RAMBLING REPORTER

These true Hollywood stories prove it: The movies can make a great book

Robert Wagner's long-awaited autobiography "Pieces of My Heart," written with Scott Eyman, is in bookstores Tuesday. It's a terrific read: classy like Wagner and full of interesting showbiz stories and insights.

During the course of his long-distance movie career, Wagner has worked with a staggering number of iconic headliners — Spencer Tracy, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, John Ford, Sophia Loren, James Cagney, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Blake Edwards, Steve McQueen and Elizabeth Taylor only scratch the surface. And those he didn't work with often were good pals, making his look back on the 58 colorful years he has spent in the movie business a star-studded and fascinating tale. (Wagner's first film, at age 19, was an unbilled turn in a 1950 MGMer called "The Happy Years.")

Like the Sondheim song says, he's been through it all — from the era of Hollywood's contract system to today's Mike Myers movies — and he's definitely still here. Few could spin stories with the star power that's been a part of Wagner's world: Tracy, Astaire and Sinatra rank particularly high with him; director Ronald Neame and a few others less so.

He also discusses for the first time the drowning death of wife Natalie Wood in 1981 and reveals something that has long been an R.J. secret: a romantic relationship with Barbara Stanwyck, who was 23 years his senior and his co-star in the 1953 Fox biggie "Titanic."

Directors get their due

Also coming soon to bookstores and highly recommended are a pair of new bios about high-ranking directors of Hollywood's past, both of whom have famous names and giant films to their credits — though both, for years, have remained enigmas, each being less interested in being publicized and profiled than in making good movies.

One is Victor Fleming (1889-1949), the man who remarkably directed the two most enduring films of 1939: "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." He gets a full-scale inspection in an excellent book by Michael Sragow, "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master," due in stores in December via Pantheon Books (more about Sragow's book in the future).

Meanwhile, due in November is Glenn Lovell's in-depth look at John Sturges (1911-1992), the masterful director of "Bad Day at Black Rock," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape." "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges" comes from the University of Wisconsin Press. It covers his rise through the studio ranks — first in RKO's sound and editing departments in the 1930s, then a five-year stint as a director at Columbia (1945-49), followed by six years at the Rolls-Royce of studios, MGM (1950-55), but not fully flowering until he began freelancing, aligning himself with the Mirisch Co., a haven for directors.

The Sturges story, extremely well researched, gives insights as to why this no-nonsense, dedicated director, despite his many boxoffice successes, always has been one of the more underrated helmers of his era.

One thing I find particularly interesting in books like these are the casting ideas and story plans that never come to fruition. In the case of Sturges, he was passionate about directing a remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" for MGM (this before the 1962 Brando version was done). His casting plan was most intriguing: Burt Lancaster as the mutineering Fletcher Christian, Tony Perkins as the midshipman, Montgomery Clift as the ship's doctor and — a drum roll here — Spencer Tracy as the villainous Captain Bligh. It had a good chance of happening; Lancaster had worked successfully with Sturges on "O.K. Corral" and Tracy was a Sturges fan after "Black Rock." But MGM boss Dore Schary nixed it. His reason: "Too expensive."

As for "Great Escape," the director's first choice to star was William Holden; when he was unavailable, Lancaster and Kirk Douglas loomed as likely possibilities until money again KO'd the plan, with their combined asking price of $1 million putting them beyond the realm of the film's budget in 1963.

Lovell's book also is full of such casting plans — some deft, some bizarre, many extremely interesting in hindsight.

Another page-turner

The handsomest new book on a Hollywood celeb, hands down and thumbs up, is a 400-page coffee table extravaganza on Lana Turner called "Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies," by her daughter Cheryl Crane with Cindy De La Hoz. The copy is informal, informative and intimate — few knew or understood Turner better than her daughter — and the photographs are magnificent, all from the collection of Lou Valentino, a friend and fan who's long been known for having amassed the definitive Turner photo and poster archive.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of Turner Classic Movies.
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