Sunday, November 09, 2014

The definitive biography of Bob Hope

on November 8, 2014 - 5:58 PM

Jackie Gleason, Gerald Ford and Bob Hope (Ron Watts)
Gerald Ford was in the White House at the time. There were few more famous names and faces anywhere in America than those belonging to Ford’s frequent golfing buddy, Bob Hope – a man known in Hollywood as probably the richest in town.
And now imagine one of the long gate corridors of La Guardia Airport – not its upscale New York counterpart Kennedy Airport, where all the fancy-schmancy international flights took off but budget-rate La Guardia.
Imagine further Bob Hope walking virtually the full length of one La Guardia corridor alone – no entourage, no assistants, no security, just Bob Hope in an immaculate suit and tie with a garment bag slung insouciantly over his shoulder.
Everyone – and I do mean everyone – within 30 yards recognized him. “How ya doin’?” Hope would purr at them when his eye caught theirs. Or “How’s it goin’?” Or “How about that, huh?,” as if sharing with the public the weirdness of their mutual celebrity moment.
For all his fame, few comedians of his era had also been so loathed and reviled by that time as Bob Hope. He hadn’t just tirelessly entertained troops for decades – including in Vietnam – he had sold the Vietnam War to the American people at the request of another presidential pal, Richard Nixon. He’d also taken every opportunity in jokes, comments and interviews to belittle those who oh-so-passionately differed.
By that time, that ubiquitous American face with the ski-jump nose not only became one of the faces of the most unpopular war in American history but of the ideological polarity that war opened up and exacerbated every day it was fought. To some, he had become in one man, the symbol of everything oppressive, hypocritical and stolidly irrelevant in America.
And there he was in La Guardia – completely unprotected and confident that love and recognition would cocoon him everywhere he walked.
It was the boldest exhibition of fame’s magic impenetrability I’ve ever witnessed – especially when all that fame was accompanied by either an equal quantity of cluelessness or raw, naked chutzpah. To manifest such swaggering assurance of the world’s love required almost superhuman insensitivity. (Or brazenness.)
That was then, in another time. In another America – ours – I mentioned his name to two 20-somethings and asked for their associations with Bob Hope. One was “golf.” That’s it. Another was “cigar” – until I informed her that she was confusing him with his older contemporary George Burns. Then she remembered stand-up comedy and his USO tours.
In this world, Hope’s name is far from a household word. His face is no longer as familiar to people as their own family members. (Such was the fame possible when television culture was brought into American bedrooms and living rooms on only three major networks.)
Bob Hope lived to be 100. And even in death he has retained a kind of ubiquity.
Let Richard Zoglin draw it for you in the introduction to what is one of the necessary American books – the definitive biography of one of the holy monsters of American show business, “Hope” (Simon and Schuster, 566 pages, $30):
“The Hope legacy tour made a stop on the deck of the USS Midway in San Diego to mark the introduction of a postage stamp featuring Hope’s likeness. Memorials to Hope proliferated across the American landscape. You can walk down streets named for Bob Hope in El Paso, Texas, Miami, Fla., and Branson, Mo.; cross the Cuyahoga River on the Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland; and bypass the congestion of Los Angeles International by flying into Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif. Hope’s name is memorialized in hospitals, theaters, chapels, schools, performing arts centers and American Legion Posts from Miami to Okinawa. The U.S. Air Force named a transport plane for him and the Navy christened a cargo ship in his honor. Bob Hope Village in Shalimar, Fla., provides a home for retired members of the Air Force and their surviving spouses.”
But few writers know better than Zoglin – whose book “Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970’s Changed America” is equally definitive – that “Hope never recovered from the Vietnam years, when his hawkish defense of the war, close ties with President Nixon (who actively courted Hope’s help in selling his Vietnam policies to the American people), and the country-club smugness of his gibes about anti-war protesters and long-haired hippies, all made him a political pariah for the peace and love generation [and beyond]. His tours to entertain American troops during World War II had made him into a national hero. By the turbulent 1960s, he was a court-approved jester, the Establishment’s comedian – hardly a badge of honor in an era when hipper, more subversive comics, from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to George Carlin and Richard Pryor were showing that stand-up comedy could be a vehicle for personal expression, social criticism and political protest. Even before Hope became a doddering relic, he had become an anachronism.”
And yet, says Zoglin, “the scope of Hope’s achievement, viewed from the distance of a few years, is almost unimaginable. By nearly any measure, he was the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, the only one who achieved success – often No. 1-rated success – in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song and live concerts.”
Here, then, is one of the undeniably pivotal books of 2014, a portrait of an obscured giant, the most famous estabishmentarian comedian of them all in a way that a huge recent biography of our most famous current establishmentarian comedian – the supremely controversial and increasingly embattled Bill Cosby – was not.
Zoglin’s “Hope” is how it should be done.
The portrait that emerges can be of a man almost transcendently crass, cheap, obnoxious and self-absorbed – a covertly legendary womanizer whose status as a walking talking American monument over many decades covered up his frequent ability to spread mediocrity to almost everything he touched.
Katharine Hepburn said this about making “The Iron Petticoat” with Hope from a script that was going to be by Ben Hecht alone. Hope was “the biggest egomaniac with whom I have worked in my entire life. … I was told this was not going to be a typical Hope movie, that he wanted to appear in a contemporary comedy. That proved not to be the case.”
Hecht demanded that his name be taken off the film after it was made.
The memory of his godawful TV specials and his wretched appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to plug them – even though Carson was frank about his resentment of Hope booking himself – is still fresh in the minds of many older Americans.
And yet …
That is far from the whole story. It was Hope’s singularly bad luck that the younger comic prodigy who could have singlehandedly rehabilitated the reputation of Hope’s ’40s and early ’50’s films in the 21st century ran himself into a ditch where his own reputation is in constant need of rehabilitation.
Said Woody Allen about Hope’s “Monsieur Beaucaire” and other models for Allen’s own comic persona in his first couple of decades of film: “He was a wonderful comic actor. He’s totally committed to his character: He’s scared when he’s supposed to be scared, leching when he’s supposed to be leching, playing someone more grand than he is. He was not a sufferer, like Chaplin, or even as dimensional as someone like Groucho Marx, who suggested a kind of intellect. Hope was just a superficial, smiling guy tossing off one liners. And he was amazingly good at it.”
A good argument could be made that the fearfulness of Hope’s comic persona was a forerunner of the kind of anti-war chicken-heartedness that James Garner brought to “Maverick” and helped launch “M*A*S*H” in the next decade.
His deepest legacy, then, in entertaining troops in Vietnam and elsewhere couldn’t be more paradoxical.
So too was Hope’s TV legacy of creating some of the worst comedy throwaway “specials” in TV history. With all of that, it was Hope’s name that was front and center on one of the best anthology series of its time, “Bob Hope’s Chrysler Theater,” a TV show that could be so ambitious and good that it could even mount an adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” starring Jason Robards.
His life was huge. So was his achievement. But for decades now, it has been effaced by the generations that came after the one that could no longer abide him – the one that answered emcee Hope’s Oscar-ending plea in 1970 that “Perhaps a time will come when all the fighting will be for a place in line outside the theater” with Shirley MacLaine’s yell to the TV screen “Oh, shut up, Bob Hope.”
For at least one generation, maybe two, Hope’s life and work has been shut up tight. And now, deservedly, it’s been reopened, warts and all.

No comments: