Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Great Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Bette Davis

I call it serendipity. When you write a blog with six other talented critics, sometimes you are going to hit on a similar theme at the same time. A couple of days ago, Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote about character actors, focused around the passing of the great Pete Postlethwaite. I had no idea he was planning the piece as I began to formulate an item on some of the Golden Era of Hollywood's finest actors. But, so it goes. Over the holidays, I was in a bookstore in Kelowna, British Columbia plowing through the discount bin when I chanced upon a short book called Ingrid Bergman by one of the preeminent film writers working today: David Thomson (who is also the author of Suspects). Topping out at only 113 pages, the paperback, from Penguin Books and first published in 2009, sold originally for $18.95 Canadian. It was in the reduced bin, a year after it came out, for $2.00. I eagerly tucked it under my arm and kept digging. Another popped out, this one called Gary Cooper, same original price, but 122 pages. I turned over this second $2.00 treasure and saw that, under the overall title of Great Stars, there were four books in the series all written by Thomson. The other two were on Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Could I be lucky? (Right now, my colleague Kevin Courrier is probably laughing his ass off, because he knows about my uncanny knack for finding book and/or DVD treasures like this for next to no money.) I kept digging and out came Davis, and shortly after, as I dug near the end of this bin, there was Bogart looking at me. For $8.00 I had four promising short biographies of some of Hollywood's best actors written by one of film criticdom's finest writers.

Inrgid Bergman
Over the holidays, either before going to bed or while waiting and waiting in airports to return home, I read the books one after the other, starting with Bergman. Thomson's thesis was simple: Bergman was a woman who freely gave into her passions, whether they were movies, sex or Roberto Rossellini. The informative little book was a fine overview mostly of her films and her decisions in making them. Sometimes her thinking was clearly overwhelmed by her passions (especially around Rossellini) and it cost her. The other three books followed a similar template. Each looked at the rise of the respective talents, what they did to get there, the sacrifices they all made to keep their position and the price they all paid. These short bios are generally well-written and covered each talents' best years well (in the case of Cooper and Bogart, that's right to the end of their careers, as they died relatively young; Thomson rushes through, with a couple of exceptions, most of Bergman's and Davis's last batch of pictures as they were made when they ceased to 'matter' to the general public).

Gary Cooper
Bergman, as we know, was the star who suffered the most. In 1950, when she had a child out of wedlock (and while still married to Petter Lindstrom) with Roberto Rossellini, the public and the press turned on her with a venom that is almost impossible to imagine in this era of Lohans, Spearses or Cyruses. Today, we would go 'oh, yeah? Quel surprise'. But back then it seemed to matter a great deal. Bergman was on the pedestal so high (she was idolized as the 'ideal woman' by many), that it was no wonder she fell so hard and fast. Yet in all four books, a similar trajectory occurs: an early marriage, some success (and then a lot of success), divorces, lots of hanky panky whether they were married or not, and the inevitable decline (either by dying or the dying of the public's interest). But it was only Bergman who dared to let her dalliance out into the open, and as a result she paid the biggest price. Separately, Cooper, Bogart and Davis screwed around like minks in heat and yet nothing happened because they were wise, or their studios were smart enough, to keep it away from public eyes.

Humphrey Bogart
There are one or two flaws in these compelling books. Thomson is like all of us. He cannot resist gossip, so he mentions, in one sentence in each case without further elaboration, that both Bogart and Cooper may have had an early brush with bi-sexuality (no, not with each other), and that before her daughter, BD, was born, Davis had one and maybe two abortions. These facts are unnecessary and of only prurient interest. As a writer, Thomson can sometimes get lost in a sentence that makes the reader think “WTF?” In his generally good, very big (1000+ pages) book Have You Seen...A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008), he occasionally had this problem, and a couple of times, particularly in the Bogart book, I had to re-read a few sentences to figure out what he was getting at. He also made a couple of blunders between books. In the Davis book, he says that John Huston first film after The Maltese Falcon (1941) was In This Our Life (1942); in the Bogart book he says Across the Pacific (also 1942) was the first. He got it right in the Davis book. Regarding Bogart, he makes a statement that I cannot abide. He says that Bogart only made four great pictures: The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not (1943), The Big Sleep (1946) and In A Lonely Place (1950), and only three for which he is remembered: Casablanca (1943), To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Now it's my turn. “WTF?” What about The African Queen (1952), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947), Key Largo (1948) (I know, considered by many a lesser Bogart/Bacall/Huston, but I love it), The Petrified Forest (1936), High Sierra (1941) and The Desperate Hours (1955)? That is one of the rushed qualities with these books that prevent them from being great. He makes grand statements, or gossipy comments, and doesn't properly back them up. With the films, he tries, but sometimes his recap of the films doesn't match statements like these. There's also some sloppy editing that you don't expect to find from a major publisher. In each book there are at least three or four typos. No big deal, really, every book today has them, but usually not that many in books so short.

Bette Davis
Ultimately, what brought me the most pleasure in reading these four books was that I learned things about these famous actors I didn't know before. I also discovered films by all four (particularly The Great Lie, starring Davis, and the aforementioned In This Our Life which also starred Davis) that I'd never heard of and would love to see (alas, for legal or perhaps popularity reasons, even my beloved TCM rarely shows the lesser-known works by these four). It was a lovely find to end the year and was the sort of lighter reading I needed as a hectic year, with both incredible highs and unbelievable lows, came to an end. The books are out of print, but there seems to be an updated, longer version of each book, published January 2010 by the Faber & Faber, with additional material by someone called Lucy Gray (for example, the Bergman book is 15 pages longer). I don't know what the additional material is about, but perhaps it was added for the American market (though F & F is a British firm, these editions seem to be for the US) of these nifty short books to properly cover the full careers of these aptly dubbed great stars.

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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