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Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew Paperback – August 1, 2004
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The luminous star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shane, and other classic films was, as the subtitle aptly puts it, "the actress nobody knew." Jean Arthur (1900-91) kept her personal life private, disdained the Hollywood publicity machine, and was called "difficult" because of her perfectionism and remoteness from costars on the movie set. John Oller, a lawyer, tracked down kinsfolk and friends never before interviewed to capture the elusive personality of a free spirit best embodied in her favorite role, Peter Pan. Arthur herself might have appreciated his warm, respectful portrait. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Additionally, even captured electronic images like photographs and films are inherently flawed, given that they don't reveal anything substantive beyond a particular captured moment. No biography adequately expresses the active living elements of a person's life - especially a celebrity in and out of the spotlight over a period of decades. Still, despite those limitations, those small snippets can be insightful.
Beyond the fans of classic movies and the occasional trivia buff, and as noted in the title, audiences really didn't know Jean Arthur. Fewer still even remember her - which is so very tragic. Author John Oller delves into the very private life of the actress; giving us the shy, quirky, and surprisingly convoluted thespian who helped usher in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What caught me off guard was learning of her intense and crippling fragility when faced with stressful situations. Given that any field of endeavor where prideful self-promotion is thrown up against an army of critical opinions rife with twisted emotional entanglements - a daily, if not a perpetual, circle of hellish self-doubt must press upon that person's self-worth. Why would she want such a life? To me, it described a person completely fascinated with fire, but positively terrified of flames.
And her constant, almost lifetime effort, searching for a near-mythic "completeness" (my word); that missing element which she sought to fulfill her in ways that fame, money, and companions did not. One wonders if she ever found peace of mind?
I suspect Chapter 17, Martyrdom, and the quotes by George Bernard Shaw and Arthur herself were the most revealing.
That her many behaviors, mildly eccentric as a younger person, became more unmanageable in her later years - was made worse with an increase of her daily vodka intake. Revelation stunner. Really shocked to learn that she self-medicated for almost the entirety of her life. Don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that it's indicative of a deep psychological angst. But I'm no psychiatrist, so I'll refrain from layman speculation. Only that it's not a debate. Especially when noting her post-Hollywood endeavors. Examples of which are her actions during and after the hippie stage play "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake". Witnesses who appreciated her energy, also made a point of noting her erratic behavior on and off the stage. Ditto "First Monday In October" several years later, as noted by Oller.
In fact, he explains his view of what fueled Arthur's professional demon - Location 2992-3001 of the Kindle edition.
Can a fan of either the actress or cinematic history truly understand the mind and heart of such a complicated artist? And how does one absorb such a work when the subject is no longer alive to either validate or refute the content and context. Readers can only hope that the author doesn't hold a particular perspective to which he/she molds the facts into their narrative. Extremely difficult challenge since impartiality is no longer taught to students - so caution is always warranted.
Overall, I learned an enormous amount - adding to my very deep appreciation for a grand actress and wondrous person. Jean Arthur was an unusual and complex contradiction whose works continue to engage and entertain.
- Recently saw a program on The Travel Channel titled, "Mysteries Of The Museum". In it they mentioned the legendary make-up artist Max Factor and a bizarre contraption he designed to "capture and perfect" the essence of beauty. Looking very much like the Pinhead freak from the 'Hellraiser' movies, it was his observation that symmetrical faces are the ones the human eye finds most appealing.
This factoid lent additional insight to a cruel and wholly inaccurate comment made by studio chief Harry Cohn to legendary Director Frank Capra when commenting on Jean Arthur as Capra's choice for his movie ''Mr. Deeds'' - that half her face was that of an angel, the other half horse.
In a Hollywood biography what most people want is a thorough history of the person, an assessment of their work, an understanding of who this person was or is as an individual and good story telling. John Oller did that with Jean Arthur's bio. I came away from this book with an even greater appreciation of her as an artist and with a sadness at how her abject fear of and disdain for interviews and publicity held her back with the public.
I recommend this biography for all those who love stories of Hollywood past and for anyone who likes a good read.