This is a compilation of profiles that first appeared in the New Yorker in the 1990s. If nothing else, these pieces remind us that being creative doesn’t immunize an artist or a performer from being a creep. Or, even if creative genius could affect such inoculation, being rich and famous will often as not transform a fairly normal nice guy into an overbearing creep. The pieces that especially remind us that the behavior of an artist had better be discounted when assessing his art feature Frank Sinatra, Eddie Izzard, and David Mamet.
All the articles provide fascinating object lessons as how, with the assistance of talent, daring, determination, and luck, unhappy childhoods – and the resulting rage - drove the subject to the performing arts. Performing by acting or telling jokes or directing plays and movies helped artists to overcome fear and sadness by creating a reality around them the way they wanted it (to paraphrase Ingmar Bergman). Examples here include anxiety-ridden personalities Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, actor Liev Schreiber and the force of nature Roseanne. I was out of the country for most of her celebrity (1988-97) so the article that paints her as ferocious and frightening and driven filled in many gaps for me.
The article on Bob Hope was especially interesting. Talk about the right set of skills at the right time when the country wanted a safe joke-making device, the apparatus has to be Bob Hope. On Hope’s appetite for adulation, Lahr opines “At ninety-five, Hope is nearly as old as the century, and he personifies its brash deliriums. His obsession with output, aggrandizement, and fame belongs to the modern era, particularly in this country.”
Lahr the journalist also finds the provocative quotation. Related to the self-centered remoteness often seen in comedians, Hope’s ex-son in law says, “You never get into the inner space. Too threatening. Too vulnerable. I don’t think anybody has ever gotten there. It’s undiscovered. … And once you get there, there may be nothing there. We’ll never know.”
I don’t know much Irving Berlin and so found the articles on his tireless career informative. I know nothing about the theater so I did not get much out of the pieces about Arthur Miller, Wallace Shawn, and Neil Labute. What I took away from these three articles was that it seems a miracle in that anything in drama ends up good given the fact that so many things can go wrong and not work.
The collection ends with pieces about the writer’s parents, Bert and Mildred Lahr. His father’s most famous part was the Cowardly Lion in the The Wizard of Oz. Lahr’s excellent biography of his father Notes on a Cowardly Lion also paints his father as craving intimacy but physically and emotionally absent.
So, it is 2016 and only a couple of subjects are still around. Still, I think for people who need quick studies of towering figures of their time - e.g. Miller, Bergman, Nichols – this book is worth reading. Also for middle-aged people the attraction is good old nostalgia and that wistful feeling, ‘they don’t make ‘em like than anymore.’