mem•oir |ˈmemˌwär; -ˌwôr|
a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources.
Confession time (yet, again). Though I’ve pored over a number of genres in the decades since I began reading written matter (mystery… I started out with The Hardy Boys [go figure], sci-fi, all kinds of thrillers, horror, historical fiction and non-fiction, etc.), I’m a closeted memoir reader. This is especially true for some of those personalities associated with Hollywood movies and TV.
Hey, you can’t grow up in L.A. and not have the principal center of the U.S. movie industry not have an effect on you, even if you’re just a moviegoer.
A number of celebrities have had their lives played out through studio promotions, across local media, and sometimes buried in courtroom transcripts through the years. In memoirs, it was always interesting to read their side of the story byway of their personal accounts. Always with grain of salt, that is. So, when it was announced earlier this year that one of my all-time favorite actors was going to publish his, few were more eager than I for its arrival — the exception being a few Craisies I know and The Rap Sheet’s J. Kingston Pierce. I wasn’t disappointed.
James Garner has been that rare actor who never took celebrity, or himself, too seriously. That’s not to say he wasn’t a true professional at his chosen craft. Far from it. But in this internet-age, he’s considered a throwback from another era. That’s true, but that also means he’s a bit of fresh air compared with today’s celebs. The 84 year-old’s memoir of life and career as depicted in The Garner Files: A Memoir makes the case for all that. And even though Mr. Garner is well-known for his privacy, he’s uncommonly upfront about a great many things in his life, as he makes clear in the book’s introduction:
“I’ll also talk about my childhood, try to clear up some misconceptions, and maybe even settle a score or two.”
The actor, who has been in the limelight since his days in Maverick (and like a lot of older Garner fans, it was this one-of-kind western TV series where as a kid I first caught sight of him), with deft help of author Jon Winokur (The Portable Curmudgeon), states it plain and head-on. I think Garner, through his roles in movies and TV, exudes, for lack of a better word, integrity. While a lot of things will surprise readers and admirers, he is a “captivating, enigmatic, complicated man“, as Julie Andrews herself mentions in her intro that is in front of his in the book.
Even when he’s revealing aspects like his bouts of alcohol overuse, dabs with cocaine, or the affect of marijuana in his life, it’s not so much a confession he’s making rather that he’s owning up to the things in his life. He maintains an ease and longevity that’s well-earned, I think. But, even those bits aren’t the true revelations found here. For better or worst, Garner’s not about to back down from a fight, a statement of fact, or a cause his conscience can’t walk away from. He’s his own man, and I believe it is that quality that attracts fans and comes across in the characters he’s portrayed on television and film. And it continues here.
“You take this back to your leader, Mr. Wong. Tell him you met the last of a dying dynasty, King of the Fools. Unassailably virtuous, invariably broke.” ~ James Garner as Philip Marlowe speaking to Bruce Lee (Winslow Wong), Marlowe (1969)
Yes, the juicy parts in the memoir are the actors, movie moguls, and studio execs who’ve run afoul of our man Rockford. Even his friend, neighbor, and fellow celebrity racer, the icon of 60s cool Steve McQueen doesn’t come off well. Still, you don’t get a sense Garner’s being mean-spirited or saying things just to sell a book. Far from it. He’s covering his career and those who’ve been a part of it.
Most of the time, in fact, the actor/producer makes the case that he wouldn’t be where he was but for the generosity of others through the years. Especially family and friends. Loyal as he is ornery, but always a team player, he wouldn’t change a thing. And that’s fine by me. The best portions of the book capture Garner’s speaking manner, fond and painful remembrances, and earnest beliefs — whether you agree with him or not — particularly his loving expressions to his long-time spouse, Lois.
It’s not that he doesn’t suffer fools well, it is that he doesn’t take kindly to those who lie to him or just want not to pay him what he’s worth. His legal wrangles with studios and executives are the stuff of legend. But, he was always in the corner of the little guy (anytime, anywhere) and the writers of the spoken word on the shows he’s starred in and/or produced. Stephen J. Cannell and The Sorpranos’ David Chase among them.
“My friends have overlooked my shortcomings, seen me through some dark days, and brightened up the rest of them. I’m glad to have them; I’m honored to have them; I’m lucky to have them.” ~ James Garner as Murphy Jones, Murphy’s Romance (1985)
Overall, waiting for and finally reading (and listening to) James Garner’s memoir was very much worth it. The man involved in two seminal genre deconstructions on TV, Maverick and The Rockford Files, made it so. The loving detail he gives his car racing exploits and exasperations on the golf course through the years will certainly finds fans among his male followers. Maybe less with others. But, his remembrances of his work in film and TV are extraordinary, and surprising.
I mean, who knew his long-time friend Clint Eastwood could get him to do a nude scene? The last section of the book offers an interesting highlight. Garner rates and notes on the motion pictures, series, and TV movies he done since the 50s. The Americanization of Emily (no surprise if you’ve seen it) and The Notebook (I need to look at that one again) are his clear favorites with five-star ratings, while the childhood favorites of mine — Up Periscope (one star) and A Man Could Get Killed (two ½-stars… and Tony Franciosa could be a prick) — fared worse than I expected. No matter.
This was a memoir that stands with the best I’ve read over the years — David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, Errol Flynn’s Wicked, Wicked Ways, and Charlton Heston’s Actor’s Life (who is also called out by the plain-spoken man from Norman, Oklahoma).
Tantor Media’s audiobook was more than a pleasurable experience for this devotee. That’s saying something since memoirs can be tricky in audio format. This type of work, sometimes, is better served by the author themself giving it a go — one of the few exceptions I make to groaning as a vet of this medium when a professional narrator isn’t deployed on an audiobook. Hell, its their life they’re recounting, and it can work very well. Adrienne Barbeau’s reading of There Are Worst Things I Could Do being a prime example of where it does.
Plus, James Garner is well-known among his fans for his easy-going manner and humor. Yet, the respected and talented Michael Kramer made the experience work for me as an audiobook listener, and as a long-time Garner fan. I swear the parts I chuckled at, and there were more than a few, those I imagine the actor actually saying, came out of the narrator’s mouth and I didn’t think it was anyone else voicing it but Garner. He utterly nailed the actor’s delivery and timing. No small feat. As the James Garner would say, “That’s ACT-ING!” Kudos. A sample of the work can be found on Tantor Audio’s The Garner Files: A Memoir webpage.