Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star

Image of Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star
Release Date: 
August 27, 2013
Thomas Dunne Books
Reviewed by: 

“. . . to be lauded for his scholarship and the depth of his research. . . . both thorough and complete. His failure is in not bringing Swanson alive in these pages.”

Written in a style that sometimes seems to awkwardly blend that of an overly long high school term paper and with the worshipful, purple prose of a movie fan magazine, and featuring some of the stranger attributions in recent memory (“’It must be admitted that few, if any, of Gloria’s films were exactly works of art,’ wrote another film historian” is but one striking example of an attribution that would get that high school student a “D”), Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by biographer-to-the-stars Stephen Michael Shearer introduces Miss Swanson to his reader thusly:

“Gloria Swanson might have been tiny (only 4’11” tall), but as we all know, she was also big. (It was the pictures that got small.) How big was Swanson? It’s hard to believe.

She was actress, producer, businesswoman, fashion designer, writer, nutritionist, self-publicist, pioneer health food advocate, wife to six husbands, mother of three, grandmother of seven, and yes, of course, a world-famous silent movie star, one of the few who continued her fame into the sound era. Although most people know her only as Norma Desmond, the tragic has-been from Sunset Boulevard (1950), Swanson’s life and career were nothing short of spectacular.”

Would that Swanson’s biography were likewise.

I mean, given the subject chosen and the material at hand, spectacular should have been an understatement.

Consider this brief, but far more colorful memory of Swanson’s life from Billy Wilder, the man who both wrote (with Charles Brackett) and directed Sunset Boulevard:

“You must remember that this was a star who at one time was carried in a sedan chair from her dressing room to the soundstage. When she married the Marquis de la Falaise and came back from Europe to New York and by train from there to Hollywood people were strewing rose petals in her direction . . .”

To be succinct, what’s missing in The Ultimate Star is that sedan chair, those rose petals.

Instead the author makes a dogged attempt at giving his reader a complete list of Swanson’s acting roles, from her early silent films entitled Don’t Change Your Husband (Directed by Decil B. DeMille), Her Gilded Cage, and What A Widow! to her later guest starring roles on television’s Burke’s Law and Alfred Hitchcock Presents—to say nothing of her final starring role in the made-for-television movie The Killer Bees.

Which is all well and good.

But what is missing from that list is anything that yields any understanding of what it felt like to be that lady in that sedan chair or, for that matter, what drove the woman to allow herself, while well up in her seventh decade, to allow herself to be swarmed by bees (albeit with their stingers individually snipped, but still), all for the enjoyment of the pop-culture-drenched television audience.

In writing his book, perhaps the author forgot that we are even more drenched in pop culture today than we were back in the ’70s.

In selecting Gloria Swanson, Stephen M. Shearer selected a Hollywood archetype:

An actress so obsessed with age that she dressed her children in bonnets and rompers when they were far beyond having taken their first steps, all for appearances sake.

An actress who sat in her dressing room for a seemingly endless amount of time, just as actress and rival Pola Negri did in hers, because neither was willing to enter a banquet room first and therefore be considered the lesser star.

A movie star (and health food enthusiast) who would attend swank Hollywood parties with her own hamper of food that she would send into the kitchen with special instructions for heating and serving given to the staff.

And a Hollywood icon, about whom Richard Chamberlain (then television’s Doctor Kildare) recalled:

“She was terrific, but bizarre to work with. In television, time is of the essence, and our first morning’s work she was in her [character’s] hospital bed. Suddenly in between takes she said, ‘Helen, Helen.’ And her maid comes in with her breakfast. This elaborate breakfast on a big silver tray and everything stops because she is having her breakfast in bed. Nobody dared say anything because she was a real tigress and there she was and that happened every day.”

This is the best of the book’s contents—these moments when the author borrows the rich commentary that others, like Chamberlain, had to say about Swanson in their own memoirs and autobiographies. But Shearer invests no time and energy in tracking down Mr. Chamberlain and others and getting their memories directly. He is content to allow his library to fill the pages of his book for him.

Which is not to say that there is nothing of value here. No, especially the reader who is not already aware of Gloria Swanson, her loves (including Joseph Kennedy, the father of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, with whom she had a three-year affair) and her almost unbelievable fame in the era of the silent films, to say nothing of the behind-the-scenes tales of the making of Sunset Boulevard, will find much to admire here.

But students of film history will find nothing new, no reason to jump into this lengthy new volume. Most especially since Gloria Swanson herself gave us Swanson on Swanson, which remains perhaps the definitive movie star memoir, in which she herself, among other things, revealed the details of her romance with Joseph Kennedy.

No less than The New York Times declared “movie stars’ memoirs don’t get any better than Swanson on Swanson, a peppery account of a clever and headstrong individual.” Which makes it tempting to suggest that the reader would do better to lay hands on the original, although it must be pointed out that the reader will get a great deal of Swanson on Swanson here, as Mr. Shearer borrows from it rather heavily.

As Gloria Swanson was arguably “The Ultimate Star” and as she most certainly was the best-cast actress in any single film role, ever, when she was handed the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a role that eerily echoed her own earlier fame and (1950) present-day obscurity—just as it foretold her future tendency to fall prey to charming younger (and younger still as she grew older) men—in looking back on the whole of her life, as a woman, an actress and an icon representing Hollywood at both its heights and its depths, surely, surely she deserved a book more vibrant, more crackling with life force than the work at hand.

Stephen Shearer, an author whose previous works include biographies of actresses Hedy Lamarr and Patricia Neal, is to be lauded for his scholarship and the depth of his research. Also for the fact that this volume is both thorough and complete.

His failure is in not bringing Swanson alive in these pages. Nowhere does the reader register the sparkle in her eyes, looming large in close-up on the silent screen as she gazes deeply into Valentino’s. And nowhere do we get the agonizing, cathartic thrill that we do as we watch Swanson as Norma Desmond, writhing her way down that Hollywood staircase, letting the world know that she, mad as a hatter, aged beyond recognition, was still ready for her closeup.

And that, if you ask me, is a pity.