TITLE: SHOWMAN: THE LIFE OF DAVID O. SELZNICK
AUTHOR: DAVID THOMSON
PUBLISHER: KNOPF; 792 PAGES; $35
THE BOTTOM LINE: Brilliant writing portrays self-destruction in the high Hollywood manner.
If it was bad for him, movie producer David O. Selznick had to do it. He was a drug addict (Benzedrine), a compulsive gambler (in 1946 alone he lost $581,621) and an equally compulsive womanizer (no star, secretary or script girl was safe from his lunging, oafish passes). He was often drunk, he never smoked less than three packs a day, and he usually worked deep into the night, wearing out ranks of stenographers as he manically dictated memos, stream-of- consciousness-style, in an attempt to maintain control over every detail of his films and of a business and personal life that yearly grew more chaotic. Eventually Selznick managed to fritter away financial interest in his greatest claim to fame, Gone With the Wind, a carelessness that cost him millions he could have used in his desperate final days.
He wore himself out in 63 years, but he never wears down biographer David Thomson, and despite a length more appropriate to the life of a world leader than that of a relatively minor -- though never inconspicuous -- movie producer, Thomson's book never wears down the reader either. Partly that's because Thomson is a writer of rare grace as well as a shrewd, knowledgeable and critically astute observer of high Hollywood's golden years. Partly it is because, despite many exasperating sins and shortcomings, David O. Selznick was a curiously likable guy.
There was always something childlike, therefore forgivable, in his appetites. They were of a piece with his whimsical enthusiasms -- for a new project (or a series of last-minute changes in an old one) or a new bauble (he was a Jewish lad who loved Christmas, each year turning it into a production that rivaled his movies in prodigality). As Thomson puts it, "It was the speed with which he changed his mind that amounted to genius."
A big, soft klutz who never exercised anything but his ego, Selznick was the son of one of the industry's pioneer pirates, a high roller who was quickly rolled over by better organized competitors. Thomson hints at a streak of madness in the Selznick line (one brother, Myron, a legendary Hollywood agent, died of alcoholism; another was institutionalized for many years). But in David's case it looked at first like genius. He was head of production at RKO at 30, had his own unit at MGM a year later, his own company four years after that. And he oversaw some of his best pictures in that period: King Kong, David Copperfield and a terrific movie about moviemakers, What Price Hollywood?, self-knowing, self-satirizing. Along the way, Selznick married the & boss of all boss's daughters, Irene, apple of Louis B. Mayer's glittering eye.
It is possible that the son of a notorious failure had a more than usual need to succeed. It is possible that the son-in-law of the mighty head of mighty MGM had one or two things to prove to his tough, smart, neurotic wife, not to mention ever cynical Hollywood. But as Thomson shows, Selznick cannot be pickled in conventional psychological wisdom.