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Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew Paperback – August 1, 2004
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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.
When Jean Arthur (her real name was Gladys Greene) arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920's she immediately found work in silent movies. In fact her first film "Cameo Kirby" was directed by the legendary John Ford. Arthur kept busy in the 1920's appearing in about a dozen films and with the dawn of the "talkies" many thought that her unusually throaty voice would prove to be a liability. In fact just the opposite was true. It was her voice that endeared her to audiences. During the 1930's and early 1940's Jean Arthur would prove to be one of the brightest stars of a genre that would come to be known as the "screwball" comedy. Arthur would appear in a trio of memorable Frank Capra flicks including "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and my new all-time favorite film "You Can't Take It With You". Yet in spite of all of her success in films Jean Arthur would prove to be a very insecure and difficult person to work with. John Oller chronicles dozens of incidents throughout her storied career where this side of Jean Arthur would rear its ugly head. I find it almost impossible to reconcile her on screen persona with her off screen personality and demeanor. In some ways, I wish I had never found out about it.
In "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" you will discover that Jean Arthur walked away from Hollywood on more than one occasion. She longed to do "live" theater and was particularly interested in playing "Peter Pan" and "Joan of Arc". Eventually she would do both but while "Peter Pan" was a huge success "Joan of Arc" would prove to be very short-lived. Arthur even tried her hand at teaching at Vasser in the late 1960's. One of her students was Meryl Streep. Yet time and again Arthur's lack of self confidence and fear of failure would re-surface and the actress would simply walk away from a production or a project without so much as making a phone call. It was an extremely frustrating situation for just about everyone involved and many of her colleagues eventually tired of her act. But over the years producers could just not help themselves. Because she was such a unique talent many attempts were made to lure Jean Arthur out of retirement. Most ended in frustration and bitter disappointment. Unfortunately, Jean Arthur had neither the psychological makeup nor the physical endurance necessary to complete most of the projects she had agreed to. It was a real shame.
I found "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" to be an exceptionally well written and meticulously researched book. This was obviously a labor of love for John Oller. I particularly enjoyed the 16 page photo gallery in the middle of the book that gives us rare glimpses into Jean Arthur's very private life. To quote Leonard Maltin one more time "Oller has taken on a challenge that would have humbled many an experienced biographer." For most of her life Jean Arthur went out of her way to avoid interviews and shun photographers. She wrote very little down on paper and destroyed most of her momentos before she passed away. Furthermore, she kept to herself much of the time and had few close friends. After reading this book one would have to come to the conclusion that Jean Arthur was really much more as one with nature and the animals that she loved. And she cherished her freedom above all else. She was a very complex figure to be sure. But at the end of the day what I will remember about Jean Arthur is the incredible body of work she left behind. I find her performances in all those Capra classics and later on in films like "The More The Merrier" to be nothing short of unforgettable. Perhaps Charles Champlin, the long-time film critic of The Los Angeles Times summed it up best when he observed: " To at least one teenager in a small town (though I'm sure we were a multitude) Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be--ought to be--judged by her spirit as well as her beauty....The notion of a woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur." Precisely!
Jean Arthur has quickly become my favorite actress of all-time and I continue to snap up her films whenever I can find them. If you are intrigued by this lady as much as I am than I would urge you to pick up a copy of "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew". I was thrilled to discover this book and John Oller does not disappoint. This is clearly the most thorough biography that has ever been written about her. It is at once a very informative and highly entertaining look at her life. Very highly recommended!