Auteurs, stars, synergy, industry

July 19, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN STAFF

The most self-serving and credit-hungry in Hollywood circles like to repeat the nostrum that film is a collaborative medium. Woe betide anyone who praises a movie without mentioning the second assistant gaffer or 10th screenwriter on the project, without whom the whole thing could never have happened.

As a medium, film is indeed a cooperative endeavor, in the sense that battalions of technicians are deployed to get a movie in the can. But as an art, film is made by individuals, whether they work in front of the camera or behind it - or, in very rare cases, observe it with grace and lucidity, and in so doing help mold collective cinematic wisdom.

Andrew Sarris, who has been writing about and teaching film for more than 40 years, is just such an observer. For the past 25 years, Sarris, who was a critic for the Village Voice and now writes for the New York Observer, has been engaged in his life's work - a history of the sound motion picture. Its hefty first installment has finally been published. "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet" (Oxford University Press, 573 pages, $35) proves well worth the wait. Part history, part meditation on the cinema's most transporting and intangible properties, Sarris' exegesis of the great films produced between the years 1929 and 1949 will surely become an indispensable reference on American movies.

Skip Sarris' introduction, which focuses on theoretical and historical issues bedeviling academic cineastes, and proceed directly to the ballast of the book, which are the chapters on those decades' cardinal directors and stars. Or delve into Sarris' trenchant discussion of film genres, in which he elucidates what makes a Western a Western, or a film noir a film noir. And by all means derive vicarious enjoyment from "Guilty Pleasures," in which Sarris extols the virtues of such diverse cinematic gems as the B-movie, "Gaslight" and silent screen siren Louise Brooks, who embodied "the energy and enthusiasm, and, yes, innocence of a New World blissfully unaware of the tired old rules and attitudes of the Old."

Carrying on Sarris' auteurist bent is Peter Bogdanovich, whose book "Who the Devil Made It" (Ballantine Books, 849 pages, $22.95) was recently published in paperback. Bogdanovich is best known as a director of such films as "The Last Picture Show" and "Paper Moon," but he started out as a film programmer and journalist for such publications as Esquire and Film Quarterly.

Bogdanovich has assembled the interviews he conducted over several years with 16 directors.

Almost as revealing as the filmmakers' own words about their films are Bogdanovich's astute and sometimes painfully candid observations of their work and their personal lives, from his perceptive linking of animator Chuck Jones' artistry to the balletic movement of the early silent films, to the increasing alcoholic isolation of Alfred Hitchcock.

As persuasive as Sarris and Bogdanovich are in pressing the directors' case, the truth is that stars will almost always be better remembered than the filmmakers. After all, it is them, not the auteurs, on to which the audience projects its deepest desires, fantasies and fears.

Humphrey Bogart lives up to those expectations in "Bogart" (William Morrow and Company, 676, $16), by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax. Recently made available in paperback, "Bogart" is an engrossing biography of the archetypal cynical but noble loner. Rich in detail but never ponderous, filled with color and fun but never merely gossipy, "Bogart" is thoroughly absorbing, from Lax and Sperber's exhaustively researched sections on the actor's early life to his death from cancer in 1957.

Jeffrey Meyers' "Gary Cooper" (William Morrow and Company, 379 pages, $26) is not nearly as compelling as "Bogart." It isn't as rich in research and detail, and its subject - who made a career of the monosyllable - isn't as compelling as his more vivid colleague.

But Meyers has written a straightforward portrait, starting with Cooper's idyllic childhood in Montana (he came by his Western heroes honestly) through his compulsively promiscuous love life. Most valuably, Meyers makes a convincing case for Cooper as a great screen actor (he always made it look too easy), and brings a little more depth to the man beyond "Yep" and "Nope."

"Me and My Shadows" (Pocket Books, 417 pages, $25), by Lorna Luft, combines biography, personal memoir and recovery narrative with mostly felicitous results. Luft writes with glib, if amateurish, ease about the early life of her mother, Frances Gumm (Judy Garland to you and me), starting with her first performance with her vaudevillian parents.

Even as she rehashes Garland's tragic addiction to prescription drugs - first given to her as a teen-aged star by her handlers at MGM - Luft portrays her family life as one of loving chaos.

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