Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Star Biographies Become Tamer

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Star Biographies Become Tamer

Article excerpt

THERE was hardly a shortage of dirt to be dished in 1996's bumper crop of celebrity biographies and autobiographies, but while books about nice-guy musicians like B.B. King (15 children with 15 different women!) and revered icons like Jackie Kennedy (standing up in an elevator, for God's sake!) continued to tell us far more than we ever need to know (or care to believe), movie star bios turned surprisingly circumspect.

Even Joyce Milton's "Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin" (HarperCollins, $32) barely got its derby soiled, quite an accomplishment considering that Chaplin was one of the first movie stars to have his private life publicly dissected in his own lifetime; he even indulged in some of it in his own 1964 autobiography. But while Chaplin tended to blame his political troubles on "Nazi sympathizers" and turn his sexual adventures into romances, Milton sets the record straight, quoting from speeches in which he extolled the Communist Soviet model and defended Stalinist purges long after others became appalled.

But Milton's portrait of a vain, aloof man who laughed as he prescribed multiple abortions for his young paramours is balanced by her thoughtful look at the social and psychological forces that shaped both Chaplin's art and his politics. Moreover, we spend at least as much time with the actor and director in editing rooms as we do in the courtroom and bedroom. Even the requisite annual James Dean biography, Donald Spoto's "Rebel" (HarperCollins, $25) turns out to be a surprisingly serious-minded inspection of a figure who is finally more important to pop culture than film history. With his still-definitive Alfred Hitchcock biography, "The Dark Side of Genius," the scholarly Spoto pioneered the sport of using dark family history and sexual confusion to explain artistic choices. …

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