Friday, June 21, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray
Fay Wray made more than a hundred films, some with outstanding producers and directors of the era and opposite the greatest leading men: Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Victor Jory. She used her earnings to buy her family a home in Hollywood and support them in comfort. She had an infatuation with Cary Grant after they starred together on Broadway, a brief romance with Howard Hughes, and a serious one with the playwright Clifford Odets. The most famous of her leading men, however, was a giant ape known as King Kong and never did she have a single regret.

Robert Riskin was a playwright responsible for numerous classics that helped define American to itself and the world: Lady for a DayThe Whole Town’s TalkingIt Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownYou Can’t Take it With YouLost HorizonMeet John Doe and It Happened One Night. The latter of which was the first film to sweep the five top Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor and Actress. A record matched only twice in the three-quarters of a century since by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. As a result of such success, Riskin is credited for pulling Columbia Pictures out of a poverty row status, and was frequently called on by Harry Cohn to give judgments on most pictures Columbia put int production. 

Robert Riskin and Fay Wray

Both Fay Wray and Robert Riskin met at a Christmas Eve party in 1940 but it was not until two weeks after Pearl Harbor that they found each other again. They connected and a life-long relationship followed. Some of their movies (at least two of Wray’s and sections of Riskin’s Lost Horizon) remain “lost” to this day, providing film buffs something sought after both in legend and newspaper/industry trade briefs. Thankfully, their daughter, Victoria Riskin, wrote a Hollywood memoir that documents both the personal and professional careers of her parents.

I have always said that the best way to write a biography is to contact family relatives and get the scoop – including scans of family photographs, recollections passed down through generations, etc. Sadly, many today stockpile newspaper clippings and magazine articles and document the careers of Hollywood actors chronologically, providing lengthy plot summaries for motion pictures to pad their text, and reads like a standard filmography in prose form. Rarely are any of these books worthy of reading; if anything, they inspire others to fulfill the task properly. Thankfully was have Victoria Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, to not only provide us with the much-needed background but also a passion and love for the material. 

Granted, Fay Wray wrote her own memoirs a long time ago titled On the Other Hand, but Victoria Riskin felt everyone already read the book and instead devoted most of her tome on the details never disclosed in her mother's autobiography. (Though, to be fair, a few passages in Victoria's book are reprinted from that other book, which she appropriately notes, for the importance of certain passages.)

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (2019, Pantheon Books) is a magnificent read. She avoids discussing King Kong behind the humorous anecdotes that Wray encountered in the years following production, and instead focuses on her career as a whole. Robert Riskin accomplished so much in Hollywood yet so few realize just what movies he was responsible for, and the direction Frank Capra took as a result of his influence. Behind-the-scenes anecdotes during production of their movies, rare never-before-published photographs and how the two participated in the war cause are reason enough to buy this book. But perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is Victoria’s description of movies I knew about (such as Lady for a Day) that were so fascinating that I was inspired to sit down and watch half a dozen. No other book has prompted me to pull off DVDs from my shelf in the living room and take time from a busy schedule to watch them. If you are looking for a book to read at the beach this summer, or planning to read only one Hollywood memoir this year, this is that book.

A link to buy a copy of the book today:

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