The scuzzy life and desperate times of a movie icon.
Lertzman and Birnes’ (Dr. Feelgood: The Shocking Story of the Doctor Who May Have Changed History by Treating and Drugging JFK, Marilyn, Elvis, and Other Prominent Figures, 2013, etc.) biography of Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) is a largely superficial and sordid take on the entertainer’s long career. The authors scrupulously tabulate all of the divorces, affairs, and financial disasters, but the book fails to illuminate Rooney the man or the incandescent talent that made him a teenage icon and enduring showbiz figure. Part of this is Rooney’s fault: an inveterate fabulist, the actor’s oft-contradictory reminiscences are a confusion of self-aggrandizing anecdotes and garbled grudges. What does emerge clearly is a damning portrait of Rooney—who was a paragon of youthful virtue after appearing in the family-friendly Andy Hardy movie series—as a witless performing savant, ruled by boundless appetites for sex, gambling, booze, and pills, incapable of maintaining personal relationships or mastering the most basic practices of financial responsibility. The authors pay lip service to Rooney’s talent without satisfactorily analyzing what made it so uniquely resonant, and they seem as nonplussed as their interview subjects as to who Rooney was under the bluster and makeup. Readers seeking salacious Hollywood gossip will find a surfeit of tawdry material, including shocking accounts of the adult Rooney’s sexual encounters with the underage likes of Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor. The authors do provide some context for Rooney’s monstrous personal behavior: brought up on burlesque stages by dissolute parents (his overbearing stage mother occasionally supplemented their income with prostitution), Rooney was brutally overworked and financially exploited by family, movie studio executives, and untrustworthy business partners. Still, without a richer understanding of Rooney the artist and of the significance of his contributions to the entertainment industry, the whole business leaves behind a foul taste.
A comprehensive portrait of Mickey the screw-up; those wanting a more considered portrait of the artist will be disappointed.