If you’ve been a long-time reader you’re aware of my enjoyment for a good Hollywood conspiracy theory. I’m a sucker for books involving the tragic life of celebrities and I’ve covered a few on here (most recently, my look at Pier Angeli: A Fragile Life). After reading the excellent Pier Angeli biography, I wanted to see what other minor stars had biographies out there. One major star who led a sad life, and died under mysterious circumstances, was actress Carole Landis. I’ve only seen one of Landis’ features, Topper Returns, but I knew more about her death than her life. Author E.J. Fleming puts out an admirable effort with Carole Landis: A Tragic Life in Hollywood, but readers will really have to wade to get to the meat of the book; that’s if they’re not already unhappy with the outlandish assertions with little to back it up (despite a comprehensive bibliography section). I enjoyed Fleming’s take on Landis; I just wish it was more focused.
E.J. Fleming is the biographer I would want to be; taking a star that isn’t well-known now, and using what’s available to present as complete a portrait as possible. I admire Fleming to crafting a biography that I’m sure took a lot of time and research to write. The problem is the possible lack of available materials. It’s about 300 pages, with pictures inserted directly into the text, but at times the author veers off to present mini-biographies on other stars that knew Landis, peripherally knew, her, or are similar to her. Several times throughout Fleming charts the rise of actress Lana Turner alongside Landis. Background information is always good, but the way Fleming presents it – smack dab in the middle of a point – takes you away from Landis’ story. At times I wondered if Fleming wanted to write about other stars, and/or didn’t have enough material on Landis to pad the book.
What is presented on the actress is spellbinding. Her harsh upbringing and paternal abandonment created a woman who was constantly seeking male affection. At times she comes off as cold and heartless to her family, but Fleming explores the idea that Landis was extremely independent and was conditioned to never rely on others. The woman who Landis is in the book is incredibly naïve, and extremely willing to do whatever is necessary to succeed as an actress. Of course, this led to her making terrible decisions with regards to men that would ultimately end in her death. As for Landis’ death, Fleming treats it with respect and presents both sides of the argument without every declaring a side. It’s a similar path the Pier Angeli book took and I appreciate an author presenting both sides of the story.
However, this even handedness doesn’t apply to questionable research choices. The book has a lengthy bibliography, but Fleming fails to consistently mention books/interviews within the text. Bold accusations are made such as accusing various actresses of being studio prostitutes; at one point she calls Grace Kelly amoral, yet never says where this came from. There is a mention of “A Selznick biography” but that’s the only research. There’s also an absence of actual interviews which I can’t really fault considering several people are probably deceased. However, there is very little quoted material from people who knew Landis, whether it’s just printed in an interview. The only quoted material that’s included consistently is reviews about Landis’ movies and quotes from Landis’ autobiography.
My disappointment in some areas was counterbalanced by the insurmountable undertaking of E.J. Fleming. The author took a difficult actress, with not a lot of first-hand accounts, and still presented a competent biography. My issues with the book are flaws inherent in covering a difficult subject where time is working against you. I would recommend Carole Landis: A Tragic Life in Hollywood considering it’s probably the best written of the minute amount of work written on Landis; it just isn’t perfect.