After previously dealing with great authors and Supreme Court Justices, Robert Schnakenberg casts his gossipy gaze upon Great Filmmakers to reveal the sordid details of their lives, covering fears and desires, vices and habits.
Presented in birth order, the book opens with D.W. Griffith, the earliest man to shine in the position of director. He is cited as a racist, not that his landmark film Birth of a Nation left any doubt with its pro-Klan stance, and sadly died a drunk. The book concludes with the still living, foot-fetishist Quentin Tarantino, a trait he shares with Cecil B. DeMille. The entries are also very up to date as Roman Polanski's entry covers his September 26, 2009 arrest in Switzerland. There are even intriguing details in death. Two months after he died, Charlie Chaplin's corpse was stolen for ransom. The thieves were eventually caught.
The book's main focus is famous Hollywood directors, but their foreign counterparts also get acknowledged. Legendary names of world cinema make appearances: Kurasawa, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, and Fellini. Leni Riefenstahl is the only woman to get her own full entry revealing how sexist the industry is and clarifying why Kathryn Bigelow's recent Best Directing Oscar was such a landmark. Not all included are masters of the craft as notorious cross-dresser Ed Wood Jr. and video game adapter Uwe Boll, who stated he was "the only genius in the whole fucking business," also get referenced. Producers also get some recognition and are just as odd as directors: Louis Mayer and David Selznick from the Golden Age are alongside modern-day counterparts Robert Evans and Harvey Weinstein.
Secret Lives is for the voyeur as opposed to the cineaste as there's no telling what's truth and hyperbole. There are no citations or footnotes, just a bibliography listed in the back. But without verification how can readers trust outrageous items like the claim that a co-worker at Video Archives "committed suicide out of fear he would never live up to Tarantino's potential"? The book lists rumors about Orson Welles being so big he got trapped in his own car and had to be cut out of it, and Stanley Kubrick being involved with a fake moon landing. I also found an error in the Stephen King entry where it misidentifies Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, as playing Bart, who is portrayed by Nancy Cartwright.
What was most intriguing was hearing about projects that almost were. Imagine Kubrick directing M*A*S*H, Sam Peckinpah directing King Kong (1976), and David Lynch directing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Possibly the best story is about Bergman meeting Charles Bronson on a studio lot. Squibs, devices used to create gunshots, on Bronson's body intrigued Bergman, who is quoted as saying, "Fascinating. I never knew how they did that." To which Bronson responded, "You mean you don't use machine guns in your movies?"
For those who enjoy tawdry escapism and tales from "Hollywood Babylon," Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers is a fun diversion, digestible in small or large amounts, though best taken with a grain of salt.