Best film & theatre books for Christmas

Arifa Akbar
Friday 11 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Kevin MacDonald recounts a transforming moment when, as a student at Oxford, he found himself sitting in front of a film made by his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The elderly Pressburger had just been admitted to an old people's home and although MacDonald shared a strong emotional bond with him, he had never much bothered with his films. Now he saw reflected for the first time the talents of an "extraordinary man" facing his last years alone.

Geoffrey Macnab's Screen Epiphanies (Palgrave MacMillan, £20) - composed of over 30 first-person accounts by Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach, Anthony Minghella, Stephen Frears, Abbas Kiarostami, Lars Von Trier and Mira Nair, among others - is full of such moving narratives. Collaboratively, they create a charming, jigsawed film history.

Richard Eyre's Talking Theatre (Nick Hern Books, £20) similarly addresses the traditions of the stage through a series of intimate interviews with actors and playwrights. Memories include watershed moments mixed with anecdotal flotsam and jetsam: a genial John Gielgud tells of his awe at watching (Eleonora) Duse and Sarah Bernhardt perform; an 83-year-old Arthur Miller speaks of the electrifying first-night performance of Death of a Salesman: "The play ended, and there was a dead silence. The people didn't get up either. I thought we were sunk. Excepting, I'd heard sobbing in the audience, from men". Ian McKellen talks about the liberation theatre offered gay men of his generation. Peter Hall, who staged Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1955, relates the audience's bemused reaction: "They were absolutely baffled."

In her autobiography Thank Heavens, (JR Books, £18.99) Leslie Caron - the French dancer, actress and one-time wife of Hall - further adds flesh to these bones in the context of her own life. She writes proudly about Hall as the "new boy wonder" and the public which he left "scandalised" with Beckett's play. Caron is candid in her dissection of her marriage, both of its ardour and later estrangement, but does not dwell too long on her love affairs (a doomed first date with Andre Previn; a two-year relationship with Warren Beatty). She begins with her distant mother, the brutalising poverty of the Second World War and her "discovery" by Gene Kelly, as a 17-year-old on the streets of Paris, and captures well the excesses and absurdities of Hollywood. In a year when the bloated genre of the celebrity memoir has taken a downward turn, this life-story, penned by Caron herself, makes a special mark.

So, too, does Michael Palin's Halfway to Hollywood (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), the second installment of his diaries, this time from 1980 to 1988. They chronicle the loosening of ties with Monty Python and his Hollywood breakthrough with A Fish Called Wanda. Entries range from descriptions of the "jacuzzi" lifestyle in LA to the minutiae of North London life, from having his corns removed to attending parents' evenings at his children's comprehsive schools.

The contrast appears deliberate and skillfully reminds the reader of Palin's various sides - the starry actor, the devoted family man and the monastic writer. To add to their charm, the diaries are delightful "English" in their details, from daily dispatches on the weather to what was consumed at breakfast, ending just before he begins the first of seven televised travel journeys for the BBC.

Stephen Weissman's Chaplin: A Life (JR Books, £20) distinguishes itself with a penetrating "psychoanalytic" portrait of the Cockney comedian who conquered early Hollywood. It receives praise from Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine, in the preface. Weissman, who works at the Washington School of Psychiatry, interprets Chaplin as a man who re-wrote his life in two autobiographies to edit out the bitterness of an early plunge into poverty, precipitated by his father's alcoholism (and death) and the descent of his mother, a once enchanting vaudevillian, into madness.

Jann Parry's weighty Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan (Faber & Faber, £30) begins as dramatically, with the former Royal Ballet director's death backstage as Mayerling is performed at Covent Garden in 1992. Parry works backwards, meticulously concentrating on the personal dramas (alcoholic depression, barbituate addiction, fear of flying, nervous anxiety) of the man whose choreography dramatised the dark side of the psyche.

With a wealth of source material from MacMillan's wife, Deborah, she connects his ballets – whose protagonists were so often outcasts and underdogs – to his own tortured Scottish upbringing, hinting at possible family abuse but infusing the life-story with the lovability of this curiously lonely family man.

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