by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax (William Morrow, 1997)
Bogart is not just a movie star biography. Perhaps no other book has provided a more graphic rendering of the life of a contract player when the studios ruled Hollywood, or has so dramatically captured what happened in the late 1940’s as some of the biggest names in the industry pitted themselves against the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early days of the Cold War. Sourcing more than two hundred interviews with everyone from famous co-workers like Katharine Hepburn and John Huston to behind-the-scenes publicists and makeup artists (and even a bellman who served Bogart one memorable night at the Beverly Hills Hotel), as well as a trove of memos, letters, script reports, and contracts from the Warner Bros. archives at the University of Southern California, and finally Bogart’s two-inch-thick FBI folder obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Sperber and Lax tell the full story of a Hollywood legend while re-creating the history of Hollywood’s famously political era.
From Los Angeles Times Book Review by David Thompson
No one had much right to expect that “Bogart” would be an immediate triumph, but I believe it is. So rich in its research, so compelling in its writing, it is an absorbing human story that reveals an exact understanding of the motion picture business in the age of Humphrey Bogart, who died 40 years ago.
That lack of advance faith has nothing to do with the caliber of the authors. It was a consequence of Bogart being done and done in print, beyond staleness or cliche. There were already at least nine books on him, to say nothing of Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself” or John Huston’s “An Open Book,” both essential to the record. Even now, the fertile literary biographer Jeffrey Meyers has branched out into movies and done “Bogart: A Life in Hollywood,” more interesting than most of the others but helplessly unlucky in coinciding with A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s book and unable to keep up with their access to waiters, bit-part players, hairdressers, cronies, onlookers, agents and chauffeurs, as well as the big names who knew Bogart.
Ann Sperber (the author of a fine book on Edward R. Murrow, a Bogart-like character himself) died in 1994. By then, she had accumulated more than 150 interviews and spent several seasons in the Warner Bros. archive at USC (Bogart was at Warners for decades, bucking its system, fighting Jack Warner, feeling exploited, wasted and deceived but thriving there too). She had “a quarter-ton of research” and a draft of a book. I’m quoting Lax (author of “Woody Allen”), who took over the project (I’m not sure if he ever met Sperber) and did two more years of research and formed “the narrative into a finished piece.” We are left to marvel that two authors working separately could achieve so seamless a book. It’s something like the way a team of writers (only a few of them credited) somehow cobbled together another classic, “Casablanca.”
Of course, Bogart was a star in his own day: In the years just after World War II, he was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. The improvement in his fortunes that began with the more sympathetic and expansive roles in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” and that soared with the immaculate romance and “living history” of “Casablanca,” was topped off by the fairy-tale love affair with Bacall, the purest “scenario” that ever came Bogart’s way.
The charm of his life and the crux of “Bogart” is how a rather bitter, cynical man found fresh life and hope at 45. Though he lived only 12 more years, it was enough for the greatest happiness of his life (including children) and for the status of contemporary icon to settle on him. In movies like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “In a Lonely Place,” “The African Queen,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Barefoot Contessa” and “The Harder They Fall,” we were seeing not just the range of the actor but the confidence with which he played off his and our notions of “Bogie.” Never sentimental, pretty, obvious or ingratiating, he had lasted long enough for the American hero to catch up with his wry, fatalistic antiheroism.
He had become a legendary figure, nearly bald in private and haunted by approaching cancer, but his deadpan eyes were forever staring us down beneath the crisp promontory of a toupee on screen. Yet I suspect that Bogart became larger still after his death. He is the image that Jean-Paul Belmondo salutes in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”–the saint of modern noir–just as his movies led the way in repertory theaters across the nation in the ’60s and ’70s. A new young generation fell in love with the laconic acting style and the tough attitude that so artfully masked wishful thinking. Along with a few others–Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and John Wayne–Bogart taught us to see how the best movie acting was a model for stoic behavior: Don’t explain, don’t complain and, when the going gets rough, be ready with a wisecrack. In life, Bogie could be spiteful, dishonest with women, a needler, an ugly drinker. But no one has ever questioned his magnificent solitude on screen, the way a moody close-up guards him against the common anxieties of life.
And no one will ever make that charge stick because Bogart was an honest believer in his own myth. He smelled rubbish scripts when they were offered, and he resisted doing those pictures, as far as a contract actor was able to. He would call acting just a job, and he had moments when he saw how foolish the movies were. But he was proud of being professional, of standing up and of uttering the dumb lines even when he was too drunk for company. Like his best characters, he kidded the flimflam of pictures and he always felt shy doing love scenes. But behind the grave eyes and the sardonic voice, he believed in the code of Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe and so on. As Huston put it in his eulogy: “He regarded the somewhat gaudy figure of Bogart, the star, with amused cynicism: Bogart the actor he held in deep respect.” And so, he was the ideal actor for the moment when movies turned self-aware or even camp. Few other stars would have contemplated, let alone felt, the parody of “Beat the Devil.”
The proof of his integrity lies in how his stance in movies–his relationship with the camera–shifted as he was allowed, after years of snarling villainy, to play better men, not always simple heroes but guys whose decency had been bruised or disappointed. He talked less and listened more on screen. Think of the nod in “Casablanca” that tells the band to play “La Marseillaise” or the slow grin that observes Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” and you can see inwardness, soul and intelligence coming to life. He took his time and held the camera the way a poker player holds his cards. He let us imagine what he was thinking. He had always wanted to be a good man, or one who knew the inside dope. With that gift of authority, his once fearful eyes turned smoky and amused.
Still, “Bogart” gives a clear portrait of the unhappiness or difficulty of his life. Not that he was underprivileged. Humphrey DeForest Bogart (born on Christmas Day, 1899) was part of the upper-middle class. He spent his youth in a townhouse on Riverside Drive or at a fine estate on Canandaigua Lake in western upstate New York.
His father was a successful doctor; his mother was a well-known illustrator of children’s books. But they were not tender. His father had a savage temper, and his mother could hardly voice her feelings. The boy was often left with servants who beat and abused him–the exceptional research in “Bogart” is apparent in the unearthing of childhood friends who recall the sound and sight of undue punishment.
Humphrey was expelled from Phillips Andover Academy, and he joined the Navy at the close of World War I. The legend has it that it was during that service that he got the wound that scarred his lip and left him with an intriguing lisp. Sperber and Lax effectively rule out that combat story. They think the damage was done during one of the barroom brawls the young man courted.
From the Navy, he went to Broadway, where he began to get parts in the early ’20s. But he made no great progress. By the early ’30s, he was doing a few movies. On camera, his dark looks cast him in stock villainy and he became a second-string player at Warner Bros., the studio that liked tough talk and gangsterese and that had James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni (and later the fatuous George Raft) as stars and blocks in Bogart’s way.
His first real break came with the role of hoodlum Duke Mantee, opposite Leslie Howard, in the Broadway production of Robert E. Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest.” When the movie was made in 1936, Warners bowed to Howard’s insistence that Bogart keep his role. But in the late ’30s, Bogart’s career was stalled, as he played con men and crooks, killers and whiners. He died violently and uneasily in many of his pictures, as if some deep-seated urge told him that he deserved better. His personal life was a wreck. By then, he was on his third wife, Mayo Methot (they married in 1938). She was a failed actress and singer, a tragic figure, a drunk and a fighter. The couple were notorious for their rows, and she once stuck a knife in him. He had to learn his lines every morning on the set because there was no peace at home.
Then came rescue, starting with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon,” both of which owed a lot to Huston, who became maybe the best friend he ever had. Huston could read Bogart and challenge him. Then along came Bacall–19, insolent, phenomenally gorgeous, sophisticated and able to coax the actor into cross-talking love scenes, so that he relaxed and everyone on the set of “To Have and Have Not” knew something was happening. Methot guessed, too, and so “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” (the perfect rendering of director Howard Hawks’ dream of a man of action, who wins the best women in sight without turning sentimental or needy) were made amid huge personal distress. But Methot had to take a divorce, and Bogie and “the Look” married. It worked, thank God. If it had not, I dare say Bogart would have died earlier, and movie buffs might lack one of their best justifications for dreaming.
In fact, Bogart-Bacall had its rocky moments. Bogart kept an interest in the hairdresser who tended his toupee, and Bacall was smitten with Frank Sinatra. (Meyers is more blunt about this than Sperber and Lax.) Moreover, in his attempt to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Bogart revealed a naivete and an urge to run for cover when pressed. In life, he didn’t always get the last cool word. Then he died of cancer, reduced to 65 pounds but never resorting to complaining or self-pity.
He did believe in the screen’s code, a kind of ironic heroism that he was best at, and it sustained. Sperber and Lax appreciate the levels of courage in Bogie–whether acted or real–and they have written a book that sets standards for research and evidence in the life of an actor. Bogie is no longer just the famous stills and the undying lines; he has become a human being.
From Publishers Weekly
It’s a double-bogey April with this second biography of Humphrey Bogart to appear this year, the 40th anniversary of the actor’s death. Before her own death in 1994, biographer Sperber (Murrow) collected a “quarter ton of research” on the star, complied from 200 interviews with those who knew him (including John Huston, Katharine Hepburn and director Richard Brooks) and from her work in the Warner Bros. archives at USC. Her rough draft of the book was completed by Lax (Woody Allen). The result is a longer and much more detailed account of Bogart’s life than can be found in the Meyers, gracefully written and somewhat savvier about the film business than Meyers’s account. Thanks to Sperber’s exhaustive research and Lax’s own expertise in film history, the book gives a full and especially harrowing account of Bogart’s political activities during the Hollywood red scare of the early fifties. Bogart was unusually brave to begin with, standing up to HUAC with several other stars (Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly), but then was bullied by his studio into backing down and recanting his earlier position. There are also full and entertaining accounts of the production histories of Bogart’s major films. Still, both biographies are more or less equally insightful, presenting fundamentally the same portrait of the man himself: sensitive and often melancholy, with a bitter wit and a bit of a cruel streak, but courageous in his way, a hard-working and generous professional with an extraordinary screen presence. The reader’s choice between these two fine biographies is liable to come down to just how much detail one wants to know about Humphrey Bogart. The Sperber/Lax includes a listing of Bogart’s Broadway performances, an exhaustive filmography and 40 b&w photos, not seen by PW. Author tour. (Apr).
From Library Journal
Much of the literature on Humphrey Bogart focuses on the source of his enduring appeal, and until now there has not been an in-depth biography. The clear winner between these two titles is the Sperber-Lax collaboration. Sperber (Murrow: His Life and Times, Freundlich, 1986) did all the interviews and wrote a first version of the manuscript; after her death, Lax finished the writing. Sperber’s more than 200 interviews and time spent in the Warner Brothers studio archives paid off. This model biography should become the standard study of Bogart. Meyers (Robert Frost, LJ 4/15/96) is taking on his first Hollywood subject, and it shows. His descriptions and analyses of the studio system don’t carry the authority they should. He does add interesting anecdotes to the record, but only the largest collections will want to purchase both books. Thomas Wiener, “Satellite DIRECT”