March may be the least glamorous time of the year. Award season is finally over, spring doesn’t officially start for another few weeks, and the greatest movies of 2015 likely won’t hit theaters for at least a few months. The best cure for what ails the deprived cinephile? Star memoirs. Referred to as “diva lit” by Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey, film actor autobiographies may not be especially truthful but they’re often juicy and even insightful. Here is a completely subjective bibliography of the best ones around – both in print and out – with a big tip of the hat to helpful colleagues whose bookshelves also buckle under the weight of these dishy tomes.
By Myself by Lauren Bacall
Bacall won a National Book Award for this memoir, and, boy, did she deserve it. A characteristically sly-eyed account of this “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn” who became Humphrey Bogart’s better half (on and off screen), it captures the magic of Hollywood without pulling any punches. Of her relationship with Bogie, she writes: “When we looked at each other, trumpets sounded, rockets went off.”
Talullah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead
With tales of entertaining the Wright brothers as a child, cavorting with monkeys as an aspiring actress, and a whole lot of Kentucky bourbon consumption, the screen siren’s memoir is as outrageous as the rest of her persona. Says she: “I have three phobias which, could I mute them, would make my life as slick as a sonnet, but as dull as ditch water – I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone.”
Little Girl Lost by Drew Barrymore
Published when she was still a teen, this Debbie Downer diary outlines Barrymore’s struggles with addiction – starting with a booze habit at age nine and a coke habit at age twelve – as well as her issues with her old Hollywood family. The kind-hearted, eccentric powerhouse of today is nowhere to be found in this book, which only makes it more intriguing in hindsight.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks
In this slim collection of essays, Brooks recounts her swift rise and even swifter descent as Hollywood’s favorite bobbed star in crisp, unapologetic prose. She writes: “I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away.” With incisive observations about American film (and how it chews up and spits out women), this is an essential for feminists and film lovers alike.
The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton
Though Burton passed away more than three decades ago, his journals weren’t published until after ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor’s death – and for good reason. His details about the violet-eyed siren are as salacious as they come: “Elizabeth is an eternal one-night stand. She is my private and personal bought mistress. And lascivious with it.” A voracious reader, Burton proved an impressive – if booze-soaked – writer, as well.
Why Me? by Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. may be remembered now as the king of shtick but in his first bestselling memoir he established that his shtick enabled him to break all kinds of racial barriers. A true testament to the power of positive thinking – and to the fact that a cigar, at least when brandished by Davis, was never just a cigar.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
First and foremost, Tina Fey is a writer, and her memoir does not disappoint. Ribald, unabashedly feminist, and direct about the entertainment industry, she is so funny that we scarcely notice how few personal details she actually reveals. About her collaborations with Amy Poehler, she writes, “I guess that director at The Second City who said the audience ‘didn’t want to see a sketch with two women’ can go shit in his hat.”
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn
Colorful, courageous, boastful: With tales of love affairs, international adventures, and high (and low) crime, Flynn’s memoir is just what we’d expect from the swashbuckling early movie star. That it is probably fifty percent bullocks only makes it more glamorous. “All I had to do was stick my face into this gruesome mess and bite off the young sheep’s testicles. Dag a hogget. I had good teeth.”
Kinski Uncut by Klaus Kinski
The darkest horse on this list, the German actor’s memoir became a worldwide bestseller through the power of his unlimited gall. Ostensibly about his rise as an international star from a poor, prewar Berlin childhood, it doubles as a harrowing, pornographic piece of performance art from which we can’t avert our eyes.
Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman by Hedy Lamarr
To call Lamarr “sex-positive” would be a vast understatement. In these impressively uninhibited pages, she gets down and dirty about her six marriages as well as her “hundreds” of lovers. “I would tell anyone who wants something from someone else to feign not wanting it. People are perverse.” A fabulous read by a woman decades ahead of her time.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
Earnest and relentlessly optimistic, Lowe’s memoir could have been written by Chris Traeger, his “Parks and Recreation” character – if Traeger were a recovering addict who’s had more Hollywood ups and downs than … well, insert an undirty joke here; I can’t think of one, reader. This is literally the most fun ever.
My Lucky Stars by Shirley MacLaine
In her least new-agey memoir, the “Terms of Endearment” star recounts her high times with old and new Hollywood, from the Rat Pack to Debra Winger to her first director, good old “Hitch.” She even gets into the nitty-gritty of some of her extramarital affairs. All in all, a rewardingly prurient tell-all for such an evolved woman.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Agreeable title aside, Poehler’s memoir never panders – which is why it’s so great, if undeniably splapdash. She details her lower-middle class “Masshole” childhood, her “Saturday Night Live” days, and the struggles of raising boys in between a veritable litany of beefs: “Writing this book is like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.” Reading this is not.
Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor
Outrageously funny and outrageously sad, Pryor’s memoir captures the gestalt of who he was: a guy raised in a brothel, a freebasing cokehead, a scathingly brilliant cultural observer whose fears and furies translated into the most powerful comedy this country has ever seen. “What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.”
Unsinkable by Debbie Reynolds
In her second memoir, the “Singin’ in the Rain” star rolls up her sleeves and gets real about her financial struggles; her daughter, Carrie Fisher; Hollywood’s short memory; and her mentors including Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Reynolds doesn’t come off as a rose so much as a tough, likable broad who is still learning every day.
I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short
Garrulous, heart-wrenching, and wonderfully thorough, the henchman of out-there humor delivers fantastic story after fantastic story about every major player in the world of comedy since the early 1970s. About a party at which both Mike Nichols and Warren Beatty were in attendance, he writes: “Warren said, ‘I met Eleanor Roosevelt.’ Mike called out, ‘Did you fuck her?'”
Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth by Lana Turner
RogerEbert.com critic Sheila O’Malley compares Turner’s book to George Eliot’s works, and the comparison is apt – though the femme fatale was hardly a Silas Marner. In wonderfully charismatic prose, Turner tells a story so fascinating that her apparent self-absorption seems utterly merited. A sample: “I was bouncing back quickly, partly because of my natural resiliency. But I also had help. His name was Fernando Lamas.”
Goodness Has Nothing to Do With It by Mae West
Long after her substantial curves have gone out of fashion, the platinum blonde is still celebrated for her eminently quotable wit. West’s memoir may not be personally accurate (she always did like to control her public relations) but it’s chockablock with hard, cold facts about Hollywood, censorship, marriage, sex, and misogyny – not to mention her signature bad-girl quips. “A man in the house is worth two in the streets.”
This was originally published in Word and Film.