Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review - Pieces of My Heart

I can't say I've ever spent a lot of time thinking about actor Robert Wagner. He was one of the last products of the great studio systems that chose and groomed young talent, but he came along at a time when the industry was transitioning away from this controlled environment, and acting itself was under assault from the method acting that soon came to dominate the major films. Wagner always struck me as a minor talent, a very nice man, a pleasant actor who competently hit his marks and said his lines.

And there's nothing in his autobiography, Pieces of My Heart: A Life (2008), that will make you see him much differently. There are no moments in reading these 324 pages that will make you stop and say, "Oh, he was in that movie, maybe I've underrated him all these years." He was a young kid who loved the movies and grew up to be in them, and he's filled a slot in Hollywood history that could easily have been filled by any other reasonably good-looking fellow who worked hard enough to be competent at the craft.

I don't think, based on what I read here, that Wagner would be terribly offended by what I wrote in the above paragraph. He seems to have made his peace with the reality that he hasn't changed the history of cinema, with a perspective that is surprisingly sane and even-keeled.

For this book isn't really a movie memoir, but rather, as the title implies, a chronicle of the people he's met and who have mattered to him. The films and TV shows are here, but mostly as a device to frame the characters who have filled his fascinating life. Of course, he talks at length about his first (and third) wife, Natalie Wood, and even discusses her drowning in a way that he apparently never has before.

But there are so many others, and most are from so-called Old Hollywood. Wagner has had amazing fortune at getting close to many of the great stars (most notably Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had a long-term affair when he was 22, she 44). He was also close to Gable and Tracy, and learned a lot about professionalism from them. There are some wonderful stories about Fred Astaire.

In many ways, Wagner appeared to be closest to David Niven. He tells many tales of Niven's personal kindness to his family, most particularly after the death of Wood. This seems fitting to me, in that Wagner and Niven have similar careers. Both had a certain charm, brought a sense of ease to their roles, but neither really ever had that star-making role; was the talent not there, or the hunger, or the luck?

But, again, that seems to be all right for Wagner. He's had a good life, one that hasn't entirely depended on the big roles or Oscar nominations, one that's been filled with good friends and good times (and a bit of heartbreak). His book will not force you to reexamine his career, but it is a pleasant walk through a piece of Hollywood history. It's not a whitewash - there are plenty of people Wagner didn't like at all - but it does add to the lore of some of the big names of movies.

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