This book hit hard, it was a book that makes a person think
twice and it was so well-written and fact-checked by Sam Wasson… It’s worth
remembering on showbiss.net. Here’s my review.
An actor, a director, a producer and screenwriter meet up in
a restaurant. The waiter says, “What would you like to order?” Well, the actor
says, “We’ll all have the Chinatown special.” The reality of the scenario in
this case: the actor is Jack Nicholson, the director is Roman Polanski, the
screenwriter is Robert Towne and the producer at Paramount is Robert Evans.
What is cooking is the now classic creation of the 1974 motion picture
In Sam Wasson’s excellent, thorough and telling book, he winds through the hills of Mulholland Drive, weaves through the complicated streets leading to Sunset Blvd. and presents an absorbing character portrait of the men and women involved. He presents an intrinsic and factual story of the transformation of big business in tinsel town and the personal stories of the four key players and their lives. Wasson’s attention to detail and nuance makes The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood a fascinating expose of Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Towne and Robert Evans and everyone on the scene involved in friendships, power struggles, creativity and egos and for some, ultimate tragedy. Yes… Faye Dunaway is also recollected and the cast, creative team and even her friend and co-star Jack Nicholson had given her the nickname “Dread.” What the hell, Sam Wasson took the time to bring the facts and the history into the making of Chinatown and the corresponding years before and after the film was released into a stunning bird’s eye view presenting a behind-the-scenes look at all the windy roads into making this film and how the movie industry changed during and after this time.
As of now; only former Head of Production at Paramount Studios, Robert Evans has passed away but the memories and accomplishments of all of these men in both filmmaking, writing, acting and knowing how to create a lasting legacy are remarkable. The book is a fitting testament to the people, the industry and as a worthwhile read for those who want to discover more about the elusive reality of the creation of the film Chinatown and the Hollywood story that is told by Sam Wasson. It was a time of turmoil and joy that in its heart, details the scene of deals, personalities, talent and discovery in Los Angeles. For those who want to know more about what some consider one of the greatest crime films of intrigue and a classic presentation of film noir… look no further than The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.
Gary Vitacco-Robles released Icon: Volume 2 [1956-1962 & Beyond] of his extensive and astute biography on Marilyn Monroe. Many consider his two volumes on Monroe to be the definitive presentation of her life and career. Robles offers a thoroughly engaging study of the woman behind the persona, while also diligently presenting her as representing Hollywood and life in the 1950s. As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), he offers innovative insight into the emotional and psychological challenges faced by Norma Jeane Baker and her resilience and utter resolve to create an identity known and loved by the world still to this day, Marilyn Monroe.
In this conversation conducted in 2014, Vitacco-Robles offers an inside look of his work, as he describes his passion to present a clear, unbiased and sensitive biography with not a conspiracy theory in sight. For anyone who has ever been enthralled or completely fascinated by this iconic woman of history, his insight and dedication to Marilyn Monroe’s life is much welcomed and deserved of accolades.
Showbiss: How did you deal with writing her whole life story? Even the bibliography for the book is so extensive. When did you first begin putting words to page?
Gary Vitacco-Robles: That’s a great question. Thank you for validating really, what an enormous task this was. I had written the first short book about Marilyn’s six months in her last house Cursum Perficio. I wrote that back in 1999. I got such positive feedback that I needed to write the full-length biography. My readers were saying that if anybody is going to put together a book about Marilyn… it’s got to be you.
It just seemed so daunting. I knew what I would have to tackle to do it correctly. From the time I was researching and I wrote that first book, I started to collect materials and sort them, thinking if I ever tried to climb this mountain someday… these will be the materials that I’ll use. So, I just started from the beginning, to do it right and wrote all the way through to her death and then the next fifty years, how she’s re-interpreted.
I started to really put words down in 2005 and where I started was just the movie, Niagara. I wrote the book not in chronological order, whatsoever. I started with the chapter on Niagara. Then, I think I wrote about Some Like It Hot and then the last year of her life. I started skipping around. Where Vol. 2 begins with The Prince and the Showgirl and the early Miller years, those were some of the first pieces I wrote of the true biography. Interestingly, I ended with the dawn of her career. So, that’s how I did it.
Showbiss: How did you manage your time in doing this… with a full-time job?
GVR: I’m a psychotherapist and I work four (ten and a half hour) days. So, I have Fridays off and weekends off. Fridays, while everyone’s working, is really when I was doing this. It didn’t impede upon my relationship or my family or anything like that. I would just immerse myself in everything about the era and the music that was going on. Sometimes, I would write and play music of the era… just to try and ground me. I had to write to my own mood. It was really a challenge.
Showbiss: Would you find yourself frustrated at times or was it just a case of doing something that you enjoyed doing at your own pace, yet knowing the responsibility of it?
GVR: It did become work. My real desire was to do Marilyn justice. There’s an enormous responsibility in writing about someone’s life ethically in doing the research and selecting sources that seemed truthful. Knowing what to weed out, that I wouldn’t even begin to address. If anything, I would try to dispute it. There’s a bit of protecting her and commenting on the injustices of I think… irresponsible biographers. I was so committed to doing that and that came very naturally.
Showbiss: The over-all impression of your books is extremely level-headed and diligent in that regard.
GVR: I’m very linear and I get caught up in the details. I thought, if I have to summarize or I have to cut, the book is going to be like everyone else’s, it won’t be unique. That’s when I came up with the idea to do it in two volumes… so I can contain everything. It became overwhelming because of its mammoth size.
Showbiss: It’s interesting that the very first chapter you wrote was on her film Niagara. How did you happen to begin there?
GVR: Niagara was a film noir done in color that had a lot of symbolism in it. Also, I thought it was a great depiction of post-war fear of sexuality and about women’s emerging sexuality. There was so much to deal with and that was kind of on the level that I wanted to explore Marilyn’s life. The movie was considered so scandalous at the time. I thought it gave me a lot of dimensions. Her films would be the anchor and I would just thread between the films what was going on in her personal life.
Showbiss: It’s such a comprehensive book in that regard that you do include synopses of all her film work in the back, as well. Yet, the most important aspect is the portrait you create of her as a woman.
GVR: My thesis, really, about Marilyn is she had these goals. She wanted to be loved, she wanted to educate and refine herself. She wanted to be a great actress and she wanted to be a mother. I really wanted to honor her as an actress and I think that is really overlooked in so many of the books with the exception of Carl Rollyson’s and the few books just about Marilyn’s film career. She really had such a splendid film career.
Showbiss: It’s also fascinating how many people Marilyn had as friends and interacted with in her short life.
GVR: Her life touched so many significant people of the 20th century… not just in the film industry. It gave me an opportunity to speak to all of that and on speaking about her a half century after she died. Many of the biographies were written about Marilyn when her contemporaries were still alive and everyone still had a context of her. Now, I’m writing for a generation born well after she died. You can’t just drop the name Frank Sinatra. I have to really explain who he was in history.
Showbiss: That is one of the strong points in itself. You put her within the context of the times and the society in which she lived in.
GVR: Marilyn is almost a dichotomy. We look back at her now and we say, “Oh, she was a feminist and a trailblazer.” In many senses, she definitely was. A woman of her era to break from the studio and form her own corporation… that took a lot of bravery to do. Women were not doing that. But, at the same time, she was still a product of her era and if you interviewed her at the time, she very much wanted to be a wife and a mother. She believed many of the contemporary beliefs about being a woman. When we look retrospectively towards her, we see that she was pushed in other directions. I don’t think she saw herself as a “trailblazer.” She said there were two things in life… love and work.
Showbiss: I do believe you’re the first gay mental health counselor…
GVR: (laughter) Yes.
Showbiss: Who wrote a biographical book on Monroe?
Gary Vitacco-Robles: Yes. I’m really not aware of a mental health professional writing about Marilyn. Her story is just so right for that. There’s these armchair psychologists… mostly men are writing about Marilyn and they are very misogynistic. They will believe any speculation that maybe she was very sexually promiscuous, but then they’ll completely dismiss any information that she was an abuse survivor. That appalled me. You can’t really tell Marilyn’s story without talking about childhood abuse.
Now, we know so much about complex trauma and she was a survivor of complex trauma and that accounts for so much of her life. It just puts everything in place. People want to judge her or they don’t look at her life in the context of that. This is a woman who suffered from a mood disorder, horrible childhood abuse and still was able to make it, become successful and inspire people. The fact that she had a tragic ending does not dismiss the fact that she was incredibly resilient. I really felt like… who’s going to write it? Who’s going to say this? It’ s got to be done by someone who can speak to… in a scholarly way, what her life experience was.
The last decade from 1979 to 1989 of actress Bette Davis’s life was both monumental and monstrous. Monumental in the fact that she continued to work after a brilliant reign in motion pictures that initially began in 1931 with the film Bad Sister. In her career, Davis also won two Academy Awards for her performances in Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938 while garnering another eight nominations for Best Actress from The Academy. In addition to her numerous achievement awards during those ten years, she portrayed a wide array of memorable roles in the span of over 50 years. Now… Why monstrous? Davis in the last ten years of her life not only fought a battle with cancer, she suffered a debilitating stroke while in the hospital battling the disease.
In 1979, Bette Davis was looking for a personal assistant or “Girl Friday” and this is when Kathryn Sermak enters the picture. Remarkably, Sermak had no idea of the magnitude of fame her employer had and had never seen a motion picture of Davis’s before. In Miss D & Me: Life With the Invincible Bette Davis Sermak shares their initial meeting, the strong work ethic of Davis and her Yankee spirit and strength along with the special bond that evolved from just the employer/employee relationship to a friendship of caring, respect and admiration for each other. Other than Ms. Davis’s long-standing circle of friends, it’s safe to say that Kathryn Sermak truly got to know Bette Davis best during these years.
Sermak’s memories of this time period are presented with fondness, realism and a good bit of humor and love. Bette Davis’s personality, strong character and wisdom is brilliantly captured within the pages of Miss D & Me. Whether it’s Kathryn truly being there for Davis during her hospitalization and recovery or Davis and Sermak on a wild road trip in France to Davis teaching Kathryn how to soft boil an egg; there are too many memories that present the ever-growing bond between these two women. Kathryn Sermak presents the real person behind the legendary actress in a glorious, riveting and oh-so-human way. Even if someone didn’t know of Bette Davis as Kathryn Sermak initially didn’t… It’s truly a must-read in all regards because of her perspective on their unique friendship.
In all of the world so far, is Barbra Streisand the greatest star? Pretty darn close; as many of the finest in comparable entertainers have “left the building” of life, so to speak. In Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, from the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Neal Gabler presents a solid yet at times, overtly sweetened look at the transformation of a star and just what Streisand represents in Jewish culture and sociology.
There is no denying Barbra’s remarkable voice. What led the way to success was a determination of epic proportions, as well as an utter resolve for perfection and a self-fulfilling prophecy of aspirations. Gabler traces these qualities back from Brooklyn to Broadway to Hollywood with a keen eye on the trajectory of how Streisand became the global superstar she is today. Her career metamorphosis shifted many times during these years and each time… evolved to a higher extent. The tagline from Muhammad Ali comes to mind, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” as the duality found in Gabler’s writing doesn’t hesitate to utilize and acknowledge the sharp criticism, Streisand received. [Though if any indication of her talents are in question and her status in the world… Word Perfect corrects the spelling of her name; if you type in “Striesand” by accident.]
This scathing criticism in the press knocked her looks, i.e. see nose, her dominating way of taking control and her “over-the-top” Jewishness. This all seems like unmitigated jealousy or falderal now. Streisand has a force field of strength and belief in herself to basically rise above any negatives and whip them into positives with her talents. In what would become one of her mantras, from Funny Girl, she sings, “Instead of just kicking me, why don’t they give me a lift? Well, it must be a plot, cause they’re scared that I got such a gift.” Neal Gabler proves beyond a doubt that sentiment still rings true.
The softer side of femininity and emotions is showcased with Gabler’s “one more look” at her romances, love affairs and husbands. One of the more interesting aspects is how Streisand found her match and a high school romance she never had with the machismo, hair dresser Jon Peters. This is the time period of the sexy Superman Streisand. The Playboy cover and the “Baby, I can fly like a bird, when you touch me with your eyes” Streisand. This eclectic and electric pairing of Barbra and Jon would create her film A Star is Born. The way we were, is right! That perm, that perm, that fabulous perm.
Bottom line. Neal Gabler has written an appreciation of how one little girl took her survival instincts and her hardened childhood, captured “a sleeping bee” that was found within her voice and spirit and became one of the greatest stars on planet Earth.
There have been a cavalcade of books written about Elizabeth Taylor. Whether they are on her fashion, her fame or her films, the fascination is still strong. Why, Elizabeth Taylor even wrote four books herself during her lifetime. Yet, does Nibbles and Me count? Elizabeth was only a child with a chipmunk for that one. In regards to Michael Jackson, the passion for his incredible talents as a singer, songwriter, dancer and humanitarian has also sparked numerous books on his life. Some sensational to make a buck and some that are realistic and heartfelt. Jackson himself, also penned one book called Moonwalk.
Author Donald Bogle takes the two superstars of film and music a step further in a truly innovative and original way. Bogle has combined rotating chapters on both Taylor and Jackson’s lives. He also gathers all that he could about their friendship and love for one another that began in 1984. Donald Bogle’s empathy and diligence for these two legends reads very well and true. His perspective is clear-cut, polished and sparkles with a shine that beautifully captures the light, spirit, work and complexity of the two in Elizabeth & Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and The King of Pop: A Love Story.
These two people were kindred spirits. Elizabeth Taylor as “Mother Courage” who managed to weather any personal health problems or public scandal with a “live and let live” attitude and perception of mind. While Michael Jackson; a pure perfectionist of the “Peter Pan” philosophy was both magical, intuitive and a lost man, at times. This strength of devotion matched with the power of will and adoration brought their chemistry out in spades. The pressures of fame, scandal and press kept them united and formed a very special bond between the two. It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever see this combination or unique attributes of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson again… both of them were truly one-of-a-kind.
Donald Bogle deserves Michael’s signature white glove and a pair of real ruby cufflinks from Elizabeth for creating this comprehensive, unbiased and fascinating book.
Just one of many of Aesop’s Fables was titled “The Lion and the Mouse.” This fable came to mind when reading a touching and emotional true story written by Dr. Rock Positano called Dinner with DiMaggio. “The Lion and the Mouse” is a timeless, imaginary fable revealing that mercy and care can bring its own rewards. How does this fable coincide with and take on life’s realities as an “honest-to-God” true tale of life and the experience of living it? You take an innovative medical doctor who is advancing his non-surgical foot and ankle practice of medicine. He comes to the aid of a giant of baseball and its history… Called Joe DiMaggio. A man and person in a league of his own.
This true icon of American sports was suffering with a foot ailment because of a botched surgery on his right heel. This surgery back in 1949, took his glory days of being a New York Yankee star performer, away. A referral to Mr. DiMaggio led to Dr. Positano’s astute help in relieving the pain and eventually leading to a “tried and true” friendship over the last ten years of “Joltin’ Joe’s” life.
This friendship and the two men’s similarity of upbringing, code of ethics and genuine regard for each other, is naturally and respectfully presented in Dr. Rock Positano’s book. A complex and private man, DiMaggio kept his guard up when it came to people and real friendships. He also completely respected his role as a guardian of the sport’s world and the men who excelled in baseball’s history. DiMaggio could be sharp as a tack and also very concerned about the history of the game. Class, reserve and a knowing intelligence that was both street-wise and intuitive…. It was his sense of people that slowly and steadily forged a relationship of trust, admiration and truths over those dinners and time spent with Dr. Rock Positano.
Don’t expect anything from Dr. Positano’s true story except an honest appreciation and respect for Joe DiMaggio. The book is a shared look at two very “stand-up” guys who happened to collide at a time where fate and good fortune would lead to memories such as those presented in “Dinner with DiMaggio.” Oh… If you’re looking for a few memories of Joe and Marilyn… even Dr. Positano knew that was a closed book of “love lost.”