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American Cinematographer (1993) - Celebrity Biographies: Truth or Profit?


  • magazine article: Celebrity Biographies: Truth or Profit?
  • author(s):
  • journal: American Cinematographer (01/Oct/1993)
  • issue: volume 74, issue 10, page 88
  • journal ISSN: 0002-7928
  • publisher: American Society of Cinematographers
  • keywords: Alfred Hitchcock



Everybody who writes books makes mistakes and this reviewer has made more than his share. It's an unpleasant experience to buy an expensive book and encounter errors of fact so sophomoric as to destroy the credibility of the whole tome. A currently controversial book about Walt Disney, for example, contains so many obvious errors of fact that it's impossible to accept the more sensational disclosures which are trotted forth. Disney, being long deceased, can't rebut a word of it or take the author to court.

Waiting for a celebrity to die before publishing a scalding exposé is a safe and thriving enterprise ‑ certainly more profitable financially than writing something that aspires to accuracy or scholarship. We've read in recent years that Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, that Gary Cooper became a star by romancing homosexual producers, that Alfred Hitchcock harrassed women mercilessly and that damned near anyone who ever worked in the movie industry and then died was bisexual. Is any of this stuff true? Of course. Is all of it true? Assuredly not. The boners are a tip‑off.

For example, one mean‑spirited best‑seller includes a photo purportedly of Thelma Todd and Roland West, the latter a prime suspect in Todd's mysterious death. However, any movie buff will recognize Zeppo Marx in a still from (appropriately enough! Monkey Business! Almost invariably in these books, any back‑alley rumor is accepted as fact, many of the wrong people are in the wrong places at the wrong times and their names are frequently misspelled. The detailed reporting of the innermost thoughts of the personnae is a ploy reeking of dishonesty. Another annoying touch is the invariable use of first names and/or nicknames to create the impression that the biographer and his victim ‑ er, biographee, were buddies. Old pals, like Dracula and Miss Mina. Many of the people who write intimately of Marilyn, Bela, Doug, Hitch, Orson, Duke, Jean or Bogey never met their subjects (to use Burke and Hare's term), or at best were granted an interview or two.

In considering the realm of celebrity biographies, a line read by Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane comes to mind: "There's no trick to making a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money."