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Why look for biographical dirt?

The past year has seen the publication of quite a few "sensational" biographies dealing with leaders in the film and television industries. Most of these books have tried hard to make the point that, while the "pioneers" were visionaries, or at least shrewd businessmen, their private lives--and private characters--left a great deal to be desired.

The latest "exposure" book of that kind is Wait Disney, Dark Prince of Hollywood by Marc Eliot. It is an angry, aggressive account in which Disney the man doesn't come off very well. In fact, the way Eliot portrays him, he was a pretty miserable. neurotic figure who hated unions and Jews and who seemed to have resented the Hollywood world around him. Certainly, that is not the Uncle Walt of popular perception and far from the kindly artist the Disney Studios legend has so assiduously created.

Of course, there is nothing really new about biographers scaling down the "legends" to very human proportions. Bob Thomas certainly did it in his exhaustive study of Harry Cohn. the despotic, foul-mouthed, autocratic ruler of Columbia Studios; Sally BedeIl Smith quite brutally cut CBS' Bill Paley down to size, and similar jobs were done on Frank Capra, Barbara Walters, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, David Selznick, and recently Howard Hughes.

There is no question that many of these prominent figures richly deserve being put under a microscope, with their failings spotlighted and dramatized--and sometimes exaggerated--long after they had stopped functioning.

The question is: Apart from sensationalism, and the incentive of providing "a good read," what purpose do these books really serve? What difference does it make that Laurence Olivier was a homosexual, or that Paley was a social climber who'd walk over bodies to gain his ends? Or that Disney when under stress, drank heavily and would wash his hands 30 times an hour? It certainly didn't prevent him from making Fantasia or Bambi.

These biographies make sense when they correct accepted versions of industry history, or set the record straight on some incident or deal or other. But do they really serve a useful purpose?

The answer, perhaps inevitably, has to be both yes and no,

And, it depends to a significant extent on the liberties taken by the author. Particularly when the subject is dead, there seems to be a temptation to invent motives and attribute thought patterns and conclusions that seem nowhere anchored, in fact.

Was Walt Disney really as right-wing bad as his biography claims? Was Paley really as greedy and removed as Smith portrays him? Was Louis B. Mayer really such a complete villain?

These men are tempting targets. They were in the limelight, they often behaved badly and their decisions affected thousands. But, decades later, men's memories tend to be faulty, imagined wrongs become real ones and, on the overall, conditions in the industry were very different from what they are today. Some of the recollections of witnesses aren't always accurate, and personal motives easily enter.

Yes, Paley "betrayed" Ed Murrow over the Sen. McCarthy broadcast but Paley also had to consider the network and the implications which Murrow didn't have to deal with. And Walt Disney's attitude toward the unions, while certainly narrow, had its roots in the conditions of a time that differed greatly from today though they were hardly defensible.

The parade of biographies will continue, and with them the disclosure of unpleasant character traits in many Hollywood and TV icons. These men had enormous power, and some came to that power quite unprepared for yielding it. Others were simply not very nice people, and being in the driver's seat and under great competitive pressure, brought out the worst in them.

What is unfortunate is that, in the aggregate, these books create the impression that Hollywood and television was-- and is--run by a group of erratic, unscrupulous and overpaid geniuses, mostly brilliant at their jobs but sadly lacking in character.

There are always large kernels of truth in these biographies. The danger is that the unpleasant personal revelations will leave their negative mark on the industry as a whole.
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Title Annotation:sensational themes of recent biographies
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Howard Hughes; The Secret Life.
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