McFarland is the publishing company to go to if you want insightful biographies of little known celebrities. Every one of their works is written by authors who do their due diligence, and appear to have a genuine affection for the person they’re writing about; no one seeks to write a salacious tell-all in this company. Back when I went through that spate of biopics about James Dean, I kept hearing one name: Pier Angeli. I’d never heard of the Italian actress before, but her doomed relationship with the famous rebel, and her own tragic death at the age of 39 intrigued me. Sadly, the only biography is the one from McFarland, entitled Pier Angeli: A Fragile Life. Written with compassion by Jane Allen, this is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a while and establishes the quality that McFarland is known for.
I went into the biography with a particular set of assumptions: 1) That Angeli’s life was controlled, and ruined, by her mother 2) Her relationship with James Dean was fraught with passion and tension and 3) Her suicide at 39 was helped by the previous two factors. Allen’s thesis is that, while Angeli was controlled by a stage mother who had delusions of grandeur, the young girl was never able to mature and was stuck being a little girl who both wanted to get away with things, and never understood why things went wrong. Her life in Italy was already marred by favoritism from her father, who didn’t hide that he played favorites. Angeli was blessed with a twin sister and Allen does a great job of telling Angeli’s sister, Marisa’s, story as well. Both women were different but Marisa always received things second to her A-list sister.
You have to respect Allen for keeping an even tone throughout the biography, even when Angeli does things that would make her unlikable. She played with people’s affections, particularly men (other than Dean she was briefly engaged to Kirk Douglas), and by contrast was never able to live without a man. Allen doesn’t debunk any of the stories about Angeli, but does present both sides of her relationship with James Dean; one side says there was nothing to the relationship while others have maintained he was the love of Angeli’s life. While Allen has a wealth of research put into the book, including interviews with people who were close to Angeli, there’s never any definitive statements which I respected. The only one who truly knew Angeli’s motivations is Pier Angeli and her interviews were highly controlled. The best segment focuses on the actresses’ death which everyone, including IMDB, labels a suicide. Allen asserts a view I’ve never heard before, that Angeli was accidentally given a fatal dose of tranquilizer. It’s a discussion I’ve never heard, akin to Marilyn Monroe conspiracy theories, and Allen gives just as much credence for it as against it.
Allen has researched this well and present a biography that is conversational, informative, and filled with the various voices that helped, and hindered Angeli. We follow the young actress from her early films in Italy, her brief flirtation with Hollywood stardom, and her flame-out that took her back to Italy. Angeli’s personal life is infinitely more intriguing than her acting, and while there are moments of soap-opera drama in Angeli’s life (particularly her various marriages and the bitter custody war for her first son, Perry), Allen never stoops to presenting the facts as gossip; Angeli is always treated with respect. Throughout it all, Allen tells the story of a little girl who was never forced to grow up; and when she was, she was thrown to the wolves and floundered. It’s a heart-wrenching tale that never makes you feel utterly depressed because you’re not being beaten into submission by the morose (a claim I felt was happening in Anne Edwards‘ Judy Garland biography). If you’re seeking a well-written, biting biography of an actress who became an part of Hollywood legend by proxy, and failed to transcend into her own, then sit down to read Pier Angeli: A Fragile Life!
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