10 books for people who love movies

From left: Sam Wasson's "The Big Goodbye," James Harvey's "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," and Jean-Luc Godard's "Godard on Godard."
From left: Sam Wasson's "The Big Goodbye," James Harvey's "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," and Jean-Luc Godard's "Godard on Godard."Amazon

A man named James Harvey died recently. Unless you really love movies, chances are you don’t recognize the name. If you really love movies, then you know to mourn the passing of the author of the wondrous “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges,” as well as “Movie Love in the Fifties” and “Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen From Garbo to Balthazar.”

There’s some hope that movies will be returning to theaters next month, though it’s not a good sign that Warner Bros. moved back the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” two weeks, to July 31. In the meantime, streaming can do only so much. Reading can help, too. In memory of Jim Harvey, here are 10 notable titles.


Alec Baldwin, Nevertheless: A Memoir Rage, self-pity, intelligence, and love of craft make for quite a combination. It’s the gossipy stuff that got the attention in 2017 when “Nevertheless” came out — hello, Kim Basinger — but what’s most engaging is the warmth and affection Baldwin brings to writing about admired colleagues like Julie Harris and Anthony Hopkins. Baldwin is the reader for the audiobook, which makes it the preferred format.

Ty Burr, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame Yeah, yeah, I know: Not only is he a colleague, he sits next to me in the newsroom (when there’s a newsroom to go to). But this history of cinematic celebrity and how it’s shaped the movies is a really good book: shrewd, lively, comprehensive, excited and exciting. In other words, it’s like a good Ty Burr review, only a lot longer and that much smarter.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1936 film “Swing Time.”
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1936 film “Swing Time.”

Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book The title is self-explanatory. The degree of insight from the longtime New Yorker ballet critic is unsurpassed. (If Croce whets your appetite, there’s John Mueller’s compendious “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films.” Better yet, go stream “Top Hat” or “Swing Time.”)


Don DeLillo, Underworld It’s a novel, and not about the movies. (You want novels about Hollywood? Norman Mailer’s “The Deer Park,” Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays,” Robert Stone’s “Children of Light,” the list goes on.) It’s on the list because no contemporary novelist has written inter alia about movies so searchingly or with such acuteness. “Underworld” includes a bravura extended description of a long-lost (and imaginary) Eisenstein silent called (what else) “Underworld.” DeLillo sure does make you want to see the movie.

Robert Evans, in 1974.
Robert Evans, in 1974.Associated Press

Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture Is it autobiography or fairy tale? Either way, the legendary lothario/studio chief/producer (Evans makes them seem like a single job description) wrote a book as compulsively readable as some of the movies he was associated with are watchable, movies like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” (see below). Evans is the audiobook reader, and self-love has rarely been so irresistible.

Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard Before becoming a filmmaker, he was a critic — like so many French New Wave directors. His criticism is at once thrilling and insane: thrilling because Godard’s such a stunning, inventive rhetorician; and insane because film so fills, forms, and determines who he is. Film isn’t so much Godard’s subject as his very existence. Imagine what this must read like in the original French.

Elia Kazan: A Life The director of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” did more than anyone else to shape the last seven decades of American acting, on stage as well as screen. His influence remains undiminished. This is one of the great American autobiographies: urgent, driven, sprawling, and about as ingratiating as a punch in the gut (the resemblance does not end there).


Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks The most famous movie interview book is Francois Truffaut’s “Hitchcock.” This one’s better, and that’s even if you don’t think Howard Hawks was a greater film director than Alfred Hitchcock (which he was). It’s better because, for starters, McBride speaks English. More important, Hawks was a marvelous storyteller; and the length and sheer variedness of his career meant that he had many marvelous stories to tell.

David Thomson, The Big Sleep Speaking of Hawks. . . . The indispensable book by David Thomson is his “Biographical Dictionary of Film” — the most readable reference book there’s ever been. This volume in the British Film Institute’s BFI Film Classics series offers a concise introduction to Thomson’s brilliant, playful, idiosyncratic, obsessive, and deeply alert writing on film.

Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood Be warned, the book is execrably written and plays favorites (useful rule of reading thumb: Count the silverware, neutrality-wise, whenever the ex-partner of a key player is interviewed and the ex-partner isn’t). But the story behind “Chinatown” is almost as remarkable as the movie itself. If Bob Evans were still alive, he’d be the first person to tell you so.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.