Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Erich von Stroheim biography

Finished reading Stroheim, by the film historian and biographer Arthur Lennig. This is an impressive biography, one which I read with great interest. (It was fascinating, for example, to find out that Erich von Stroheim lived for a short time here in the San Francisco Bay Area.) My introduction to Stroheim came through my wife, who has long been interested in this individual and his films. One of our first dates was spent watching a video of The Wedding March. Now, we have many of Stroheim's silent films on DVD.
I have been meaning to read this book since I first met Lennig back in 1999. I had hosted him for an author event and booksigning around the time that Stroheim was first published in hardback. Then, my wife and I were able to spend a little time with this noted film historian. We went to party with Lennig (where we met Fay Wray - the star The Wedding March), and later went to dinner. Lennig is quite the raconteur. Over dinner, he spoke of researching and writing about this troubled actor / director - as well as Bela Lugosi, another fascinating figure whom Lennig both knew and has written about.
For those not familiar with Stroheim and his films (you should be!), here is a description of the book from the publisher. "Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) was one of the true giants in American film history. Stubborn, arrogant, and colorful, he saw himself as a cinema artist, which led to numerous conflicts with producers and studio executives who complained about the inflated budgets and extraordinary length of his films. Stroheim achieved great notoriety and success, but he was so uncompromising that he turned his triumph into failure. He was banned from ever directing again and spent the remainder of his life as an actor.
For years Stroheim’s life has been wreathed in myths, many of his own devising. Arthur Lennig scoured European and American archives for details concerning the life of the actor and director, and he counters several long-accepted and oft-repeated claims. Stroheim’s tales of military experience are almost completely fictitious; the “von” in his name was an affectation adopted at Ellis Island in 1909; and, counter to his own claim, he did not participate in the production of [The] Birth of a Nation in 1914.
Wherever Stroheim lived, he was an outsider: a Jew in Vienna, an Austrian in southern California, an American in France. This contributed to an almost pathological need to embellish and obscure his past; yet, it also may have been the key to his genius both behind and in front of the camera. He had a fantastic dedication to absolute cinematic truth and believed that his vision and genius would triumph over the Hollywood system.
As an actor, Stroheim threw himself into his portrayals of evil men, relishing his epithet “The Man You Love to Hate.” As a director, he immersed himself in every facet of production, including script writing and costume design. In 1923 he created his masterpiece Greed, infamous for its eight-hour running time. The studio cut the film to two hours and burned the extra footage. Stroheim returned to acting, saving some of his finest performances for La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a role he hated, probably because it was too similar to the story of his own life."

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