I must admit I don’t know nearly enough about star Dana Andrews other than seeing his role in Laura, watching about 30 minutes of Hot Rods From Hell (which my mother and I didn’t realize wasn’t Let’s Scare Jessica to Death), and the reference to him in “Science Fiction Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thankfully, author Carl Rollyson has written a comprehensive biography about star that doesn’t pander to the star, nor is it a melancholy “woe is me” tale. The best way to sum up Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews is to use the word melancholy. The book goes in-depth in Andrews mental state through letters and journals, ultimately showing a man desperately afraid of failure who didn’t always know how to balance and navigate the world of Hollywood.
Dana Andrews was a man who “didn’t want to be ordinary,” and throughout his lengthy career he was driven to differentiate himself (12). Rollyson mentions numerous times in his biography that Dana’s subtle acting revolutionized the industry, and sadly left him shut out from awards because his acting was so natural. Andrews filmography included the film noir legend Laura, and the WWII masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, both of which showcased how Andrews wasn’t like the average show-boating actor.
Before all of this though he was simply Carver Dana Andrews, a young man who was always a country boy at heart who happened to make it in the big city. Andrews story is really what Hollywood publicists yearn for; the picture of small-town life. Rollyson devotes the first half of Hollywood Enigma to showcasing Dana’s life in the country, a life he compares to a Faulkner novel. Andrews older brother Wilton raised Dana and his siblings, while their father was a prominent minister. Much of Andrews life, both in the beginning and throughout the story, is detailed in Dana’s own words through lengthy letters and journal entries. Andrews as a young man comes off as eloquent, and level-headed, but with a drive and a desire that exceeded his small-town life. As a boy he was always interested in films, particularly in the production side of things as he create his own scores and play them alongside the silent films of the day.
Rollyson makes a point of showing Andrews struggles with religions, a struggle that was prominent due to his father’s role in the church. Andrews would struggle with his devotion to God throughout his entire life starting with the death of his little sister. Andrews also had fears of security butting up against his dreams. His letters show a man worried that his dreams to be an actor might not be worth it if they never came true. His parents tried to be supportive, but felt that the odds of him becoming a great star weren’t in his favor. When Andrews finally made it to Hollywood, the casting director at MGM told him he’d never make a living out of it as he wasn’t destined to be a leading man.
Obviously, Andrews is the Hollywood enigma of the title as the book explores how Andrews defied the odds in his career. I enjoyed how Rollyson doesn’t try to interject his own analysis about Andrews’ career, but lets the actor himself detail it. It obviously helps that Andrews kept copious notes, and actually recorded his own oral history. Paragraphs are devoted to Andrews own analysis of his films which is balanced nicely with Rollyson’s own assessment of the same movies. Interestingly, Andrews placed his role in Wing and a Prayer as his favorite above Laura. Despite his success, there’s a hint of jealousy and fear in his words. It’s documented in the book that Andrews was constantly looking over his shoulder; worried about younger actors. His daughter Susan is quoted as saying that he tended to befriend, and enjoy, actors he didn’t believe were a threat, like Henry Fonda. As his career progressed, Andrews would end up losing coveted roles to other actors, predominantly Gregory Peck. A dear friend of Andrews ended up being his Laura co-star Clifton Webb. Both men bonded over their lack of interest in the “Hollywood pretension” (155).
Andrews is bifurcated man, I believe that’s actually a phrase used in the book itself. Andrews had strict morals and values. As the President of the Screen Actors Guild he enforced rules against gratuitous nudity, and female exploitation. He also was the first champion of pay television (pay-per-view). Of course Dana’s biggest act of outspokenness was in terms of his alcoholism; he was one of the first actors to make a public statement about it. Andrews alcoholism ended up defining Dana, and forcing him out of a lot of roles, and it is where the melancholy of the book is. Rollyson, and Andrews himself, are brave enough to confront it head-on. Andrews started drinking after the death of his first wife, and for a good portion of his career it never actually affected his ability to work. He’d be able to go to set hung-over and deliver a fantastic performance. By the time Andrews entered his fifties he was no longer able to hide it, and found himself getting arrested numerous times. When Andrews worked in Night of the Demon it marked a turning point where his employment was being questioned. On a personal front Andrews felt a keen loss after his son David died, and eventually his wife threatened divorce in order to get him to stop drinking. Andrews story is an all-too common tale not just for Hollywood, but for America. Rollyson doesn’t shy away from telling the horrors Andrews endured when his drinking became excessive, and by the end Andrews life feels sad, and bittersweet.
The book has amazing pictures of Andrews’ parents and siblings, his grandchildren, as well as the typical Hollywood glamour shots. You won’t find any lurid stories, aside from rumors that Joan Crawford tried to pick him up, and a brief fling with a co-star. Dana Andrews was a rare actor whose biography doesn’t lend itself to the Hollywood star machine as he remained incredibly down-to-Earth, even after his fan. Hollywood Enigma is a beautifully written story about a man who was far from perfect, but attempted to make himself better. Rollyson writes with beauty, and reverence for his star, and it’s a book that’s inspired me to finally see how fantastic Andrews is on-screen!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.