Film biographies: Stars and gripes

Christopher Fowler finds more to enjoy in the biographies of cinema's older generation

This is what Christmas needed: the life story of Bernie Schwartz. We've had books from all the classic Hollywood stars, and expectations aren't running high for confess-alls from the next generation – there are seven volumes currently available on Adam Sandler – so Bernie's autobiography is an overdue pleasure. Having changed his name to Tony Curtis (Jack Warner first suggested Tyrone Goldfarb), he headed for Universal, where executives groomed him as the next screen lover. No account that has the hero sharing a flat with Marlon Brando and removing Marilyn Monroe's bra can possibly fail, and while Tony Curtis: American Prince (Virgin £18.99) isn't fancy it does the job, satisfactorily exploring key career moments (and assorted high-profile sexual shenanigans) while capturing Curtis's blunt manner of speech.

One tends to think of Sir Richard Attenborough as the avuncular gentleman who provides the last link between Hollywood and the classic British film community, forgetting that he made his name playing a psychopath. As Pinkie in Brighton Rock he was described by the Express as "spotty and repellent". Attenborough's delightful Entirely Up to You, Darling (Hutchinson £20), co-written with his production partner, Diana Hawkins, is the star of the season, a highly readable romp through his career starting at Gandhi and bouncing back through highlights (with Winnie Mandela on Cry Freedom) and incongruities (with Mother Teresa during A Chorus Line). Having two voices keeps the tone fresh and unpretentious, while the pair wryly recall the fraught absurdity of high-end film-making. Yes, there are undeniably teary moments, but they're well-earned, touching and even underplayed.

We're down to the last few biographies of British cinema's monochrome years. Hattie by Andy Merriman (Aurum £7.99) chronicles the life of Ms Jacques, whose prim, matronly image concealed a raucous, boozy and surprisingly hedonistic lifestyle. A double divorce from John Le Mesurier (arranged simultaneously so that both partners could marry others) was reordered to paint Jacques as the victim, the better to preserve her "much-loved" public status. Despite being repeatedly described by friends as naturally sexy, she suffered from a lack of confidence about her appearance, and although she was a strong trade union supporter and charity organiser with a complex career, Fleet Street could only make endless puns on her size, once describing her as "a lovable lump of London".

Hattie inevitably crossed paths with Terry-Thomas, who gets his own biography with Bounder! by Graham McCann (Aurum £16.99). The gap-toothed North Finchley clerk had set about transforming himself into a dandy at the age of 15, and developed his curious image as an oleaginous spiv-cum-posho over the next two decades. The 1950s British public could hardly fail to love a comic actor specialising in caricatures of the crust on its uppers; it was a piece of typecasting Terry-Thomas chose and perfected, and the pleasure came in creating confusion between his public and private personas. Was he spoofing the upper class Englishman or simply being one? By the end of his career, not even he could tell.

There's more confusion – and this must surely be the last such volume – in Kenneth Williams Unseen by Wes Butters and Russell Davies (HarperCollins £20). It's a scraped-together bundle of notes, interviews, photographs and old scripts about the comedian who once said, "When I'm gone I shall become a cult." Beware of the low comic with intellectual aspirations, but beware even more of those who feed on him after death.

Meatier fare comes from John Fisher, whose Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography (HarperCollins £20) lives up to its title, dispelling myths and replacing all previous accounts. Here the insecure performer is set in a historical context that explains much about British light entertainment, the speed with which it was produced, and the importance it placed on developing virtually telepathic understanding between actor and writer. Hancock worried that the public perception of him was limited to "a funny hat, a funny coat and Hancock's Half Hour". Galton and Simpson knew how much of Hancock's persona to use and how much to invent, but their plumb line to the heart of character writing was misunderstood by its principal performer, and therein lies the public fascination with the tragedy that ensued.

Stop-frame model animation has been with us for a hundred years, but doesn't quite get the biography it deserves in A Century of Model Animation by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton (Aurum £30). Willis O'Brien and his Kong feature heavily, of course, and there are plenty of rare stills, including a painting of the great ape's first stage appearance which features him holding aloft a white horse and its rider. Although there's a glimpse of Aardman and Tim Burton at work, this is really a nuts-and-bolts look at the work of Harryhausen in his key years (including his cyclops, pictured right), and now feels like a closing book, a precursor to the technology of computer graphics.

Ken Adam Designs The Movies: James Bond And Beyond (Thames & Hudson £32) showcases the work of the UK's most influential production designer, with Christopher Frayling providing eloquent and concise prose sections. Adam's love of muscular, unsentimental geometries for the Bond films, all brushed steel, glass and concrete, must have inspired a generation of architects. His dreamlike designs for The Madness of King George won him a second Academy Award, and are described as "exaggeration in simplicity". A common refrain is Adam's disappointment in the real objects – space vehicles, oil rigs, banks – that his designs are intended to emulate. As a consequence, he reimagines them with a kind of futurist sweep that recalls Zaha Hadid's best work. One can only fantasise about what the pair might achieve together.

We don't make lists of our favourite top 10 artworks and argue about the running order in the pub, so why do we do it with films? This Christmas there are too many movie list books telling us what we should be watching. Only David Thomson's Have You Seen...? (Allen Lane £22) proves indispensible, with 1,000 insightful and sometimes perversely chosen reviews that mark out him out as a genuinely provocative critic. You get the feeling he could easily pick another 1,000 next year and be just as gracefully nuanced. Elsewhere there's Movie Lists (Profile £9.99), a film guide so generic that its author's name doesn't make the front cover. If it's really intended as a guide to deciding which DVD to rent, why has it been divided into categories that match no store, including the career of Bill Murray and films with good kisses? While The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo £9.99), is supposedly the National Society of Film Critics' guide to low-budget, cult and genre movies, except that it completely misses the brief. Rather, we get around 60 decent, moderately entertaining essays, mostly republished, about films the critics enjoyed, regardless of whether they're actually "B" movies. What Platoon, Point Blank and Grindhouse are doing in this collection is anyone's guess.

Clearly keen to be the film-buff equivalent of Danny Wallace, Spencer Austin's Chasing the Eighties (Know The Score Books £9.99) charts the journey of the soon-to-turn-30 author as he tracks down the ageing bit-parters who featured in the influential films of his adolescence. A fun idea, particularly when it involves hanging out with Hightower from Police Academy and the vampire hunter in The Lost Boys, but the result is more blog than book, a series of timid and flatly narrated incidents that feel like the notes to someone else's holiday snaps. The curious may enjoy finding out what the neighbours of the house used in Back to the Future thought about the filming. Christopher Lloyd was nice, apparently.

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