THE FILM GREATS by Barry Norman
Kirkus Star


Email this review


A Hollywood book you can read in public without feeling brain-damaged it is a re-do of the BBC-TV's film-world commentaries. The cast (all dead) includes David Niven, Steve McQueen, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Cecil B. de Mille, Bing Crosby. A brilliant chapter on fear of failure, ""Scenes from Hollywood Life,"" is added on. The book is about human beings, not acting or glamor or success. Of Niven: a tremendous professional and excelling comedian, without the stuff of greatness. ""(H)e almost certainly appeared in more bad films than any other actor of similar stature. In nearly half a century he featured in 89 pictures. . . and very few of them made any noticeable contribution to the art of the cinema."" These sure but downbeat chords are lightened by counterthemes of Niven the man: who abandoned Hollywood to fight for England; whose first wife, mother of their two sons, died after falling downstairs during a game of hide-and-seek, at 25; whose marvelous memoirs late in life were a rebirth; whose death by motor neurone disease was marked by great gallantry. All of these screen folk are scanned piercingly, friends unburdening themselves in your living room. McQueen's strange greed, tight-fistedness, and generosity; his father a gambler and stunt pilot for a circus, who abandoned McQueen's alcoholic, unloving mother; delinquency, early Marine enlistment--unlikely birth pangs for a movie star--""we all felt we knew him, not because he was any great actor but because of the person he was,"" Norman says. Of Fonda: ""A most honorable and decent man capable of arousing abiding affection in others, he found it virtually impossible to display any kind of deep emotion, especially love. . .something of a handicap to a successful marriage."" (He had five.) Only on stage or screen could he be free to feel. Wayne subscribed to his own legend, though ""the fact of the matter is that he never actually did anything heroic in his life."" Bing Crosby is lauded for his early genius as an innovator universally respected by jazz musicians, less for his acting--but his moral reserve sent cold chills through his family. No scissors and paste compilation here. Instead, an intense and personal book often drawn from Norman's interviews with the legends themselves.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1985
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton--dist. by David & Charles