Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lives on the page, part 1

My pop culture biography kick continues with 2 books that would seem to have little in common: one is a biography about a little-known but much-recognized character actress; the other is an autobiography by a famous rock musician. But reading the two books together did provide some insights about the art of telling a life story.

The first book is Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before by Steve Taravella. Good subtitle: most people probably don't know Wickes by name but would recognize her unusual, rather homely face. Her career as a supporting player in movies and television began in 1942 when she played the put-upon nurse to Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner--mostly she just stands there looking flustered while Whiteside (Monty Woolley) screams insults at her (calling her "Miss Stomach Pump" and telling her she has "the touch of a love-starved cobra," for example). She was busy in movies and TV, often playing feisty servants, old maids or sidekicks, and she was lucky enough to keep busy right up to her death in 1995; younger generations remember her as the spunky Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act and as the housekeeper in the Father Dowling Mysteries.

Wickes was a fine actor but, according to this book, had an uninteresting life. She never married and was never seriously involved romantically with anyone, male or female. She didn't appear to take strong philosophical or social stands, wasn't much of a traveler, and had a small circle of friends, several of whom were gay men who often served as social escorts--though Taravella see-saws on whether or not she was aware of these men's sexuality; some say she was, some say she wasn't, and Taravella declines to judge. Her best friend was Lucille Ball, and her daughter Lucie Arnaz is one of the author's main sources, but even that relationship isn't given much life in the pages of this book.

I think the problem here is that, as I've already noted, Wickes had an uninteresting life. I don't mean this as an insult: I love seeing Wickes in movies--The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of my favorite moves partly because it's beautifully cast, and Wickes makes the most of her handful of short scenes (her cry of "Mister Whiteside--really!" has remained memorable to me; the picture above shows Wickes with Jimmy Durante and Monty Woolley)--and I was most interested when I saw this book's publication announced. But the author has written a long book (370 pages) when perhaps a long magazine article would have been more appropriate.

He has talked to many people who knew her but then proceeded to seemingly include every single thing anyone told him without winnowing down the comments, leading to both much repetition and many contradictory views on her friendships, her love life or lack thereof, and as I mentioned before, how aware she was about the presence of so many gay men in her life. There are several pages of comments about whether or not Wickes ever fell in love, or even ever had sex, but because the author refrains from piecing the statements together and coming to some kind of conclusion, they are repetitive and mostly unenlightening. Taravella's writing style is plain and wordy, but I think a more interesting style would have made this book more memorable; I came away from it knowing many tidbits about Wickes but feeling like I had no strong sense of her as a person.

Next time, an autobiography about a person who comes off as similarly uninteresting, but whose book is worth reading for its style.