Aidan Smith: Tales of the unexpected from old-school Hollywood

Actress Debbie Reynolds. Picture: Archive Photos/Getty Images
Actress Debbie Reynolds. Picture: Archive Photos/Getty Images
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The recollections of Debbie Reynolds enliven a year with few big hitting biographies, but Brian Blessed plays his part, writes Aidan Smith

Famous for playing singing nuns and for singin’ in the rain, Debbie Reynolds may not strike you as an actress likely to kiss ’n’ tell. Old-school Hollywood, you might think – sweet and innocent like her characters. But at 83 she decided the time was right for a series of anecdotes you might call squirm ’n’ run ’n’ tell.

Brian Blessed. Picture: Getty Images

Brian Blessed. Picture: Getty Images

With the showbiz trouper’s perfect timing she waited until the end of a less than vintage year for memoirs to describe the night she was groped by the Duke of Edinburgh. “Almost immediately he was holding my hand – then he caressed my backside,” Reynolds writes in Make ’Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends (William Morrow, £18.99). “I wasn’t sure if he was making a pass or just exercising some royal rights to squeeze the foreigners.”

Such confusion was a familiar Reynolds state. Everyone else on the movie lot seemed to be at it, including Jean Simmons with Richard Burton while hubby Stewart Granger slept upstairs. Reynolds was confused by the sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll 1970s, confused by the pot hanging from trees at parties. She once admitted that her big regret was not having had enough sex, but she just kept meeting the wrong libidinous producer, the wrong libidinous comedian. First husband (of three) Eddie Fisher used to say: “Let’s have sex. You get started and I’ll join you later.” How confusing!

These weren’t even the only Reynolds memoirs to surface in the month of November. Burt’s But Enough About Me (Blink, £20) also featured a royal revelation. When the Smokey and the Bandit star’s bitter divorce from Loni Anderson was tabloid fodder in the 1980s, Princess Diana sent a letter thanking him for keeping her off the cover of People magazine.

This Reynolds had a lot of regrets. He shouldn’t have spurned the advances of a “mature, beautiful woman” with a “low, whiskey voice” – Greta Garbo. He shouldn’t have let Sally Field go. He shouldn’t have posed nude for Cosmopolitan. He shouldn’t have turned down the lead roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Pretty Woman. Reynolds tended to phone in his performances but acknowledges that Starting Over – a romcom when they were good – was his best work.

Not a classic year for biographies, as I say, but two caught the eye having shared a long gestation although that’s all they had in common. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (Bodley Head, £35) was first published in 1974 but only surfaced here this year. It’s 1,315 pages on urban planning which might sound like 1,300 too many on the subject, but this is the story of Robert Moses who virtually owned New York after building 700 miles of road, 658 playgrounds, seven bridges, the United Nations HQ and the Central Park zoo. He reshaped the city. No, he destroyed communities. He was a true visionary. No, he was a non-driver who let the car become king. It’s some debate and one thing’s for sure: this thumping great book could hold up one of his bridges.

Marty Feldman set aside eYE Marty (Coronet, £20) after completing it in 1982 and went to Mexico to shoot a film, only to die there at the age of 48. Thirty years later, after his widow passed away, the manuscript was discovered in her attic, and it seems entirely apt that the autobiography of this daft genius, with his bug eyes and sad demeanour, should arrive from beyond the grave. It was a fascinating tale because the stories of his contemporaries – David Frost, Monty Python – have been over-told but also because Feldman was great. What was the defining comedy sketch from his era – the upper/middle/working class routine in The Frost Report, perhaps? Marty co-wrote it.

There was another Frost book this year. Frost: That Was the Life That Was (WH Allen, £25) could have been a great one, considering the access to family and friends Neil Hegarty was given, but it was too slow-moving for a subject who could never sit still and too deferential.

Steve Coogan can’t sit still either. His memoirs were called Easily Distracted (Century, £20) and at times they read just like his Alan Partridge biog, for instance: “When Dad announced he was buying a Volvo, I said to myself, ‘Thank God!’” The book was good on Coogan’s childhood but those looking for scandal would be disappointed. The wilderness years hardly featured, the wild ones even less so.

Finally, Brian Blessed’s Absolute Pandemonium (Sidgwick & Jackson, £20) was a hoot. He seemed to include absolutely everything, including his mother’s first impressions of him – she found him so repulsive that she was convinced she’d given birth to a toad – and his first word: “Bugger.” n