Business people and studios are always looking to cash in on celebrities and their fame for as long as they can, as I’m sure you all know. But at some point, these overexposed people are finally given the opportunity to write a book. This is usually comes at the latter half of their lives where their fame has fizzled out, and they finally have a chance to put their lives into some kind of perspective. Whether they are being objective or subjective about themselves is another story.
The problem though is that celebrities are not being asked to write a book because they are talented; they’re doing it because there’s lots of money involved. By the time critics and fans get through these sordid memoirs, it won’t matter if the book is brilliant or royally sucks because the cash cow has already been fully milked. I mean, you see these books from a distance, promoted to a public that doesn’t know any better. In a lot of cases, celebrities will have someone writing their books with them so that they don’t screw up too much, or they are ghostwritten by someone who is more than comfortable with remaining anonymous. Heaven forbid they should take any blame if the celeb’s book is poorly received.
But in the midst of all these big book deals where more attention is paid to the upfront fee given to the author or how many copies are going to be printed in the first run, there are some that are actually worth reading. Then you get to the great ones that don’t hold back and which are written by those celebrities who actually have a talent for writing. The books I have selected for this list are among my favorites, and they are the ones that still stay with me long after I have read them. While a lot of these celebrity memoirs and autobiographies can have you rolling your eyes, these ones are superb examples of how one can really tell a story so vivid that it jumps out at you from the page. Moreover, the great ones will leave you with more respect for these people than you had for them previously.
“Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin
We all know Mr. Martin for being a “wild and crazy guy” act and he has never stopped making us laugh (hopefully never will) either on stage or screen. On top of being a movie star though, he has also written some hilarious screenplays (“LA Story” & “Bowfinger”) and some truly great books (“Shopgirl” and “Pure Drivel”). But in many ways, his memoir “Born Standing Up” represents his best writing to date as he takes us from his formative experiences as a child to future experiences where he worked at Disneyland doing magic tricks to eventually becoming a writer for the Smothers Brothers’ TV show. All this comes together to give us a clear picture of how it all fed into his eventual career as a professional entertainer.
“Born Standing Up” is not a full out autobiography in the sense that you get to see every facet of Martin’s life. The focus is really on how he ended up becoming a comedian and of how he went from small theaters where he was lucky to get any kind of audience to a superstar who filled theaters across the country. Martin also explains to us in telling detail of how he retired his stand up career when the act became stale and how the constant touring eventually burned him out. Like all of Martin’s books, it is a fascinating read.
“It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” by Charles Grodin
Grodin may be best known for his radio commentaries and for his playfully mocking appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” but he remains to this day one of the most vastly underrated characters actors in movies. Whether it’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” “The Great Muppet Caper,” “Midnight Run” or the first two “Beethoven” movies, he has given one great performance after another. Unlike other actors who write books on the heights of celebrity, Charles’ autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” looks at the working class actor who doesn’t necessarily experience the limelight in the same way Tom Cruise does.
This memoir remains one of the most definitive books on how tough it is to break into show business, and it is a must read for anyone contemplating an acting career. It will either fill you with hope or it will have you running in the other direction at warp speed for an occupation that is far more stable. Either way, Charles Grodin infuses his triumphs and failures with the sardonic sense of humor he is known for, and you believe when he says that his journey into show business “hasn’t been bad at all.”
“It’s Always Something” by Gilda Radner
It was so incredibly sad when we lost the great Gilda Radner to ovarian cancer back in 1989. She was only 42 years old, and the world of comedy never felt the same again. While Radner is best known for the five years she spent on “Saturday Night Live,” she became better known for her well-publicized fight against cancer in the latter half of her life. Her memoir “It’s Always Something” is mainly about her fight with the disease, and she goes into frightening detail of how it crippled her body in different ways. But she also makes vividly clear that it never took away from the giddy spirit she was imbued with, and there’s no doubt that she fought this dreaded disease to the very end. This is even more the case if you listen to the audiobook version which is read by her which makes her struggles seem all the more poignant. Radner really seemed like someone you would want to spend time with.
This is a must read for someone dealing with cancer or another deadly disease for they will hopefully find Radner’s story an inspiring one. She may be gone, but she will never be forgotten.
“The Ragman’s Son” by Kirk Douglas
Another famous actor autobiography, Kirk Douglas chronicles the highs and lows of a 50 year career in Hollywood. But what makes this one more memorable is how he details the pain of having to detail with anti-Semitism when he was young, and you feel his pain at being rejected because of who he is. You also get to read about his many battles with Hollywood and his disgust at what it did to those closest to him. Douglas is by no means an encouraging person to talk to about starting an acting career, but that never kept his sons from pursuing one.
Douglas’ writing is very vivid in its emotions, and you really feel the pain he has had to endure from being seen as nothing more than a Jew in the eyes of others to the endless frustrations one has to deal with in pursuing a career in show business. He has since gone on to write more books which deal with other painful challenges he has had to face as well. Seeing him get an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards was one of the most memorable and happiest of moments I can remember from any of those ceremonies. His hard work did pay off, especially with him having such a long career.
“To The Stars” by George Takei
Just about all the actors from the original “Star Trek” series has written an autobiography. Heck, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have each written more than one autobiography as one clearly wasn’t enough. But of all the ones I have read, George Takei’s has been the most entertaining and enlightening of the bunch. Written long before he confirmed publically that he is gay, Takei tells many great stories of working on the famous science fiction series and of the movies that came after it. George also talks a lot about Shatner and dealing with his enormous ego. Suffice to say, not a lot of it is positive, but then again he wasn’t the only one who complained about the man who played Captain James T. Kirk.
But what is especially notable about his specific autobiography is that Takei writes about how his family was forced into an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. These memories are still very real to him as he captures the poor conditions his family was subjected to. When he talks about the moment when he was forced to leave the dog he cared before behind forever when his family finally exited the camp, you feel his pain as he describes how sound of the dog barking never left his mind. This makes “To the Stars” an especially important read as it covers one of the most shameful moments in American history.
“Candy Girl” by Diablo Cody
Best known for writing the screenplays for “Juno, “Jennifer’s Body” and “Young Adult,” Diablo Cody’s memoir covered the time she spent a year as a stripper while living in Minneapolis. Her experiences are at times funny and at other times very scary, and she gets to the nitty gritty of the business without ever glamorizing it (as if that were possible). It also has much of the wit we have come to love Cody for, and her brilliant descriptions of the world around her are priceless. For those who thought that Cody’s success with “Juno” was a fluke should do themselves a favor and read “Candy Girl.” Her talent is not in doubt nor should it be (especially after “Young Adult”).
“Pryor Convictions” by Richard Pryor
One of the greatest stand-up comedians that ever lived, Richard Pryor also had one of the toughest upbringings of any human being. Whereas his comedy routines allowed him to look at the most painful memories he had with a good dose of humor, “Pryor Convictions” takes a look those same memories that formed him with a blunt honesty that is at times unsettling. Pryor vividly captures his rough childhood while being raised by his grandmother who owned a brothel, his drug problems which later led to him setting himself on fire, his seven marriages and of how he described domestic violence as an addiction unto itself, and of when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Pryor holds nothing back and his book is as illuminating as it is painful to read.
Having read this, it seems like a real miracle that Pryor lived long enough to write it. It’s an even bigger miracle that he made it into his 60’s before he passed away. With all that he had been through, many expected him to leave this world much sooner than he did. Maybe some special spirit was really looking out for him. With “Pryor Convictions,” I am hard pressed to think of another celebrity who has faced his demons in public with such honesty and vulnerability, and it is an amazing read because of that.
“If Chins Could Kill” by Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell, star of the “Evil Dead” movies and “Bubba Ho Tep” among others, succeeded in giving us one of the most amusing autobiographies that anyone could ever hope to read with this book on his life. We are lucky because he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and it makes him all the more entertaining to hang out with as a result. Along with Campbell we go as he talks about the endless financing and filmmaking that went into making those “Evil Dead” movies which are among the most famous cult films ever made. Campbell also takes away a lot of the glamour of being an actor in almost the same way Grodin did, and he never lets us see getting into show business as some sort of get rich quick scheme. He even breaks down just how much an actor makes after the agents are paid off.
Not a very long book and never overly self-indulgent, Campbell’s “If Chins Could Kill” is a great look at an actor who is thankfully more down to earth than so many others.
“Stupid White Men” by Michael Moore
On top of making such unforgettably entertaining documentaries like “Sicko” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore has written several books that are as informative as they are hilarious. “Stupid White Men” is still one of his best as he takes on Democrats as well as Republicans, criticizes our country’s government policies as well as the Bush Administration (no longer in power thank goodness), and he cuts to the bone over what a recession in America really means. Although it may seem dated, having been released not too along after September 11th, 2001, it still is relevant to what’s going on today as we are still fighting our way out of the one of the worst economic disasters this country has ever seen.
But seriously, his definition of a recession and what it’s really about is dead on. Trust me, read it for yourself and see.
“How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” by Lenny Bruce
One of the most definitive show business memoirs ever written, this is Lenny Bruce’s autobiography and of how he fought for freedom of expression throughout his career. Bruce was one the greatest social satirists that ever lived and he went after many taboo topics such as organized religion as well as politicians he found to be completely hypocritical (some things never do seem to change). Going into specific detail over his constant battles with the ruling class, Bruce shows us how he succeeded in opening the door for countless other comics to break social taboos and speak freely about how they saw the world around them. Many other artists like Eric Bogosian, George Carlin and Bill Hicks looked up to him as a huge inspiration. Of all the books on this list, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” is the one you should start with.