New titles — about Lorraine Hansberry, “Midnight Cowboy” and more — get to the heart of our enduring obsessions with Hollywood and the performing arts.
Long before he became the celebrated filmmaker of “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment,” a young Billy Wilder worked briefly as a dancer for hire in the ballroom of a fashionable Berlin hotel. As he described the endeavor — one that called for a certain amount of imagination and role-playing in its own right — for a German newspaper in 1927, “This is no easy way to earn your daily bread, nor is it the kind that sentimental, softhearted types can stomach. But others can live from it.”
What drives them to pursue careers that can be so fulfilling and yet so destructive?
Wilder’s observations on his experience — from one of his many delightfully acerbic pieces of journalism anthologized in BILLY WILDER ON ASSIGNMENT: Dispatches From Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna (Princeton University, 212 pp., $24.95), a new collection edited by Noah Isenberg and translated by Shelley Frisch — get to the heart of our enduring obsessions with show business and the performing arts. For those on the inside of its gilded cages, what drives them to pursue careers that can be so fulfilling and yet so destructive and soul-deadening, and what pleasures, if any, do they take from it? And for those of us watching on the outside, why do we remain fascinated with these people — their private lives, talents and appetites — and what do we find when we scratch beneath their well-known surfaces?
As a new crop of books demonstrates, these questions are perennially worth asking, about artists and works that we thought we knew intimately and those that have gone unexamined.
The film’s original X rating was not imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America but by timid executives at United Artists, who feared that the film might somehow turn viewers gay.
Glenn Frankel is a master of the movie-biography genre — books that take a single film and explore their making from conception to release, with all the humanity and cultural history that passes in between — and he has matched himself with an extremely worthy subject in SHOOTING “MIDNIGHT COWBOY”: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 415 pp., $30). In previous books, Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written about the creation of conventional westerns like “The Searchers” and “High Noon,” but “Midnight Cowboy” is a horse of a different color: This 1969 movie, based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel of the same name, tells the story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naïve Texan who arrives in Manhattan with dreams of becoming a prosperous gigolo but ends up hustling men in Times Square while he shares a squalid apartment with a streetwise vagabond named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Despite subject matter that was considered transgressive for its time and the fact that it was initially released with an X rating, “Midnight Cowboy” won Oscars for best picture and for its director, John Schlesinger, and its screenwriter, Waldo Salt.
Frankel, of course, provides a wealth of detail on the day-to-day production of the movie and the trajectories of Voight and Hoffman that led them to the film. But the people he renders most vividly include Schlesinger, the British phenom who pivoted to the grime and sleaze of “Midnight Cowboy” after directing a failed adaptation of Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”; and Herlihy, a disciple of Anaïs Nin and a onetime U.S. Navy enlistee. Both were gay men who frequently found themselves modulating their lives in response to the world’s fluctuating tolerance of their sexuality. In collaboration, they yielded a movie that obliterated longstanding taboos about what movies could say and show, and it prefigured a revolution of gay liberation in culture and society. While his affection for “Midnight Cowboy” is abundant, Frankel is also effective at puncturing the mythology surrounding it: Though Hoffman has suggested his enduring line “I’m walkin’ here!” was ad-libbed when an errant taxi drove into a shot, its driver was actually a member of the crew and Salt’s screenplay had called for Ratso “to slam the fender of the taxi, pretending to be struck and falling back into Joe’s arms.” And the film’s original X rating, Frankel reveals, was not imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America but by timid executives at United Artists, the studio that released “Midnight Cowboy,” who feared that the film might somehow turn viewers gay.
Gaines is in full command of the material he has fastidiously researched and assembled.
A less heralded entry from the pantheon of the performing arts gets its well-deserved canonization in FOOTNOTES: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way (Sourcebooks, 435 pp., $26.99), by the journalist Caseen Gaines. The project at the heart of Gaines’s exuberant and thoroughly captivating book is the stage musical “Shuffle Along,” which became a Broadway hit in 1921 and was among the few shows of its time to feature a Black cast and creative team.
In telling the tale behind “Shuffle Along,” Gaines unpacks the stories of two different creative partnerships: one between the actors and book writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and another between the composers and lyricists Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. In an era when white and Black performers alike appeared regularly in blackface and a show ran the risk of instigating race riots in its audience if it depicted romantic love between two Black characters, the foursome strove to create a musical that would satisfy the tastes of Black audiences yearning for greater representation and less negative portrayals onstage while it flew under the radar of Jim Crow. The production that they devised — a loose revue with vaudeville roots about two Black business partners who compete against each other in a mayoral election — ran what was then a record-setting 504 performances over 60 weeks while helping to make popular standards out of songs like “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
Gaines is in full command of the material he has fastidiously researched and assembled, and there is a lot of it here — even players like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, who both got early career breaks in “Shuffle Along,” have to settle for smaller supporting roles in his narrative. Still, by the conclusion of the book, I found myself wishing to hear even a little bit more about George C. Wolfe’s underappreciated 2016 Broadway staging of “Shuffle Along,” which dramatized the making of the original show; despite a starry cast and creative team, including the actors Billy Porter, Joshua Henry and Audra McDonald and choreography by Savion Glover, it played only 100 performances and won none of the 10 Tonys for which it was nominated. (The awards that year were dominated by another show called “Hamilton.”)
I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how the phrase ‘Princess Tiny Meat’ is deployed in the book.
Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift are hardly unknown quantities and still they benefit from a fresh re-examination in Charles Casillo’s tandem biography ELIZABETH AND MONTY: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship (Kensington, 389 pp., $22.95). The book takes an unconventional but effective approach by chronicling the side-by-side lives of these larger-than-life movie stars who shared a close attachment and appeared together in movies like “A Place in the Sun” and “Suddenly, Last Summer.” They were also inextricably linked by a gruesome accident in 1956 during the making of their film “Raintree County,” after Clift left a dinner party at Taylor’s Beverly Hills home and his car struck a telephone pole. As Casillo indelibly describes the scene that awaited Taylor as she rushed to the crash site and helped Clift extract two broken teeth lodged in his throat, “She could smell the blood and feel the warmth of it as it flowed from his wounds and pooled in her dress — she was momentarily able to push her revulsion about blood aside, although she would remember it for the rest of her life.”
Casillo weaves an engrossing story about the intertwined lives of his subjects — the parallel worlds of privilege that they came from, the personal misfortunes that each suffered and the seemingly inextricable path that led to that fateful night. Clift was the sensitive, swoon-inducing leading man for whom the phrase “confirmed bachelor” was practically invented — a closeted gay man consumed by the very palpable anxiety that his sexuality would be exposed and lead to his ruin. Taylor, meanwhile, was a gossip-column fixture as early as the age of 8, unable to have anything more than a platonic relationship with Clift and steered by social convention into marriages that were clouded by tragedy (her third husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash in 1958). Casillo, who has written books about Marilyn Monroe and the novelist John Rechy, doesn’t treat Clift and Taylor as pristine people and he can be quite dishy at times — I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how the phrase “Princess Tiny Meat” is deployed in the book. Even so, the author approaches them both with sympathy and comes away with a melodrama as good as any that they ever starred in. I mean it as the highest possible compliment when I say that it would all make excellent source material for a future Ryan Murphy TV series.
She described herself as a ‘heterosexually married lesbian’ and wrote often of her same-sex desires.
When her play “A Raisin in the Sun” brought her to national prominence in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry was 28 years old, and to viewers who were just discovering her, it seemed clear who she was. As Mike Wallace summed her up in a television interview from that period, “One night, Lorraine Hansberry, a girl who had dabbled in writing, made a brash announcement to her husband. She was going to sit down and write an honest and accurate drama about Negroes.” But as Soyica Diggs Colbert scrupulously documents in RADICAL VISION: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (Yale University, 273 pp., $30), her subject was no novice. Well before “A Raisin in the Sun” became the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, Colbert writes, Hansberry had “all of the seriousness of an established artist, having studied art and activism all her life. She didn’t dabble.”
Colbert, a professor of African-American studies and performing arts at Georgetown University and an associate director at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, has accomplished the mighty task of resurfacing and reconciling the many facets that Hansberry possessed. Growing up, the young Hansberry saw her father, Carl, an entrepreneur, wage a legal battle that went to the Supreme Court so he could buy a home in a restrictive all-white Chicago neighborhood. As an adult, she spent the 1950s prolifically contributing short stories, poems, letters and pieces of journalism for several publications including Freedom, the Black leftist newspaper founded by Paul Robeson and Louis Burnham. And despite her long relationship with the producer and songwriter Robert Nemiroff — whom she met on a picket line, wed in 1953 and divorced in 1964 — she described herself as a “heterosexually married lesbian” and wrote often of her same-sex desires. A devoted and deeply felt account of the development of an artist’s mind, “Radical Vision” also benefits from Colbert’s close analysis of lesser-known Hansberry works like her play “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which closed just as its author died of cancer at the age of 34.
Out of nowhere Steinberg will drop a story about attending a party at Lucille Ball’s house where he heard Groucho Marx make an off-color remark about the hostess and Zeppo.
At first glance, David Steinberg might seem like too much of a mensch to really spill the beans about his chosen profession in his new book, INSIDE COMEDY: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades (Knopf, 338 pp., $30), to be published in July. Steinberg, the venerated stand-up comic, actor and sitcom director, has impeccable nice-guy credentials: He is the yeshiva-trained son of a rabbi and grocer (he still wore his kippah the first time he saw Lenny Bruce perform) and a Canadian to boot. He is also a relentless dropper of names, from established legends like Bob Newhart to contemporary talents like Jordan Peele — not because Steinberg wants you to know he’s famous but because he truly admires his peers and understands what makes them tick. And he proves to be a genial, generous raconteur and reciter of showbiz lore.
His stories of speaking Yiddish with Danny Thomas (who was a Roman Catholic of Lebanese descent) are charming, and his account of getting death threats for telling jokes about Richard Nixon is chilling. Then out of nowhere Steinberg will drop a story about attending a party at Lucille Ball’s house where he heard Groucho Marx make an off-color remark about the hostess and Zeppo. (Let’s just say the actual language Groucho used in Steinberg’s account would not have made it into “Duck Soup.”) And truly, how can you not adore someone like Steinberg who, when he was kibitzing with Bea Arthur in an after-hours session at “The Golden Girls” and she asked him, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?,” had the quickness of mind to reply, “It just saves time”? (Not to worry — Arthur is said to have loved the riposte.)
If you already recognize Danny Trejo as the steely-eyed actor who has played intimidating bruisers in films like “Heat,” “Machete Kills” and, um, “Muppets Most Wanted,” then you also likely know he comes from a background that’s as brutal as any character he’s portrayed. But he unspools that story with compassion and unsparing candor in his memoir, TREJO: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood (Atria, 274 pp., $27), written with Donal Logue and coming out in July.
He will terrify you into a life of perfect rectitude with his descriptions of prison rituals like the intake strip-search.
Trejo grew up in Los Angeles and by 21 he was abusing alcohol, addicted to heroin and committing armed robberies, eventually serving time at notorious prisons like Chino, Jamestown, Folsom and San Quentin. (He also claims to have been behind bars with Charles Manson.) His personal history is filled with despair and cruelty — visited upon and inflicted by him — but Trejo doesn’t romanticize his past. He will terrify you into a life of perfect rectitude with his descriptions of prison rituals like the intake strip-search: “The guys who stand there covering themselves with their hands or even pause for a second, they’re already telling not only the guards but also the other inmates that they are fish, insecure and scared,” he writes. “The guy who argued back or bucked at the guards’ barked orders wasn’t the badass.” But his book takes on a more hopeful tone when Trejo achieves sobriety while in prison in 1968 and, after his release, begins to build a career with small roles in films like “Maniac Cop 2” and “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.” I also recommend the afterword by Logue, Trejo’s co-author, friend and fellow actor. Relating a behind-the-scenes story from the thriller “Reindeer Games,” where Trejo saved him from falling into carefully manicured snow and spoiling a shot, Logue writes, “He gently pulled me back to my mark, to the exact spot my feet had been two seconds earlier, and whispered, ‘I told you I got your back.’” It’s all enough to make you believe in the possibility of a Hollywood ending.
Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter for The Times and the author of four books including “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams.