Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Carl Rollyson's "Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews"

Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His latest books are Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, a biography of Dana Andrews published by University Press of Mississippi in September 2012, and the biography American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath, released in January 2013.

Here Rollyson shares some ideas for adapting Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews for the big screen:
I've had many talks with Susan Andrews about who should play her father in a movie. Here is what she wrote to me: "Lately, I’ve been watching the new hit TV series Mad Men. The lead character reminds me in some ways of my father. He’s got this secret past and all the trappings of success: the wife, the children, the home in the burbs, and yet he’s strangely dislocated. Reviewers have called him an existential hero.” Jon Hamm, playing Don Draper has Dana's tightly-wound affect, and that understated style that made Dana's performances in Laura, Fallen Angel, and Where the Sidewalk Ends so compelling.

Secret past? Well, my biography explains that. Dana said relatively little about his growing up in Texas, and what Susan knew turned out to be a myth. She had always heard that her father was a poor preacher's boy who had run away from home when his sweetheart's family rejected him, thinking that this young kid with stars in his eyes would never make it in Hollywood. Well, as I began to research my biography I discovered that the preacher was not quite so poor and the sweetheart's family not quite so hostile to the aspiring actor. But, no matter, because the truth turned out to be even more dramatic than the myth.

The story of Dana's Depression-era decade-long struggle to get a movie contract was drama enough for a biography, since it included stints as a ditch digger, fig picker, bus driver, and gas jockey even as he trained his voice for opera and then suffered through the shocking death of his young, pregnant wife. Stardom, heavy drinking, and the downward slide of his career make for melancholy reading at some points, but what redeems Dana is an utter lack of self-pity and a nobility that made his fellow actor, Norman Lloyd, call him a "prince among men."

Not that many movie star biographies have a happy ending. But Dana's does. He was able to conquer his alcoholism, revive his career on stage, and remain a good father and husband that his family continues to cherish.

If Jon Hamm is not available to play Dana, George Clooney could step in. I think he would play the redemptive part of Dana's story without descending to the sentimentality that ruins so many biopics. Too bad Burt Lancaster is not still around to play Dana's father, the fire-breathing philandering Baptist preacher who specialized in condemning two of the greatest sin-making activities: drinking and making movies!
View the video trailer for Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, and learn more about the book and author at Carl Rollyson's website, blog, and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue