Last week, I was doing a little midday channel-surfing when I happened onto “The View,” and noticed that the show featured not one, but two celebrities plugging their new autobiographies. First was the ever-jaunty Tom Bergeron discussing his new book, “I’m Hosting As Fast As I Can.” In it, he apparently explains how his devotion to Zen meditation greatly increased his ability to be witty and spontaneous with the contestants on “Dancing With The Stars. Next up was “Pushing Daisies” star, Kristin Chenowyth (author of “A Little Bit Wicked”) who talked about her struggles with depression and being short. I was, needless to say, intrigued. Who among us hasn't wondered what that must be like?
Celebrity bios have long been a staple of the publishing business. These days, booksellers are well aware that it’s not easy to get shoppers to even pick up a book, much less actually buy one. Having a famous (and slightly air-brushed) face on the cover is sometimes just the motivation the customer needs to shell out $27.50 for a hardback. In fact, motivation seems to be a big component of celebrity memoirs. Most stars, when out on the promotional circuit, are quick to point out that they didn’t write this damn book for the money or to jump start a sagging career, but instead to inspire others by sharing their personal stories of hard scrabble beginnings, tough climbs to the top and the importance of having at least one sleazy affair with another well known individual.
Hollywood memoirs are generally written by mature entertainers who aren’t working quite as much as they used to; hence they finally have the time to reflect on their lives and careers. In the last couple of years, the reading public has been treated to reflections by the great and not-so-great including Robert Wagoner, Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews, Sidney Poitier, Mary Tyler Moore, George Hamilton, William Shatner, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine and at least six or seven new works by Suzanne Sommers, who seems to be able to turn virually any life experience into a book.
Younger stars are also in the game - like Tori Spelling’s with her cleverly titled new book, “sTori Telling.” Nowadays, you don’t have to actually be famous to get a book deal; just related to somebody famous. Witness Tori’s mom, Candy Spelling’s new tome, “Candyland: Confessions from Hollywood’s Most Famous Wife and Mother” or Chris Ciccone’s groundbreaker, “Life with My Sister Madonna” in which Chris rocked the literary world by revealing that apparently his sister can sometimes be something of a bitch.
Then there is the business of selling the book. Celebrities know better than anybody that, when granted a little media time, you want to make the most of it. Last month, I read an interview with Cloris Leachman, who was promoting her new bio (entitled “Cloris”). Having been a founding member of the Actors Studio, an Oscar winner for “The Last Picture Show” and earning a record-breaking eight Emmys for her comedic work on TV, I assumed she would offer a few stories about the many remarkable artists she’d work with over the years. Instead, Ms. Leachman oddly chose to recount what a great lay Gene Hackman was and threw in a story about being on a double date with Marlon Brando who farted in the car, then rolled up all the windows. Occasionally someone reveals something surprising or poignant. Marie Osmond while plugging her book, “Might As Well Laugh About It Now” recalled how when she and her brothers got home exhausted from taping their hugely successful TV show, their father forced them all do chores around the house, so their fame wouldn’t go to their heads.
Certain celebrity bios must have seemed like a good idea initially, but somewhere along the line ventured out into the land of being just strange. Last year, I caught a performance of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show based on her memoir of substance abuse called, “Wishful Drinking.” Although Ms. Fisher didn't seem exactly too sure what-happened-when, she definitely had a vague memory of it all being very funny. I have to confess that there are a few recent “celebritographies” that I do have a perverse interest in reading, including: “A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood” by that "Dad of all Dads," Alec Baldwin and “Just When I Thought I’d Dropped My Last Egg” by Kathy Lee Gifford.
My major complaint with most celebrity bios is that they tend to be not so well written. God knows, nobody can beat entertainers when it comes to telling a funny story or their willingness to air some dirty laundry. But often, the prose gets a little lumpy and makes me feel bad for the many talented writers out there who would kill for a book deal. Speaking as a part-time actor myself, I know how easy it is to allow a personal story to become a little too “personal.” Without a certain amount of objectivity, one can give the false impression that nobody else was involved; that the celebrity somehow soldiered heroically on without any assistance whatsoever from anybody. But writing (even not-so-great writing) always has a way of revealing a bit about the author and their priorities. Years ago, I remember a reviewer commenting about Ginger Rodgers’ bio that “Although Ms. Rodgers is often sketchy about the details of certain events; she always seems to remember what she was wearing.”
Not that all celebrity bios are bad. I still remember Alec Guinness’s memoir as one of the most elegantly written and moving stories I’ve ever read. I’ve also heard great stuff about Michael J. Fox’s book, “Always Looking Up.” Mr. Fox (who, along with the late, great Christopher Reeve) has taken a truly tragic turn of events and fashioned a new purpose for his life; offering hope and guidance for others struggling through some of life’s toughest situations.
One of my favorite celebrity reads ever was when a friend slipped me a battered copy of Elizabeth Ashley’s tell-all memoir, “Actress.” It remains one of those “so bad, it’s brilliant” kind of books. I still remember Ms. Ashley (a lady who seems to have denied herself very little in this life) recounting how, in the mid-1970’s, with her Hollywood career in the toilet, she was offered the lead in a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” After a few weeks of previews, it was finally opening night. As Ms. Ashley sat anxiously in her dressing room waiting for “places” to be called, she realized that the future of her acting career probably rested on the critics’ response to this performance. She recounts turning to her dresser and saying, “Alice, I can be good tonight or I can be awful, but the one thing I cannot be is nervous. So the question is – Should I or should I not smoke this Thai stick?” To which her dresser supposedly replied, “I don’t see why tonight should be any different than any other night.”
Not wanting to be left out of the fray, I have chosen today to announce that I too have written my very own show business memoir, entitled “A Chunk of My Heart.” Although self-published, I think it’s going to be a big seller! It’s the moving, courageous story of how I clawed my way to the middle, despite a debilitating addiction to carbohydrates and talk shows. For the first time, I open up about my life-long struggle with my sinuses (which nearly ended my career) and share a few hard truths about life in Hollywood including my heartbreaking, 15-year search for free parking. As Kirkus Reviews recently said, “Light up a Thai stick and enjoy! You’ll need it.”
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv