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Bestselling books explore different aspects of the show-biz experience

by Mark Burger

The Dark Knight Rises is the latest Batman movie, the seventh since Warner Bros. Released the original Batman. The billion-dollar franchise has become one of its studio’s most profitable tentpoles, but bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen was no easy feat.

Just ask producer Michael E. Uslan, who along with partner Benjamin Melniker has received executive-producer credit on all seven films. For much of his adult life, Uslan strove and struggled to make Batman a cinematic reality.

In his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman (Chronicle Books, $29.95 retail), Uslan recounts that struggle and also a life spent loving comic books. The book is told in an easy, conversational style and boasts a wide array of illustrations that will undoubtedly entice comic-book fans. It’s a friendly book, with Uslan discussing his upbringing in New Jersey (“kapow!” “zowie!”) and his early years trying to break into — and play — the Hollywood game, as well as his abiding faith that Batman would succeed as a film — although even he could not have foreseen just how successful it would be.

Uslan first got a crack at the DC Universe with Wes Craven’s 1981 film adaptation of Swamp Thing, which was hardly a blockbuster but did spawn a 1989 sequel (directed by Jim Wynorski) and a subsequent cable-TV series. But it would take almost another decade, and the demise of at least one studio, until Batman reached movie screens.

It was Uslan, in fact, who first envisioned Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a bit of casting that proved immensely profitable to both the film and to the actor, who reportedly cleared in excess of $50 million — and continues to earn a piece of the current films.

Oddly enough, however, and perhaps in the interest of maintaining an upbeat portrait, Uslan never once refers to Jon Peters, the mercurial producer of the first film, nor to the well publicized lawsuits regarding royalties and residuals due from the success of the film. That Uslan is still receiving credit on the later films indicates that some form of satisfactory compromise must have been arrived at, yet it’s not even alluded to.

Then again, maybe Uslan didn’t want to tarnish any aspect of making his Batman dream come true. Indeed, The Boy Who Loved Batman proves that, every so often, dreams do come true.

*** At the other end of the show-biz spectrum, Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters (Arcade Publishing, $16.95 retail) offers a thorough portrait of one of the 20th century’s most esteemed actors. As well as a prolific director and actor who worked almost up until his death in 2000 at age 96, the great Gielgud was an inveterate letter-writer. (He was also an inveterate autograph-signer, as I can well attest, having written to him in my youth and always receiving something in return.)

Introduced and edited by Richard Mangan, the book has been culled from thousands of pieces of correspondence written by Gielgud over the years. The names are legendary: Olivier, Guinness, Coward, Richardson, Gish, Leigh, Evans, Lunt/Fontanne, etc. There are also letters of a more personal and private nature written to family members, friends and former lovers (Gielgud was homosexual, which is hardly news).

By turns warm and witty, chatty and catty, scrupulous and critical, it becomes clear that, until the end, Gielgud’s powers of observation did not fail him. There’s much ground to cover, as Gielgud’s career began in 1912, when he was just a lad, and continued for nearly eight decades more.

And what a career it was. Audiences familiar with the older Gielgud thanks to such autumnal turns as Arthur (1981) — for which he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor and which he viewed as pleasant but no great shakes — may not be familiar with the breadth of his stage career, which included a towering turn in the title role of Hamlet and then, years later, directing Richard Burton to international acclaim in a Broadway production of the Shakespeare classic. Gielgud is refreshingly candid, often amusingly so, about current, past and future projects. Yes, he talks about Caligula (1980), the notorious pornographic epic financed by Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione, and there’s a mention of him turning down roles in Lifeforce (1985) — then titled Space Vampires (no wonder he turned it down!) — and the aborted first production of Apt Pupil in the late ‘80s.

Here was a man capable of separating his personal life from his professional life, or so he thought. One was inextricably linked to the other, a realization that eventually comes to him. He doesn’t necessarily take himself altogether seriously, and he’s more self-deprecating than not when it comes to his own work, yet there’s an honesty that comes across in these pages that likely wouldn’t have come across in a straightforward biography or autobiography. His was a wonderful life, and how fortunate we all were to share in it somehow.

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