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Deep focus

APART FROM SOME of the big star autobiographies, such as Katharine Hepburn’s “Me,” and deep-dish gossip tomes like Maria Riva’s tell-all about her mother, Marlene Dietrich, it’s not at all clear who reads books about the old Hollywood anymore. Even the publishers seem confused.

With the exception of known bestsellers, sales figures are a well-kept secret , to the extent that editors have no idea which books at other houses — and on similar subjects at their own — are doing well. There is nothing in the book world comparable to the Daily Variety film box office chart, no sales ranking similar to the weekly lists that are taken for granted in the music and video fields.

Nevertheless, books on all manner of film subjects continue to be published, and a recent wave of revisionist biographies on personalities we all thought we knew well has convinced me that we’ve entered a new era in writing about Hollywood. The “tell-all” approach represents only one side of it — Kitty Kelley isn’t what we’re talking about here. The best of the new books synthesize deep journalistic research, a basic decision to take the gloves off and tell the whole story, thorough knowledge of film history and writing skill that enables the reader to understand the subject in a fresh, new way.

For instance, how could a book as full-bodied, well-written and loaded with new information as Lawrence Grobel’s “The Hustons” be so casually dismissed by most reviewers. The previous biographies of John Huston were all cursory jobs that essentially accepted his legend at face value. In a late gesture of extraordinary openness and generosity, Huston instructed all his friends to “tell all,” and the result represents the first time an outsider has been permitted a semblance of true understanding of this complex man.

Quite without official cooperation, Patrick McGillgan impressively broke through 50 years’ worth of carefully constructed barriers to create the first dimensional portrait of George Cukor in “A Double Life,” and simultaneously provided the first detailed look within hard covers of gay life during the Hollywood studio years. Similarly, Joseph McBride’s “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success” meticulously and convincingly picks apart the late director’s own account of his life and allows the reader never to look at Capra’s films in quite the same rosy way again. At the same time, it sets a new standard for analyzing the politics of the 1930s-50s in terms of personal and professional relationships in the film industry.

On the mogul front, such hefty tomes as Scott Berg’s “Goldwyn” (the surprise bestseller of this lot), David Thomson’s “Selznick” and Charles Higham’s brand new look at Louis B. Mayer convey mountains of new information about the filmmaking process (due to the authors’ extensive perusal of production files, memos and the like) and the immigrant experience that no one had previously made the effort to do in such depth.

STILL, THERE’S NOTHING like first-hand accounts when they’re well done, and I’ve just had sneak previews of two new sets of memoirs that aficionados of the form can eagerly anticipate. The Carroll & Graf publishing house sent along a wild selection from Richard Fleischer’s autobiography, “Just Tell Me When to Cry ,” to be published in July, that promises no end of juicy inside stuff on the making of many of the director’s wide-ranging films.

Fleischer amusingly relates the agonizing experience he had coaxing Rex Harrison into, and then through, the megamusical “Doctor Dolittle.” An interest in this particular flop 1967 best picture nominee is not required to sweat along with Fleischer as the princely British star abruptly drops out of the film time and time again, insists that Sidney Poitier replace Sammy Davis Jr. in a song-and-dance role, demands that new songwriters be brought on, and engages in endless alcoholic battles with his wife, Rachel Roberts.

Fleischer amply illustrates why the actor came to be dubbed “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” but never stints in his admiration for his professionalism and performing genius. This stands as excellent cautionary reading for anyone who desperately wants to be a Hollywood director.

ANDRE DE TOTH’S AMAZING MEMOIR, called “Portraits — Fragments — From the Inside,” does better than any other full-scale book in vividly and indelibly evoking certain personalities in a few deft strokes. In the very first chapter, the veteran director animates the far-off world of early 20th century Budapest cafe life, revivifies his mentor, playwright Ferenc Molnar, and proceeds from there.

De Toth amply demonstrates his skill as a painter and sculptor in the way he brilliantly pictures scenes he lived out decades ago, described with apparent total recall. From now on, I will view such figures as the Korda brothers, Harry Cohn, Darryl F. Zanuck, Howard Hughes and James Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman de Toth’s way, so strong are his portraits of them. Despite the book’s 800-page length, de Toth’s chapters are highly specific and condensed , with great dialogue, attention to detail and a novelist’s sense of time and place. If de Toth were to tell his entire life story as extensively as he relates these fragments, it would no doubt require volumes of Proustian dimensions. As it is, he has written this highly individualistic, often self-deprecating work with no publisher in mind, on his own terms, which would seem to be the only way to do it when dealing with your own life.

For anyone interested in real stuff — as opposed to P.R. and accepted wisdom — about Hollywood, all of the above would provide quite a few months of enriching reading.