The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 7, 2008

Book review: ‘Cut!’ a morbidly fascinating look at Hollywood deaths

This week’s title is a bit more lowbrow than the usual. Maybe it’s the winter doldrums, maybe just my baser instincts kicking in, but this time I chose to read “Cut!: Hollywood Murders, Accidents, and Other Tragedies by Andrew Brettell, Bruce Elder, Damien Kennedy, Warren Leonard, Toby Miller, and Heather Von Rohr.

May I just say that with that many authors, you might think that they would have caught some of one another’s errors? Maybe it’s a case of too many cooks. At any rate, while I found the book interesting, I would double check any facts before trying to use them as responses on “Jeopardy.”

On one single page, Humphrey Bogart’s death is attributed within the text to stomach and throat cancer in a photo caption. On another page entirely, it says esophageal cancer. I suppose a case could be made that if, in fact, it was esophageal cancer that it could be stretched to include stomach and/or throat cancer, but maybe a bit more proofreading would have been good. I didn’t catch any other blatant errors or contradictions, but it did give me pause about the reliability of the book.

That said, I found the book fascinating, if morbid. It’s divided into seven segments, grouped according to the main commonalties. The first, “The Big Sleep,” is the largest and concerns those who died from natural causes. Many of the actors appearing in the book are not well-known, but that’s a good thing for film buffs who might not otherwise ever know how Agnes Ayres (she co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik”) died. For your information, she had a rough life and lost all her money in the Depression and died of a stroke in 1940 when she was just 42. Of course, all the usual suspects are here, too — John Barrymore, Bogart, Montgomery Clift, Errol Flynn, and so on.

The second segment is called “Predator,” and includes deaths that have always had a cloud of suspicion over them. Did Marilyn Monroe commit suicide? Was she murdered? Was is an accidental overdose? No one will ever know for sure, just as the deaths of William Desmond Taylor (definitely murder, but by whom?) and Natalie Wood will always remain somewhat open questions.

“Drugstore Cowboy” contains information about those whose deaths were drug or alcohol related — John Belushi, Chris Farley, River Phoenix, Judy Garland and others.

“Dangerous Liaisons” covers deaths by suicide, with the exception of Fatty Arbuckle. While he died while relatively young, his death was from natural causes. The authors seem to believe he died of a broken heart following his fall from the heights of popularity as one of the great silent film comedians. He was accused of causing the death of a young woman of somewhat shady reputation through an assault at an alleged orgy. He was acquitted at trial, but his reputation and career were destroyed. I think it’s a bit odd to include Arbuckle along with Carole Landis, Spalding Gray, Alan Ladd, Gig Young and others who intentionally took their own lives, but then nobody asked me.

“The Accidental Tourist” refers to those who died, obviously, in accidents. From Aaliyah’s plane crash to Michael Wilding’s death from a fall down stairs, these performers were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Lights! Cameras! Death!” finishes things off with accounts of various movies that are linked to death. One such was “The Conqueror,” filmed in the dust from atomic test sites and whose performers and crew died at an alarming rate from cancer, including Dick Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz (who committed suicide when he found out his cancer was terminal). Another is “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” which accounted for the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors in a helicopter accident.

The book includes an index, many photos, and a table of the celebrities covered, including basic facts such as name, dates of birth/death, cause of death, etc. It’s an interesting book, but perhaps one best read in short installments.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.