In The Company of Legends
“The rest of us would likely do better to get our celebrity fix elsewhere.”
From the strange little foreword in which actor Richard Dreyfus pays tribute to actors everywhere (“We walk around the world surrounded by loss, tragedy, anxiety and stress. Then an actor makes you laugh or focuses you on some part of the human experience. It’s known as a ‘mitzvah.’”) through the whole of this dual memoir, the reader feels a bit like a ping pong ball.
This is because our two authors, apparently not willing to settle on an actual text, have, instead, shaped their book into something like a “mockumentary” on the printed page.
The book is structured into comments by Joan Kramer (each introduced by her initials “JK”) bouncing off of remembrances by her producing partner David “DH” Heeley, in a manner rather like the running commentaries of Hollywood celebrities (Joanne Woodward and Richard Dreyfuss loom large and Katharine Hepburn stands as a colossus, dwarfing all others, with Golden Age greats like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall, among many others, in supporting roles.) in the sort of tribute documentaries that Kramer and Heeley invented way, way back in the ’80s.
Now the stuff of TCM, these documentaries were then the domain of PBS, the place in which the televised re-evaluations of the careers of Hollywood greats was born.
But there is an odd aspect to the ongoing volley of the books commentary. If the reader is to accept the device of the two authors “speaking” their joint memoir—if the reader is, in other words, to riffle through this “in their own words” book, and “hear” the words, as if each author had spoken his or hers to the reader’s “mind’s ear,” then what is the reader to make of the many sections that are introduced by “JK and “DH”? Is this an indication that the two authors are in these instances merging into a Greek chorus and speaking the words in unison?
It is an awkward device and not a worthwhile one. How much better if the book had simply been written as a unified whole, a memoir of a television producing team.
Which brings to mind another awkward aspect.
After jumping past Richard Dreyfus’s brief foreword, in which he chooses not to introduce the actual book or its authors, but instead praise the art of acting and to point out that actors, unlike everyone else, are truly beloved (“Here’s a secret: People come up to an actor on the street and say, ‘Thank you.’ They don’t say that to their rabbis, their divorce lawyers or their neurourgeons.”) the reader is left with a simple question: Who are Joan Kramer and David Heeley?
It is a legit question as questions go.
And it is left unanswered in the author’s first chapter “Back Story,” which, given the title, is a sensible enough place to have put it.
Instead, JK gives us her background as a ballet dancer and assistant choreographer (“From the age of seven I mingled with people from the worlds of music, dance, opera, and arts, and always felt comfortable talking to anyone of any age.”), while DH shares the fact that he is British.
Neither tells us why they have written this book, or why we should be familiar with their work, or who the hell they are.
Ultimately, the reader gets it and becomes aware that JK and DH were, as producing partners, responsible for the 1986 PBS special A Tribute to Spencer Tracy, in which Ms. Hepburn, for the first time, spoke of her relationship with Tracy and, at the end of the documentary, read a letter that she had written to him. (Note to those under 50: it caused quite a stir at the time.) and that they produced a number of other celebrity tributes as well.
The whole of the book gives the reader an insider’s view into the producing of that special (evil Elizabeth Taylor kept everyone waiting for hours before giving her interview about working with Spencer Tracy in two films, Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, wonderful Katharine Hepburn gave the producers ice cream) and others reexamining the careers and lives of Fred Astaire, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn (in a separate program, the 1991 special Katharine Hepburn: All About Me), Errol Flynn, and Bette Davis, kind of (she is the subject of a brief, mean-spirited chapter in which she asks our producers for help in putting together a tribute of her own).
The fact that the memoir is self-congratulatory is one thing (it is a memoir of the sort in which our heroes overcome difficulties of the sort that Elizabeth Taylor presents—not only was she late, but she wanted the producers to pay for her make-up and hair), only to go on to win Emmys and build friendships from everyone who matters; the fact that the book is rather dull is another.
In the Company of Legends belongs on the bookshelves of only the most fervent fans of Old Hollywood (especially of Katharine Hepburn, who fusses her way through likely a third of the book’s nearly 400 pages), or those who so loved PBS in the good old days that they still have video cassettes of local pledge drives from the ‘80s.
And of those who thank actors more fervently than they do neurosurgeons.
The rest of us would likely do better to get our celebrity fix elsewhere.