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There’s No People Like Show People

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The moment I got DROPPED NAMES in my hot little hands, I sat down to read it, and didn’t stop until I was through. It’s absorbing, wildly interesting, and well written. I just have two complaints. The first, there are no pictures. For those of us who have been adoring Frank Langella fans for years, they’re not really necessary. But for many in the younger generation(s), who’ve only seen him in “Frost/Nixon” and his other more recent gigs, it’s got to be hard to understand why he was so irresistible to so many of the famous women and men with whom he came in contact. The simple truth is that he was absolutely, undeniably gorgeous, and it’s silly that everyone who picks up this memoir shouldn’t get to see that. There’s been so much written about this tell-all (but only about dead people), and so many questions raised (Come on, Frank, Jackie O, yes or no?), I think the essence of this autobiography may be lost in the sensationalism. This is the story of a middle-class boy from New Jersey who knew he had the stuff to be someone unforgettable, and he worked his buns off to get the success he craved. While the stories about Rita, Elizabeth, and all the rest are titillating, the real heart of the book lies in Langella as a friend who gave his whole heart. His accounts of his platonic “bromances” with Raul Julia and Alan Bates fill the pages of the book with unreserved love and caring. That great passion, and the ability to draw an audience in to experience it, too, are what make Langella a truly brilliant actor. Which brings me to my second complaint. Please, please, please, let there be another book, which is about the work, not the sex. Frank Langella occupies a unique niche in the world of theater and movies; he bridges two worlds. He’s both a skilled modern actor, and a throw-back to the matinee idols of yesteryear. How did he manage to have a foot in both spheres, and how, even in his very worst films (and there were some real dogs), did he stay true to his esthetic ideals when everything around him was chaos? Please sir, I want some more.

Gerald Schoenfeld was called MR. BROADWAY because of his influence as Chairman of the Shubert Organization, and because he helped rehabilitate the theater district. It’s hard to remember, but not so long ago, the curtain time had to be changed from the original 8:30pm to 7:30pm, because it was unsafe to walk in an area infested with prostitutes, drunken bums, and drug dealers. Schoenfeld worked with several New York City mayors to restore Time Square to its rightful place as a major tourist attraction. It was his idea to locate the now famous discount tickets booth in Duffy Square, the better to rehabilitate the area. Schoenfeld was also instrumental in making sure the backstage areas were safer and more sanitary. As a lawyer, he endured many battles during his tenure with the Shuberts, who were far from the most dependable and stable bosses. The first half of the book is largely devoted to these legal forays; the second half is the fun part. So if what really interests you is the interaction between “Jerry” and famous actors, directors, and producers, skim the beginning of this memoir, and go right to the juicy part. Schoenfeld had run-ins with a lot of celebrities, including Frank Langella. Alec Baldwin was so frustrated dealing with an acting partner, he put his fist through a wall. And dealing with genius Jerome Robbins was no walk in the park. Schoenfeld was a tough competitor to those who got on his bad side, and he stood his ground when others would have folded. But to those he loved and respected, like Hugh Jackman, he was a great friend, and he is sorely missed.

Where do I begin singing the praises for Garry Marshall’s MY HAPPY DAYS IN HOLLYWOOD? How about by saying that this is one of the most upbeat, honest, and entertaining books about show biz this season. To some of us, Marshall will always be first and foremost the guy who gave us the Fonz. Here, he tells about the genesis of that character, and what happened when a supporting actor captured the imagination of America. If you think it’s tough to work with your family, the chapter on “Laverne and Shirley,” the show which Marshall calls absolute hell, will give you an idea of just how bad things can get. Would Julia Roberts have become the star she is today if Marshall hadn’t cast her in “Pretty Woman”? Would a lesser director have immediately grasped that the wild-haired Southern girl with the great laugh would set the screen on fire? Marshall utilized the difference between a wet-behind-the–ears Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries,” and the confident professional she became in the sequel, to showcase how the character had matured. It’s touching to read about his gifting Julie Andrews with a chance to sing again after her disastrous surgery. And not many people could have put together the ensemble that appeared in Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day,” including Shirley MacLaine, Hathaway, Roberts, Bradley Cooper, and Marshall’s good luck charm actor, Hector Elizondo.

These three great biographies would make a wonderful trio of books for anyone who enjoys the entertainment industry. Even if you know nothing about show business, they’re all engaging enough to just be great stories about interesting people. If you love the stage, TV, and movies as much as I do, these memoirs are must-have reading this summer.

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Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She’s also a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics, as well as National Book Critics Circle. Michall writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. www.michalljeffers.com

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