There’s no end to movie books — star memoirs, critical career overviews, coffee table “making of” commemorations (The Art of John Carter: A Visual Journey — really?!), sex-laden, scandalous tell-alls. Heck, somebody’s even written a book about movie stars on bikes.
But is that a bad thing? Of course not. For the serious film addict, watching movies is never enough. We crave more information, more insight, more dirt. So here are three compelling, original, cinema-inclined new books:
The Astaires: Fred & Adele, Kathleen Riley (Oxford University Press, $27.95)
Fred Astaire authority Kathleen Riley has written the essential critical biography of the dashing, debonair singing/dancing star and his older (by 2½ years), amazingly talented sister, Adele. The two kids from Omaha were, by the midst of the Roaring Twenties, true pop icons — drawing record crowds in smash musical productions on Broadway and in London. Riley goes deep into their complicated relationship: Adele was a self-possessed and cocky cutup who was magic on her feet — she was full of instinctive grace and inspiration — and it’s fascinating to learn that young Fred felt completely inadequate and clumsy by comparison. The deft dance moves that look effortless in his fantastic run of Hollywood musicals were actually the result of tireless training and rigorous rehearsals. Riley reveals how he once huddled in self-doubt, steeped in feelings of unworthiness and despair, as he watched what Adele could do.
Film footage of Fred and Adele singing and dancing together does not exist, but as Riley traces the siblings’ career — from a kiddie routine on Jersey Shore boardwalks, to opening in “rat trap,” third-tier burlesque halls, to the George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter shows that brought them fame and acclaim — the author vividly conveys the charisma, chemistry, and swinging aplomb that made Fred and Adele stars.
Long before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and now we know why.
The Beauty and the Real (Mick LaSalle, Stanford General Books, $24.95)
It is a constant lament, and more than that, a career threat: In Hollywood, as an actress gets older — pushing beyond her 30s, say — the roles become less interesting, less challenging, and simply less. Male stars work steadily into their 50s, 60s, and beyond, but for the actresses with whom they once shared top billing, the movies just aren’t there.
Not so in France, where the likes of Juliette Binoche (age 48), Isabelle Huppert (59), Nathalie Baye (63), and a daunting lineup of their contemporaries not only continue to work, but are doing some of the best work of their lives. And younger French stars are following in their footsteps, apprenticing, collaborating. Mick LaSalle, longtime film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, examines why, in France, right now, there “is a blossoming of female brilliance and originality of a kind that has never happened anywhere at any period of film history, with but one glorious exception … .” That exception, LaSalle notes, is in the Hollywood of the 1930s.
“Indeed, today’s Hepburns, Davises, Crawfords, Garbos, and Stanwycks are not American. They’re French.”
That’s quite a thesis, but in The Beauty of the Real — subtitled What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses — LaSalle makes a wonderfully informed, impassioned case. In interviews with many of the leading ladies of the moment, and in his in-depth survey of French films, most of which, alas, have failed to gain American theatrical distribution, he uncovers an alternate universe where movies about women, and men and women, and women and women, all of them grappling with real-life issues, take precedence over movies about giant robots from outer space.
“The French are very good at depicting the power dynamics within relationships, mainly because they’re willing to admit such dynamics exist,” LaSalle writes in a chapter wryly titled “Marriage and Adultery (Same Thing).”
This is a book that will make you seek out Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s stunning performance in Rien a faire, and Sandrine Kiberlain’s heartbreaking turn in Mademoiselle Chambon. And it will make you want to see just about anything with Agnes Jaoui in it, because LaSalle writes this:
“There comes a moment in many, perhaps most, of Agnes Jaoui’s films in which she looks at someone as though gazing into their depths … and then smiles as though, having taken their measure, she has found them worthy of attention. These are always warm moments, because in those seconds, she is also looking, in a sense, at us, and we feel the glow of her approval.”
Film Noir, The Directors (edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, $24.99)
If you’re into film noir, then you’re probably into the Film Noir Reader series — Alain Silver and James Ursini’s four volumes of critical essays covering the waterfront of hard-boiled detective and crime thrillers, movies full of double-dealing femmes fatales and the saps who fall for them.
In the Hollywood historians’ new spinoff, Film Noir, The Directors, Silver and Ursini have produced an absorbing anthology with more than two dozen essays, praising and appraising the key filmmakers of noir’s classic period. Packed with rare publicity stills and revealing behind-the-scenes photographs, the book offers chapters on Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly), Jules Dassin (Night and the City), Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street), Fritz Lang (Woman in the Window), Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker), Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place), Raoul Walsh (High Sierra), Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), and many more.
A big-time book celebrating a genre, or a filmmaking style, that director (and film critic) Paul Schrader once famously reduced to its essence: “small-time, unredeemed, unheroic.”
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, “On Movies Online,” at www.philly.com/onmovies