Though steeped in glory and glamour, the Hollywood memoir is also typically sprinkled with enough excess, depravity and human wreckage to afford the gorged reader a righteous aftertaste. Call it the gluten-free cupcake of literary genres.
This enduring confection is not without its limitations. “When it comes to people who have spent their whole working lives creating images of themselves,” wrote Michael Korda, the former editor of Simon & Schuster, “the idea that they will suddenly put ‘the truth’ about their lives, whatever it may be, onto paper, is unlikely.” (He would know, having published books by Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.)
But some of the most potent Hollywood memoirs are the contributions not of marquee names but of bit players — Brooke Hayward’s “Haywire,” for example, or “West of Eden: An American Place,” Jean Stein’s recently published oral history.
“The Mighty Franks,” by Michael Frank, an essayist and short-story writer who has reviewed books for The Los Angeles Times, falls into this category. The leading characters in his probing and radiantly polished account, his Aunt Harriet Frank Jr. and Uncle Irving Ravetch, were MGM screenwriters (“Hud,” “Norma Rae”), which is to say not loftily perched on the movie-business totem pole. They would not have been courted by Mr. Korda to write their own memoirs.
“The Mighty Franks” (the title comes from Aunt Harriet’s unironic appellation for her family) is set in the scrubby Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, traditional outpost of musicians and artists, rather than in the security-patrolled enclaves of Brentwood or Bel-Air. No hilltop palaces here, no People–covered weddings or medevac flights to Betty Ford. Still, this is a narrative that could unfold only in a place where fantasy and reality blur with treacherous ease.
At its center is Aunt “Hankie,” a theatrical and mercurial woman who might be described as the love child of Auntie Mame and Mommie Dearest. The author may have been raised (in the 1960s and ’70s) by Marty Frank, the owner of a medical-equipment business, and his wife, Merona, a homemaker, but his surrogate parents were Hankie, who was Marty’s sister, and Irving, who was Merona’s brother. (In this eccentrically intertwined clan, not only did brother and sister marry sister and brother, but their mothers — Michael’s grandmothers — also lived together.) A tall, formidable presence with a tower of auburn hair, a fake beauty mark and a slash of Salmon Ice lipstick, Aunt Hankie reels in Michael at a young age and — unhappily for the boy but goldenly for the memoirist — never lets him go.
After school or on Saturday mornings, she pilots her Buick Riviera into his parents’ driveway, sounds the horn and, in a cloud of men’s cologne from I. Magnin, whisks her nephew off on “larky” adventures. She takes him to his grandmothers’ apartment in Hollywood, or on antiquing expeditions, or to her own home nearby, a French-style manse obsessively decorated with her cannily scavenged treasures (“period, not mo-derne”). She devotes herself to indoctrinating Michael about art (Matisse is superior to Picasso), film (Truffaut over Welles), literature (Faulkner, not Hemingway). At 9 or 10 he is unable to do much more than inhale her glamour and parrot her outré opinions and pronouncements. “Follow the pleasure principle!” she exhorts. “Make beauty wherever you can!”
“I considered her quite simply to be the most magical human being I knew,” Mr. Frank writes. “Everything she touched, everything she did, was golden, infused with a special knowledge and a teeming vitality.”
There are early warning signs. Michael’s stomach is constantly knotted. He is bullied at school, called Suzie and regularly beaten up. His parents fret that Hankie’s doting on him is alienating his two brothers. After the death of Hankie’s revered mother, a story editor at MGM, she grows increasingly erratic and more controlling, he writes — of her nephew and everyone else in her orbit.
Testing the boundaries as he gets older, Michael excuses himself from one of his aunt’s phone summonses; she hangs up on him and later berates him for his “heartlessness.” He begs off helping her with the decorations for her annual Christmas extravaganza; she cancels Christmas altogether, cutting off his family for weeks. She works a wedge between him and his parents, disparaging them in his presence. Anyone who comes between Hankie and her need to pull focus is tossed aside.
Charming but passive, Uncle Irving is the family mediator, but his loyalties are always with Hankie. (He comes off as a textbook enabler, though the author never resorts to psychobabble.) The two of them build a grander, Hollywood Regency-style showplace in Laurel Canyon with parquet floors and 14-foot ceilings, stuffed with mementos from movie sets and the antiques Hankie hoards. “Her most sustained work of art,” the maison, as they humbly refer to it, is a stage set for Hankie to command, a backdrop against which to dispense tea and cucumber sandwiches and increasingly hollow-sounding Hankieisms.
“It seemed perfectly logical to us that my aunt and uncle would live with tangible pieces of their movies,” Mr. Frank writes, “just as they spoke in dialogue-like speeches … or staged scenes that seemed to belong more to invented than to actual life.” The author connects the dots subtly between his relatives’ capacity for self-invention and their employment in the dream factory. “Everyone was acting” he says of his family’s denial of the cancer that killed a grandmother, “everyone was pretending; too many books had been read, too many movies seen (or conceived, or made).”
It’s not until he is out of high school that Michael can establish a healthy distance from Hankie, finding refuge in Europe. But even halfway around the world he can’t escape her clutches. She interrupts his travels in Paris, insisting he change his itinerary to accompany her to London. He refuses, she explodes — a kind of Kabuki by now.
Over time, the author’s understanding of his aunt gains nuance. “Surely it was fear that fed her anger,” he muses, “because isn’t fear what is always lying, snakelike, at the bottom of every basketful of rage? Fear at being out of control — of the decoration, the food, the moment, the conversation, the connections between other people, the story; always the story, which had to be as she saw (or invented or interpreted) it.”
There is a moment, years later — Uncle Irving is in the hospital with end-stage cancer, Aunt Hankie insisting that he be kept alive at any cost — when the adult Michael confronts his aunt over her selfishness and, in a rare flash of insight, she recognizes that he is right. But it’s just a moment.
“I don’t do illness” is another Hankieism, but after fracturing her hip during an argument she refuses physical therapy and uses a wheelchair. She holes up in the maison, continuing to cram the place with new acquisitions: ceramic cherubs now, and other kitsch from thrift stores. The author traces her decline, both physical and aesthetic, in somber tones, but it also seems to have spurred his liberation.