Thursday, December 18, 2008

After Reading Susan Strasberg

Hi, Susan -- can I carry your books?

As I recently mentioned, my interest in the screen career of Susan Strasberg inspired me to finally acquire copies of her two books, BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME, both works of autobiography. I've read them both now and, while I was very pleased to discover that the personality captured in these capably written books was bright and resourceful and good company, it was disconcerting to find out how frustrated, unhappy and tense she was for so much of her short life. These books make the reader want to reach out to comfort someone who is no longer there.

It was appalling to read the details of the constraint that characterised her relationship with her famous parents, the violent ups and downs of her mostly disastrous love life (which began with a teenage affair with older married man Richard Burton), the hellish abuse that rained down upon her during her marriage to Christopher Jones (whose work I fill find it hard to enjoy again), and the additional tears that came with the birth of her daughter Jennifer, who was born with heart and soft palate problems (both eventually corrected by surgery). She writes with enthusiasm about her early successes, especially those on the stage, which suggests she may have been happier as a stage actress; she writes about her films with less feeling, and is surprisingly (but understandably) antagonistic toward two of my favorites, THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT, for, as she claims, romanticizing a drug culture whose disastrous effects she had already seen at first hand -- Jones had coerced her into trying pot and peyote, but she had steered clear of LSD because it was a chemical, unnatural, and her feelings about it were confirmed when her younger brother Johnny had taken acid in a despondent mood and leaped from a high window in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the year before she made those two films. (His life was saved by an awning -- which then bounced him through another glass window.)

BITTERSWEET was written in 1980, when Strasberg would have been nearly 40, and it ends on a note of hard-won wisdom and clarity; she has learned to love a man's soul before his flesh (a difficult lesson for her), to act in order to live (not vice-versa), and she is writing the book that her mother always intended to write, making that family dream come true. My only criticism of the book is that it becomes sketchier as it nears the end, rendering many more contemporary episodes as mere vignettes, probably evidence of the working actor's schedule bearing down on a publishing deadline.

MARILYN AND ME, written in 1992 (when she was approximately the age I am now), presents a subtly changed Susan Strasberg, who was by then a drama teacher as well as an actress. While the book delivers an interesting, candid, fully dimensional account of her friendship with Marilyn Monroe, I found it more rushed, less illuminatingly written than BITTERSWEET. The final chapter crams in an unseemly number of epigrams from other people, often applied to subjects they weren't talking about, and it gave me the off-putting impression of a text written by one of those motivational speakers, or by a teacher so insecure or limited in her own eurekas that she must reference and apply the wisdom of others. The only positive news about this book, really, is that its author has finally become her own mother, Paula Miller Strasberg, likewise a teacher, whose 1966 death in her mid-fifties left her daughter feeling so vulnerable and alone. Unfortunately, part of that metamorphosis was that this valiant survivor would also die young, of the same disease that claimed her mother, at the age of 60, in 1999. The dust jackets of both books mention that Strasberg was working on a novel at the time of their publications, but the (at least) 12-year project never came to fruition.

One of the more surprising episodes of BITTERSWEET, for me, reveals that Strasberg's friendship with Noel Harrison and his family got her interested in Reichian therapy. After reading some introductory books loaned to her by the Harrisons -- including Orson Bean's ME AND THE ORGONE (which Strasberg calls the best and most comprehensive general introduction to Reich's theories, and which I'm presently adapting into a screenplay for a romantic comedy) -- she embarked on therapy for herself and her infant daughter, which restored some much needed pink color into the bluish baby and had apparently worthwhile psychological benefits for herself. It amazes me to think that, while Noel Harrison was making episodes of THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E and Susan Strasberg was making THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL!, they were both involved in Reichian therapy. The world is a much more interesting place than our entertainment usually lets us know.

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