Saturday, February 21, 2009

Molly Haskell on Lulu in Hollywood

The well known film writer Molly Haskell surveyed five autobiographies by actresses in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. One of them was Louise Brooks' Lulu in Hollywood. Here's what Haskell had to say.

After laboring for much of the 1920s in Hollywood, the black-helmeted Kansas-born free spirit Louise Brooks had to go to Europe to become a star. She was a revelation in two mesmerizing German silent films directed by G.W. Pabst, "Pandora's Box" (1928) and "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929) -- but then Brooks, independent-minded to a fault, refused to compromise once Hollywood came calling, and she basically threw her career away. By the late 1940s, she was working as a saleslady at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. She was rescued by admirers, chief among them James Card, curator of the George Eastman House film archive in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded Brooks to move to Rochester, where she lived in the 1950s as a recluse, watched films, her own and others, and was reborn as a writer. (She was also rediscovered as an actress by Kenneth Tynan, who championed her work in an influential piece for The New Yorker.) "Lulu in Hollywood" -- Lulu was the ill-fated innocent who drove men to distraction in "Pandora's Box" -- is a collection of Brooks's often brilliant essays. Some of the pieces recount her own joyous romp through the 1920s as a Ziegfeld showgirl (a job she enjoyed more than making movies) and party-girl courtesan. Other essays shimmer with insight as she discusses the work of Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish and others. She paints a vivid picture of Bogie, for instance, still showing vestiges of the stiff stage actor in "The Roaring Twenties" in 1939, when he appears helpless opposite James Cagney, whose "swift dialogue" and "swift movements . . . had the glitter and precision of a meat slicer . . . impossible to anticipate or counterattack."

Haskell is well known as the author of the seminal 1974 book, From Reverence to Rape. She can also be seen discussing films with Robert Osborne on TCM, and has a just released a new book through Yale University Press, Frankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited (part of their Icons of America series). Haskell has written about Brooks on at least a couple of occasions in the past. Once in the aforementioned From Reverence to Rape - discussing the treatment of women in the movies - and in a 1974 article in Film Comment, where she discussed the 1928 Howard Hawks film, A Girl in Every Port.

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