I’m not a fan of “woe is me” show-biz bios. I prefer to read about actors and actresses who have what my grandma called “gumption,” those who get back up each time they’re knocked down.
These books have provided inspiration throughout my acting career and inspired me again as I wrote my own show-biz memoir, SUB-LEBRITY* The Queer Life of a Show-Biz Footnote.
By Myself, Lauren Bacall.
The gold-standard of show-biz biographies – perhaps the only one to win a National Book Award. You’ve heard many of her stories before, I’m sure – how quivering nerves lead her to create “The Look,” her passionate love affair and marriage to Humphrey Bogart, her rocky relationship with Sinatra. But if you’re like me, you’ll most enjoy the last third of the book, where she discusses her New York theatre career and her triumph on Broadway in Applause. Think actors have an easy job? She will correct you of that notion, with details on how hard she worked to headline that musical. (Her routine would’ve killed an NFL linebacker, but it won her a Tony!) She writes just like she talked – direct, no bullshit – which is what makes her book so much fun. You totally hear her voice, 100%, as you read. No ghost writers for Betty Bacall of Brooklyn, New York, thank you very much!
Shock Value – A Tasteful Book About Bod Taste, John Waters
Crackpot – The Obsessions of John Waters
I love pretty much anything he writes, but these collections of biographical essays are my favorite. These first two collections, when he was still a relatively underground cult figure, are the best, in my humble opinion. First, in Shock Value, he writes about making of Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living, his early collaborations with drag icon Divine, his loving relationship with his parents, “Why I Love Violence,” “Baltimore, Hairdo Capital of the World” and more. I thought it couldn’t any campier, any zanier, any better. But then it does, in his follow-up Crackpot. Now the fun really begins, with “John Waters’ Tour of L.A.,” his jaw-dropping interview with Pia Zadora, why he loves Christmas, and “How to Become Famous.” But the two best essays in this second collection would be a challenging writing exercise for any writer. In “Hatchet Piece” he manages to incorporate 101 things he hates into a single narrative piece. Then does the same with 101 things he loves in “Puff Piece.” (I tried to do it. It’s not easy!)
Born With Teeth, Kate Mulgrew
The newest edition to my shelf of all-time favorite celebrity memoirs. I know most people read it for all the dirt on Star Trek: Voyager, but I was a fan of Ms. Mulgrew way back in the late 1970s when she briefly played Columbo’s wife in a not-very-well-thought-out spinoff called Mrs. Columbo (which then became Kate Columbo, then Kate the Detective, then Kate Loves a Mystery, all within one season, before disappearing forever). I feared she’d either give this minor credit on her resume short shrift, or ignore it completely, but no, she goes there! My favorite part? When young Kate Mulgrew tells then all-powerful NBC programming chief Fred Silverman “No, thank you, I’ll pass” over lunch in his boardroom. Can you imagine the chutzpah?
If Chins Could Kill – Confessions of a B Movie Actor, Bruce Campbell
A very funny, working class, zero-bullshit look at indie filmmaking, the perils of series TV, and the challenges of earning a living in this crazy business we call show. Even if you’re not a fan of the Evil Dead film series (frankly, it’s one of the few horror films I do not enjoy), you will love this memoir. Mr. Campbell has no pretentions, and he calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. Even if it wasn’t one hell of a fun read – and it is – you gotta love anyone who bashes stuffed-shirt Charlton Heston in print. All the books on this list influenced me while writing SUB-LEBRITY – but none more than this one!
Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister, Evelyn Keyes
Racy, juicy, and a who’s who of classic Hollywood. Keyes worked in Hollywood from the late 1930s to the 1970s. She knew everybody. And she slept with most of them. I first read this in junior high back in Indiana, before I even knew who most of the “names” were, and when I was too young to understand most of her erotic references. But I was intrigued by the tag line “She was never famous! Find out why!” (Kinda like my book!) What an education she provided! My favorite story (and she has many) is when she crashes her car on a rainy Christmas Eve in Hollywood. She knocks on the door of the nearest house, and who should answer but Katherine Hepburn, with tea and sympathy and warm towels! No, Ms. Keyes did not have sex with Ms. Hepburn. But I’m sure if she had, she’d written about that one, too!
I highly recommend them all. Check them out – but only after you’ve read SUB-LEBRITY*, of course!