Thursday, May 3, 2018
THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT Betsy Blair
Betsy Blair [1923 - 2009], an actress and fourth-tier celebrity, had two claims to fame: her starring role with Ernest Borgnine in Marty, and her first marriage to Gene Kelly. Blair was a study in contrasts, someone who believed in communism while being married to (and essentially living off) a wealthy movie star. Blair met Kelly on Broadway when she was very young, and had no time to sow her wild oats, as it were. She made up for lost time with affairs while she was married to Kelly, then had a live-in relationship with a French actor (upon whom she also cheated), and wound up in a long second marriage with the director Karol Reisz until his death. Most of the book is taken up with the more eventful Kelly years. Blair's writing is good, the book is undeniably compelling (if full, as expected, of a little too much name-dropping), but one suspects the most interesting material is hidden between the lines. Completely devoid of Hollywood-type beauty -- Blair was not only plain but a bit homely -- some might nevertheless see her as one who could play the fame and success game as well as any Lana Turner. As in most show business memoirs, Blair does her best to establish herself as an important and notable figure, and the key to her personality seems to be found in an anecdote she tells of Kelly, who (understandably) rushed her out of a theater to avoid being mobbed by his fans but before she had a chance to take her own bow. A child bride, and still somewhat immature and a bit self-justifying as an adult, Blair claims no envy of Kelly's career but clearly wanted to come out from underneath his shadow. She was blacklisted in Hollywood, but managed to do some Hollywood films anyway because her husband was a big star at MGM. Along the way we're treated to mini-portraits of interesting political and cinema figures, as well as sad family stories, such as one about a perfectly happy gay uncle who was forcibly institutionalized due to his sexual orientation. Blair also appeared in such films as Another Part of the Forest and The Snake Pit, besides doing several films in Europe and taking a few television roles. Whatever her flaws as a human being, she was undeniably a talented actress. One distinct flaw in the book is that she offers few behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the films she made, and doesn't even mention such movies as A Delicate Balance with Katharine Hepburn!
Verdict: Absorbing read of the life of a Hollywood wife and what came later. ***.