Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a brilliant comedian and filmmaker who conceived, wrote, directed, acted, and even edited most of his ten feature films and nineteen short comedies, which are perhaps the finest silent pictures ever made. With a face of stone and a mind that engineered breathtakingly intricate moments of slapstick, Keaton has become an icon of the American cinema.
Marion Meade's definitive biography explores his often brutal childhood acting experiences, the making of his masterpieces, his shame at his own lack of education, his life-threatening alcoholism, and his turbulent marriages.
Based on four years of research and more than 200 interviews with notables such as Billy Wilder, Leni Riefenstahl, Gene Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Irene Mayer Selznick, as well as members of Keaton's family who had previously refused to discuss him, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase is a startling and moving account of the troubled life of a cinematic genius.
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How Bad Could It Be? I Asked Myself
I knew this would be trashy going in, but I didn't understand how truly reckless and mean-spirited Meade's treatment would be.
Within the first third of the book, the author armchair diagnoses Buster Keaton with Dissociative Disorder, megalomania, and illiteracy. She uses thin to no evidence for the first two assertions, and the evidence she uses for his inability to read and write would make most performers (used a ghostwriter for his autobiography, relied on others to read incoming scripts and advise on their worthiness) and internet commenters (bad spelling and grammar in a single note to a gossip columnist) illiterate. She heavily quotes one industry insider saying Buster returned contracts and legal documents unread or improperly signed, which further highlights everyone else's - including his own - admissions that he was the worst, least interested businessman of his era's comic stars.
In a single passage Meade paints Buster Keaton as an insufferable child star who would never be cured of his insatiable, destructive need for attention, and then refers to his reputation as a teenager among fellow stage performers as a kind, respectful talent. She repeatedly refers to his cruel, indifferent womanising, but by the point I stopped listening he was an incredibly handsome film star in his twenties sleeping with other attractive actors who weren't looking for anything serious. Meade kept saying things like, this girl he was seeing must not have been happy about him moving on to the next woman. Really? Did she say so? Are you about to quote from a diary or letter in which she talks about how heartbroken she was? Give me their side of the story! This is what trashy bios are usually for, especially one which declares at the beginning that it's going to focus heavily on the subject's personal life. But no. Meade makes a point of repeatedly telling us young Buster Keaton only dated free-spirited, independent young women looking for fun, and then projects a traditional spurned woman narrative on every one of them, as if it were impossible for sexy young women on a film lot to enjoy bed-hopping as much as men. Or as if this uneducated, cruel, egotistical, emotionally atrophied jerk that she's writing about somehow managed to make every beautiful starlet forget her other prospects and fall for him time and again.
I kept wondering, after each really baffling, overly strong declaration in this book, wait, how did we get here? I kept rewinding, thinking I had missed a particularly damning anecdote. Nope. I could deal with Buster Keaton being a terrible person, and by all other accounts he had some big flaws, but Meade took the same stories I was listening to and spit out the most dramatic conclusions she could imagine. She took an understated comic persona and saw a debilitating mental illness. She took a shy but gifted performer and saw a despotic idiot. She obviously went into her research for this book with an idea of blowing the lid wide open on the total monster every other biographer and film historian had failed to find. Trashy is one thing, but this book is just gross.
Not that a good narrator would have saved this text, but his performance is among the clunkiest I've heard in an audiobook. He also repeatedly mispronounces Comique, the name of the film company Buster started with, and Damfino, the correct pronunciation of which is the entire point of what amounted to an ingenious sound joke in the silent film The Boat.
- jessica harby