- American BiographyThe Year in the US
Biography suffers from what I am going to call the significant subject syndrome. Choose to write about an American president, especially for a trade house or a prestigious university press, and you are automatically accorded due deference in The New York Times and other major publications. Over the last publishing season well-received biographies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, by John A. Farrell and Bob Spitz, join other recent presidential narratives of Grant and Nixon by Ron Chernow and Evan Thomas. The demand for such reassessment is insatiable. But even if the president is Calvin Coolidge—not one of the top-tier choices for biographers—you will find the book in an airport bookshop, as I did, when it was first published in 2013.
What you will not find at the airport is Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, Alan K. Rode's splendid 2017 biography of Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and White Christmas (1954)—to name just four of his most famous, popular, and successful films. Coolidge is a priori considered more important (reviewed in The New York Times Book Review), while Curtiz is ignored. Who the subject is and who publishes the book outweighs the biography's quality or even its cultural importance. Might it be said that from a certain point of view Curtiz's contribution to the construction of American identity is as significant—or dare I say more significant—than Coolidge's?
The University Press of Kentucky published the Curtiz biography, and that means the book will not be as widely distributed and reviewed as a trade book—no matter how diligent the publisher might be in sending out advance reading copies. A biographer of a film subject might have a better shot at a Times review and major distribution if, like James Curtis, he writes about Spencer Tracy, often considered the greatest male actor in Hollywood history, and the biography is published by the prestigious Knopf imprint. The pecking order is not just a matter of the publishing industry, or of media bias, but is also upheld by biographers too. A member of the New York University Biography seminar said to me when I told her I was writing a biography of Dana Andrews, a star of the 1940s: "Isn't he too small of a subject?" I [End Page 168] wish I had the wit then to say, "No, no small subjects. Only small biographers." A reviewer of my Rebecca West biography, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, marveled that someone who could write a biography about Marilyn Monroe would turn to such an important literary figure. When I mentioned a long biography of Barbara Stanwyck, which was only the first volume, a biographer of political figures said to me flat out: "No actor is worth a thousand pages." And look who wins the awards. Rarely is it the biographer of a film figure unless the subject is someone as hallowed and controversial as Orson Welles.
Some major newspapers—notably The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post—do in fact review books like Rode's Curtiz biography. In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan, noting the hundred plus films Curtiz directed, including ninety-four at Warner Brothers, which defined his dazzling pictorial technique, identifies why until now there has been no biography of the director and why Rode's biography, "thoroughly researched," is so important: "You never got the sense Curtiz felt some kinds of films were more important than others." In short, the director was devoted to film, not to the subjects of film, just as a student or reviewer of biography ought to be concerned with biography, not just the subject of that biography. Curtiz did not fit the "auteur theory." He did not author films, imposing his vision on them, but instead surrendered himself to the script and brought to it his compositional genius. As Scott Eyman puts it in The Wall Street Journal, Curtiz's camera was "an active participant, a searcher after crucial emotional moments, making for a dynamic style that was a strong influence on the young...