The Unlikeliest Star
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 The everywoman superstar is deservedly but incompletely captured in this only partly satisfying biography. Using many sources, including the unpublished memoir of Dressler confidante Claire Dubrey, Toronto Globe reporter Lee presents a panoramic view of Dressler's life. Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, in 1868, Dressler was known at first not for her talent but for her large size and homely face: A neighbor remembered her as ``about the dowdiest looking creature that ever walked our streets.'' Rebellion against a tyrannical father led her to the stage at 14 and revealed a prodigious talent. Years of cross-country road shows, Broadway, and silent-film success followed, but the 1920s brought a career decline. But in the late '20s she lived one of the greatest Hollywood comeback stories, becoming the ``queen of homespun humor'' as a result of affecting performances in such films as Anna Christie, Min and Bill, and Tugboat Annie. By 1932 she had become one of the most popular performers in America. Though Lee details Dressler's career, she fails to convey the actress's powerful hold over the public and offers only a very limited critical appreciation of her distinct talents. Dressler the actress--an earthy, droll, deeply physcial presence--fails to come alive. Lee succeeds better in presenting Dressler's private life, which she views as one built largely on strong allegiances, both personal and political. The star fervently gave herself to causes like actors' rights, the sale of WW I bonds, and women's rights. Equal to her public passions was her need for human commitment, seen in her devotion to the charming, erratic (and married) Jim Dalton, and her control over longtime companion Claire Dubrey. (Lee handles speculation about Dressler's sexual inclinations with inference and concision.) Despite the author's good research and clear affection for Dressler, this lacks the historical and cinematic authority to establish it a standard. It leaves one wanting to know more. (36 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8131-2036-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Univ. Press of Kentucky
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1997