A detailed, yet shapeless biography of a charming actor.
With the blessings of the late David Niven’s family, British novelist and journalist Lord (James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet, 1997) provides a full account of what happened in Niven’s life, while offering little consideration of why they did. Why, for example, did Niven (1910–83) turn to acting? Lord suggests the familiar explanation: Niven lost his father at five, then was raised by a distant mother and an unloving stepfather, which made him insecure, a feeling assuaged by playing the clown in school plays. Growing up in England, Niven discovered the other pleasures that set his course: sex and beautiful women. Lord documents the actor’s prodigious conquests, referring several times to Niven’s considerable endowment. Did Niven become, as it appears, a serial seducer and alcoholic, particularly after the tragic death of his first wife? Lord leaves the matter largely unexplored, as he does the reasons for Niven’s staying in an apparently horrific marriage to a second wife. As for the actor’s film career, the author is again heavy with facts but light on commentary. That Niven remained an audience favorite for decades seems remarkable considering how many flops he lensed—The Brain, The Statue, and Vampira made the marquee along with Separate Tables and Around the World in 80 Days. Lord provides little anaylsis of Niven’s films, attributing his success largely to his skill at light comedy. Lord corrects the many tall tales with which Niven regaled friends and readers in two bestselling autobiographies. Leaving unexamined the actor’s reasons for fibbing, Lord writes that “one excellent joke is worth a hundred facts.” He certainly has the facts. Along with the conquests, films, and bottles of alcohol consumed, Lord tallies virtually every check the wealthy Niven issued to his family.
Scenes in search of a point of view. (photos)