March 5, 2014
Fifteen years ago, when I worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archives and Steve Taravella was researching a book on the actress Mary Wickes there, Steve asked me what I’d most want to know about Wickes. Her sexuality, was my immediate reply, since Wickes’s character type was the conspicuously man-hungry or asexual spinster who tends now to be seen as a coded lesbian. After I offered that pretty obvious answer, Steve’s face sort of fell. I could hear him thinking: Is that all people are going to care about?
Taravella’s book, which came out last fall, serves as a brilliant rebuke to my reductive answer. It’s one of the most worthwhile works of entertainment scholarship I read last year. While there are biographies of almost every important film and TV star, and even a few books that lovingly chronicle the lives of character actors (like, say, Peter Lorre or Warren Oates), who briefly or nearly became stars, Taravella’s may be the first serious account of the life of an actor whose name never appeared above the title. The secret to its excellence is that Taravella approaches Mary Wickes with the same respect and seriousness as one would a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck. Although Wickes in her career racked up only a fraction of the screen time that Davis and Stanwyck enjoyed, nothing about Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (UP of Mississippi, 2013) suggests that its subject is any less deserving of contemplation. In Taravella’s hands, Wickes becomes a stand-in for the whole bit player stratum. His book represents a single, exemplary attempt to document the middle class, sort-of-famous, sort-of-not life led by all those familiar working actors of the studio era. Largely neglected by the press in their own day, they are beloved ciphers to modern movie fans.
So, anyhow: Was Mary Wickes a lesbian? No, although she may have had her first and only sexual encounter with a gay man. Meticulously but tastefully, Taravella probes this and every other aspect of Wickes’s personal life to create a portrait of Wickes so detailed that, by the end of the book, you can accurately guess how she responded to a given situation before Taravella offers up the answer. The book is full of details you would think couldn’t possibly have been recorded, and yet Taravella has found them and placed them in a context that usually manages not to seem like an invasion of privacy. Wickes was something of a pack rat, and Taravella was fortunate in that she bequeathed her estate to her clergyman, who saved everything and only declared a few personal items off limits. It would be easy to get bogged down in such minutiae, but Taravella navigates these treacherous shoals with confidence, always making a solid case for any pedantry in which he indulges. Even Wickes’s grocery receipts offer up relevant clues as to her ways of thinking and living. Taravella’s other stroke of luck was his timing. Although he began shortly after Wickes’s death in 1995, many of her contemporaries were still living, and Taravella (who traveled to Wickes’s hometown of St. Louis) interviewed many of these cousins, schoolmates, and early Broadway acquaintances in the last years of their lives.
The portrait that emerges of Wickes, who led a life not unlike those of many of her characters, is far from flattering. She lived with her mother until she was 55, and then alone in a Los Angeles high-rise for the last thirty years of her life. Many of her friends were gay men, although Wickes seems not to have realized that in many cases, and thought of some of them as (asexual) romantic partners. She also harbored delusions about her social and professional prominence. Wickes, for instance, thought of herself as a serious contender for the title role in Disney’s big-budget film of Mary Poppins, simply because she had played the part on television (in a live Studio One broadcast, many years earlier); she remained bitter about that rejection, and many other perceived slights, for the rest of her life. All of that could be taken as tragic – the typecast actor, yearning to break free – except that Wickes was a huge pain in the ass, who took her resentments out on colleagues and acquaintances. She was such a prude that the producers of the sitcom Doc fired her after Wickes demanded the right to change any dialogue she found offensive. Many biographers would take sides with such a quarrelsome figure, either advocating stridently for her as a friend would, or getting fed up with her (as the reader likely will). Taravella presents Wickes’s life in unsparing detail, and yet never wavers from a respectful, even-handed tone. His is an enormously humane depiction of a rather sad person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a solid, well-written overview of its subject, even if its total word count might not be much more than double that of the cumbersome title. Some of my readers and colleagues picked apart its omissions on Twitter, and they’re probably right. But as I’ve never seen any of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, and haven’t revisited the mother ship since it was rerunning on Nick at Nite, I found it to be a valuable primer.
Armstrong, whose previous book was Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style, places a particular emphasis on the women who made the show – Moore herself, as well as Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper (whose spinoff, Rhoda, gets almost as much attention as Mary), writers and story editors like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and Pat Nardo, costumer Leslie Hall, and director Joan Darling. Armstrong also digresses to place Mary Tyler Moore in the context of other feminist, or at least female-centric, sitcoms that sprung up in its wake, like Maude and Fay (a short-lived show made infamous by Lee Grant’s Tonight Show tirade against the programmers who cancelled it). That’s probably too narrow an approach – Darling, after all, directed only one episode, even if it was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” – but Armstrong never goes too far in terms of giving the women a disproportionate amount of credit. Plus, the biographical sketches of Silverman and some of the other women, which Armstrong threads through the book as a structuring device, are fascinating; implicitly, at least, Armstrong makes the case that their stories may indeed be more relevant than those of the men who had more creative input.
The problem with Armstrong’s book is a nice problem for a book to have, which is that it’s trying to be three books (at least) all at once: an exhaustive production history of Mary Tyler Moore; an industrial account of the rise and fall of Moore’s company, MTM Productions, the output of which (both comedic and dramatic) increasingly seems less dated than almost everything else on the air during its heyday, especially the rival sitcom factory run by Norman Lear; and an analysis of the extent to which feminism penetrated mainstream television (or didn’t) during the ERA era. Someone get cracking on all of those, please.
Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life (Weinstein Books, 2013) is a better-than-average movie star memoir, more candid than many but perhaps not terribly illuminating in its attempts at introspection from an actress who, at times, seems as ditzy as the characters she often played. (The book climaxes on a bummer, when Kellerman credits cultish group therapy sessions guided by Milton Wexler – the psychoanalyst who insinuated himself creatively into many of Blake Edwards’s narcissistic late-career comedies – for sorting out many of her emotional problems.) In any case, it will be of special interest to readers of this blog for the fond and unexpected attention that Kellerman lavishes on her early television career. Kellerman offers useful takes on some expected figures, like Joseph Stefano (who played Svengali with her on The Outer Limits, her big break), Robert Altman, and writer David Rayfiel, with whom Kellerman had a serious romance. But Kellerman also describes in detail the acting classes of Jeff Corey, where she got much of her early training and palled around with future stars like Jack Nicholson, as well as Schwab’s and all the other struggling actors’ hangouts in Hollywood.
(I’ve read many accounts of the New York equivalent of these formative places, but few from the West Coast.)
Television actors Robert Sampson and Luana Anders are major characters in the early chapters, as is Tom Pittman, a promising leading man who did a ton of TV guest shots in the year or two before his body was found at the bottom of a Hollywood canyon in 1958. Kellerman’s account of Pittman’s death, and of her role and that of small-part actor Robert Bice (who played square-jawed cops in tons of TV episodes prior to his own early demise) in its aftermath, are so startling that I’m surprised a major publication hasn’t taken up the subject for further investigation.
Don’t trade presses have editors any more? Herbie J. Pilato thanks a few of them at the end of his long-in-the-works biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon a Star (Taylor Trade, 2012), but I’ll bet they all wish he hadn’t.
Pilato, who has written several books on Bewitched and other TV series, certainly had the goods for an important book. He interviewed the press-shy Montgomery at length in 1989, and corralled most of her husbands, lovers, co-stars, and friends over the years. There are more than enough stories there to form the basis of a compelling bio, even if Pilato isn’t the world’s most discerning interviewer. Although it’s probably not his fault that most of Montgomery’s answers were superficial or evasive, it’s hard to let Pilato off the hook when he admits that he didn’t know about her marriage-ending affair with Bewitched producer/director Richard Michaels when he interviewed Michaels (and evidently chose not to confront him again after he got hip).
But what really sinks this disaster are a series of atrocious editing decisions, all of which conspire to make the book about as readable as a sixth-grade school newspaper. Pilato italicizes not just every single character name in the text, but also random words that don’t require emphasis. He cites every published source within the body of the text, and detours into multi-page digressions to introduce minor interview sources. He hands the mic over to dubiously-credentialed historians and “curators” for long, speculative, and generally irrelevant block quotes.
The book, though roughly chronological, constantly twists itself around in specious, confusing connections that Pilato forces between Montgomery’s life and Bewitched (or, for that matter, any pop culture artifact that pops into his head). Try to follow the logic at the beginning of Chapter Seven: Montgomery appeared in two TV movies in 1979; Lee Remick appeared in the Merchant-Ivory feature The Europeans in 1979; The Europeans “address[ed] the pertinent balance of social graces and reserved emotions – the kind Elizabeth had been addressing her entire life”; Montgomery and Remick had appeared together as sisters in a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. That’s an absurdly elaborate wind-up for what turns out to be just a description of that Kraft episode; Remick and Montgomery, it turns out, weren’t even close. Or this attempt to introduce the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair: Montgomery was a fan of Star Trek; there was a Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” that contained a historically significant interracial kiss; that episode originally aired on November 22, 1968, which was the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination; the Bewitched pilot began rehearsals on the day of JFK’s assassination; Montgomery starred opposite the African American O. J. Simpson in A Killing Affair and lobbied unsuccessfully for more love scenes with him. I was going to recommend Twitch Upon a Star for hardcore Bewitched fans only, but, honestly, I suspect even they will find it too hard to sift out the compelling nuggets about Montgomery’s life that are buried deeply, oh so deeply, within.