Saturday, June 17, 2017

Embracing the Banal: Two Celebrity Bios by Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn

Gene Wilder

If you are a huge admirer of the diverse talents of the gifted comic actors the late Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn, you won't find much evidence of those qualities in their digressive and disappointing memoirs: Wilder's Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art and Hawn's A Lotus Grows in the Mud (both released in 2005). One of the biggest ironies of popular celebrity autobiographies is that whenever the authors go to great lengths in telling us how they struggled through personal trials and tribulations, very little of what makes them appealing as artists comes across. They are out to prove that, deep down, they are really ordinary folks just like us. They, too, face insecurities, damaged relationships and death.

Although some readers might find comfort in recognizing some of their own traits in these stars, the fact is that celebrities don't abide like average people. Artists make their living doing work that springs largely from their passions and abilities; the general public earns its living by having a job. Celebrities appearing ordinary, though, is part of what makes this genre so popular. Like most TV talk shows, these books contain an abundance of familiar anecdotes about learning life's important lessons, rather than revealing what makes them so compelling in their craft. Wilder and Hawn aren't negligible talents. Yet A Lotus Grows in the Mud and (to a lesser degree) Kiss Me Like a Stranger fall into the same category of celebrity bios as those written by much lesser talents. The memoirs share a dogged impulse to strip away the appealing ingredients of their own distinctive gifts and embrace the banal.

Pauline Kael once accurately described Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (1974) as "a magnetic blur." Even in his brief appearance as the kidnapped mortician in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Wilder's acting already contained the bubbling fizz of bottled hysteria. With his cherubic Harry Langdon face, lovingly caressed by an electrified coiffure, Wilder's greatest comic gift was turning the anxious snivel into a form of bottomless longing. It was that quality that made him a natural for the role of the desperate accountant in Mel Brooks' debut picture, The Producers (1968). Wilder refined this trait to madcap perfection in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (1972), in which he played a mild-mannered doctor who falls in love with a sheep. But later, a less interesting, more earnest side to his comedy became more frequent, in movies like The Woman in Red (1984) and Funny About Love (1986). It's this tepid geniality that holds sway in Kiss Me Like a Stranger.

Yet it isn't a terrible read: Wilder finds an easy conversational tone that carries you along. But it lacks the demonic charge of his best comedy. When he frames the narrative with excerpts from his sessions with his analyst, you wish it were a joke (and I don't mean one of the standard psychiatrist jokes delivered by Jewish comics from Henny Youngman to Woody Allen). It's not; Wilder is going for an air of honest self-discovery – only it doesn't enlarge our perception of him. What we do learn is pretty basic. Wilder, whose beloved mother was cursed with a weak heart, discovered his sense of humour trying to make her laugh "and pee in her pants" rather than watch her die from a stroke. The book moves pretty briskly through his early years, as he finds his voice as a dramatic actor and begins his career in summer stock in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Wilder ultimately moved on to the Actors Studio to study under Lee Strasberg. The best moments in the book take place when he describes the excitement of playing his early roles – especially Billy Bibbit in a Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He's particularly insightful discussing the impact of method acting on his work. "Try to stay in the moment," he writes, "which only means that every time you do the same scene, on stage or in front of the camera . . . the scene will be a little different each time you do it, and it will be alive." Unfortunately, he doesn't bring to life with equal verve his working relationships with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, or even Richard Pryor, with whom he was teamed up in a number of pictures (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy). "It's difficult to continue loving someone who shits on you," Wilder writes of the effect Pryor's drug problems had on their partnership. "But I did, because of the moments of magic we shared together." Wilder does little, however, to describe what that magic was. He also provides only cursory impressions of his deeply personal and creative relationship with his wife, Gilda Radner, who died of cancer in 1989. By the end of the book, and fighting cancer himself – and surviving – Wilder turns Kiss Me Like a Stranger into a blatant inspirational tome. (Wilder ultimately died from complications brought on by Alzheimer's in 2016.)

A Lotus Grows in the Mud takes its title from a Buddhist koan about how wisdom can only be gained by facing life's obstacles and trials. In telling her story, Goldie Hawn is even more heartfelt than Wilder. There isn't any mud being thrown, but there sure are a lot of flowery sentiments, and they turn your mind to sap. When she dispenses comments on life's purpose – "When viewing life from a thousand feet up, we can see our purpose more clearly" – or composes little greeting cards – "I rejoice in the spaces between thoughts" – you begin to think you've enrolled in a summer camp run by Deepak Chopra. (My friend Joe Mader has a regular Facebook post featuring bullshit messages in fortune cookies that could have easily come from Hawn's attempts at wisdom.) Although Hawn has always personified the giddy and radiant blissfulness of sunny Southern California, she's also been – from time to time – a tough-minded actress. Which is why it's disappointing that she doesn't bother mentioning her memorable roles in Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (1974), where she shed the kookiness acquired on TV's Laugh-In to play a desperate fugitive on the hunt for her lost son. She barely touches on Hal Ashby's supple high comedy, Shampoo (1975) and doesn't even refer to Chris Menges's neglected CrissCross (1992), in which she was a single mother in Florida who turned to stripping in order to support her teenage son. A Lotus Grows in the Mud is content with delving into random events: an early sexual assault, the bond with her parents, her escape from cartoonist Al Capp's desire for oral sex, her strong and lasting relationship with Kurt Russell and their kids. She connects disparate episodes with the ultimate goal of healing her soul.

When you read Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One (2004), he draws you into the intricate mysteries that make him such a fascinating artist by defining and opening up the milieu that made him possible. When he's discussing other artists – as divergent as Bobby Vee and Robert Johnson – Dylan's informal eloquence (that attribute which shapes his sensibility as a singer/songwriter) helps us begin to fathom what it is that makes talent and what creates genius. In A Lotus Grows in the Mud, the exact opposite happens. The more you see the world through the eyes of Goldie Hawn, the more it seems that the only world that exists is Goldie Hawn.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.        

1 comment:

  1. Celebrity memoirs are invariably written by ghost writers. The actual subject may have have some or little to no real involvement with the ghost. Also, most celebrity autobiograpies are not very self-revealing; most are exercises in burnishing the star's image or whitewashing past misdeeds or foibles. Lastly, and not to be pedantic, but The Actors Studio has no possessive apostrophe in the name.