I am beginning to wonder if there’s anybody from Hollywood’s olden days who hasn’t been urged on by publishers to turn out a tell-all memoir. The number of autobiographies by film personalities arriving at bookstores in the past several months is nothing short of astounding, and given the aplomb of some of the authors a bit amusing. Tony Curtis was bold enough to declare himself a royal by titling his memoir “American Prince,” while the perennially-tanned George Hamilton claimed his entitlement by naming his book “Don’t Mind If I Do.” Both are ego exercises, to be sure—typical reminiscences about a mythic rise to celebrity, followed by “insider” reflections on alliances—at work and at play—with other legendary celebrities. Neither Curtis nor Hamilton hesitates in pointing out his irresistible appeal to females, young and older. Autobiographies like these offer little real insight into motion picture culture and history, and the titillation comes off as excruciatingly bland at best.
Somewhat loftier in intention and less prone to tales of romantic conquest are Robert Wagner’s “Pieces of My Heart,” Roger Moore’s “My Word Is My Bond,” and Robert Vaughn’s “A Fortunate Life.” I found some provincial interest in Robert Wagner’s account of his childhood years in Michigan; plus the retelling of the life and tragic death of his wife, Natalie Wood, is deeply poignant. Vaughn’s memoir embraces the obligatory celebrity-insider impulse but also recounts the actor’s quest for a Ph.D. and his stance as an outspoken early opponent of the Vietnam War and consequent involvement in Presidential Democratic politics of 1968.
For James Bond fans there’s a worthy amount of behind-the-scenes lore about Roger Moore’s tenure as 007. There’s even an aura of wisdom in this autobiography written by a celebrity in his 80s. Yes, Roger Moore is 81!
But of these recent celebrity autobiographies I found one to be head-and-shoulders above the others in literary and cultural merit: Christopher Plummer’s “In Spite of Myself”. Plummer’s memoir includes measured and often witty discussions of his work in film. His chapter on “The Sound of Music” is titled “S&M,” but he confesses that he later came to feel great pride for having been a part of the musical.
There’s no shortage of celebrity decadence. Playing Field Marshal Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s “The Night of the Generals” (1967), Plummer was offered, and accepted, a Rolls-Royce rather than money for his two days’ work playing Rommel. He chose one with a garnet-colored body and a jet-black roof.
“In Spite of Myself” is not just about Hollywood. It’s also an engagingly rich narrative about Plummer’s sixty-year career on stage. The story is framed by chronologically arranged accounts of the notable stage figures Plummer encountered in his many roles and creative associations. Almost no one central to American, British and Canadian theater from 1950 forward is omitted, many of whose names will be familiar but some of which will not. That’s because this autobiography distinguishes itself by being both a valuable chronicle of theater history as well as an introspective memoir.
The other distinguishing element of the book is Plummer’s infusion of dramatic dialogue, poetry, and literary quotes into the text to amplify personal aspects of the narrative or to enrich analytical discussions of plays. A good example of how Plummer employs literary insertions as part of the personal narrative occurs at the end of part two. As his story goes, it’s 1959 and Plummer is thirty years old, having spent the previous decade in New York theater and live television drama and now on the outs with his first wife, Tammy Grimes. Feeling the pull to move on, Plummer quotes Pistol in “Henry V.”
Doth Fortune play the huswife with me now?
Old I do wax; and from my wary limbs
Honour is cudgelled…
To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.
Plummer concludes—”I blew a kiss to my lost twenties—waved goodbye to America—and determined to follow Dame Edith’s (Evans) little Spitfire on its flight to London, I climbed aboard the first big Iron Bird I could find.”
Such are the special little pleasures of a memoir that in itself is a dramatic and poetic literary achievement. Plummer is an expressive and exuberant writer, a sophisticated product of the creative worlds he’s inhabited. “In Spite of Myself” takes celebrity writing to new levels.