21 January, 2006

Why Mrs Kelly, you're wonderful

The third book I read over the last weekend was Betsy Blair's autobiography, The memory of all that. Betsy Blair was an actress and Gene Kelly's first wife - she met him when she was seventeen and he was twenty-eight, and stayed with him for eighteen years. She was also very left wing and blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy period. This was a lovely, wise, forgiving biography; she writes about Gene with great affection, but also great honesty, and she's also honest about herself and her behaviour during those years. After she divorced Gene she moved to Europe where she still lives, and she continued acting in European films until she met her second husband, the director Karel Reisz. She's an enormously interesting and appealing woman, and I'd love to see some of her films. Marty is the only Hollywood movie she made before being blacklisted, and then a few European ones. [3]

This inspired me to borrow a biography of Gene Kelly from the library: Gene Kelly: a life of dance and dreams by Alvin Yudhof. Unfortunately, Mr Yudhof has adopted an extraordinarily irritating conceit of cutting between decent enough standard biography, although in a pretty apalling prose, and (in italic print) the imagined thoughts of the elderly Gene Kelly as he attends a Hollywood celebration of his life and work in the 1990s. To be frank I could not carry on reading if I didn't skip these bits. But worse is to come. Flipping through, I've realised that the story essentially ends with Singin' in the rain in 1952, despite the fact that that film (marvellous though it is) is only about the half-way point on Gene's career. Birth to SITR spans pages 1 to 219.The next section is titled 'Fast forward: 1951-1996' and begins 'Over the next forty-five years of Gene Kelly's life, he received many honors.' Then it cuts to the very end of his life and his apparently unhappy third marriage (the divorce from Betsy and his second wife are pretty much skimmed over), and then he dies on page 255. Pretty cheap way to write a biography, especially as it seems to me that some of the most interesting bits of people's lives are what they do when they stop doing the things everyone knows them for.

Still I'll probably read it, unless I turn to my other library books: a short study of SITR by Peter Wollen (so that I can pontificate knowledgeably about the messages it contains about sex and identity), a book called The American film musical by Rick Altman which looks like a vast compendium, everything from the first sound films to Annie in 1982. Hooray! Also on the Hollywood theme (Senate House has an enormous American Studies section hence loads of Hollywood books) an excellent collection of interviews with victims of the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period by Patrick McGilligan, called Tender Comrades, and in a more serious vein Tolstoy's Kreutzer sonata, inspired by reading Doris Lessing's article on Tolstoy and sex, (and also because Grossman's Life and fate was on loan).

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