Thursday, September 15, 2016
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICKEY ROONEY
Well ... this is an exhaustive, frank, detailed, ugly, and often exasperating biography of the great Mickey Rooney, whom most people agree was one of the most talented people in movies or on the stage, and whose private life was an absolute mess. Lertzman and Birnes present a portrait of a man who really had no identity or personality aside from the always-on Mickey Rooney, and who had little empathy for others, including his many wives and sadly neglected children (Rooney didn't even attend his own son's funeral). But we're also treated to glimpses of Rooney stealing the show as a little boy in burlesque, becoming the "Mickey McGuire" of the silents, then turning into Andy Hardy. Then there's his descent into show biz has-been status, his insistence on remaining in the limelight and continuing his career despite the odds, his comeback with "Sugar Babies" on Broadway, The Black Stallion in films, and Bill on television; his messy divorces, gambling debts, and so on. The authors investigate how Rooney wound up a virtual pauper in old age after making millions (especially from the highly successful Sugar Babies) -- even after factoring in tax debts, gambling losses, and expensive spending habits (by this time Rooney no longer needed to pay alimony or child support), there should have been much more money. Although charges were leveled against Rooney's family members, the authors here seem to conclude that it was the legal fees that done him in, fees which the lawyers are still collecting from Rooney's estate. A month before his death, Rooney disinherited all of his biological children -- an eyebrow-raising situation that apparently didn't make the judge suspicious. Then there are the tempestuous marriages to the likes of Ava Gardner, Martha Vickers, and even one wife who was brutally murdered by her lover while Rooney was in the hospital. The worst claim made about Rooney in this book is that he was a pedophile, even though the information is all hearsay. The source for a story in which a 14-year-old Liz Taylor went down on Rooney in a dressing room is not Rooney's ex-wife (who allegedly first told the story and is now deceased) but a friend of hers, making it double hearsay! This kind of thing cheapens the book and calls a lot of other things into question. [At least we're spared that nonsense about Norma Shearer having sex with Rooney in her dressing room.] Then there are strange omissions: there's a photo of Rooney making his directorial debut with star Helen Walker, but absolutely no mention of the film in the text. Some of his movie appearances and his performances in them, especially in the first half of the book, are given short shrift. A description of a celebration for Rooney's 90th birthday, written by the event's organizer, reads like a report from a press agent and has no real value, Along with fresh interviews, some of the material is recycled from Rooney's memoir and Arthur Marx's biography. While Rooney was once awarded a special Oscar and was nominated more than once, he never received an AFI or Kennedy Center honor, and should have. Rooney is typical of show biz types who are extremely talented but fall short -- no pun intended -- as human beings.
Verdict: Certainly absorbing, if at times suspect, look at a fascinating Hollywood figure. ***.