FILM BOOKS OF THE YEAR; Mad Mothers, Blue Eyes and Bitchy Wit Are Just Some of the Prerequisites for Hollywood Stardom, According to This Year's Best Film Biographies, Says Charlotte O'Sullivan

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 3, 2009 | Go to article overview

FILM BOOKS OF THE YEAR; Mad Mothers, Blue Eyes and Bitchy Wit Are Just Some of the Prerequisites for Hollywood Stardom, According to This Year's Best Film Biographies, Says Charlotte O'Sullivan


Byline: Charlotte O'Sullivan

STRIP away the phoney tinsel," some wag once said of Hollywood, "and you'll find the real tinsel beneath." J Randy Taraborrelli's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (Sidgwick, [pounds sterling]18.99) certainly does its best to peel off the wrapping on this most elusive and deliberately artificial of movie stars, only to be dazzled by the loveliness of what he uncovers.

"Hers was a face that somehow seemed perfect, as if carved from pale, polished marble ..." Taraborrelli, sad to report, is a hack. Still, he really has done his homework. He and his researchers have looked into government files and undertaken hundreds of interviews with friends and relatives of the star. And their efforts have paid off in a biography that, at times, resembles a crazy crush of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Wizard of Oz.

Madness is the big theme. Marilyn's grandfather died of syphilis of the brain, her delusional grandmother Della was institutionalised and her paranoid schizophrenic mother, Gladys, deserves a book all to herself. Gladys's first two children were kidnapped by their father and she nannied a little girl (called Norma Jeane) whom she later all but stalked. She once tried to kill her best friend, had her third child -- ie Norma Jeane/ Marilyn -- taken into foster care, tried to kidnap said child, fell apart when her son died and became obsessed with Christian Science.

Victim and aggressor, Gladys swirled and whirled her way through sanatoriums and speakeasies. Yet the cyclone seems only to have hit Norma Jeane when she was seven. On hearing that her pet dog had been killed in a road accident, Norma Jeane became convinced that neighbours had done it deliberately. Her mostly caring foster-mother, horrified by what she saw as a full-blown case of paranoia, decided this would be a good time to give Marilyn back to Gladys. How mad is that? Naturally, Gladys was not up for the job, and, so far as one can see, Marilyn enjoyed barely a quiet moment in the 29 years that followed.

Marilyn and her myth have always attracted nutters and ne'er-do-wells. Taraborrelli suggests that the infamous liaison with Robert Kennedy was dreamed up by excitable FBI agents, who began trailing Monroe in the Fifties. (Norman Mailer is quoted as saying he "needed the money" when he was writing his 1973 biography, Marilyn -- which was why he included unverified gossip about the relationship.) Marilyn was a great storyteller herself, of course. Yet here she emerges as more sinned against than sinning: let down by a missing, never-to-befound dad, selfish lovers -- Arthur Miller and Sinatra come out of this badly -- careless shrinks, her terrifying housekeeper and, of course, the ever raging, coldly feverish Gladys. That Marilyn didn't OD sooner is the only surprise.

Stop me if this sounds familiar. In Chaplin: A Life by Stephen Wiesman ( JR Books, [pounds sterling]18.99) we learn that Charlie Chaplin's mother, Hannah, had a child "stolen" from her by the child's father. She suffered several breakdowns, was diagnosed with syphilis and was eventually incarcerated, basically for the rest of her life. During this time, she found religion. Ever wondered why you're not famous? It's probably because your mother's too sane.

Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy (Aurum, [pounds sterling]20) is a cuttings job (Newman died in 2008 and presumably friends and family still aren't in the mood to talk). Poor old Levy. An esteemed journalist and film critic, he seems desperate to find a fresh angle. He says of Newman in the introduction: "He wasn't the greatest American actor . …

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FILM BOOKS OF THE YEAR; Mad Mothers, Blue Eyes and Bitchy Wit Are Just Some of the Prerequisites for Hollywood Stardom, According to This Year's Best Film Biographies, Says Charlotte O'Sullivan
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