Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman****

HankandJimFans of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart will want to read this biography, written by the author that recently wrote a biography of John Wayne. I was invited to read and review by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and so I read it free in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale now.

The book is well crafted, and multiple aspects contribute to its success. The first is the unglamorous but essential research. Eyman used extensive interviews with both actors’ families as well as directors and other actors that had worked with them. The second is the thoughtful analysis. Eyman’s insights are intelligent and fairly measured, never becoming prurient, gossipy, or mawkish. The third is his friendly, congenial narrative, peppered with telling anecdotes that keep the pages turning.  It’s well organized and doesn’t rely on photographs to tell the story.

These actors belonged to my parents’ generation, and so for a long time I was not much interested in them. More recently, though, I’ve found it’s interesting to see their craft, their lives, and their work  as creatures of the time in which their careers blossomed, and as part of American entertainment history.

The truth is that I never cared much for Henry Fonda. The only one of his movies I saw in the theater was On Golden Pond, and the harsh way he spoke to his daughter on the screen—who was also his daughter in real life, Jane—was so brutal that I never wanted to see anything more that he’d done, apart from the occasional old movie I ran across on television.  Learning later that he was more or less the same father to her in real life didn’t help much. Eyman is unsparing as he describes this aspect of the Fonda family, but he also points to the mellower man he became later in life, and to the tremendous loyalty he showed his friends, Stewart foremost among them.

I was more interested in Jimmy Stewart, who left a more timeless body of work. Harvey is a film I loved enough to search out and watch in turn with each of my children.  Of course, at Christmas time I am inclined to pull out It’s a Wonderful Life, although none of my kids would watch it with me more than once. There was such heart in his roles.

Because I like Stewart’s work, I had already read one biography fairly recently. Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe dealt well with his war years as well as the early years of his life, and so I didn’t enjoy the first half of Eyman’s book—which covered the same ground again—as I did the second half, which I found both comforting in places as well as mesmerizing.  The second part also has more quotes by his children, who weren’t around for much of the stars’ earlier lives. And I came away with renewed respect for Jane Fonda, who had a harder road than I had previously understood.

Now I have half a dozen movie titles I want to watch, or watch again; that’s a sure sign of a strong biography. And it makes me think warmly of my own longstanding friends, some of whom I’ve known and loved almost as long as the 50 years that Hank and Jim were friends.

Recommended to fans of Fonda and Stewart, and to those that love good biographies; this would also make a nice Christmas gift for older relatives.

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini and Rebecca Paley****

TroublemakerActor Leah Remini was a child when her mother discovered Scientology; the church was in many ways her parent. When she rebelled against it, she was smart and very public, and she spells the entire thing out for us right here.

Scientology is a cult that relies heavily, as cults do, on secrecy and peer pressure. Children are seen as adults in children’s bodies; they have more agency than kids in normal families do, but they also have absolutely no support system. This is a thing that the states should have been all over a long time ago, but money talks, and the church cultivates relationships with people in key places. No wonder they didn’t want Remini—or anybody else—to talk about it. In turns her memoir is incisive, shocking, and sometimes very funny. Remini discovered that the emperor isn’t wearing a stitch when she challenged the double standard the church uses with regard to big names, in particular Tom Cruise. Her candor and wit make the story shine.

Should you buy this book? I did, thanks to a gift certificate from Powell’s City of Books. Had I known that there was an entire television series, in documentary format, I might have decided to buy something else, but it’s a well-written memoir, albeit with the assistance of someone else.  It flows well with never a slow point, and there are a lot of interesting pictures.

An interesting memoir, and a fast read.