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August Books

The late William Friedkin directs Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973)

In Hollywood, summer is the season for going big. This month’s roundup on new books begins with a few notes on one thunderous bomb from the 1960s and a few blockbusters from the 1970s and ’80s that thrilled, delighted, and/or terrified moviegoers in record-breaking numbers—and reshaped the business.

Looking back on how Observer reporters and critics almost seemed to relish the spectacular failure of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) and the simmering summertime scandal of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s affair, Vanessa Thorpe talks to Patrick Humphries, the author of Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios.“I was stunned by the profligacy of the production,” he tells her. “For example, items glimpsed for a few seconds on Cleopatra’s dressing table were designed by Bulgari. And for the key scene, the queen’s entry into Rome, it struck me that the 20,000 Italian extras used all had to be costumed, fed, accommodated, and transported to the set. If anything went wrong, such as an elephant misbehaving, they had to all start over again.”

Nat Segaloff, who wrote the 1990 biography Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin, has a new book out, The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, which was released just a couple of weeks before Friedkin passed away. It’s a “dutiful, soup-to-nuts book about the movie and its legacy,” writes Chris Vognar in the Los Angeles Times. For Vognar, Mark Kermode’s 1997 monograph, The Exorcist, is still the definitive analysis. “Segaloff, to his credit, quotes Kermode extensively, adding some intellectual heft to what is otherwise a pretty straightforward procedural,” writes Vognar. At Air Mail, Nicolas Rapold notes, too, that The Exorcist Legacy “dwells on production forensics: how the movie and its concept were developed and written and massaged (or manhandled, depending on who’s talking).”

Laurent Bouzereau’s Spielberg: The First Ten Years will be out in October, and Vanity Fair has a preview in which the author asks the director about the making of Jaws (1975). Spielberg originally wanted Lee Marvin to play Quint, the seasoned shark hunter, but of course, he was pleased to have Robert Shaw instead. “None of us understood the water,” he says. “I never anticipated what was about to happen to us, and it wasn’t just because the shark wasn’t working. It was because deciding to go into the Atlantic to make a movie about a great white shark was insane. I didn’t see the insanity of it. I saw the authenticity of it. Making Jaws really became a fool’s mission until the audience proved otherwise.”

In The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage, Nick de Semlyen writes about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and a few other “terrifyingly muscled actors who punched, stabbed, and machine-gunned their way to superstardom in the 1980s, usually with their shirts off,” as Nicholas Barber describes them in Literary Review. “The editor of Empire magazine, de Semlyen draws on a wealth of original interviews with stars, screenwriters, producers, and directors, all of whom are willing to be more honest and self-deprecating than they were thirty or forty years ago. But The Last Action Heroes is more a compilation of jovial behind-the-scenes articles than it is a history with an overarching thesis.”

Collected Remnants

Spectacle Every Day: Essays on Classical Mexican Cinema, 1940–1969, a collection edited by Jorge Javier Negrete Camacho and Alonso Diaz de la Vega, accompanies a traveling retrospective launched earlier this month in Locarno. The Notebook is running an excerpt, an essay in which Rafael Paz and José Luis Ortega Torres trace a penchant for morbidity that runs from the very beginnings of Mexican cinema through to the late 1960s.

Kate Wolf, one of the three hosts of the LARB Radio Hour, talks with Wes Anderson and Jake Perlin about the new collection they’ve edited, Do Not Detonate Without Presidential Approval. Many of the essays here inspired or at least informed Anderson’s Asteroid City, and the book features eight newly commissioned pieces as well.

The humor of television pioneer Ernie Kovacs “forms the unsuspected link between Buñuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou and Saturday Night Live,” writes Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times. Ernie in Kovacsland: Writings, Drawings, and Photographs from Television’s Original Genius “leaves out the sound and motion, naturally, but Kovacs was a writer as well, and the bits and pieces collected here give a good picture of the man, the personality, and the artist.”

Ingenious Fictions

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler “didn’t ‘elevate’ the hard-boiled story so much as blur the line between genre fiction and the ‘legitimate’ novel,” writes David Bordwell, whose latest book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, “argues that culture offers us a plenitude of individual works with varied appeals, all of which can be realized with, to use Chandler’s terms, delicacy and power . . . There is heavy art and light art, brooding art and diverting art, intellectual density and emotional charm. None of these qualities is simple or easy to achieve; all can repay analysis. The slogan might be: ‘There’s valuable work at all levels. And there are no levels.’”

The Well of Saint Nobody is the ninth novel by Neil Jordan, the director of Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992). Writing for the Guardian, fellow Irish novelist John Banville finds this story of an affair between a renowned pianist and a struggling piano teacher to be a “beautiful and deceptively simple tale of love, rejuvenation, and losses restored.”


Ruth E. Carter tells Talk Easy host Sam Fragoso and Abbey Bender at Filmmaker about her new book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther. When Bender asks her if there’s a costume she’s most proud of, Carter mentions the Dora Milaje look in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther films. “It has beadwork, and it has the neck rings as armor, and the jewelry inspired by the Ndebele of South Africa, and scarification done in a very sensitive way on the bodysuit, and the leather skirt of the Himba tribe,” she says. “It honors the female form without exploiting it, and that was an intention we had that I think we were able to accomplish. It really belongs to Wakanda.”

Marya E. Gates has spent her summer reading about the silent era, and she offers notes on four books. Lois Weber: Interviews, edited by Martin F. Norden, is “both enlightening and repetitive” and Eve Golden’s John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars is “a very swift read,” but unfortunately, Silent Women, Pioneers of Cinema, edited by Melody Bridges and Cheryl Robson, is “mostly terrible.” In her 1999 book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger “manages to describe what is so beguiling about silent era films better than any description I’ve ever read,” and here’s a snippet from the passage Gates quotes: “To say ‘they had faces’ is true, but that’s only the beginning. They had radiance, and projected a kind of magnificent emotionalism that today’s more ironic times can’t sustain, much less inspire. In their world of silence, these actors and actresses use their complete bodies in performance, treating the self as a single expressive unit.”

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