Terror, torture, Tintin: This year's best film, history, art and biography books
Hammer's horrors, marauding Vikings, fleshly imperfections, sinister killers, and a Belgian doodling for a newspaper. Our three-part round-up of the year's finest books continues, with the best of film, history, art, audio and biography
Sunday 06 December 2009
Ready for their close-up: Silver-screen icons relive their golden moments
Will cinema books die out? The internet has removed the need for those encyclopaedic tomes we used to keep beneath the television, and surely there's nothing more to know about the intricacies of film production when every DVD comes with hours of extras. With the lives of stars micromanaged by press flacks and actors massaging their biographies, the signs aren't good. Heath Ledger's early demise has spawned an industry, with seven memoirs so far, mostly by coffin chasers. A Tribute to Heath Ledger by Chris Roberts (Carlton, £9.99) at least provides what it promises on the cover; a reasonably priced, prettily photographed clip compilation of the 28-year-old star that avoids ghoulishness. The problem with such books is that in the rush to be topical their stories are incomplete; there's no coverage of Ledger's final two films here.
Leslie Caron was the original gamine, an actress of impish appeal famously discovered by Gene Kelly at the age of 17 for An American in Paris. Her autobiography, Thank Heaven (JR Books, £18.99), also covers her childhood in occupied France, her friendships with Jean Renoir, Christopher Isherwood and Vincente Minnelli, and her affair with Warren Beatty. (One day there should be a biography of Beatty entirely consisting of comparative quotes from the women he's slept with.) This linear Hollywood bio gives the impression of intimacy without too many revelations, although it does come as a surprise to realise that Caron was pregnant while playing a nymphette in Minnelli's film of Colette's uncomfortable Gigi.
Hunting With Barracudas by Chris Snyder (Constable, £7.99) is a crawl through Hollywood's PR circle of hell, in which agent Snyder faces his biggest challenge: not the Hollywood star system but his own boss, Iris Burton, a former child star, now portrayed as a leopard-skin-clad Cruella De Vil going slowly mad as her number-one client and loose cannon, River Phoenix, becomes suddenly unavailable for work. It's an ugly, mean-spirited tale of unbridled ego and panic, and all the better for it, although I imagine Iris's family would like to beat the author to death with a spade.
Roger Moore's My Word Is My Bond (Michael O'Mara, £18.99) covers the eyebrow-arching actor's life from wartime London, through Simon Templar and The Persuaders to Bond and beyond, and is as wooden as any of his performances. The sheer niceness and lack of irony eventually become enervating, but at least Moore admits that he was never really required to act. As you'd expect, there are some wonderfully bizarre photographs, including one with Kissinger, Mountbatten and Cary Grant, and another with Moore wearing a giant Union Jack cravat, lemon trousers and sockless white loafers, captioned "High fashion and quintessential style were always my watchwords." Perhaps he does have a sense of humour after all.
How many movies must you see before dying? Roughly 100 per genre, according to Steven Jay Schneider, whose 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Cassell, £20) isn't a book to give to an elderly relative. It's an erudite, wide-ranging set for movie buffs, but for those completists aspiring to watch the lot, good luck with tracking down The House is Black, a 1963 black-and-white documentary about an Iranian leper colony.
You look at the cover and hear the laugh; Sid James: Cockney Rebel by Robert Ross (JR Books, £16.99) anatomises that most ubiquitous of post-war character actors, a Jewish South African former circus clown who reinvented himself as a cockney chancer. Suspicions are aroused by rather too many young ladies professing that Sid was the perfect gentleman, but it's a loving tribute, and a reminder that Carry on... kept Pinewood alive when the industry was in the doldrums.
On the subject of national treasures, June Whitfield shows how to make biographies fun again in June Whitfield: At a Glance (Orion, £20) by providing us with an annotated scrapbook of her career. The key word here is "trooper" as June, once described as the English Lucille Ball, tackles everything from South Pacific to adverts for frozen peas with patience, talent and endless good nature. It's a charmingly unpretentious approach that other stars would do well to imitate.
Story of the Scene: The Inside Scoop on Famous Moments in Film by Roger Clarke (Methuen, £14.99), a collection of his columns in The Independent, suffers from the promise in its subtitle. As a book of production tidbits, some fresh, some familiar, it offers passing glances at individual scenes and is excellent on small reveals, such as Sidney Poitier's unscripted slapping of his racially prejudiced suspect in In the Heat of the Night, but the pieces really needed expansion to show how these iconic film moments were constructed.
It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millennium by Axelle Carolyn (Telos, £16.99) is a comprehensive breakdown of post- millennial film fears, showing that while Hollywood lost its way in self-referential remakes, Europe has started producing shockers that successfully tap into modern anxieties. Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn (Titan Books, £24.99) opens the Hammer studio's femme fatale archives, and the interviews are as revealing as the photography. Hammer clearly recognised the importance of its distaff stars and treated them with respect. Melancholy refrains emerge from the collected voices: few appreciated that Hammer was capturing the golden moments of their youth; work was hard to come by afterwards; film-making was finally less important than family. It seems entirely appropriate that Marla Landi, the star of The Hound of the Baskervilles, married Sir Francis Dashwood, and it's good to know that Susan Denberg didn't commit suicide after all, but is alive and well in Austria. The best photograph shows an elderly wardrobe mistress vainly attempting to lace Stephanie Beacham into a pneumatically engineered corset. And Hammer Films: A Life in Pictures by Wayne Kesey (Tomahawk Press, £34.99) is a definitive photographic record of the studio's output, including their war movies, social-issue dramas and comedies. The rare stills reveal that, beyond Pinewood, the British film industry was always a cottage industry compared with Hollywood, here summed up by the fact that Bette Davis is sharing a page with Frankie Howerd.
This Christmas, Disney has claimed ownership of A Christmas Carol, and now it receives a further kick in the teeth from Martin Howard, whose unauthorised film tie-in (Carlton £14.99) promises "magical surprises" consisting of one pop-up picture and a few flaps; a dismal disgrace. Far better are The Case Notes of Sherlock Holmes by Guy Adams (Andre Deutsch, £19.99), appearing in time for the new movie version. Here, Adams includes envelopes of evidence that give children a chance to turn detective in a genuinely enjoyable interactive experience. As cinema reinvents, so do its books. Christopher Fowler
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