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Why is it that "great film director" so often turns out to be synonymous with "congenital liar"? Howard Hawks, celebrated auteur of Hollywood's classical period, director of Bringing Up Baby, Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not and many others, is one of those figures who forces a faithful biographer to expend vast energies correcting his subject's multitude of self-serving, over-simplified anecdotes, many of which have passed into Hollywood legend. And Hawks -- who worked in his 50-year career with John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, William Faulkner, Montgomery Clift, Lauren Bacall and many, many others -- had more than the average raconteur's grist for his storytelling mill.
Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for Variety, has tackled this epic task of research and bullshit-detection with the good-tempered persistence of one of Hawks' own can-do heroes. He's nicely sorted out the facts, without cheating us of the pleasure of the legends themselves, always quoting them in all their suspiciously burnished perfection. Biography is, perhaps, mainly the art of telling many stories well simultaneously, a kind of literary juggling. McCarthy keeps the balls in the air. He gives every important film production -- and there are astonishingly many -- expansive treatment, and his appraisal of the results is always perceptive and fair. His high and low marks mostly square with the critical and popular consensus -- and for Hawks, the popular and the critical were in unusual accord, since his was a genius for entertainment. McCarthy also does a terrific job showing us the growth of Hawks' reputation through the '60's, as his acclaim in Europe began to reverberate in America. And along the way he goes a way toward solving the puzzle of the great director as inveterate liar: If a man's talent is for making the work of hundreds of collaborators seem like the product of a single vision, then why shouldn't that man also be temperamentally inclined to take credit for the efforts of those collaborators?
If any dimension of Hawks' life gets short shrift, it's surely the personal. But that seems almost more a flaw in Hawks than in his biographer. Hawks' romantic life was prodigious, showy and shallow, his liaisons and marriages numerous and perfunctory at once, as though he always had one eye on the next film project, or the next hunting trip. The great director had an odd flair for the vicarious, and the affair of Bogart and Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not, to take one example, burns more brightly on these pages than any of Hawks' own.
It's easy to enjoy Hawks' films, which are among the freshest, most personable and unpretentious tales ever printed on celluloid. McCarthy has succeeded at a more difficult task for a biographer -- enjoying the life of his own main character. Though McCarthy details instances of manipulation and dissembling and charts a certain ruthless detachment, a coldness in Hawks' personal and professional life, he never succumbs to impatience or judgment. Howard Hawks lives and breathes in McCarthy's book, a flawed, remote man who nevertheless lived an inspired, vital life and who left behind a shelf of great films that emanate from a sense of life as a series of tasks to be approached with a sort of fatalistic enthusiasm. For McCarthy, as for Hawks, the work came first. -- Salon