I love books. And movies. And books about movies, well don’t get me started—those are like the literary equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cups. For me, one of the most fascinating periods of history is the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1920s till the early 1950s, the era of the Studio System and such moguls as Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn. The former served as inspiration for the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon; the latter is the subject of A. Scott Berg’s second biography, Goldwyn, an insightful and comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful Hollywood figures to rule a studio. (And thanks to Mr. Berg’s recent stop at Town Hall for his new, and impressive biography on Woodrow Wilson, the University Book Store has signed copies of both Wilson and Goldwyn.)
The Studio System excelled at doing two things: producing films with astonishing efficiency (at its peak, Goldwyn’s studio MGM produced 52 features a year, one for every week) and promoting its stars into pop culture icons. One of the most iconic stars ever to emerge from Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, the subject of M. G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Lord’s award winning book recounts how Taylor—in such films as BUtterfield 8, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—was able to subtly embodied the ideas of postwar feminism through her performances and also discusses her lasting legacy as an AIDS activist. For those wanting further evidence of Lord’s thesis, University Book Store has a compilation of four Elizabeth Taylor films, which includes her Academy Award-winning turn in BUtterfield 8.
One can hardly mention Elizabeth Taylor without conjuring up the specter of Richard Burton. Their romance and marriage defined Celebrity in the 1960s and early 70s. Last year, The Richard Burton Diaries were published and is now available in paperback and offers invaluable insight into one of the screen’s master thespians.
The 60s and 70s were a turbulent time for the movies. Television had chipped away at the once powerful studios, leaving them shells of their former selves. Mick Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution recounts how the Hollywood reinvented itself for the modern era. Along similar lines, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value examines the indelible mark horror films—from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Alien—made on cinema in the 70s and 80s.
The best contemporary writer on the movies and Hollywood is David Thomson, whose The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a witty, engaging, and entertaining reference to nearly every major figure in cinema. His most recent book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, comes out in paperback next month. Thomson explores how the movies first entranced America and what it means now that the silver screen is shrinking and shrinking to the point where we can (and sometimes, do) watch a movie on an iPhone. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s book, Do The Movies Have a Future?, furthers the discussion started by Thomson and will also be released in paperback later this month.
Of course, The New Yorker‘s most famous film critic was the formidable and influential Pauline Kael, the subject of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark. She is also the only film critic to have a selection of her reviews published in the prestigious Library of America series. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s wonderful memoir, the critic shares how much cinema shaped his life. Both works show, in turn, how Kael’s and Ebert’s criticism shaped the movies we know and love today.
Finally, the fall season always heralds a new slate of literary adaptations, and this year is no different. Among the films based on books that you’ll be hearing about include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, already touted as a Best Picture favorite; The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; Horns by Joe Hill, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, who also portrays Beat poet Allen Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings; and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch by the late, great Elmore Leonard.
As always, we recommend reading the book before seeing the film.