How many interviews from Miss Arthur have you seen? How many special appearances? How many candid pictures? If you're lucky, very few, right? Before I read this biography, I didn't know a thing about Jean's life. I just loved her movies and the positiveness she managed to transmit 80 years later. It was weird I didn't know much about her: if you're subscribed to more than a hundred classic movie blogs, you always get to know a bit about performers. But this is not the case. What happened is that Gladys Green's life turned out to be even more mysterious than Garbo's, and that's saying a lot ("I like to think I understand Garbo a little. Her seclusion. Her refusal to talk for publication. Her belief that only her work is important to her public. I feel that way too")
I think that the reclusive life of the Swedish actress has always been a popular subject, that everyone tried to unveil by contributing with anecdotes and memories. Even in this biography is told the one awkward time Miss Arthur and Miss Garbo met. But again, that's not Jean's case. Miss Arthur was most of the times facing her own demons at home, away from everything and everyone, loving acting but fearing the failure and losing her beloved freedom.
John Oller invites you to try understand what was going on in the mind of one of the most talented screwball actresses, the woman that some say suffered from a inferiority complex, the girl with the husky voice that was funny in her own, clever way. The author's research is impressive: he managed to contact important sources such as Jean's best friends, fellow actors in the few plays she did, relatives and even people like her ex husband's barber. Besides these interesting quotes, there are other sources, that in Jean's case are very rare: passages from the few interviews to different newspapers she gave during her career.
|Jean, about 6, photographed by her dad.|
And you learn all this by reading the story of Gladys Green, from her childhood in which her father, a photographer, could carefully portray her smiling under the trees and years later abandon his family; to the days in which she left Hollywood and entered to university after divorcing her husband; then her bittersweet experiences on stage and TV; and finally the days in which her quiet life was disturbed only by invitations to ceremonies to honor people like Frank Capra, a few reporters trying to get a story or dogs being mistreated (you'll have to get the book).
Of course you also learn a lot about Hollywood: her brief relationship with David Selznick, how she met Norma Shearer before they went to the capital of films, her early movies with William Powell, her battles with Harry Cohn and how she was banned by the studio for not agreeing to play stupid characters, her part in the "Scarlett O'Hara war", how she independently produced with her husband The Devil and Miss Jones, her successes, her failures, actors she liked (and secretly loved like Gary Cooper) and people she didn't get along with very well (for example...Cary Grant). Of course, don't expect the book to end with her departure from Hollywood and then a fast wrap-up, no, when you reach that point there are still several interesting chapters to read.
Jean never told her real age. It was impressive to learn that after a decade of struggling to get a decent role in Hollywood and finally succeed with "The whole town is talking" and then with "Mr. Deeds goes to town" she had already blown out the candles on more than 34 cakes!
|Jean Arthur (on the ground) as Peter Pan. She was 50.|
And you learn about her dreams, like portraying her heroes, Peter Pan and Jeanne D'Arc (now you know from whom she took her stage name). She enjoyed real success when she played the first in theater, the media and the assistants loved her acting, but her demons pushed her away after some weeks. And they didn't even let her present the second. I think it's sad she never managed to truly fulfill her dreams. Her mind and her body just couldn't stand so much pressure.
Even when there are some points that are not really clear (why she never had children for example) it's not because of lack of research, but because there are not records of Jean, the main source, discussing such a private matter. In cases like this, Oller confronts opinions of relatives, passages of Jean's life and even psychological theories to try to give explanations and let you decide what to think. My only problem with the book is technical: the printing is wrong so the bottom margin is really wide and the top is too narrow. It's completely readable anyway, but be careful!
This book was really a surprise and I just couldn't stop reading. This is one of the best biographies I've ever read and I really feel I know Jean a bit more. When you're discussing a private person like her, "a bit" is a lot.
"She and the composer [Leonard Bernstein] became fast friends. He wrote the jaunty little "Shadow Dance" number for her, which she played over and over on the phonograph in her hotel room, working out her choreography". So, let me finish with Shadow Dance from the Peter Pan play, which I think captures Jean Arthur's own free spirit, the one she protected her whole life:
- "The Jean Arthur Show" Promo
- Peter Pan with Jean & Boris Karloff (audio)
- Brief and rare clip of elder Jean in Italy
- Tribute vid with quotes from the book
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