Clearly John Gavin Shot His Puppy

Sam Staggs has created a franchise telling the stories of the making of classic motion pictures. Behind the Movie - complete with tragedy, triumph, sex-capades and substance abuse. I greatly enjoyed Stagg's first three offerings (on All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and A Streetcar Named Desire) in part because he treated these fine movies as classics without becoming too precious or too snobby about the whole thing. He writes as an intelligent movie fan for other intelligent fans who aren't above sharing a juicy bit of gossip.

This latest outing - the story of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life - finds Mr Staggs having misplaced his sense of humor. Early on Staggs makes it clear that Imitation is a movie that changed his life and his analysis proceeds from there. Like his two earlier books Staggs provides plenty of backstage gossip about the stars and fascinating details about the making of the movie itself. When Staggs sticks to the story behind the story and writes like a fan telling another fan about their favorite movie of all time this is an entertaining book. But this outing just isn't as much fun for several reasons.

First, Staggs takes this movie way too seriously. I'm all for reclaiming popular art as art. I'm also not in the least snobby about the emotional impact even the lowest of art can have on the viewer. But making a case for Imitation as one of the best movies ever made? There you're on your own, Sam. Especially when he has to go through such contortions to explain away the "blonde half" of the movie starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. This would be the part of the movie so beloved by fans of camp - until you've seen Lana "acting" like someone "acting" you just haven't lived - and it's entertaining in its way. It is, however, melodrama, no matter how much Staggs dislikes the word. Melodrama is all about heightened emotions, and what's wrong with that? But whenever Stagg tries to convince the reader that Douglas Sirk was achieving something brilliant by having a weak actress playing another weak actress he lost me. No, Sirk was doing the best he could with the actress he had. This wasn't all part of some cunning plan.

Second, Staggs can't seem to keep his mind on the topic at hand. If Staggs goes easy on Lana, not that I mind, he's downright vicious to John Gavin. I'm not a big fan of John Gavin, I wouldn't even call him an actor if I could think of another word for someone who appears in movies and recites his lines accurately but he's far from the worst thing ever to hit the cinema. Staggs' enmity for Gavin goes beyond his limited thespian skills and seems to have something to do with the fact that Gavin didn't like to do shirtless scenes. Staggs attributes this reluctance to Gavin's political beliefs. Instead of the more believable idea that Gavin was insecure about his acting and didn't want to be sold as a slab of beefcake. Despite the fact that several interviewees declare John Gavin to be a nice man Staggs isn't having any of it. You'd think Staggs would have a little fun with the man who nearly replaced Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever (the first American James Bond!) but, no.

The only things that piss Staggs off more than John Gavin are the Catholic Church, Condeleeza Rice and George W. Bush. Again, I have no quarrel with this beyond the fact that these three have nothing to do with the movie in question. I do not know the Catholic Church official opinion on Imitation of Life. Nor do I know whether Condie or George have ever seen this movie, whether they like it or not, or where they stand on who stabbed Johnny Stompanato. And since Staggs doesn't see fit to share any of this with the reader I don't know why any of them make appearances. He also doesn't bother to place the movie in the political context of its own time so these current asides are doubly weird. These venomous drive-by remarks only serve to jar the reader out of the narrative and, ultimately, to date this book.

Third, Staggs is so partisan that he fails to see the virtues of the 1934 film version of the 1959 version. In the earlier film, the main characters are business partners; in the remake, Annie Johnson doesn't help create a business, she's the maid to a self-absorbed actress. In 1934, an African-American actress plays a young woman who "passes for white." In the 1959 version, a white actresses passes for white. Which sounds more ground breaking to you?

Finally, Staggs is so convinced of the greatness of the 1959 version and Douglas Sirk in general that he doesn't bother to make a convincing case for either. They're both great, and if you don't get it Staggs doesn't want to know you. That and the endless, pointless axe grinding (what does he have against poor Celeste Holm and Claudette Colbert?) makes this a disappointment.

Kindle version: no photographs and some glitches in the linked Table of Contents.

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