Biography and the Backstory

– – an excerpt

…If you are a movie buff, try Manny Pacheco’s just published Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History, which takes an unusual approach that treats character actors in terms of the historical epics they appeared in. I warn you that Pacheco’s prose is not analytical. For the most part he does not interpret. Instead, he writes engaging overviews, situating actors in key roles that make their careers a little more familiar, even if you’ve watched these films on Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Classics, or similar channels.

Pacheco’s book is a little over a hundred pages, and I wish he had fattened it up with more anecdotes. Occasionally he is not to be trusted. Sinclair Lewis is not the most important writer of the first half of the twentieth century—his Nobel Prize notwithstanding. But for the students I teach, who know next to nothing about history or Hollywood, this book fills a gap, giving them the gist of several important pictures and actors quickly in an engaging and accessible style.

My favorite chapter is devoted to Walter Brennan. It contains Pacheco’s best four sentences. After explaining that Brennan is the “most honored American male actor in history, winning three of the first five Supporting Actor awards,” Pacheco evokes the persona of a man seemingly born to play archetypal characters: “He also embodies any individual that may have been born around and west of the Mississippi. Looking far older than his years, Brennan could be called upon to play roles that were based in fact or fiction. He seemingly lived throughout the nineteenth century and the fight for this country’s quest to reach ‘from sea to shining sea’ . . . at least on celluloid.” The ellipsis is Pacheco’s and seems to suggest that he paused when he realized that movies and history can become conflated in our imaginations. This phenomenon explains why it is difficult for me to believe that Davy Crockett did not look like Fess Parker…

Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals.