Before Twitter wars and mopey Twilight pretty boys, Hollywood’s male “It” generation was a study in cool. From the electric James Dean and consummate Method actor Marlon Brando, to playboys like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, the older heartthrobs of Hollywood shared a common sense of charisma lost on the lads of today. With the release of Tom Folsom’s “Hopper,” steeped in the language and bizarre fervor of Dennis Hopper’s legacy, we celebrate an era when movie scripts flew out of Winnebagos and bad boys were exactly that: bad.
“Hopper” by Tom Folsom
Folsom, a writer drawn to historical anti-heroes living on the fringe, is a perfect candidate for exploring Hopper’s singularly chaotic story. Interspersed with psychedelia-speak and onomatopoeia (the “craaaassshhhh!” of a television resounds as it's being hurled across a hotel room), the author’s an appropriately oddball acolyte.
Hopper’s an addictive subject: At one moment you’re by his side lamenting the lack of scripts he’s being offered compared to one Anthony Hopkins (who, to be fair, didn’t subside on a half gallon of rum and three grams of cocaine per day), the next you’re careening through New Orleans in a motor home/conference room during Easy Rider. It’s refreshing to read a celebrity biography with an authentically maverick voice. On the whole, the best material comes from Hopper's industry peers, his longtime quarrel with Peter Fonda and his funeral’s motley cast of characters.
“Steve McQueen: A Biography” by Marc Eliot
Right away, readers will be surprised that Bullitt, McQueen’s most iconic (though not especially deep) creation, was “about acting, not money.” McQueen’s was a volatile, physically intimidating and emotionally fraught personality, and the author pushes an understanding of how a man abandoned by both parents and essentially self-raised in Greenwich Village could become the King of Cool so effortlessly. Intense, gorgeous and a devoted Meisner student, he became a man after Brando's own heart. Unfortunately, McQueen’s star power hasn't endured in the same way his contemporaries’ have (consider his later "Method-gone-mad disasters” like Enemy of the People, where McQueen’s jarring physical transformation couldn't convert audiences or executives), and the book sympathetically explores why.
“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America” by Peter Biskind
Biskind is an authority on ‘60s and ’70s pop culture, as equally comfortable discussing cinema as he is leftist politics. Beatty’s a terrific subject for this type of rose-tinted focus. He is the embodiment of “Mr. Natural” and an indefinable charm. Nevertheless, “Star” gives a broad view of the actor, director, early political progressive (did you know he rallied for gun control in ‘68?) and of course, ladies man. Equal time is devoted to Shampoo, Splendor in the Grass and Bonnie and Clyde, as well as to intense press coverage on his relationships with Leslie Caron, Julie Christie and other starlets. While Biskind sometimes becomes too much a character in his own biographies, it works here, as Beatty is a charismatic personification of the author’s preoccupation with the intersection between politics and pop culture.
“Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me” by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
A monologue, in the hands of the right actor, can be the most changing moment of a film or performance. No wonder most audiences surrender in the face of arguably the greatest monologuist and Method actor in history. It’s fitting to include an autobiography in this list, because Brando’s own words (with the help of coauthor Robert Lindsey) can be transporting. There’s much to soak up about acting, politics and his relationship with the Hollywood machine. But more evocative are his memories of a contentious childhood and family. He’s irreplaceable, and “Songs” is a noteworthy reminder.
“Surviving James Dean” by William Bast
From his first encounter with the young James Dean at a UCLA rehearsal for Macbeth, where Dean’s role as Malcolm was admittedly attractive but suffered from “bad posture” and “dreadful diction,” it becomes clear William Bast has a good memory and a tender perspective on the icon. In “Surviving James Dean,” Bast takes the requisite looks at Dean’s death, relationships and cinematic achievements. But there’s also the revelation of an intimate friendship, in which Bast alludes to a frustrated, closeted life that may have contributed to Dean’s turmoil. Rather than sensationalizing Dean’s private life, Bast reveals the inner world of a man whose career was brief, but whose impact was perennial.