Two Books About Lives in Film and Print

  • Michael Lindsay-Hogg
  • Knopf
  • 288 pp.
  • November 3, 2011

A pair of brisk, humorous and often poignant recollections of careers in stage, film and print.

Bruce Jay Friedman
275 pp.
Reviewed by Alexander Rannie

Lucky, indeed, is the reader who gets to spend time with Luck and Circumstance, by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and Lucky Bruce, by playwright, screenwriter and novelist Bruce Jay Friedman. Both books are brisk, humorous and often poignant recollections of careers in stage, film and print, made all the more engaging by the distinct cadences of their respective authors.

The subtitle of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s book, A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York and Points Beyond, sets up the scrapbook nature of his memoir: glimpses and stories arranged in a vaguely chronological order, with the odd page from the past suddenly appearing as though just recollected. Though Lindsay-Hogg is principally a director, his appreciation of a good script informs his own writing, and he presents with vivid immediacy episodes from his, and his family’s, recent and distant past.

The early recollections of Lindsay-Hogg, a toddler during World War II, revolve around a Santa Monica beach house. There, next door to Orson Welles’ ex-wife Virginia and daughter Christopher, he was raised by an Irish-Catholic nanny, Mary Gillen, while his mother, Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, having been nominated for an Oscar as Isabella in William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights” (1939), fought for better roles as a contract player at Warner Bros. Though the author has been surrounded by strong women throughout his life, it’s the father figures who continue to interrupt his narrative. Only by making peace with them does he come to understand more fully his mother and, ultimately, himself.

While most men have a single father figure to contend with, young Michael had three. English-born Irish citizen Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg was, at best, an irregular visitor. Orson Welles, rumored to be Michael’s biological father (a rumor vigorously denied by Fitzgerald), appeared on stage with Michael in a short-lived run ofChimes at Midnight” (the recounting of which forms one highlight of Luck and Circumstance), but like Sir Edward, he remained only tangentially connected to Lindsay-Hogg. And Geraldine Fitzgerald’s second husband, American journalist Stuart Scheftel, had the longest and what should have been the strongest bond between a father and son, although their relationship never achieved much more than an uneasy harmony.

Woven into Lindsay-Hogg’s story is a cast of supporting characters that reads like a Who’s Who of stage, screen and music. Tammy Grimes, for instance, appears in a pivotal cameo, with her daughter Amanda Plummer showing up later as a Tony winner in the Lindsay-Hogg-directed “Agnes of God” (1982). (Lindsay-Hogg was, alas, not nominated for a Tony for his direction of that play. Upon asking who the jerks were who did get nominated, he was informed that one of them was his mother, for her direction of “Mass Appeal.”)

After an apprenticeship in the mid-1960s for Ireland’s Telefis Éireann, Lindsay-Hogg directed episodes of  “Ready Steady Go!” for ITV in London and became the go-to guy for the then-fledgling field of rock-and-roll music videos. His take on John, Paul, George and Ringo, both as individuals and as The Beatles, is clear-eyed and affecting (as reflected in his 1970 documentary “Let It Be”). And his apparently much more responsive collaboration with Mick Jagger is recounted with verve. (Their multi-decade partnership is captured in Lindsay-Hogg’s almost two-dozen music videos with The Stones and the concert film “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” of 1968, which was released in 1996).

In revisiting his television and film work, such as “Brideshead Revisited” (1981) and “Nasty Habits” (1977), Lindsay-Hogg reveals an inquisitive mind and a perfectionist streak. He aims a gimlet, and very funny, eye at Hollywood producers, and his comment that his experience in directing the play “The Normal Heart” (1985) could fill up an entire volume on its own makes one yearn for more.

Early on in Luck and Circumstance, Lindsay-Hogg considers the role that luck plays in one’s life, “how it can be cruel or grand, or just have gone somewhere else.” Throughout his memoir, numerous examples of luck, both cruel and grand, roll across the page, and  in almost deus ex machina-like fashion, one last grand conjunction of luck and circumstance at book’s end allows Michael Lindsay-Hogg to fully come of age.

As the subtitle of Lindsay-Hogg’s memoir provides a clue as to what lies within, so, too, does writer Bruce Jay Friedman’s Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir: It’s literary in both the sense that Friedman is a talented wordsmith and that his passion for the world of literature is apparent throughout. The book could have been subtitled “A Literary Love Affair.”

Raised in the Bronx between the two World Wars, Friedman was relatively quiet as a boy. Not until he exploded with an unexpected dinnertime outburst was attention paid. “Who knew it had a voice,” his mother is reported to have said. Early exposure to writing came about through his Aunt Esther, who worked for the Shuberts; when a show was about to close, “Essie” would find herself in possession of tickets, and young Bruce thus got to see many a play that, as he later related, would be anything but useful when he came to write plays himself. Much more exciting were the stories of Sholom Aleichem, told around the campfire at the Central Jewish Institute summer camp. Fairy tales, Agatha Christie, comic books and Big Little Books rounded out Friedman’s youthful reading. After earning a journalism degree at the University of Missouri, Friedman spent two years in the Air Force writing for Air Training magazine. While there, he was introduced to The Catcher in the Rye, and his life’s course was determined.

A short story based on an Air Force experience provided entrée to The New Yorker. In short order, his stories were published in Mademoiselle, Harper’s, Esquire and Northwestern’s TriQuarterly. But it was his work from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s as a writer, and later an editor, at various men’s magazines published by Magazine Management Company that paid the bills while he worked on his first published novel, Stern. Well reviewed, Stern allowed Friedman to think of himself as an honest-to-God writer — though this would be tempered somewhat when James Baldwin commented, “You’re not a writer until you have a shelf.”

While working at Magazine Management Company, Friedman came to know Mario Puzo, and later, while on a visit to Simon & Schuster, Joseph Heller. Both remained close to Friedman, through successes and doldrums, and a goodly portion of Lucky Bruce is, to the reader’s good fortune, dedicated to time spent in their company. (The book is literally dedicated to Puzo and Heller.)

Throughout Lucky Bruce, Friedman maintains an endearing naïve streak in both personal and business settings. Close proximity to Natalie Wood and Antoinette Sibley fails to lead to romance. And upon receiving a compliment on his jacket, Friedman replies, “Thank you, my mother bought it for me at Saks,” not realizing the compliment was for his book jacket.

Most important, Friedman maintains the mantle of “writer” because he never ceases to write.

As his first, unsuccessful marriage was coming to a close, Friedman found himself “turned upside down” by the “Absurdist” plays of Edward Albee, Jack Richardson, Arthur Kopit and Jack Gelber; in five days, Friedman turned out “Scuba Duba: A Tense Comedy.” Starring a young Jerry Orbach, the show opened in October 1967 and proceeded to run for almost 700 performances. Friedman would return to the theater, sometimes with great success (“Steambath”), and sometimes not (“Turtleneck,” starring Tony Curtis, and an aborted musical adaptation of his second novel, “A Mother’s Kisses”).

Friedman had hits in Hollywood with “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972, adapted from his short story “A Change of Plan” by Neil Simon), “Stir Crazy (1980), “The Lonely Guy” (1984, also adapted by Neil Simon) and “Splash” (1984, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). And though tempted by the easy money out west, he decided, “the real world, i.e., the literary world, was Manhattan.”

There, on the Upper East Side lay Friedman’s most enduring passion: Elaine Kaufman’s eponymous restaurant. During its run, from 1963 until Kaufman’s passing in 2010, Elaine’s was a haven for writers unlike anyplace else in the world. If there’s any doubt as to Friedman’s commitment to Elaine’s, you only have to read his accountant’s annual query: “I don’t understand this $18,000 item for veal piccata.” Perhaps Friedman’s love letter to Elaine’s is so heartfelt because Kaufman felt as passionately about writers as Friedman did. And still does.

Where Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s writing in Luck and Circumstance is often droll and always considered, Freidman’s writing is jaunty and energetic, the journalist at play. Only when he writes about those as committed to writing and writers as he is — Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller, Elaine Kaufman and Friedman’s longtime agent Candida Donadio — does he begin to reveal the passion behind the discipline.

Alexander Rannie is a composer and historian who has written music for “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” Walt Disney’s “Alice Comedies” and Screen Novelties’ “Monster Safari.” His research on music for animation has been presented at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to the Music Library Association. On May 22, 2011, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed the world première of Rannie’s original score for Walt Disney’s “Trolley Troubles” (1927), led by the composer from the piano.

comments powered by Disqus