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Everybody’s got one—that sibling, aunt, uncle, in-law, parent, child— who’s movie-mad, who can regularly be found at the local repertory house and whose cable box is set by default at Turner Classic Movies. We love them, because cinephiles are the easiest — and most fun! — people to buy gifts for, even last-minute gifts.
Hollywood history is studded not just with the brilliant and the beautiful, but the weird, tragic, and megalomaniacal. Biographies, the good ones anyway, have a way of getting inside their subject’s psyches and in the process providing a wider view of the world in which these stars made their magic.
There are literally hundreds of terrific bios out there, but we’ve opted for an idiosyncratic, eclectic list of 10 — a grab bag of brilliant creatives, sex bombs; actors, directors, and corporate suits; household names and lesser-known legends. Some of these books are deep personal/psychological dives, others more illustrative of the culture and business of Tinseltown. Our list is also limited to biographies, no autobiographies or memoirs (that’s an item for another day).
In addition, a number of these titles are available to read on Kindle Unlimited. If you want to read these on a Kindle or the Kindle app, you can sign up for a free 30-day subscription here. In fact, Amazon is offering three months of Kindle Unlimited for only $1. Meanwhile, these titles are also available as Audible audiobooks — a free 30-day subscription to the service is available here too.
And, yes, we know it’s late in the holiday-shopping game, so we’re directing you to retailers who offer overnight shipping. So, snag some of these babies then get ready for your close-up as the star of the family Christmas shebang!
That’s Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to you. A child prodigy (and the reason we all cry watching Miracle on 34th Street) raised by a domineering, often cruel mother. A legendary beauty. (Allegedly) a literal genius. A masterful actor who appeared in at least two landmark films (Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story) and many great ones. Relationships with James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, and Elvis, among others.
All that and a tragic, shocking, still-mysterious death. If that doesn’t make for a page-turner, we don’t know what does! As one reader commented: “Suzanne Finstad's book was a best seller and deservedly so. No stone was left unturned to suss out the real Natalie Wood.”
Shop it: Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, $14 (was $19), amazon.com
This, the middle and most provocative volume of Spoto’s trilogy about “the master of suspense” is no longer in print, which means it requires a bit more effort to get ahold of (only a bit; there are plenty of copies to be found in Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s marketplaces), but that will make it all the more impressive to its lucky recipient.
As the title implies, Spoto goes pretty deep and, well, dark in his portrait. As The New York Times said: “It is not a heroic portrait…that Donald Spoto has presented here. It is instead the picture of a severely repressed, even twisted, Victorian gentleman.” See also Spoto’s unsettling third volume, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2009), which is still in print.
Shop it: The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, $39, amazon.com
“An enormously moving and compelling account of a quixotic life defined by arduous toil and perpetual optimism” said a review in the Directors Guild Quarterly. They, and this book's title, ain’t lying—Micheaux was a true original. The son of slaves, and a onetime Pullman porter, he turned his attentions to creative pursuits, first as a novelist, then as what would be come to be called an auteur.
He wrote, directed and produced nearly 50 films between 1919 and 1948—comedies and dramas that bravely featured issues like lynching, rape, and labor exploitation. Maybe more revolutionary: He depicted educated, erudite, successful African-Americans with ordinary struggles, dreams, and desires.
Shop it: Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker, $17, amazon.com
On the one hand, it’s awfully tempting to opt for Brando’s 1994 autobiography, given his sheer oddball voice and appeal. On the other hand, he was known to be a huge.. well, let’s say “cinematic” wasn’t the only kind of artist he was. With that in mind, one might best be served by this more journalistic treatment of the greatest, and arguably the most eccentric, American actor of his (perhaps any thus far) generation.
“[A] vivid chronicle,” says the great Peter Bogdanovich. “The Marlon Brando story is a fascinating and tragic one, and Kanfer gives it the size and understanding necessary to provide an enthralling read.”
Shop it: Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, $13 (was $17), amazon.com
Born with a preternatural charisma and talent, the young “Lulu” was also scarred for life by a childhood sexual assault. She nevertheless went on to become a cinematic and fashion icon, in the process notching two of the movies’ greatest performances in 1929’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. (If you’ve never seen them—do so. Now.)
“Whenever she was on the screen, I couldn't take my eyes away from her,” said one reviewer. “It wasn't just that she was beautiful, but she had the most natural style of acting. She created a real person on the screen, she didn't "play" one. Her biography is equally amazing.”
Shop it: Louise Brooks: A Biography, $23, amazon.com
It’s still hard to believe that Robin Williams is gone. Amid all the sadness of his loss, crack New York Times reporter Itzkoff delivered a smart, incisive study that gives us all reason to celebrate a gigantic talent. "A breathtakingly good biography,” gushed the esteemed film historian David Thomson. “One of the best books ever written about anyone who sees no way out of life except by trying to make people laugh.”
Shop it: Robin, $14 (was $30), amazon.com
Everybody loves somebody sometimes, and we love Nick Tosches, a singular voice in pop-culture letters who passed away in 2019. His gimlet-eyed portrait of Dean Martin is warts and all and yet comes from a place of deep love for the legendary actor and singer, documenting his upbringing in the coal country of Steubenville, Ohio, his legendary partnership with Jerry Lewis, his days as a Rat Packer, and his deep acquaintance with the bottle and the fairer sex.
“Riveting,” says one online reviewer. “[Tosches’] writing style was so entertaining I found myself re-reading it again and again, like an old movie. Undoubtedly the best Hollywood biography I have ever read!”
Shop it: Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, $16 (was $18), amazon.com
Written by a distinguished writer, actor, and theater director, this three-volume monster is one for the real reader and movie nut in your life, weighing in at a whopping 1744 pages. Why not be as big as the man himself and give a gift that will never be forgotten, also much like the man behind War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane, and Touch of Evil. “An astonishing achievement,” said The Wall Street Journal. “Simon Callow’s prose is something to bask in.” And don’t forget: Rosebud.
Shop it: Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band, $20 (was $40), amazon.com
The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood
Lew who??? Exactly. That’s why this bio’s a gem. A visionary, master negotiator, and tyrant, Wasserman began as a music publicist only to outsmart, outwork, and bully his way to the top of the Hollywood heap as the head of Universal Studios.
Corporate intrigue, A-list celebrities, even allegations of organized crime influence, it’s all there in McDougal’s 600-page doorstop. Said one reviewer: “[A] fantastically well-researched, exhaustively detailed book that is a treasure trove to anyone lured by the business of Hollywood.”
Shop it: The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood, $24, amazon.com
“My father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine.” Thus famously droned this book’s randy subject, and, really, if that doesn’t whet your appetite for a juicy, sex-sodden tale well told, nothing will. “A good read, although the author is a bit too preoccupied with Tallulah s vulgarity,” said one reviewer. Well, that wasn’t very jolly of them, was it? Nay, we say: Bring on this guilty pleasure!
Shop it: Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life, $20, amazon.com
The reviews quoted above reflect the most recent versions at the time of publication.
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