Book Review: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona and Inside Oscar 2 by Damien Bona


If you’re an Oscar fanatic or if you’re just a film lover who thinks that the Oscars are a joke, these are two books that you simply have to have.

As you can probably tell from the titles, Inside Oscar and Inside Oscar 2 are all about the Academy Awards.  Inside Oscar starts with the founding of the Academy and ends with the 1994 Oscar ceremony.  Inside Oscar 2 picks up with the 1995 ceremony and takes us through the year 2000.  The books were written by two Oscar fanatics and, as a result, it contains just about every bit of trivia that you could hope to find about the Academy, the Oscars, and Hollywood during the previous century.  (Unfortunately, both Mason Wiley and Damien Bona have passed away so we probably won’t be getting an Inside Oscar 3.)  The books contain not only every detail that you could possibly want about the ceremonies themselves, they also touch on what was going on in America and the rest of the world during each year.  For example, it’s quite interesting to read about how different the 1958 Academy Awards ceremony was to the 1968 ceremony.  (Essentially, in 1968, longtime Oscar host Bob Hope made a joke about the ceremony being moved back a few days out of respect for the recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.  For the first time in Oscar history, the audience booed one of the host’s jokes.)  As a result, Inside Oscar and its sequel aren’t just books about Hollywood.  In their way, they also serve as an examination of the ever changing cultural and political landscape of the United States.

It’s not just the books are full of snarky details, though they are.  It’s also that the books serve as a great reference to the history of the Oscars.  In the appendixes, you’ll find every year’s list of nominees, some genuinely interesting trivia, and — perhaps most importantly — a list of notable films (and, in some years, songs) that were not nominated.  As you might guess, it’s those lists of unnominated films that I find especially interesting.  Every year, some very good films are ignored by the Academy.  That was true in the past and it’s true in the present and it will probably continue to be true in the future.

Taken together, Inside Oscar and Inside Oscar 2 are the two best reference books out there for film lovers like you and me.

Book Review: Giant — Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, And The Making Of A Legendary American Film by Don Graham


Wow, that Edna Ferber sure was a bitch.

That was my first thought as I read Giant, Don Graham’s history about the making of the film of the same name.  In the early 50s, Edna Ferber, a writer who was born in Michigan, raised in Wisconsin, and lived in New York, wrote a novel about Texas.  The novel was called Giant and it told a story of ranchers, oilmen, and casual racists.  It was meant to be an attack on Texas, a warning to the rest of the country to not allow itself to turn into Texas.  Ferber presented Texas as being a land where everything was big and everyone owned a jet and an oil well and all the rest of the usual stereotypes.  When Ferber’s novel was turned into a movie, she was apparently not happy to discover that the film was not the vehement denunciation of the state and its citizens that she wished it to be.  In Don Graham’s book, Edna Feber often seems to be hovering in the background of every scene, throwing a fit about every detail of the movie.  She comes across as a certain type of character that every Texan has had to deal with: the angry Northerner who can’t understand why we’re not as impressed with them as they are.

That’s not to say that Giant, as a film, was blindly pro-Texas.  The film featured a subplot that deal with the prejudice that Mexicans faced in Texas.  But the film also indicated that things could change and that people could grow and that was something that Ferber apparently did not agree with, at least as far as Texans are concerned.

If Graham’s entire book was just about Ferber’s displeasure with Giant, it would make for a fairly tedious read but, fortunately, Edna Ferber is just a minor part of the sprawling story that Graham tells.  Instead of worrying too much about Ferber, Graham focuses on the filming of Giant and how it not only brought Hollywood to the citizens of Marfa, Texas but also what it meant to George Stevens, the film’s director and it’s three stars, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.  Giant was the film that proved that Elizabeth Taylor could act.  It was also the film that brought Rock Hudson some rare critical acclaim.  And, perhaps most importantly, it was the last film that James Dean made before his death.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is at its most interesting when it deals with James Dean.  Graham does not make the mistake of blindly idolizing Dean.  Indeed, Dean often comes across as a brat.  Graham writes about Marlon Brando’s well-known dislike of Dean but he also shares anecdotes from the set that reveal that Dean was incredibly talented but also very self-destructive.  Reading about Dean’s behavior and his frayed relationship with George Stevens, one gets the feeling that, even if he had survived the car accident, Dean’s acting career probably would never have survived his own self-destructive impulses.  Graham celebrates Dean’s talent without idealizing his character.

Much as in the movie, Rock Hudson is frequently overshadowed by Dean.  In the book, Hudson comes across as being …. well, he’s come across as being a bit of a jerk.  Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, comes across as being driven, fragile, and committed to her stardom.  She also comes across as possessing an unexpectedly sharp wit.  If both Dean and Hudson were both a bit too self-impressed, Taylor possessed the knowledge of someone who had spent her entire life in the film industry.

Don Graham’s Giant is an entertaining book. Full of anecdotes and more than a little bit juicy speculation about what went on behind the scenes, Giant is a great read for Texans and film fans alike!

Book Review: Hollywood Rat Race by Ed Wood, Jr.


Are you a teenager in the late 50s or the early 60s?

Are you planning on running off to Hollywood to become a star?

Do you need someone to tell you what to expect once you find yourself on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams?

Hollywood’s most successful director — the one and only Ed Wood, Jr. — is here to help!

Okay, maybe I’m going a little bit overboard with the hyperbole here.  Though Ed Wood is today best known for being played by Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton film, he was not just a movie character!  Nor was just a filmmaker!  Ed Wood was also an author.  When Wood didn’t have the money to make a movie, he would write a book.  In fact, it’s speculated that Wood actually made more money writing books than he did making movies.

Unfortunately, the majority of these books have been lost to time.  The ones that survive are generally either sex manuals or pulpy novels about hitmen who love to wear angora.  However, Hollywood Rat Race was Wood’s attempt to write, in the first person, about the industry and the city that he both loved and hated.  Hollywood Rat Race is Wood’s warts-and-all look at the film industry.  It’s his guide for how to make it in Hollywood.

What is Wood’s advice?

Be physically attractive.  Do whatever the director tells you to do.  Don’t be shocked when an executive chases you around a desk.  Sleep your way to the top if you have to but just be aware that no one will respect you once you get old.  Wood presents Hollywood as being a cold and unfeeling place but, at the same time, he also describe working in movies and television as the greatest career that anyone could hope for.  Wood will often start a chapter on a cautionary note but his enthusiasm for Hollywood always wins out in the end.  Reading the book, you realize that Wood loved the business too much to reject it, even if it did often reject him.

Hollywood Rat Race is not, despite what is claimed on the book’s back cover, a memoir.  Not really.  Yes, Wood does mention that he was friends with Bela Lugosi.  And he does talk about how Tom Tyler came out of retirement to appear in Plan 9 From Outer Space.  He mentions thar another member of his stock company didn’t complain about being attacked by an octopus in Bride of the Monster.  But those looking for juicy behind-the-scenes stories will be disappointed.  Instead, the book gives the impression that every experience Wood ever had with an actor or a film was a positive one.  Rather touchingly, it’s kind of easy to see Hollywood Rat Race as representing the Hollywood that Ed Wood dreamed of, as opposed to the Hollywood where Wood eventually went broke and drank himself to death.

Hollywood Rat Race was not published in Wood’s lifetime.  He wrote it shortly after the release of Plan 9 but the book was not published until after Tim Burton’s film reignited interest in Wood in 1994.  It’s a good book for all of he Wood completists out there.

And, before anyone asks, yes — he does recommend wearing an angora sweater to your next audition.

Book Reviews: Nightmare Store and Horror Hotel by Hilary Milton


You are trapped in a department store overnight!  Can you survive even while being pursued by ghosts, monsters, and killer mannequins?

Or

You are trapped in a hotel!  No one else seems to be around!  Can you survive even while being pursued by ghosts, monsters, and a crazy doctor with a scalpel?

It all depends on which one of these two books you read!

These are two books that I ordered off of Amazon two years ago and they’re both enjoyable reads.  They’re choose your own adventure-style books, where you get trapped in a location overnight and you have to try to survive while various monsters and ghosts try to kill you.  Every few pages, you’re given an option for what you want to happen next in the story.  What’s interesting is that, instead of it being the usual “If you run got page 75” sort of thing, it’s instead more like, “If you hear a noise, go to page 33.  If you see something out of the corner of your eye, go to page 28.”  So, to an extent, you get to decide how your scary story plays out.  These books were written for children, of course but both of them still get surprisingly grisly and intense at time.

Of the two, I preferred Horror Hotel.  The hotel was just a more interesting locations than the store and there was a lot more variety to the options and storylines in Horror Hotel.  I mean, yes, it’s obvious that Horror Hotel is basically just The Shining for kids but so what?  It had some scary moments!  It also had some scary pictures to go along with the text.  I wonder how many children in the 80s were traumatized by that picture of a scaly hand reaching out from underneath the bed and grabbing your ankle?  Or how about the picture of the crazy-haired scientist running at you with a scalpel in his hand?  AGCK!

Anyway, these are fun books.  They can orered off of Amazon and and they’re an enjoyable way to kill a little time in between hauntings.

Horror Book Review: Save The Last Dance For Me by Judi Miller


The 1981 novel, Save The Last Dance For Me, is another book that I found in my aunt’s paperback collection.  I have to admit that I got really excited when I found it.  This is a book that I had wanted to read ever since I came across the cover in Paperbacks From Hell.

Jennifer is blonde, beautiful, young, and ambitious.  She’s a driven dancer who is totally obsessed with becoming a soloist for one of New York’s best dance companies.  She’s got an older boyfriend, of course.  He’s a podiatrist who hopes that Jennifer will abandon her dreams and marry him.  Jennifer, however, is not so eager to settle down for a boring domestic life.

Max is a pianist who was raised by a narcissistic alcoholic who continually pressured her young son to learn ballet.  Neither Max nor his mother may have had much of a career as a dancer but that hasn’t stopped him from dreaming and obsessing.  Max has a basement and a bathroom that is full of ballet slippers.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, sorry.  (I know, I know.  I use that joke a lot but what can I say?  It amuses me.)  Instead, they have a drunken sexual tryst after Jennifer has an argument with her boyfriend and this leads to Jennifer not only getting locked in the basement but also being forced to eat a totally disgusting hamburger!  (EEEEEK!)  Max demands that Jennifer learn a terrible solo and he demands that she practice and practice it until she collapses.  It turns out to all be an elaborate revenge scheme, with a hint of Phantom of the Opera tossed in.  (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Judi Miller also wrote a book called Phantom of the Soap Opera.)

There’s actually quite a bit going on in Save The Last Dance For Me.  This is a very plot-heavy book.  It’s full of bitchy and duplicitous characters, all of whom have their own agendas.  It also turn out that Max has been killing ballerinas for years.  The two detectives who are investigating the murders have to deal with a lot of pervy suspects, all of whom have their own fetishes when it comes to dancers.  As someone who grew up dancing, I can tell you that, in its hyper and melodramatic way, this book gets a lot of things right.

Anyway, not surprisingly, I really loved this book.  This was one of the most wonderfully trashy books that I’ve ever read, full of twists and subplots and red herrings and even a memorably overdone sex scene.  Basically, imagine the most melodramatic and sordid Lifetime movie ever but in book form.  In fact, I’m actually kind of surprised that Lifetime hasn’t ever made a movie out of this book.  I mean, if they can turn V.C. Andrews novel into an “event,” why not Save The Last Dance For Me?  Get on it, Lifetime!

Horror Book Review: The Stranger Return by Michael R. Perry


On January 24th, 1989, Ted Bundy — then America’s most notorious serial killer — was executed by the state of Florida.  Before he died, he confessed to all of his crimes and then gave an interview where he blamed it all on an addiction to pornography.  It was all a part of a scheme to avoid the electric chair but it didn’t work and he was put to death while thousands stood outside the prison and cheered.

Or was he?

The 1992 novel, The Stranger Returns, suggests that Bundy — who was once as notorious for his ability to escape custody as for his murderous rampage — escaped one last time.  A duplicate was sent to the electric chair while Bundy made his escape.  I know that probably made no sense when you read it in this review.  It really doesn’t make much sense in the book either.  But I guess things had to start somewhere.

Now believed to be dead, Bundy is free to change his identity, romance a young mother, and once again resume his murderous ways.  Only one man suspects that Bundy may have cheated the executioner, the father of one of his victims.  While he tries to get someone to listen to his theory about Bundy being alive, Bundy continues to move across the landscape like a dark shadow of death.

Earlier this year, it seemed like the entire nation briefly went Bundy crazy.  There was a documentary on Netflix.  Zac Efron starred in a movie.  It seem like almost every true crime show around did at least one episode on Bundy this year.  30 years after his execution, Ted Bundy was trending on twitter, a macabre testament to the power of celebrity.

I found myself thinking about Bundy’s morbid fame as I read The Stranger Returns.  The book was well-written and it was a quick read but it was still a bit troublesome that the book was essentially a novel starring Ted Bundy.  Too often, the book treated him like some sort of Hannibal Lecter-type character whereas Bundy was actually, by most accounts, an impotent drunk who was never as handsome, charming, or intelligent as he is frequently made out to be.  What is this power that a loser like Bundy holds over the popular imagination?

The Stranger Returns is a testament to that power.  I mean, how many other real-life serial killers have starred in a novel?  That’s usually an honor reserved for vampire hunters like Abraham Lincoln.  To be honest, I probably would have liked this book better if it had been about someone who thought he was Ted Bundy as opposed to being Ted Bundy himself.  In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the book if it had featured Bundy’s ghost or if Bundy had used some other supernatural check to come back to life.  But making Bundy into some sort of criminal genius was just a bit too icky for me.

Incidentally, I found this book in my aunt’s paperback collection.  According to her, she found the book being sold in the “true crime” section of Half-Price Books.  Fortunately, it’s not true crime.  Ted Bundy is dead and good riddance.

Book Reviews: Haunted Dallas and Haunted Fort Worth by Rita Cook


If you’re planning to go ghost hunting in the DFW metropelx, Haunted Dallas and Haunted Fort Worth (both of which were written by Rita Cook and published in 2011) are two good guides for your hunt.  Both books list various locations in both cities that are reputed to be haunted, some of which — like the Hotel Adolphus — I had heard about it and some of which — basically any location in Fort Worth — were new to me.

One thing that I really appreciated about these books is that both Dallas and Forth Worth got their own separate volume.  Far too often, people — especially people who come down here from up North — tends to assume that Dallas and Ft. Worth are just one big city.  They are two very separate cities, each with their own unique history and feel.  If Dallas is Texas as imagined by Andy Warhol, Ft. Worth is Texas as imagined by John Ford.  Not surprisingly, Dallas seems to be haunted by the wealthy while Ft. Worth is haunted by rough and tumble outlaws.

Admittedly, neither book goes into as much details as one might hope.  Instead, they give the basics of each legend and/or haunting and then they allow your imagination to do the rest of the work.  But, if you’re just starting your search for Texas ghosts, these books are good place to begin!

(For the record, I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think it’s fun to search.)