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BOOK REVIEW: FADE TO BLACK

 

By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 30 OCTOBER 2010 — Like the language it holds dear, French Society tends to cling tenaciously to its beloved stereotypes, one of which (particularly pungent during the season of Halloween) is that the British and Americans are morbidly ghoulish in their fascination with horror. Whether imagined (haunted houses, televised vampires, zombie films) or disturbingly real (Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer), it seems to the French that the Anglo-Saxons’ hunger for the macabre is rarely satisfied.

It is in that light that this particular French person can begin to grasp the popularity of Paul Donnelley's Fade to Black: A Book of Over 1500 Movie Obituaries. In its Tenth Anniversary Edition (2010) and with a new introduction by British film producer/director Michael Winner, Mr. Donnelley assesses not only the artistic contribution (or lack thereof) of each film talent or mogul, but also the sometimes gritty or gruesome circumstances of their deaths. Few seem to make a discreet exit from "natural causes." Most endure the drawn-out suffering associated with cancers, heart, liver, kidney and respiratory diseases, mental illness, diabetes, incurable pathologies, drug addiction, alcoholism and, more recently, AIDS (a substantial list if one includes speculation, as in the death of Howard Hughes) and Alzheimer's Disease (Rita Hayworth, Jack Lord, Ronald Reagan, Vincente Minnelli).  Some meet the grim reaper in unexpected and tragic accidents (James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, William Holden, Maria Montez, Françoise Dorléac, David Carradine, Heath Leger). Others in unspeakably sordid murders (Albert Dekker, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dominique Dunne, Sal Mineo, Marie Trintignant), or tragically by their own hand (Jean Seberg,  George Sanders, Dorothy Dandridge, Alan Ladd, Inger Stevens, Gig Young, Pier Angeli, Rainer Werner Fassbinder among others).

As for the lurid details, Mr. Donnelley can satiate even the most jaded appetites for the eye-wincing tabloid forensics of drug-related deaths, torture and rape, sexual orientation (a veritable Who's What and With Whom), location and degree of undress at the moment of death, the stench and putrefaction of the dead and famous at crime scenes or suicide sites, hard-boiled police gossip and coroner reports, as well as the deceased's final bank account statement. 

There are, however, some funny bits among the numerous personality portraits that precede the sections subtitled "Cause of Death." For example, the Australian tragedian Dame Judith Anderson, best known as the "malignant" Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940):

After one particularly good performance of Medea(1947), Claire Trevor went backstage to congratulate Anderson. "I simply can't find the words to tell you how superb you were," she enthused. Anderson's response was succinct: "Try."

Or, this grotesque incident at the burial of Maurice Chevalier in France:

About a thousand people attended his funeral in Marnes-la-Coquette. Chevalier was laid to rest in his stage costume, his straw boater placed across his chest. At the cemetery a fight broke out between the press photographers and one of them ended up being pushed into the grave on top of the coffin.

So, if this sort of thing makes you laugh then Fade to Black will no doubt make you howl. Enjoy the read without guilt — and try not to think of France.

Fade to Black: A Book of Over 1500 Movie Obituaries
By Paul Donnelley

Paperback: 1168 pages
Omnibus Press; Revised edition (September 2010)
ISBN-10: 1849382468
ISBN-13: 978-1849382465
$29.95

Antoine du Rocher is Managing Editor of Culturekiosque. He last wrote on the film Inception. 

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