Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server


Guilt appears to play a major role in the selection of my next read. In lots of recent decisions it has been pretty evident, and it is intriguing that one should feel guilty about buying (or possessing) a copy of a book without having read it. In my case, I suspect, it’s because I’m a big old mess of guilt, stemming from a child-like disbelief that I appear to have gotten away with “it” for nearly 34 years. What “it” may be is open for debate.

"Do you want to hear the
story of old Love and Hate?"
Nevertheless, I guilt-tripped myself into finally reading this stupendously thick biography of icon Robert Mitchum by the ever studious Lee Server and am endlessly glad I did. Despite the impact it had on my relationship (it appears that the subsequent and repeated renting of black and white Mitchum vehicles on my wife’s dime is an act with internecine repercussions) I literally rushed home from work at lunch times to cram in another paragraph between mouthfuls of cous-cous salad, dog-releasing-into-the-garden-to-prevent-damage-to-property and washing up. Not that it’s all that surprising a biography* when one boils it all down, but it does represent a snap-shot of a life well-lived, and of a man so adept at going with the flow that it was almost as though the flow was going with him. And, in essence, it’s just a “here’s the next entertaining thing he did, and here’s another” type roll call of classic cool comportment, with no major departures from any other Hollywood eye-opener. However, the subject is the star, something to which all good biographies (and probably also reviews) should aspire, and in this case, the star is such a paragon of anti-establishmentarianism (“paragon” being an amusingly apposite word for it despite the satirical undertones) that he could not possibly NOT appeal to me, romantic old fusspot that I am.

Of course, a badly written biography therefore would do nothing but slap me in the face with a wet haddock. Instead, I was basking in the warm embrace of prose that never tried to be something it was not, grammar and syntax that echoed that of Mitchum himself, and masses of superb contextualising evidence that did nothing but support a balanced and comprehensive report on the life of a man who despite his clear flaws and unapologetic (and in fact, undefended) opinions was someone I would probably liked to have shared some time with. But only a little: I’m quite the lightweight these days and that goes equally for drinking and fighting. In spite of my early reservations (about size, quality, encroaching apathy) at page 660 when I realised the rest was taken up with copious references and notes, I was suitably upset!** If I had to be one of those guys who make a fantastic and frankly disturbing connection with a movie star, then I would probably be one who was ridiculous in his adoration of this one. Server is a great biographer (of Hollywood stars) and I would urge any cinephile to read it, just as I would urge any fan of well-tempered biography to do the same.

And lastly, quoting verbatim as I don’t have my copy with me, I would love to repeat to you one of my favourite Mitchum anecdotes:
When on set with Loretta Young, a devout and some might say prickly Catholic, he was amused when an assistant came over to explain her curse box system for those who swore on set – it was fifty cents for ‘hell’, a dollar for ‘damn’ – so, imperturbable as ever, and whilst making eye-contact with her across the room, he asked in as loud a voice as possible, “Just how much does Miss Young charge for a ‘fuck’?”


*I should clarify that it IS a surprising biography in that it comes to 660 pages without any direct input from the man himself.
** It doesn’t help that, as with all linear narrative posthumous biographies, you know they die at the end...

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