Saturday, April 15, 2017

Gene and Dean

Two showbiz books. One a memoir, the other a bio.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder

You usually don't start your list of your favorite actors with Gene Wilder but I think you should, just for the three Mel Brooks films alone. Then you get the Richard Pryor pictures, Willy Wonka, the bit with the sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. He even did great work on two episodes of Will & Grace as Will's crazy boss late in his career. For me, his performances were memorable and often quite affecting and he could hold his own with actors with much larger personalities. Then he marries Gilda Radner who also could make me cry with laughter. 

The memoir is a fast read, filled with some very touching stories as well as some very painful tales, often in the same story. As a young man at college, he became obsessed with praying, often for hours, and couldn't stop. The good that came of it was that he started to learn and understand mental illness and much of the memoir has him talking to his longtime shrink. His mother, to whom he was close, was a sickly woman and deep down, Wilder believed that he had no right to happiness or enjoyment when the woman who gave him life had neither. 

I was surprised to learn of his classic training as an actor and how many of his movies he wrote or helped write.
He also gets into his sex life which didn't begin until later than you might expect. He's very honest and, at times, it was even a bit uncomfortable. 

When he talks of his marriage to Gilda and her untimely demise, it is with great love but there was also a fair amount of anger. It seems as though Gilda lacked self-worth while at the same time was overwhelmingly self-absorbed and it made the hard times even harder. Still, to get a peak at their domestic life was intriguing. 

We lost Gene Wilder last year and I will miss him. Reading the book made me miss him a little less. 

Dino by Nick Tosches

Years ago, when I got into Sinatra's music, it naturally led me to Sam and Dean. Sinatra was a great singer and Sam was the ultimate performer but there was something about Dean I had never noticed: he was cool. As I came to appreciate his vocal style and then his acting, I learned Dean just did his thing. He never strained, he never seemed to swing for the fences but he delivered. As I learned in Dino, that's essentially how he lived his life. 

Growing up young and poor in Steubenville, Ohio, Dino Crocetti dealt blackjack and boxed before becoming a singer, mostly in mob joints. His first ticket out was a move to mob joints in Cleveland and then he meets Jerry Lewis in Atlantic City and BOOM, more success than he could ever have imagined. 

What's odd is that we don't really remember them for that. We know Jerry from movies, many of them just plain silly, and the telethon and we know Dean for some songs, his movies, and the roasts on TV. We are even familiar with their feud that was 'resolved' on the MDA telethon in 1976 but at one point they were the highest grossing club act in showbiz, like The Beatles before The Beatles. It never translated that well outside the night clubs but by all accounts, it was magic before Dean left the act in 1956, ending a seven year ride like few others before or after.

As Tosches tells it, that cool, the ease was the very crux of Dean Martin but that menefreghista, a Sicilian term for not giving a fuck, ended up becoming complacency. If the critics didn't like him in a serious role in a movie, fuck 'em, he'll turn out dumbass comedies for the same money and get points on the back end. The roasts are proclaimed too racy for television at the time? Let's just see how vulgar we can get. Doesn't mean a thing to ol' Dino. He's got a tee time. For him, there would always be another pay day, another broad, another round. Why sweat it? Singing in front of an audience, performing on film or TV was a cinch. As Dean said, "This stuff ain't hard. You want hard? Try being on your feet all day dealing blackjack". 

Still, he was the most charming man on the planet and a great talent whose work lives on to be discovered by guys like me long after he stopped caring. The best part? The work holds up and Dean still delivers.