Here's a trio of books about the cinema for the movie buff on your gift list. It's a mixed bag, but there's something here for just about everyone.
I was especially taken by Jeanine Basinger's, "The Star Machine" (Knopf, $35). That's because I grew up in the 1940s when the star system was in full swing. When we kids talked about movies, we didn't talk about directors like the Coen brothers, or screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo. We talked about stars. "It's a Tyrone Power movie, so let's go!" "Joan Crawford. Ish!" "I'm in, like Errol Flynn!" "Lana Turner. Wow! What a sweater girl!"
Author Basinger is head of film studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and really knows her onions. Her new book explains the old star system, how studios groomed actors, some talented and some not, to be stars. It's full of anecdotal material about how the system affected these actors, sometimes for the worst.
She concludes by explaining what happened to the system and why it would no longer work.
Foster Hirsch, "Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King" (Knopf, $35) boils down to an apologia for the controversial movie director, sometimes known as Otto the Terrible.
Preminger was the son of Austro-Hungarian Jews who rose to prominence under the aegis of Emperor Franz Joseph. When the empire crashed after World War I, Preminger arrived in Hollywood full of ideas and some talent, often misused. He directed and he acted. (He played -- very badly -- the camp commandant in "Stalag 17) and was often seen as a parody of the old style director, ala Erich von Stroheim.
Nevertheless, Hirsch cites many actors who loved him and tells of Preminger's moral character which was on the side of the angels. The most interesting part of the book is the chapter about his making of a perfectly terrible movie called "Hurry Sundown" with Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, et al. I remember seeing it and thinking, "This is terrible, even for Preminger."
Turns out it wasn't Preminger's fault. The movie was staged in Louisiana in the early sixties and featured a racially mixed cast. This was considered a front in the backwaters of Louisiana and the locals shot guns at the actors, made all manner of trouble. Preminger stuck by his guns and finished the movie.
Of course, he also made some good movies, one of my favorites and Hirsch's too, was "Anatomy of a Murder," starring Jimmy Stewart, Arthur O'Connell, Lee Remick and Ben Gazarra.
"Conversations with Woody Allen," by Eric Lax (Knopf, $30) is a must for a died-in-the-wool Woody fan. Lax, who wrote a biography of Allen, has known the actor-writer-director for more than 30 years and has had access to his conversations, his sets, his editing room. So Lax has compiled these experiences in a fascinating look at the actor, a look sometimes irritatingly disorganized.
On the regional front, Garrison Keillor writes the introduction to Arvonne Fraser's autobiography, "She's No Lady" (Nodin Press, $24.95) and says he did so even though he didn't like the title. In Keillor's view, she's very much a lady, but not of the stereotypical variety of Fraser's early life. Fraser, the wife of congressman and Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser, was no stay-at-home mom. She was out on the hustings for Hubert Humphrey just after she got off the farm and continued political life after her husband's departure from political office, concentrating more recently on women's rights around the world.
She's had her problems, children dying, husband losing the senatorial race, and many other problems. One of the most touching scenes is her description of the tension back at the farmstead when her alcoholic father was late coming home. She writes with real passion and sentiment, which came as a surprise to me who remembers the can-do politician on TV a few decades ago.
Maybe Keillor puts it best in his introduction: "She lived in Washington for years, was a dignitary, she traveled the world, but she kept her voice ... and it is the voice of a Minnesota farm woman ... down deep she is related to my aunts who threw the dishwater out the back door, who cleaned chickens, who scrubbed the kitchen floor, and who, in the gentle twilight, sat on the steps and told us children everything we wanted to know about the history of our family."
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.