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Book Review: Fade to Black – A Book of Over 1500 Movie Obituaries by Paul Donnelley

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There she is in all her seductive allure — Marilyn Monroe centered on the front cover of Fade to Black, flanked by Heath Ledger and Paul Newman. Hey…wait a minute…didn’t Monroe die 17 years before Heath Ledger was born? Well, duh…photo editing?

From Aaliyah to Zulu, Fade to Black offers obituaries of Hollywood luminaries — and of some who were not so luminous. It is not a picture book; the only pictures are on the front and back (Marlon Brando, Farrah Fawcett, Peter Sellers).  This tenth anniversary edition includes nearly 200 new entries and numerous updates and revisions on the originals.

With an introduction by British film producer/director Michael Winner, Fade to Black represents a massive undertaking by author Paul Donnelley. He has written obituaries for over 1500 people (and animals), displaying a sense of humor throughout. (About Keiko the whale, Donnelley writes, “…the biggest movie star of all time was discovered to be down on his uppers…it has to be said, Keiko was a rather ungrateful mammal. Despite the large sums of money involved, …he decided he did not want to be free.”)

In addition to actors and animals, there are listings for producers, directors, moguls, gossip columnists, lawyers, stylists, and restaurateurs. Some of the stories included are familiar and others may be revelations. Fr’instance, did you know that Anthony Perkins found out he had AIDS after being tested for the disease to refute National Enquirer’s report that he did? He planned to sue the Enquirer, and was tested  “to ensure [his] case was watertight.”

Each obit lists the name by which the celebrity was known, followed by birth name (if changed), and dates of birth and death. Then the fun begins. The author starts each obituary with a short description.  Dame Judith Anderson’s is “Icily imperious Australian.” Fatty Alexander? What else — “Huge star.” Robert Newton, “Eyeball-rolling baddie.” Katharine Hepburn, “’Katharine of Arrogance.’” Janet Gaynor, “Mary Martin’s husband.” Some of the short descriptions are well known, such as “King of Rock ‘n Roll” (Elvis) and  “The King of the Cowboys” (Roy Rogers).

While some obits are brief (e.g. The King of the Cowboys) others are lengthy, such as Hepburn’s and Newman’s. As well as vital statistics, Donnelly provides biographical information that includes accomplishments, marriages, children, and awards. Anecdotes that go to the deceased’s personality or reputation are shared, and each obit ends with the cause of death. Many include a bibliography providing references for the facts contained therein.

It’s probably not appropriate to call Fade to Black “fun,” but there is pleasure in discovering little tidbits about people we admired (or despised), and it makes a wonderful reference for movie lovers. (The other day, my brother and I were discussing an English actor — oh, what was his name? Robert Morley, I learned today, as I flipped through the pages of Fade to Black. Yes, of course, Robert Morley.)  Readers will have shocking moments — “OMG! He’s dead???”; they will also enjoy the many juicy details, good and bad, about the famous and the not-so-very.

Bottom Line: Would I buy Fade to Black? Yes. It’s a super resource for movie fans and writers, but where’s Soupy Sales? Fade to Black will hit the streets on September 1.

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