Starting in 1980 and lasting until 2005, documentary filmmakers Joan Kramer and David Heeley focused their creative eye on the best and brightest of Hollywood’s golden age. Beginning with Fred Astaire and including documentaries on other film greats like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda, Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries (many shown on PBS) won countless awards. They also allowed viewers to see these movie stars as they really were beyond the calculated machinations of the old studio system.
Now Kramer and Heeley are sharing their notable filmmaking careers, the stars they covered and all the hard work that went into making these documentaries in their hugely entertaining and fascinating book In the Company of Legends.
Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries showcased these stars film legacies, often bringing on other stars to talk about their peers’ notable work. But these documentaries recognized so much more than a movie star’s career. They also covered the anecdotes, opinions, ideas, friendships and odd quirks that made these stars so much more interesting than the glossy veneer of the studios’ publicity machine. And finding the innate humanity behind these movie stars is probably why Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries were so successful and why In the Company of Legends is such a great read.
While reading In the Company of Legends I couldn’t help be reminded why I love classic movies and the stars that made these movies so legendary. What a body of work these amazing talents left the world.
I also really appreciated the sensitive and respectful nature of Kramer and Heeley’s treatment towards their subjects. They are reverent without debasing themselves and their subjects. They never slip into embarrassing and unprofessional squealing fandom. Kramer and Heeley are both fair and firm (not exactly easy considering some of their subjects could be a bit challenging).
While it was fun to take a walk down a celluloid memory lane, I also loved the various personal stories the authors share about the stars. These stories showed more personable and relatable aspects of the stars. Sure, Katharine Hepburn could be a bit prickly, but when someone accidentally dropped some raspberry sauce on her couch, she just turned over the couch cushion-no muss, no fuss. Jimmy Stewart at the time was frail and a bit insecure, but once he put his toupee on top of his head, he regained some confidence and reminded everyone why he was a true star. The regal Audrey Hepburn made couturier Hubert de Givenchy a household name, but loved to kick back in simple sweaters and trousers (and being Audrey Hepburn, made them effortlessly stylishly). And my mom, a long time fan of the late Paul Newman, will be thrilled to know he was a funny, down-to-earth man, and fully devoted to his wife, Joanne Woodward.
I also learned about the lifelong friendships these stars had with each other. Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria were friends with President Reagan and the first lady, Nancy Reagan. Judy Garland was close to President Kennedy and would sometimes sing her signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to him. The oddest and most surprising friendship had to be the one Katharine Hepburn had with Michael Jackson. And she wasn’t exactly thrilled with his vulgar stage moves, and let him know it! Does that surprise you?
Through the In the Company of Legends I also learned about legendary movie mogul Lew Wasserman of MCA/Universal, the controversial theater troupe The Group Theatre, which was accused of being rife with Communists, and character actor John Garfield who you probably best know from the movie “Gentleman’s Agreement.”
Inspired by Kramer and Heeley I will probably treat myself to a classic movie binge some upcoming week-end. And I’m thrilled my local library carries some of Kramer and Heely’s work. You know I’ll be checking them out soon.
As much as I enjoyed reading In the Company of Legends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a loss. I know we will never go back to Hollywood’s golden age and the studio system, which is probably a topic for another book. However, I do feel a sense of melancholy on how fame has been so cheapened in this day of insipid bloggers, reality show cretins and other assorted D-list celebrities. In the Company of Legends reminds the important of talent and hardwork that leads to lasting and deserving fame. One I hope our society can get back to. But nevertheless, thank Joan Kramer and David Heeley. In the Company of Legends is a book I will treasure and turn to again.