Plays & Prose


Book Review Roundup: Bad Hollywood books

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion on the set of their 1921 collaboration  The Love Light.

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion on the set of their 1921 collaboration The Love Light.

With just two weeks left in 2018, I feel confident in saying that I read only two books this year that I truly disliked. And, oddly, they both happened to be about women in classic Hollywood. (I also wasn’t a fan of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, a few years back. Why do I pick these books up with such eagerness and then always find them so disappointing?)

Ingrid BergmanIngrid Bergman by David Thomson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

David Thomson is a world-renowned film critic, but this little book feels like he knocked it together in his spare time and then his editor was too intimidated to ask him to improve it. Yes, it provides an overview of Ingrid Bergman's life, star persona, and major films, but also features irrelevant tangents, odd speculations, and just plain bizarre or flowery prose ("You didn't flatter this one by telling her you loved her and sending her flowers and paying her the earth. You had to love her").

Also, I realized, maybe I'm not interested in hearing what a man in his 70s has to say about Ingrid Bergman, especially if the subtext of the writing always keeps circling back to the actress's beauty, desirability, sex life, etc. Sometimes it even goes beyond subtext: Thomson speculates "Some night [Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini] must have yielded to love-making if only to escape the insoluble contradictions in the rest of their lives." I love Bergman's performances and star persona, but I'd rather hear what younger and more rigorous writers have to say about those things.

Update 9/2/18: for some sensitive and non-prurient writing about Bergman, try this essay by Pamela Hutchinson on her early Swedish films:

The Girls in the PictureThe Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Girls in the Picture is a biographical novel about two remarkable women who made their mark on early Hollywood history. Few people today remember that one hundred years ago, Mary Pickford—a petite but adult woman who made her name playing little girls—was America’s most popular movie star. Even fewer know that the writer who shaped Pickford’s star image, and became the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, was a woman named Frances Marion.

The story of Mary and Fran’s friendship, collaboration, and eventual falling-out is interesting material, but Melanie Benjamin’s writing never gelled with me. I think it’s because Frances is characterized inconsistently. For the story to work, we have to believe that Fran is an ambitious writer who moved to Hollywood after divorcing her first husband (shocking stuff for 1912). But Benjamin gives Frances an aw-shucks, little-old-me narrative voice, full of girlish gushing and simpering self-doubt. I felt like Benjamin was playing up Frances’ weakness in order to make her seem more sympathetic, and the implications of that really bother me. In 1918, maybe audiences wanted to see Mary Pickford play sweet, impish little girls, instead of seeing her as the determined, hard-headed, sexually active woman she really was. But it’s 2018 and women are hungry for fiction that illuminates the lives of our amazing foremothers—so why would a female novelist downplay her heroine’s tough, practical, mature qualities and characterize her as a wide-eyed, uncertain young girl?