Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I'm mad about good books, can't get my fill

Some weeks ago I mentioned that I was working my way through Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, Ted Chapin's backstage account of that show's original production. I didn't get past chapter 2, as it turned out. I really wanted to, because I think there are some interesting bits of information about the artistic process buried in here somewhere, but the writing is so bad that reading to the end of each paragraph requires genuine effort. I don't need that kind of stress.

I've been disappointed before by under-edited products from the Applause Theatre & Cinema Books imprint, but I've also had enough experience with good artists who are bad writers to know that the published manuscript may be a vast improvement on what was originally submitted. Regardless, I won't hold it against Applause, because they also published the marvelous book I've been reading lately, A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration. Have I mentioned yet that ASIB '54 is my favorite movie? It is, and this account of its creation and redemption is (so far) every bit as absorbing as I hoped it would be. As a writer, Ronald Haver is as deft as Chapin is artless; he skips from topic to topic just enough to avoid getting bogged down in any one thing, but still manages to cover everything that could possibly be related to the story of this film -- from 1950s pop culture to the stars' career trajectories to the state of the cinema and the studio system -- in great detail and depth.

The chapters are quite long, so once I pick it up (usually at bedtime, intending to read for just a few minutes) I end up reading on and on. But I haven't even gotten to the actual filming, much less the restoration process, which means this probably isn't my last post on the subject. I've just finished reading about how James Mason ended up with the role of Norman Maine, which came perilously close to being filled by Cary Grant instead. I may be the only person on earth who feels this way, but to me that would have been an absolute tragedy, because I really, really don't dig Cary Grant. He leaves me completely cold in every role, from Bringing Up Baby to The Philadelphia Story to North By Northwest to (shudder) Charade -- when I'm watching Cary Grant I always feel like I'm watching some production assistant standing in for the star during a tech rehearsal. As far as I'm concerned the best thing I can say for him is that he had the good taste (though it likely didn't look like good taste at the time) to marry Dyan Cannon, whom I love. But I seem to have digressed from my original point, which is that James Mason is so capital-G Great in A Star Is Born that the idea of anyone else in the part strikes me as faintly horrifying. Reading about the role being offered to any other actor, but especially one as unappealing (to me) as Cary Grant, is like reading one of those sci-fi stories where someone goes back in time and steps on a butterfly or whatever, and then they go back to the future (TM) and everything is strange and different.

Please, nobody go back in time and talk Cary Grant into taking this role, because if he did, I'd have to find a different favorite movie. The casting is perfect the way it is, because James Mason, like Shirley MacLaine (though unlike her in so many other ways), is good in everything. Just to bring this whole post full-circle, he's good opposite Cary Grant in North By Northwest, and alongside Dyan Cannon in The Last of Sheila. He's even good in Yellowbeard, for heaven's sake. And, as we all know, he serves as the voice of God in many Eddie Izzard routines, which is reason enough to love him right there. But this book makes me realize how much of his work I haven't seen, and when I sign back up for Netflix I'll be adding The Seventh Veil, Odd Man Out and others to my queue for sure.

Speaking of Eddie Izzard: it's too soon to be certain, but The Riches might become appointment TV for me. I tuned in with some doubts, because while I love both Eddie and Minnie Driver, it's hard for me to imagine why you'd cast them together in anything and not also cast their native accents. I stopped worrying about it, though, around the time they found that impaled car-crash victim. I loved the attention to detail, the general lack of melodrama, the way the show kept making me laugh and gasp at the same time. I suppose that kind of emotional confusion/interrupted airflow could have some negative long-term effects if experienced on a weekly basis, and I might get tired of watching chunks of the show through my splayed fingers (because: ew!), but I'm pretty sure I'll be back for a few more episodes at least. Did you watch? Will you watch again?

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