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Judi Dench and why actor autobiographies are better than political memoirs

March 15, 2010

Judi Dench

Remember what I said recently about the plague of political memoirs? The opposite is true when it comes to autobiographies by great (and not-so-great) actors. They always have juicy stuff to retail, know how to tell a story, and often write well, too. Judi Dench, whose new memoir comes out in October, gives rise to high expectations.

Titled And Furthermore (can’t you just hear her saying that, in a plummy, slightly acidic tone?), the book will presumably detail a rich professional (and we can only hope, private) life from youthful beginnings at the Old Vic in 1957 to her latest triumph as “M” to Daniel Craig’s athletic new-model Bond.

Of course, if you’re British that’s “Dame Judi Dench” to you, but we don’t truck in titles here in the lower-case democratic U.S. of A. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love Judi just as much as we possibly can. Most of us first took serious note of her in Shakespeare in Love (1998), wherein she played Queen Elizabeth and won an Oscar for, I don’t know, about 5 minutes of screen time.

Before the mid-’90s, Dench was mainly a distinguished stage actress, lauded for her mastery of the Shakespeare canon, although she did appear in a movie here and there. Her turn as Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown made her a film star. Since she has appeared in all kinds of movies, from Chocolat (2000) with Juliet Binoche, to Notes on a Scandal (2006) with Cate Blanchett, to The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) with (I kid you not) Vin Diesel.

Young Judi -- 1968.

Alas, Dench was (presumably) happily married to fellow actor Michael Williams from 1971 until his death in 2001, which is bad for the potential dish quotient of the new book. Though good for her; yes, yes, good for Judi. Still, she’s known everyone in theater and film since the 1950s, a period of great artistic and technological change.

Surely a dame as grand as Judi Dench will write a beautiful, lively prose. She’ll have to if she wants her book to rank among the best show biz memoirs. Here are a few of my favorites:

Christopher Plummer, In Spite of Myself (2008). The greatest actor alive, for my money, Plummer writes in rollicking soliloquies, and he holds nothing back — about his carousing, womanizing, his hatred of The Sound of Music, his reverence for the stage, his successful struggle against alcohol, and his love of Montreal and New York of the 1950s. Outstanding.

And That’s Not All: The Memoirs of Joan Plowright (2001). The acclaimed British actress focuses primarily on her 25-year marriage to Lawrence Olivier, the world’s greatest actor of a previous generation. Frank, affecting.

Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir, by Sylvia Krystel (2007). Guess what? After becoming a world sex icon for her starring roles in the groundbreaking Emmanuelle erotic  films, Krystel stumbled into alcoholism, drugs, cancer. Can’t a girl find love in this world? I know this sounds like standard “Behind the Music” stuff, but Krystel writes with elegance, humor, acceptance.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell. This is a grade B book by a grade B actor, but Campbell is also one of the most beloved cult figures in modern American film, and he writes with a straightforward jocular cynicism about his early days making the Evil Dead trilogy with Sam Raimi. Funny and endearing.

I know a lot of other great actor memoirs exist — Lauren Bacall’s By Myself is considered among the best, but I haven’t read it.

What show biz autobiographies do you like best? Please share.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 12:24 pm

    I loooove all of Antony Sher’s autobiographical works. He is probably best known for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, like his Olivier Award-winning Richard III in the 80s. Like Dame Judi, he held a small role in Shakespeare in Love (he was the psychiatrist who gave will the serpent bracelet).
    Sher has written at least three autobiographies:
    1. Year of the King – a memoir of his process in getting cast and creating his ‘bottled spider’ Richard III character.
    2. Woza Shakespeare! – collborating with his now-husband (and RSC Associate Director) Gregory Doran, they detail their efforts to stage a South African adaptation of Titus Andronicus, starring Sher in the title role and directed by Doran.
    3. Beside Myself – Sher’s full-on autobiography, including his awkward childhood as a white, gay, Jewish South African, his conscription into the South African military, theatre school in London, his major roles, and his loves.
    What’s even more beautiful about these stories is that Sher doubles as an artist and you get to see his great sketches and images of his paintings to illustrate his thoughts.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 15, 2010 1:16 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’m not familiar with Sher, even though I see he’s been in some things that I saw, should have seen, or wish I’d seen. The latter includes The Enormous Space, BBC Four’s 2003 adaptation of a J.G. Ballard short story. It’s too bad we don’t get more good British TV here on these shores. BBC America is a pitiful disappointment. All inane reality shows, plus Graham Norton, plus Dr. Who…

    Anyway, thanks for the recommndations. Sher’s books sound good, especially No. 3.

  3. rachel permalink
    March 15, 2010 2:04 pm

    I have never read an actor autobiography, but I’ll admit that some of these sound interesting and I do see how they would be more intersting than political ones.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 2:12 pm

      And amazingly, more honest and less aggrandizing, too.

  4. Tommy permalink
    March 15, 2010 2:54 pm

    Movie stars are like normal people, only better. And politicians are like normal people, only worse.

    I have read some celebrity autobiographies in the past including, Howard Stern’s “Private Parts”, Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale”, Orson Welles’ almost autobiography “This Is Orson Welles” and Elia Kazan: A Life are among my favorites.

    If Chins Could Kill sounds like classic Campbell.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 3:09 pm

      That’s a very clever line, Tommy. Why am I not surprised you’ve read both Howard Stern and Jenna Jameson?

      • Tommy permalink
        March 16, 2010 2:21 pm

        Because you know me to be an eclectic reader and certainly not because you disparage me. Or maybe you do, either way it’s none of my business.

  5. Connie permalink
    March 15, 2010 2:57 pm

    Like Rachel…I’ve never read an actor’s biography. I’d be tempted by the Judi Dench one, though.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 3:09 pm

      I think you’d find the Christopher Plummer great fun, Connie.

  6. March 15, 2010 3:18 pm

    Tommie don’t I know your name. Interesting reading you have there. I want to read Chris Plummer. I saw him live at the Carosel doing the play Sound of Music when I was young. He did the movie a few years later. I always liked this gentleman.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 3:39 pm

      I will never, ever forget seeing Christopher Plummer play Iago against James Earl Jones’ Othello in Palm Beach about 1980 or so. And last year I got to meet him for a story I wrote for the Sun Sentinel. A classy gentleman, no doubt. Although no so classy that his memoir isn’t full of racy anecdotes.

  7. Alvaro permalink
    March 15, 2010 5:17 pm

    I’ve never read a “showbiz” autobiography but if there was ever one that I would love to get my hands on (if it exists) is Marlon Brando’s. I think for obvious reasons. Probably the most beloved and hated, as well as the most talented actor in Hollywood. But his personal life trumps what he did on the screen. As close second (honorable mention) has to be Jack Nicholson. Once again for his exploits on and off the screen.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 10:08 pm

      Brando’s autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, was published in 1994. It’s considered a good one, but not among the best. It’s beautifully illustrated, and the section on his childhood is excellent, as are his discussions of acting. But he reveals too little of his adult personal life. Jack Nicolson, by the way, once said of Brando, “When Marlon dies, everybody moves up one.”

  8. Alexis permalink
    March 15, 2010 7:22 pm

    Reading actor autobiographies really doesn’t appeal to me, as a general rule. There are just sooo many other things to read. It takes an actor like Bruce Campbell to write a book I would read (although, then I met him and was disillusioned.) However, I met the charming Christopher Plummer and still didn’t read his book. But I do get what you are saying about them being better then political memoirs. Do they get paid as much as politicians?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 15, 2010 10:12 pm

      Generally no, although Brando got $5 mil for his, and that was in the early ’90s. But as Alvaro says, he’s considered the greatest movie actor of all time (an opinion I do not share, by the way). Of course, the advances paid to actors for their memoirs depends upon a) their fame, and b) their notoriety. Dench has the first but not the second. Brando had both, and so would Nicholson, should he ever decide to write one. If he needs a ghostwriter/editorial consultant, I’m available.

      • alexis permalink
        March 16, 2010 9:17 am

        So, when I can’t get my manuscript published, I should just blame the politicians and not the actors? (To say nothing of the quality of the writing….)

  9. March 15, 2010 11:39 pm

    Chauncey, after all my Animals talk from a few weeks ago, I’m reading Eric Burdon’s autobiography. It’s fun stuff-sex, double-dealings, deceit, shady characters, mobsters, etc. But come on, I dobt too many of these celebrities are writing their own autobiographies–in almost all cases they’re being ghostwritten. I saw Hillary Duff is going to be “writing” some YA novels–definitely being ghostwritten.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 16, 2010 12:10 am

    Your cynicism is well placed — but some celebrities, especially actors, actually do their own writing. Lauren Bacall famously wrote her memoir, and Plummer claims to have done so, as well. I believe Plummer for a couple of reasons. First, he reads just like he sounds in conversation, only more shaped and balanced, narrative wise. Second, he reads just like he talks — leading me to think he talked the thing into a recorder. And when a piece of writing reads this well, I do not take off for oral transmission.

    Hillary Duff — yeah, I saw that. Alls I gots to say is, as a writer, HIllary Duff is a mean belly dancer.

    • March 16, 2010 5:54 pm

      Btw. I had an offer to ghostwrite urban fantasy novels for a certain celebrity rapper/TV actor. I turned it down. If the books made millions I’d still only make my tiny cut…

  11. Candice permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:52 am

    I’m not an avid reader of actor autobiographies either. I guess “Wired” about John Belushi and a few other actor biographies is the closest I’ve come. But if we are talking about biographies by famous people, I do love ones about my favorite dead musicians–Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Perhaps they would have written their own autobiographies had they lived long enough.

    As for political autobiographies–you can’t beat Malcolm X.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 16, 2010 11:01 am

      And, of course, Malcolm X was actually an “as-told-to” book, with no less than Alex Haley as Malcolm’s ghostwriter.

      • Candice permalink
        March 16, 2010 1:52 pm

        Yeah, well….still good.

  12. Monica permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:53 pm

    Roald Dahl’s autobiography is one of my favorites; and as an author, I do consider him a celebrity. Though, a close second would have to be the autobiography of Michael J. Fox, not for his celebrity appeal, but for his candid sharing of his diagnosis of Parkinson’s soon after reaching his celebrity status and his continued fight to raise awareness and find a cure. He truly seems to be a “genuine” person in a sea of plastic celebrities and politicians.

  13. March 16, 2010 11:22 pm

    Oh, dear, you failed to mention Dame Judi’s long and distinguished career at the BBC. I splurged on a boxed set of DVDs–appropriately titled The Judi Dench Collection–“Nine Star-Studded BBC Productions Spanning Four Decades.” I still have one or two left to see. Her range of characters is astounding; she looks like a vamp in one, then a prissy pearl-wearing matron in another. What really struck me was how little she has changed, physically, through the years; so her solid marriage was clearly good for her health. A favorite biography is the one of Maggie Smith (also a Dame); the two actresses practically grew up together on the English stage. And on a cruise a few years ago, I borrowed a biography of Barbara Windsor from the ship’s library. Thinking it would be a quick, light read, I found myself plunged into this thick volume by the star of my favorite English soap opera, “EastEnders.” I faithfully watched that show on PBS for about 20 years, until the producers moved it from its 1 am slot on Sunday nights to 2 am. I had to draw the line there, alas!

  14. Justin permalink
    May 6, 2011 1:33 pm

    I’ve always thought it’s a bit unfair that Dench is so well-known for her Oscar for.. you’re right- 5 minutes of screen time for Shakespeare in Love. It kind of reminds me of Dee Wallace, I just read her book Bright Light, and she’s done some amazing things and people only know her for being Elliot’s mom in ET.
    Barbara- I didn’t know there was a DVD boxed set of Judi Dench’s work at the BBC! I might have to check that out, if I can afford it, haha.

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