Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Life Is A Banquet

I have to start this with a disclaimer, just for the sake of honesty. For years I have said that when my life is made into a movie--and it should be-- I want Rosalind Russell to play me. I am Ruth from Wonderful Town, could be Hildy from His Girl Friday, and want to be Auntie Mame.  My favorite literary quote is “Life is a banquet and most of you poor suckers are starving”. Therefore I was all ready to be prejudiced about Rosalind Russell’s autobiography, LIFE IS A BANQUET.

As long as the author is not into gossipy, scandals, and tell all exposés, I like theatre biographies. I do enjoy reading how an actor prepared for a particular role, or how difficult it was to get the backing to do a certain show. Who slept with whom does not interest me.

Rosalind Russell tells her story in a straight, forthright style with surprisingly little personal information. We learn that she was born in Waterford, Connecticut, one of six children. She is rather vague about the year in the book as if it were one of the unnecessary details. She speaks more about the fun and freedom she had as a child. Her parents were not wealthy, but encouraged their children to be creative and to enjoy life.

In 1929 the stock market crashed and Roz was graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Throughout the book she gives credit to good fortune for her success in show business, but this early in her life, it is obvious that her tenacity, and talent, were the root of her longevity in the theatre.
After limited success in legitimate theatre on the East Coast, in 1934 she received a call from Universal Pictures. At this time, Broadway actors looked down on Hollywood as a lesser form of the arts and Roz wanted to be a Broadway Star. At the meeting with the man from Universal, she demanded the unheard of salary of seven hundred fifty dollars a week. She was offered less than half of that so she went home. By the time she walked into her apartment the phone was ringing and she was on her way back to Hollywood.
After being cast in a number of movies as the second woman, Roz fought for the chance to play the part of Sylvia in The Women. The role is that of a gossipy, flighty, but funny woman, the polar opposite of her former dramatic roles. This was probably the movie that brought her future success.
His Girl Friday has always been one of my favorite movies. According to Roz, she had a big hand in the script (the original scriptwriter had a drinking problem) and Cary Grant’s music hall background gave the two of them many opportunities to ad-lib….and at times it shows. After reading this section, re-watching the movie was even more fun. I was pleased to read that she was very reluctant to take the role of Ruth in Wonderful Town because she could not sing. (I have never been cast in a musical for the same reason). If you have heard the original cast recording, you have an idea of how much work she put in on the music. Side fact: that is actually her voice in the movie version of Gypsy.
Without a doubt, my favorite parts of the book dealt with the making of the play and then the movie of Auntie Mame. I may be biased, but nobody has been a better Auntie Mame than Rosalind Russell. If you have never seen the movie, you have missed one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies. It was such a shame that when the musical movie was made that Mame was so miscast.
This was a fun autobiography. There were few personal specifics. In fact, her husband’s introduction gives more details like awards won (one hundred and fifteen awards and ninety-four recognized civic activities), her battle with rheumatoid arthritis or the cancer that killed her.
Roz Russell maintains throughout the book that she never made it to the upper echelon of actresses, but most actors would kill to have her resume.

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