An unsparing look at the abrasive performer.
Cultural critic Siegel (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, 2008, etc.), winner of the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism, contributes to the Jewish Lives series with a biography of the misogynist, disdainful Julius Henry Marx, nicknamed Groucho because of his “sour, bitter nature.” Siegel argues that Groucho’s stage persona was consistent with his real personality: “Groucho embodies the spirit of nihilism,” the author asserts, “yet his biographers and various commentators always try to impart some positive or affirmative quality to him.” He finds the sources of that nihilism in his early life: the middle son of five brothers, he had a “marginal position in his parents’ household.” The most intellectual of his siblings, he wanted to become a physician. Instead, his mother yanked him out of grade school and sent him out to work to earn money for the impoverished family. His father was weak-willed, his mother domineering, and the young boy, “wounded by his mother,” became a performer “whose aggression toward women is at the forefront of every film.” Siegel analyzes—and sometimes overanalyzes—the Marx Brothers’ movies, identifying instances of Groucho’s “abuse and invective” to show how his routines “on stage and screen were seamless with the rhythms of his temperament as he passed through everyday life.” In keeping with this series’ focus on Jewish identity, Siegel examines Marx’s connection to his cultural heritage. He concludes that his comedy “has deep roots in Jewish forms of irony and social dissent,” disdain for authority, and sense of displacement and ostracism that resulted in “explicit contempt for other people.” The man who emerges from these pages is difficult, unlikable, and brash, and his humor coarse. Siegel identifies Lenny Bruce as his heir rather than Woody Allen, with whom he is sometimes compared.
A perceptive, though dark, portrait.