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Book Review: "In the Company of Legends" by Joan Kramer and David Heeley

As a sideline to my regular gig as a film critic, I have done my fair share of interviews with actors and filmmakers over the years, either in print or in on-stage Q&A's and like anyone who does that sort of thing on a semi-regular basis, I have a number of anecdotes that I have acquired over the years that I am perfectly willing to share at the drop of a hat—going completely fanboy talking to legends like Roger Corman, Dick Miller and Russ Meyer, the incredibly awkward 10 minutes or so I spent with a non-English-speaking filmmaker while waiting for his interpreter to show up, the insane number of hoops I was forced to jump through in order to speak to Lara Flynn Boyle, and so on. Joan Kramer and David Heeley have done an incredible number of interviews with some of the most notable names in screen history and have acquired plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes along the way and in "In The Company Of Legends" (Beaufort Books. $24.95), they share many of them in print for the first time.

While their names may not be immediately familiar to even the most ardent of film buffs, the work that Kramer and Heeley have done over the years certainly is. Having met when they were both working for New York's public television station WNET, they would eventually partner up and, between 1980-2005, would go on to create a number of acclaimed documentary programs on some of the most famous names in Hollywood history—their subjects would include Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures and the Group Theatre. This may not sound like a big deal today, when elaborate Blu-Ray features of this type are common, but when they were starting out, there was not much interest in this kind of programming from the potential subjects (who could scuttle the entire thing if they disagreed with how things were going), the studios (who could withhold the all-important film clips that they controlled) and financiers (who were needed to foot the bills). Nevertheless, they persevered and their documentaries—which would be seen on such networks as WNET, TCM and Starz—would allow them to collect rave reviews, awards and a lot of stories along the way.

The anecdotes cover the gamut from legal minutiae (such as the occasional struggles to convince people to allow key film clips) to pure gossip (including Frank Sinatra turning up late and drunk for an appearance at a tribute to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn's appalled reaction to a Michael Jackson concert that she attended) and some of them are undeniably fascinating—the discoveries of priceless home movies and behind-the-scenes footage found in closets, attics and even in a barn out back; Olivia de Haviland talking about her love for longtime co-star Errol Flynn; Hepburn at the MGM studios pointing out the very table where she and Greta Garbo tried in vain to convince Louis B. Mayer to produce a film version of Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" as a vehicle for them. The occasional rough spots that Kramer and Heeley hit also make for some entertaining moments in the narrative—an attempt to do a program with Bette Davis goes weirdly awry and Harvey Keitel turns up to be interviewed for a film on John Garfield in such a surly mood that exactly one comment could be used in the final product.

The trouble is the truly memorable anecdotes are few and far between here and after a while, the background stories for the projects start to blend into each other, especially in a book running nearly 400 pages. With the rare exception of the likes of Davis and Keitel, virtually everyone winds up being as friendly and approachable as can be, and when a hiccup does occur, it is usually dealt with quickly and with little fuss. At worst, the stars they encounter sometimes take a little while to warm up but not only do they almost always do, many of them wind up becoming friends of the filmmakers and contributors to later projects. Outside of the chapter regarding the film about the Group Theatre, a passion project for Joanne Woodward, there is precious little talk about the actual nuts and bolts of putting the films together. The biggest flaw, however, is an admittedly unavoidable one—we hear about the wonderful and revelatory interviews that the stars give but, of course, none of that material is included in the book.

Whether you will enjoy "In The Company of Legends" will depend in large part on what exactly it is you are hoping to get from it. If all you want is a bunch of stories along the lines of Katherine Hepburn dealing with the sight of a raspberry stain on her sofa or James Stewart dealing with a oddball who turns up at his house with the dream of meeting his idol (hint: it isn't Stewart), then it should fit the bill—it is breezily written and contains a number of rare behind-the-scenes photos of many of the participants (and even sketches by Stewart of his most beloved co-star, Harvey) as well. However, if you are in the mood for a more penetrating look at the lives and careers of these icons that helps to explain exactly what it was that made them so fascinating and unique, you are advised to look elsewhere—the actual films of Kramer and Heeley being an excellent first stop. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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