend.

What film books are you reading? What are you learning from?




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→ 13 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 3-29-2009 at 11:32 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Actually, the DeMille book sounds kind of interesting.

    I’ve been reading through “The Informant” lately, which Soderbergh is adapting.

  • 2 3-29-2009 at 2:28 pm

    Matthew said...

    A little while ago, I read The Director’s Cut by Stephan Littger, and that was interesting. It’s a series of interviews with a whole bunch of directors. Mostly I found the Michel Gondry interview interesting, the rest were kind of interesting though as well.

  • 3 3-29-2009 at 4:12 pm

    Michael McKay said...

    501 Movie Directors – published by Barron’s

  • 4 3-29-2009 at 8:24 pm

    Zac said...

    I just finished reading this one:

    Lion of Hollywood : The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman. A fascinating biography of perhaps the biggest movie executive of the first half of the 20th century. Reading it, you get a sense of his rise from lowly beginnings to the most powerful man in Hollywood to a man who lost touch with what people wanted to see and moved too slowly to change MGM which cost him his job and cost the company it’s lofty standing in Hollywood, which it never regained of course.

    One book about movies that I always recommend is The Devil’s Candy: The Making of the Bonfire of the Vanities by Julie Salamon. From the enthusiastic beginning to the disastrous end, this book shows how a book should NOT be adapted. Reading the book only solidified the movie as the worst I’ve ever seen.

  • 5 3-29-2009 at 11:56 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    This post disappeared earlier. Apologies for the confusion. Still ironing out server change issues.

  • 6 3-30-2009 at 3:06 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    After about 15 months I finally finished Rinzler’s Star Wars book. Brilliant and intruiging. Yet I was too lazy to really sit down for it. Sopranos is next and I’ll buy Indy soon as well. I’m not such an avid reader to be honest. The only thing I regularly read is Empire magazine.

  • 7 3-30-2009 at 4:26 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Zac: The Lion of Hollywood is an excellent read, one of the best bios I have read — Final Cit by the recently departed Steven Bach is also a great read, the story of the making and subsequent release of “Heaven’s Gate” — great to hear of a self indulgent director just out of control, but the studio executives admitting they allowed him to do so — some great books about Brando out there as well — just finished (for the second time) Being Hal Ashby, a brilliant bio of the director — also loved Bruce Dern’s autobio.

  • 8 3-30-2009 at 5:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The last really great film book I read was Mark Harris’s “Scenes From a Revolution” — a pretty essential read even for film enthusiasts not that interested in the Oscars.

    Jonathan: I suggest taking up Sight & Sound instead of Empire — an infinitely better magazine, in my opinion.

  • 9 3-30-2009 at 6:06 am

    John H. Foote said...

    HERE! HERE! Guy great call, Sight and Sound is it — better I think than even Film Comment –

    And yes “Scenes from a Revolution” is a wonderful read — makes you wish for a book like that each and every year of the Oscars, imagine the stories we might hear??

    Also from England is the wonderful BFI Series Modern Films and Classic films, books devoted entirely to a single film — terrifi reading –

  • 10 3-30-2009 at 8:18 am

    Barry Monush said...

    John,
    I am currently reading a book on Agnes Moorehead, entitled “I LOVE THE ILLUSION” which was published independently, as many decent and detailed books end up being.
    Anyway, I am the editor of SCREEN WORLD, and wanted to let you know that although the Volume covering 2006 ended up being delayed, it is supposedly coming AFTER the volume covering 2008, so my publisher tells me.

  • 11 3-30-2009 at 9:23 am

    Liz said...

    John, I’ve read three of those BFI books, all of them very good. “The Exorcist” was from the Modern Films series, and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and “A Matter of Life and Death” were from the Classic series. Being the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger fanatic that I am, I especially enjoyed those two.

    I thought the biography of Robert Mitchum, “Baby, I Don’t Care,” was a very entertaining read, even if it had no participation from the man himself. I also liked Errol Flynn’s “autobiography” “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” I only put quotes around “autobiography” because, although it was a great read, I suspect that a great deal of it is totally fabricated. If anyone knows otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

  • 12 3-30-2009 at 11:54 am

    Homero said...

    I rread Robert Rodruigez’s Rebel Without a Crew a while ago. It shows, in detail, how Rodriguez made his first film for under $7,000 and was offered (very) large contracts with multiple agencies/studios/etc. It also includes the script which is a very fun read.

    I recently finished Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies that really goes into detail of every single aspect of filmmaking. From the script, to working with actors to filming and even how much he hates the last part of post (Audio looping). It’s a great book that uses his own films and friends as examples, with comments from Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, etc.

    I’m currently reading James Lipton’s Inside Inside and even though I’m only halfway, the depths in which he reveals the art of acting is remarkable.

  • 13 3-30-2009 at 1:49 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Barry — e-mail me privately – why was Screen World delayed? Applause has told me it is coming May? Is that not true? Hard core collector, been doing it for years — love the series, cannot tell you how much joy they have brought me over the years and an extraordinary reference tool –