Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Glory Days

I find the best part of many show biz biographies are the early days, when the artist is learning, and have early success. Going from one hit to another can be interesting, but there's nothing like the story of making it.

Three recent books have demonstrated this well.  First, Four Of The Three Musketeers, a book about the Marx Brothers' stage work. (The title comes from a song they performed on Broadway.)

The team is best known for their movies, but they spent decades growing as an act before getting on the silver screen.  This book is the first to concentrate on those early days, and there's still plenty to say, as the Vaudeville years are often dealt with in a few chapters in other books.  This book not only shows how they created their characters and honed their humor, but also gives a bigger picture of the often miserable life that was Vaudeville (especially for the Marx Brothers, who for much of their career were blackballed from the best theatres). By the time you're done, you understand that the Marx Brothers were a stage act who hit it big in film, not movie stars who spent some years on the stage.

Then there's the aptly titled Her Again.  It's the story of Meryl Streep's early years.  She's become such a regular presence on the screen that we've almost gotten tired of her reliably good work, not to mention her Oscar nominations (twenty and counting).  How did she go from unknown to omnipresent?

Her Again talks about her childhood, but is at it's best describing her days in the theatre.  She was a phenomenon almost from the start.  People recognized she was an amazing actress in college, and then was such a star at the Yale School of Drama that she was practically running from one performance to the next--while classmate Sigourney Weaver complained she couldn't get a role. (The best part of the book is this section, since Yale Drama was apparently a crazy place in the early 70s.)

She went from Yale to Broadway without missing a step, and was soon the talk of the town.  She could play anything.  She probably thought at this point she'd be on stage the rest of her career, but movies came calling, and next thing you know, she was a movie star, with roles in The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, and winning an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer.  The book ends here, because she's now the star we all know well.

Bruce Springsteen's bestselling autobiography, Born To Run, was better than I expected. That's because while I like his music, I'm not an idolator. Reading long descriptions of many of his albums would leave me cold. But the early years, which take up a lot of his book, are fascinating.

Bruce can be a bit wordy (of course), but he writes with passion, and a love of rock and roll.  And, as we find out, he was not an overnight success. He kicked around in clubs, living hand to mouth, learning his trade, for about a decade before putting out his first album. And even then, it wasn't until his third album, Born To Run, that he truly made it.

I knew next to nothing about these years, and Bruce conjures up a lost world that has informed his work ever since.  And if the later parts of his book can't much the opening...well, I guess that's an occupational hazard.

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