I really enjoy reading memoirs written by actors. I find them a fascinating insight into the movie industry and the joys, frustrations and tragedies associated with what is seen as a glamorous profession. I also enjoy listening to the audio versions of these autobiographies, because many of them are voiced by the author. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. My Mother Was Nuts, by Penny Marshall – Marshall is almost painfully honest when talking about her upbringing in the Bronx and her acting and directing career. She bends over backwards (maybe a tad too much) to give her co-star Cindy Williams a fair shake when recounting her controversial exit from Laverne & Shirley. Most interesting to me were the sections about her career as a director, something she almost treats off-handedly, never making a big deal out of the fact that she was the first financially successful woman director since the silent era. She also takes the supposed end of her film directing career in stride (acknowledging that Hollywood no longer makes the kind of films she wants to direct) though she still occasionally directs television projects. Funny, touching and oh, that voice just makes the audio version!
2. My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, by Sissy Spacek – of all the books on this list, this one is less about an acting career and more a memoir about what it was like to grow up in Texas during the 50s and 60s. In that sense, it was slightly disappointing to me, because she has worked with some of the most interesting directors and actors around. She does go into great detail about filming her first leading role in director Terrence Mallick’s first masterpiece, Badlands, which is utterly fascinating. I was surprised to find out that music was her first ambition, which made her perfect to play Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, a role she resisted taking at first. While I enjoyed the tales of her family, childhood and adolescence (some quite haunting and sad), I would have liked details about more of her various film roles.
3. I Am Spartacus!, by Kirk Douglas – Douglas’ first memoir, The Ragman’s Son, should be on the reading list of anyone interested in actors autobiographies—it’s truly outstanding. In this book, he zeroes in on one particular event in his life: his efforts as a producer to get the film Spartacus made, at the height of the Hollywood black list. What is most remarkable about the book is how he refuses to cast himself as a hero for hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbull. He is very honest about his reluctance and fear during that shameful period of history. Also compelling is his often contentious relationship with director Stanley Kubrick. The audio version of the book is further enhanced because it is narrated by Douglas’ son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas, for young’ins who may not be in the know).
4. Lauren Bacall: By Myself, by Lauren Bacall – it’s so hard to believe that a woman who came across on screen as so confident and mature, even at the age of nineteen, was actually quite insecure and naïve. Born Betty Bacall and raised by a single mother, she pursued her career at a very young age and found herself a sudden star entangled in a romance with one of the greatest (plus much older and married at the time) Hollywood stars. Everything would seem to have been against a successful marriage, but Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had that for the most part. Bacall is very forthcoming about the lows and highs of the relationship, as well as the many mistakes she made with men after Bogart passed away. Her career has spanned from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the end of the studio system to the present day, which is one of the things that makes the book such an enjoyable read.
5. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett – this is more a collection of anecdotes than a conventional autobiography. Burnett skips back and forth over various periods of her life, from being brought up by her grandmother, to surviving in New York City as an actress, to her classic variety TV show, to the illness and death of her daughter Carrie. My favorite sections were her stories of how The Carol Burnett Show came together and her various triumphs and disasters while trying to break in as an actress. The audio version, narrated by Burnett herself, is extraordinarily touching when she talks about the tragic aspects of her life.