I am a big fan of celebrity biographies — or better yet, autobiographies. I like to try to get inside the head of a favourite musician or actor. But what if the book reveals a dealbreaker (supporting Trump maybe?) or shares TMI (too much information)? Or in the best case, it may corroborate your good opinion of the person. I’d like to share a few prime examples I’ve found over the years. (Keep in mind that, particularly when there is a dealbreaker or TMI, I just can’t bear to keep the book around, so my “facts” are closer to remembered impressions.)
- A Natural Woman by Carole King: As a teenager who loved to sing and pen a few songs, I was always drawn to Carole King. I loved her music, both her work as a solo artist and the songs that she and Gerry Goffin wrote for others. This book, however, really changed my opinion of her, to the point that I have trouble even listening to her music now. As a mother, for me the dealbreaker was the extent to which she appeared to have put herself and her wants so far ahead of the needs of her children.
- Here’s the Story by Maureen McCormick: Like so many of us, I used to watch that picture-perfect blended family, the Brady Bunch, on TV. And Marcia Brady had that perfect clean-cut teenage image. In real life, she lead a life that at times was a sordid mess of sex and drugs. Not that that was a dealbreaker, as child stars often have a hard time coping with their fame and lack of a “normal” childhood. The dealbreaker was her seeming inability to accept any responsibility for her own life or the choices she made.
- I Slept with Joey Ramone by Mickey Leigh: As a huge Ramones fan, I saw them live at the El Mocambo, a small club in Toronto. Joey and the boys played a fast paced show that had us all up on the tables doing the pogo. That same year, I saw them at a concert that included big names like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and Johnny Winter. The Ramones were pelted with bottles and booed off the stage by 46,000 rock fans who just weren’t into the punk rock vibe (well, except for a minority, like me!). Anyway, after Joey’s death, his brother Mickey wrote a book about Joey as a boy and as a performer. A lot of the focus was on Joey’s debilitating OCD and anxiety, and the book felt like a terrible invasion of privacy written for questionable motives.
- Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot: Cary Grant was probably my first crush on a British actor. He was so suave and debonair and had such a great comedic flair. A favourite movie of mine has always been My Favorite Wife, co-starring Irene Dunne. I was really excited to read this biography, only to find that it had an intense focus on Grant’s rumoured homosexuality and alleged romantic relationship with Randolph Scott. Not that that would have been a dealbreaker, but more that even if this were true, it was not something that Grant himself had ever disclosed. Eliot asserted that many of the funny scenes in My Favorite Wife were actually in-jokes about the relationship, such as when Grant’s character is jealously watching Scott’s character in a bathing suit showing off for Dunne’s character, the assertion forever altering the fun innocence of those scenes for me.
- Unsinkable: A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway: Singing in the Rain is another favourite movie of mine. I used to watch it with my mother who particularly loved the dancing. Debbie Reynolds was only 19 and not a dancer when she was cast opposite the demanding task master, Gene Kelly, and yet she was fabulous in the movie. I watched Singing in the Rain again in the wake of her death, and you just can’t help but smile all the way through this upbeat film. Her book is a wonderful read, showing such strength of character and triumph over adversity. Just what I would have hoped for from this iconic actor.
- Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox: Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties was such a funny character, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox, a fellow Canadian. And I loved the Back to the Future movies. As a guy who went from child actor to young-adult star, Fox fell into the trap of too much partying and lots of girls, but eventually saw that there was a better way to live. A committed family man, Fox showed through the book that he has approached his early-onset Parkinson’s diagnosis with humour, optimism and a desire to help others — profits from this book went to the Parkinson’s research foundation that he established. As he said at the time, “The ten years since my diagnosis have been the best ten years of my life, and I consider myself a lucky man.” He followed up Lucky Man several years later with Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist”, also an uplifting read.
I’m lucky that most of the celebrity biographies/autobiographies I have read have corroborated my good opinion of the actors and musicians whose stories they tell. Having a book trash the image you have built up in your head can be so, so disappointing.