Christmas Special: Film books reviewed

They don't make 'em like blanched weasels any more
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Pity the poor film director. Not only does he have to fight the studio for the right to realise his artistic vision; he has a journalist limpet-locked to him throughout the process, cataloguing every mistake he makes for another gloating volume of failure-porn. This strand of schadenfreude film books has expanded along with movie budgets, because in Hollywood it's not enough to be successful - your best friend must also fail. So we have Dreams & Nightmares by Bob McCabe (Harper Collins £17.99), the crash-and-burn story of the near-unemployable Terry Gilliam making The Brothers Grimm for Miramax. There are no points for guessing that the Weinsteins come out as the ugly sisters in this fairytale. "You think Matt or Heath want to fuck that?" is Harvey Weinstein's charming reply to the question of casting Samantha Morton as the heroine. To be fair, McCabe has written about Gilliam extensively in the past, and is well-suited to such a guilty pleasure. The book is enticingly designed as a companion-piece to the film, which is far from being a failure, despite the inevitable accounts of crew unrest and endless reshoots.

Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser by John Hamilton (FAB Press £16.99) will come as a shock to anyone under 25 who didn't realise Britain once made exploiters, and damned good ones at that. Tenser was the driving force behind a raft of memorable low-budget, high-class films that included the astonishing Witchfinder General. His production company Tigon Films is fondly remembered here as Hammer's only real rival. Tenser also helped to kill Norman Wisdom's career, something for which many will be profoundly grateful.

The literature of the cinema is roughly divided into three groups; academic volumes, fan biographies and vacuous gift collectables. This Christmas brings prime examples of each, the plum being the biography of Warren Beatty: A Private Man by Suzanne Finstad, Aurum £20). While not officially sanctioned, it does contain interviews from several major players in his career. The book's hook is how a very private, conservative Virginian from Southern Baptist stock reinvented himself as a lothario, leading man, writer, director and Hollywood liberal. Beatty's physical beauty still comes as a jolt, but he gets a rough ride in places, particularly on his lack of screen craft and his extreme vanity - he was spotted on the set of The Parallax View relaxing with cucumbers on his eyes long before male grooming became de rigueur - but his political development as a film-maker is carefully calibrated. Even though Reds and Bulworth were misfires, Beatty can be counted as one of the few Democrat contributors willing to place his own politics at the centre of his films. As for his sexual shenanigans, there's no surprise in the revelation that he was unable to remain faithful (although philandering to the point where Julie Christie dumped him defeats comprehension). Considering his subject's comparatively brief film CV, Finstad has chosen to research his ancestry rather than his film choices. Perhaps the problem is not so much that Beatty remains an enigma, as that there may not be that much more of him to understand.

Few modern cinemagoers will have seen Warren Beatty on the big screen, which means The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen Youngkin (Kentucky £24.95) will probably be of interest only to older fans. A pity, as this biography of the Hungarian-born actor is a knockout, charting his arrival in America, his typecasting as a sinister outsider and his "greylisting" by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, before heading to Germany to direct the audience-alienating film of the title. Lorre, whose gargoyle features masked a charming, effete nature, and whose drug use extended from a poor self-image, is memorably described here as "a blanched weasel" who could turn even the simple act of smoking into a menacing art. Lorre's acting subtleties were eventually lost in pantomimic roles, but the fact that he became a Hollywood legend says much about the vivacity of his performances, long after the films themselves were forgotten.

Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema by Andrew Robinson (IB Tauris £45) is an elegant photo-biography of this immensely powerful director, and is packed with drawings and stills from his 30-plus films. Glancing through it makes one wonder whether it would matter if Hollywood ceased to exist. The problem with Ray is that no single frame can capture the haunting heart of his cinema, but this volume is the closest we may get.

The always dependable Christopher Frayling delivers Sergio Leone: Once Upon A Time In Italy (Thames & Hudson £19.95), a gift book with real substance that devotes itself to Leone's six key westerns, providing solid interviews with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Ennio Morricone, among others. Typical of Frayling's long-term enthusiasm for his subject is a catalogue of movie moments explicitly referenced in Leone's films. "I'm not sure I understand what he meant," says actor Michael Madsen, " but something tells me he was right," and it's hard to disagree. No wonder Bertolucci and Argento were both drawn into collaboration with him.

Christopher Bray's Michael Caine: A Class Act (Faber £20) is thorough and entirely dependent on your reverence of an actor I've always found extremely limited. Was Caine determined to stay true to his working-class roots, or does he just have trouble playing posh? At least he can be woodenly memorable, and these days is rather touching; whereas I had to be reminded who Stewart Granger was by Don Shiach's Stewart Granger: The Last of The Swashbucklers (Aurum £18.99). So absorbed into the machinery of Hollywood did he become that it's a surprise to discover the belligerent Mr Jean Simmons was an Englishman abroad. Up Close and Personal (Orion £16.99) is actually neither, being a collection of vague, generic diary entries from Catherine Deneuve that tell us absolutely nothing about the stunning French actress, beyond the fact that she likes big hats and is worried that Gerard Depardieu might explode. Foxy photo of her in Hastings, though.

The Cinema of George Lucas by Marcus Hearn (Abrams £29.95) is a spectacularly designed, interminably turgid coffee-table love letter to the Star Wars schlockmeister, which has the audacity to imagine that his entire Academy Award speech is worth reprinting. And why would Star Wars fans be interested in the first draft of Radioland Murders? Such books are surely the reason why DVD extras were invented.

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B Mayer by Scott Eyman (Robson £20) is the real deal, a stops-out five-star biography of MGM's head honcho at the time when it was Hollywood's greatest studio. His journey, from tsarist Russia to Beverly Hills, from immigrant innocence to reactionary isolation, provides a cornerstone for the history of Western cinema, and has walk-ons by everyone from Garbo to Garland. Judy drank and her hair fell out, but Mayer remained avuncular and devoted in a way no Hollywood head would ever be today.

The nadir of this round-up is Movies in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones (Gollancz £8.99), containing 10 potted film scripts parodying such daring targets as Titanic and Spider-Man. Of note only because it is excruciatingly unfunny, it is subtitled "Hollywood blockbusters for people who can't be bothered" when it should perhaps have been aimed at people who can't be bothered to read.

Finally, two nice surprises; The Red and The Blacklist by screenwriter Norma Barzmann (Friction £14.99) is a raucous memoir of the Hollywood witch-hunts and a racy delight, capturing the sights, sounds and snappy dialogue of a stifling period in American film. She drinks, she passes out on the lawn, she's black-listed and exiled, she chucks things at her fiancé - and her enthusiasm is a lesson in hardnosed survival for any Hollywood hopeful.

Finally, Alan Parker's Will Write And Direct For Food (Southbank £14.99) rang alarm bells from my recollection of his spindly cartoons in Screen International, but the nicely spiteful drawings are peppered with sharp asides. He described Merchant Ivory productions as "the Laura Ashley school of film-making" in one of his cartoons, but the best joke is that he'll never manage to make a film as perfect as Howards End.

To buy any of the books featured with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 and quote IBD12/05. 10% discount on all orders over £20