A biography of America’s “self-proclaimed emperor of bad taste.”
McGilligan’s (Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, 2015, etc.) hefty tome about Mel Brooks (b. 1928), the director of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, isn’t exactly a hagiography. The author ably chronicles Brooks’ career arc from the Brooklyn kid born Melvin Kaminsky to the loudest member of Sid Caesar’s writing staff on NBC’s Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour in the 1950s to the driving force behind some of the most successful film comedies of his time—and the crassest, with their many fart, rape, and “fag” jokes. McGilligan also shows the ugly side of Brooks: the hard-driving businessman who berated actors when he didn’t like a performance, the disputes over writing credits that led to multiple litigations. Much of this material has been documented elsewhere—such as the story of Caesar dangling a young Brooks out a hotel window when Brooks wanted to go out for the evening (“Is that far enough?” Caesar shouted)—which makes the book overlong. In the second half, the author gets bogged down in the minutiae of Brooks' business deals, and the prose is occasionally peculiar or old-fashioned. For example, McGilligan repeatedly refers to Brooks’ first wife, Florence Baum, only as “Mrs. Brooks”; he does the same thing a couple of times with his second wife, Anne Bancroft, a far more famous figure than Baum. These choices are emblematic of the troubling tendency to represent women in biographies only in relation to the men in their lives. Nonetheless, McGilligan does a nice job dramatizing the insecurities that drove Brooks and offers entertaining anecdotes about Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Brooks’ other collaborators, who didn’t always speak favorably of him.
In response to a negative review, Brooks wanted to tell the critic, “I meant no harm. I only wanted to entertain you.” Readers can decide for themselves whether the Brooks who emerges in these well-researched yet sometimes-tiresome pages caused more joy than harm.