BOOK REVIEW / Cliffier than thou: 'Showman: The Life of David O Selznick' - David Thomson: Andre Deutsch, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
GONE with the Wind, the novel by Margaret Mitchell, was originally published at 1,037 pages. Gone with the Wind, the film that David O Selznick, the producer, always knew would be his epitaph, ran to 220 minutes. One can't complain, then, that David O Selznick, the biography, is an epic, weighing in at 792 pages.

David Thomson needs every page: Selznick's life, like his best films, was scaled up a notch. He smoked four or five packs of cigarettes a day. He slept about three hours a night, chewing Benzedrine tablets to keep going. He started writing memos at 14, and never stopped - 'sometimes he'd take a secretary into the bathroom and keep dictating while he sat on the john'. He was a compulsive gambler (in 1946 he lost dollars 581,622); and a compulsive, pointless traveller who clocked nearly 50,000 miles in 1961. The business and personal papers he left amounted to three million items.

From this vast archive, David Thomson has written a remarkable showbiz biography - scholarly, dramatic and droll. Naturally, there are divorces, suicides, mistreated children, madness in the family - still, Hollywood melodramatics are not the point but the texture, the background to the life. Selznick's gambling, for example, was inseparable from his unusually split personality: producer as bullying tyrant (Montgomery Clift called him 'an interfering fuckface') and producer as poet, for whom films were 'beautiful dancing ghosts'. 'So many people in pictures sold their souls and disgraced the business for money,' writes Thomson. 'David had to believe of himself that he was not doing it for money, so he ignored the figures and gambled his cash away.'

It is also a wonderful book about Hollywood - which hasn't changed nearly as much as Golden Age depressives like to believe. MGM, says Thomson, was interested in 'spectacle, stars, romance, sentimental ideas, and a vague but strident air of seriousness'. Top Gun, anybody? Everybody acted as if life was a movie: 'I've had the best years of my life,' Selznick said to his wife, Irene, as he left her. And Hollywood was more real than anything else. George Cukor, who directed David Copperfield, noted: 'We shot the Dover scenes in California, and I have to say our cliffs were better - whiter and cliffier.'

As a stylist, Thomson is superb. He dashes off thumbnail sketches of background figures such as Selznick's niece, Joan: 'She was 18, in search of the best plastic surgery, smoking 'like a stove' and hitting the martinis.' Jennifer Jones (Selznick's second wife) is 'beautiful, hot, voluptuous . . . a Rodeo Drive Gaugin'. He throws in bits of film criticism: Duel in the Sun is 'melodrama, cooked in the sun of Arizona and the vivid chemicals of Technicolor'. Like Selznick, he is often funny: 'It was a scene from Shakespeare, Verdi - or a Joan Crawford movie.'

Hence, Thomson's occasional lapses - into clumsiness, overwriting, gnomism - stand out. The most irritating is portentousness: 'An audience is made of strangers. Talk to them, and you are talking to yourself.' The most catching is excessive detail. For the second edition, please: how many thousands of miles of cables did Selznick send? How many hundreds (thousands?) of women did he sleep with?

The only fault I can't forgive is Thomson's creeping sexism. 'David Selznick,' he proclaims, 'was male enough that his libido controlled much of his life.' Vivien Leigh, on the other hand, has an 'unusual sexual need' because she takes a weekend off during the filming of Gone with the Wind to see her lover, Laurence Olivier. Myron, Selznick's brother, is a good businessman, but 'Irene could have run the Internal Revenue Service for King Midas'.

All this leads Thomson to an absurd conclusion, on page 700: 'The marionette was gone, but the women who had worked the strings for so long - the manipulators? - were left, and every one of them felt cut adrift.' Such slips blot what is otherwise a brilliant portrait of a man who was wonderfully incapable of being influenced by anyone else.