February 21, 2021
In this winter of discontent, the pandemic has claimed even the things we love to hate. The Oscars, traditionally aired in February, have been kicked to April. Meanwhile, with multiplexes empty and streaming services ascendant, Hollywood’s future seems in doubt. Fortunately, as the industry works at reinvention, a spate of new books arrives to keep film buffs company.
Cicely Tyson, who died last month at 96, set down her story just in time. Written with collaborator Michelle Burford, “Just as I Am” traces an exceptional career that spanned six decades of stage, television, and film work. In 2018, Tyson became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar.
None of it was predictable. Tyson’s parents struggled to earn a living after immigrating to New York from Nevis. They also fought bitterly and, to Tyson, frighteningly, over her father’s philandering. The couple parted when she was 9.
Ignorant about sex, Tyson gave birth to a daughter while still in high school. She left the baby’s father after two years of marriage, moved back in with her mother, and eventually scraped together the money to send her daughter to boarding school.
Determined to escape a life of dead-end clerical jobs, Tyson signed on with an agency specializing in African-American models. A chance encounter led to recruitment for a film, and invaluable theater world connections.
Though Tyson reflects on her more notable performances, including in the 1972 film “Sounder,” her development as an actor remains somewhat mysterious. Formal dramatic study, including a brief stint at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, was helpful but seemed less important to her than getting inside a character’s skin.
Throughout the book, Tyson professes a devout Christianity, crediting much of her success to God and playing down what must have been a ferocious drive. More compelling are her accounts of key figures in her life, particularly jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Their years-long relationship was scarred by infidelity and Davis’s drug addiction. At one point, Tyson clearly saved his life, but after a belated marriage failed, in 1988, she never looked back.
Cary Grant was similarly the product of a warring, working-class marriage. A new biography by Scott Eyman, “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise,” lays out the Dickensian details. Born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, Grant was 11 when his alcoholic father told him his mother had died. (In truth, as he discovered 20 years later, she was living in an asylum.)
Young Archie left school to join an acrobatic troupe, and at 16 followed it to New York. Over time, he connected with the vaudeville community, landed a part on Broadway, and headed to Hollywood, where Paramount rechristened him.
Eyman adheres to the now standard take: Cary Grant was a character played by Cary Grant. Alfred Hitchcock, who directed him in several films, would say Grant was the only actor he knew who could successfully fake charm.
A near-definitive product of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grant was beloved by audiences for his elegance, physical grace, and subtle wit. Yet beneath it all was unrelenting anxiety. In his search for inner peace, Grant would become a proselytizer for LSD. What finally seemed to bring contentment was fatherhood (he had one daughter, with fourth wife Dyan Cannon) and leaving the movies behind.
In his own way, performer and director Mike Nichols was also a feat of self-creation. “Mike Nichols: A Life” is Mark Harris’s penetrating case. Nichols grew up in New York after barely escaping Nazi Germany at the age of 7. He had his parents’ unhappy marriage to work through (a theme emerges), along with childhood baldness, which caused lifelong insecurity.
Adopting a haughty persona, he found his tribe among the theater crowd at the University of Chicago. Significantly, it included Elaine May, the anima with whom he would form a hit comedy duo. A string of theater successes brought two Tony Awards. By the time he directed “The Graduate” (only his second film after the highly praised “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) he was still just in his 30s.
The movie’s path to cultural milestone was anything but assured. Dustin Hoffman feared he was wrong for the main role of Benjamin. Nichols’s abrasive behavior on the set fanned everyone’s doubts. When the filming concluded, unsure that he had anything worthwhile, Nichols retreated to a room above a Midtown strip joint to do the editing. Shortly, of course, audiences would wholeheartedly embrace the result, anointing Mike Nichols the crown prince of a new film era
Almost from the start, Hollywood has proved irresistible to fiction writers. “Interior Chinatown,” Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning novel, brilliantly borrows screenwriting conventions to explore Asian stereotypes. Inventive, funny, and quietly touching, “Interior Chinatown” beautifully extends its reach from film depictions to the real lives of Asian-Americans, demonstrating how the two are inseparably entwined.
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Normally I try to color within the lines, but two more books deserve film lovers’ attention: “Cinema ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies,” by Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan, and “She Found It at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema,” an exuberant collection edited by Christina Newland.