WV Book Team: Back to the golden age with classic film star biographies

By By Elizabeth Fraser and Dana Smook
WV Book Team

In the 1950 classic movie “Sunset Boulevard,” washed-up silent film star Norma Desmond says, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

In the age of instant news and cellphone coverage, today’s movie stars don’t seem to carry the same mystique of those from generations past. With a healthy mix of charm, eccentricity and legend, these biographies of classic film stars will appeal to readers of any age.

From playing Moses to George Taylor in “Planet of the Apes,” Charlton Heston’s career was long and varied. In “Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon” biographer Marc Eliot took full advantage of his access to friends, family and personal papers.

Born in rural Illinois, Heston came to acting in high school. He married his college sweetheart and then joined the U.S. Air Force during World War II. When the war was over, the couple moved west to pursue acting.

His career took off with the 1956 release of “The Ten Commandments.” Heston was never fully confident in his acting abilities, but he felt films with historical settings helped showcase his look and talents.

In his private life, Heston was a complex man with a complicated political life. He was a Democrat who worked for John F. Kennedy and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Later in life, he became a Republican and served as the president of the National Rifle Association, which had an impact on his later career.

With this exhaustive portrayal, Eliot celebrates Heston and his legacy with extraordinary detail and never-before-shared stories. Even the biggest Heston fans will learn something new in this definitive biography.

While Heston had a public image of restraint, Peter O’Toole definitely did not. Robert Sellers creates an intimate portrayal of O’Toole’s turbulent life in “Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography.”

Handsome and talented, O’Toole perhaps burned too brightly at the start. Sellers tries to pin down the contradictory life of the last of the English hellraisers who, along with Richard Burton and Richard Harris, defined actors of the postwar English era.

Considered one of the most talented actors of his age, O’Toole began his career on the stage, where his ability was obvious from the start. Sellers recounts tales from the glory years of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Lion in Winter” and other classic films.

The author also depicts how O’Toole’s alcoholism derailed his career for a time and almost cost him his life. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, O’Toole’s acting style didn’t work well when filmmakers turned to method actors like Robert De Niro in the 1970s.

He had already burned personal bridges with wives and friends, and drinking had nearly killed him. It wasn’t until the 1980s that his second act began. Sellers pulls readers inside the parties and hangovers of a man with talent to burn.

Many beautiful actresses tell the public they want to be taken seriously. This, too, was the case for Marilyn Monroe. In “Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy” author Elizabeth Winder looks at 1955, when Monroe went to New York City to refresh her personal and professional life. Over the course of the year, she divorced Joe DiMaggio and the studio system, studied acting with Lee Strasburg, and met Arthur Miller.

About to leave her 20s behind, Monroe wanted to define her own image and be more than a bombshell. The journey to New York with Milton Green, a photographer soon to be her manager, was the first step to breaking off her relationship with Fox Studios.

In an attempt to both explore and prove her serious side, Monroe studied acting with the likes of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. She went through therapy to help understand herself personally.

Monroe also replaced DiMaggio with the then-married playwright Arthur Miller. Readers will enjoy Winder’s flowing narrative as they learn about the year Monroe spent working on herself.

Tippi Hedren, famous for her unforgettable roles in Alfred Hitchcock films, walked away from her life as a Hollywood celebrity, but why? In her autobiography “Tippi,” she shares the details of her path to stardom, her difficult time spent working with Hitchcock and her devotion to animal activism.

Legendary for her luminous beauty and screen presence, Hedren began modeling at 15. In 1961, she was a single mother to Melanie Griffith with her finances on the wane, when she got a call from Hitchcock to star in “The Birds.” Unfortunately, her talents and splendor were shadowed by sexual harassment, assault and endless controlling behavior from Hitchcock. Hedren intrigues readers with stories from filmmaking with Hitchcock, as well as from her big cat preserve, where she is involved in wildlife filming and rescue.

Monroe and Hedren were defined by many for their looks, but fans of Anne Bancroft speak first of her talent. Author Douglass K. Daniel examines the life of this enduring icon in “Anne Bancroft: A Life.”

Bancroft, who began her film career at 19, was always serious about her craft. In New York, she studied at The Actor’s Studio and performed on stage with Henry Fonda in “Two for the Seesaw,” which made her a star on Broadway.

She took home a Tony Award for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan in the play “The Miracle Worker,” then won an Oscar in 1963 for the film version. But that was just the start of her awards and nominations. Readers may be surprised to realize Bancroft was only 35 when she scandalized movie goers by seducing a 29-year-old Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.”

“Anne Bancroft: A Life” also highlights the dynamic relationship between Bancroft and her husband, comedian and director Mel Brooks. Their relationship may have seemed unlikely to many, but the 40-year marriage was supportive on both personal and professional levels. Bancroft’s fans will want to get in line for this September release, which provides great insight into the life and career of an actress true to her art.

If the onslaught of social media personalities leaves you craving stories from the golden age of film, grab one of these books, and get ready to go back to a time when cinema was coming of age.

Whether you’re looking for more books about celebrities or something else entirely, get in touch with your friendly local librarian. We are always happy to help.

For more information on these books or others, contact the main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library at 304-343-4646 or visit www.kanawhalibrary.org.

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