The classic Hollywood directors rarely started as geeks modelling goblins in their bedrooms, but the advent of computer graphics has changed the rules. The gap between traditional and new-generation film biographies is pointed up in Peter Jackson: A Film-maker's Journey, by Brian Sibley (HarperCollins £20). Following in the footsteps of animators Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, Jackson began by filming stop-motion monsters. His nascent talent must have been as obvious as his interest in the fantastic, for it was recognised by the open-minded New Zealand Film Commission. Jackson's only stumble came with the film he directed within the Hollywood system, The Frighteners. Thankfully, he returned to his native land for The Lord of the Rings. This volume is largely concerned with the roots of Jackson's creativity, as his subsequent career has been covered on supplement DVDs. It's interesting to note that Vin Diesel and Brad Pitt might have ended up in the film version of Tolkein's classic, though.
Accidental Genius by Marshall Fine (Hyperion £16.99) is the best book we shall get on John Cassavetes, and places him at the centre of the creation of American independent films. This handsome, saturnine actor, energised with experimental ideas, was the unintended catalyst for a new movement that has only become properly appreciated since his death. "I'm a great believer in spontaneity," he said, "because I think planning is the most destructive thing in the world." As an actor, he wanted to direct, and his headstrong opinions created friction on sets, but as a director he wanted to take over the actors. The solution was to control both ends of the process, which meant writing, producing and self-distributing films that eschewed Hollywood plots for low-key character studies filled with painful truths. His work was also a series of love letters to Gena Rowlands, whose thoughtful reticence counterbalanced his own dark, passionate nature.
Top of the class in this year's old-school biographies is Kate: The Woman Who Was Katherine Hepburn by William J Mann (Faber £18.99). This is the first biography of Hepburn that's free of her control, and investigates her private side in great detail, especially the much-discussed subject of her longtime romance with Laura Harding. "If Kate had a great love other than herself," says a friend, "it was Laura." The revelations avoid prurience, though, as Mann's study encompasses every aspect of Hepburn's life. The section on her intense, loving relationship with the tortured, hustler-hiring Spencer Tracy sheds light not just on actors but on all careerists who must balance their principles with their ambitions. Stars were either micro-managed by powerful studios, or dared to invent themselves, and Hepburn so perfected her own image that she called her public self "The Creature". Mann's tale is told with invigorating freshness, pace and an eye for authentic detail.
Mae West - It Ain't No Sin by Simon Louvish (Faber £9.99) makes wonderful use of West's unpublished personal papers to reveal the truth about this innovative, independent singer-comedienne. Like Hepburn, West created a brand for herself, but her sexy persona was such an affront to public decency that many, including William Randolph Hearst, regarded her as a national threat. "Don't believe," she said, "that in my search for realism, I invite police interference. It costs me a small fortune in litigation and a lot of headaches." But by the time she made Sextette at the age of 83, she had become a parody of herself, looking, said one critic, "like something found in the basement of a pyramid".
James Stewart - A Biography by Marc Eliot (Aurum £20) would be a rich read if its subject was half as fascinating as West or Hepburn. I wonder how relevant his genial, self-effacing persona is to today's British cinemagoers. Most would surely find critical comparison to Laurence Olivier (for Stewart's role in Harvey) a bit of a stretch, and his lack of sexual presence diminished him. The most revealing material here concerns the way in which Stewart's real-life heroism as a wartime pilot informed his later choice of film roles. Unlike John Wayne, he refused to appear in movies that glorified combat. As a biography for fans of classic cinema, this is like Stewart himself: solid, familiar and faintly dull.
If you thought Jerry Lewis was annoying on film, you might wish to avoid him in print. Dean & Me, by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan (Macmillan £17.99), chronicles the decade-long comedy partnership of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Unfortunately, it's schmaltzy and bathetic, largely because of the histrionic way in which Lewis professes love for his partner while endlessly pointing out his faults. Read with a martini and a cigarette in hand.
This is the era of celebrity confession, when you're as likely to find a star describing her yeast infection as discussing her performance motivation, so unauthorised biographies need to bring something pretty special to the table. "When it comes to getting close to the rich and famous," says the cover quote, "Laura Jackson is second to none", which is worrying as Jackson has got nowhere near her subject in Kiefer Sutherland: The Biography (Portrait £16.99), a clip-and-paste job arriving from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious laden with such insights as Sutherland realising he's his father's son, knowing he can be self-destructive, and being grateful for 24. Fans of that show might want to skip the heavy stuff about Sutherland appearing in The Glass Menagerie (described as "a steep learning curve").
In a higher category altogether is Nicole Kidman by David Thomson (Bloomsbury £18.99). Here, being at one remove from its subject works in the book's favour. Thomson the cinéaste, critic and fan has a nice line in nice lines, describing the screen as both barrier and access to a stardom that permits intimate witness while becoming the outline of an actor's prison. Kidman's glacial gravity, distance and intelligence in performance are what make her a star, so Thomson concentrates on her films, and through them yields insights. He tellingly points out that her Oscar win for The Hours clearly came as a surprise, but that "she was not quite enough of an actress to make the surprise feel natural". Fine, insightful stuff that is, of necessity, a work in progress, although I still love Paul Rudnick's remark that Kidman makes you suspect she might knock on the door of every house in America to make sure people see her films.
...What I Really Want To Do Is Produce, by Helen De Winter (Faber £17.99), is a collection of interviews with producers in a format similar to Tim Adler's The Producers a couple of years back, but De Winter has gained access to a different set of industry figures and her questions provoke plenty of revealing answers. It's nice to hear what Barbara Broccoli has to say about Bond budgeting. A writer will put "BIG FISH" in the script, and one day you walk into the art department to find drawings marked "BIG MECHANICAL FISH" because fish can't act, so now there's the expense of constructing one for a scene that will doubtless be cut. The Bond team isn't keen on the construction of corridors much, either, as writers have a tendency to use them as links, forgetting they need to be built. Simon Channing-Williams is disarmingly honest on the "horrendous nightmare" of producing the horrible Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, which inherited a million-dollar budget increase through the hiring of Ashley Judd, plus "dogs, diet, yoga" approved by pandering, sycophantic execs. Eric Fellner is evasive about not using Hugh Grant owing to his "very, very high quality control of every project". JoAnne Sellar reveals the painful side of the job talking about Dark Blood, a film that had to be closed down in mid-production owing to the death of its star, River Phoenix. And through it all, as James Schamus points out, "In Hollywood, you're only as good as your last failure".
If you thought Mexican cinema was just about masked wrestlers and Gael Garcia Bernal, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema by Jason Wood (Faber £15.99) will come as a pleasant surprise. Here are interviews with Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Carrera and many others about national identity, censorship, government interference and how the national "New Wave" grew from an older, more conservative film industry. When Y Tu Mama Tambien was first screened in Venice, one critic complained that it was wrong to produce a film about two guys getting laid when Mexico's economic and social problems needed to be tackled on film. Curon, the director, answered by charging the critic with racism. By creating screen stories based on universal themes, Mexico has reinvigorated its cinema and placed itself back on the world stage.
Taschen's era-defining series on cinema, edited by Jurgen Muller, has now reached the 1930s with Movies of the 30s (£19.99). Muller includes key European offerings from directors like Ozu and Vigo as well as the Hollywood hits, and the photography comes as a revelation, because so much of it feels previously unseen. These earlier volumes work especially well because most of their films were monochrome, and the stills are luminously intense. To see Garbo and Dietrich here is to understand what made them legends, and it's intriguing to see a photo spread for H G Wells' Things to Come laid next to Leni Riefenstahl's Nietzschean shots from Olympia.
Another Taschen volume, this time on Michael Mann, by F X Feeney (£14.99), attempts to pull off the same trick of showing you a subject through fresh eyes, but the results are less surprising. As Mann's characters are little more than ciphers that give scale to melancholy landscapes, a book where prose is subjugated to the visuals is appropriate. The director's career to date is bookended by two abysmal films, the bombastic The Keep and product-filled Miami Vice, so the stills are wisely focused on the films in between. Here, frozen moments from Heat and The Insider are awash with fierce tinted hues that reduce actors to props on pages torn from aspirational style magazines, like updated Hopper prints.
The slightly sinister title 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, edited by Steven Schneider (Cassell £20), covers uncontroversial film choices, with nicely chosen stills including the now obligatory colour shot from the set of Some Like It Hot. There's a fair balance between Hollywood and the world, the past and the present, though animation is badly under-represented, with just one CGI film and one Anime making the list. The space limit for each film means that Pretty Woman, say, gets as much text as Star Wars. Still, few books can zip from The Birth of a Nation to Brokeback Mountain, and the range of contributors means that the synopses often introduce fascinating ideas.
The latest volume of Projections (Faber £9.99), a collection of interviews by film-makers on film-making, gathers together the best of the past 14 years, and there's not a dud in sight. We have Scorsese on De Niro, Boorman on Lee Marvin, Mike Figgis in conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Towne on Chinatown, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh talking to Jamie Lee Curtis, Walter Murch on sound design, Frances McDormand with Willem Dafoe. It's a fascinating series of American masterclasses.
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