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Star struck: Heroes of the silver screen

Having written biographies of such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, James Cagney and Robert Altman, noted film historian Patrick McGilligan courted the most controversy with Clint: The Life and Legend (O/R Books; 448 pages; $25).

It’s obvious from the title who the book is about, and upon its original publication in 2002, Eastwood sued the author for $10 million, effectively suppressing its US distribution. Le Monde called it “pitiless” and The Los Angeles Times “the most thoroughly demythologizing book yet written on modern Hollywood.”

Ironically, I’d received a review copy of McGilligan’s book mere days before the Eastwood litigation. I didn’t review the book then, but I am now.

If nothing else, Clint is certainly an antidote to Richard Schickel’s fawning Clint Eastwood: A Biography (1996) – a work that McGilligan refers to repeatedly, in nonetoo-favorable fashion. Nor does the subject himself come off particularly well.

McGilligan gives the Hollywood icon his due, but also conducts an archaeological dig into the image he has created for himself. It’s easy to see why Eastwood would be displeased, but it’s just as easy to become engrossed in the author’s thorough, uncompromising research.

Not surprisingly, Eastwood did not participate in either the original or this updated version of the biography. His quotes are culled from a various of previously published or aired interviews, where he rarely – if ever – bared his soul. He has orchestrated his image as carefully as his career, and left more than a few friends, colleagues, and lovers in his wake.

From his early days on TV’s “Rawhide” to his current status as one of Hollywood’s great filmmakers – with multiple Oscars to show for it – Clint Eastwood is undoubtedly a legend. But there’s the man behind the “myth,” and that’s who interests McGilligan, and whom McGilligan makes a fascinating subject. It isn’t always a pretty picture, but it’s a persuasive and well-written one.

Remembering Bruce Lee And Jon Benn’s Other Adventures (Blacksmith Books; 304 pages; $17.95) is also a tell-all show-biz book, but in this case it’s author Jon T. Benn who tells all.

Although Benn’s name isn’t as readily recognizable as Clint Eastwood’s, millions of moviegoers the world over know of him, because he played the cigar-chomping mob boss bested by Bruce Lee in the martial-arts classic The Way of the Dragon (1972) – released in the US as Return of the Dragon.

This easy, breezy autobiography, billed as being written “by Jon T. Benn, alias ‘The Big Boss,’ co-star in The Way (Return) of the Dragon,” is dedicated to Bruce Lee and provides first-hand reminiscences that will surely please those insatiable for all things Bruce. (Indeed, the late icon’s photograph dwarfs Benn’s own on the book cover.)

Benn gives the fans what they want by focusing on The Way of the Dragon immediately, then draws the reader in with a conversational, anecdotal approach that never becomes pretentious or self-aggrandizing. It’s fun-filled ride and a fun-filled read.

The New York-born Benn, now in his 80s, writes with affection and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He enjoyed the fame and notoriety that working with Bruce Lee brought him, which not only included subsequent screen roles in such big-budget, martial-arts action films as Fearless (2006), The Man With the Iron Fists (2012), and even the low-budget The Clones of Bruce Lee (1977) – in which he played the mad scientist doing the cloning (!) – but also introduced him to many female fans over the years. (Not unlike Mr. Eastwood, Benn loves the ladies … and he admits it!) Benn went on to repay his “debt” to Lee by opening the Bruce Lee Cafe and Museum in Hong Kong, and he still speaks with admiration and affection about a man whose remarkable legacy lives on, more than 40 years since his death. (Benn delves into that mystery, as well.)

As a businessman, Benn traveled the world and occasionally found himself in some political hot spots – like the Philippines in the early ‘80s. As an actor, he tended to be in the right place at the right time – unexpectedly scoring appearances in The Magnificent Seven (1960), opposite Richard Burton in John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana (1964), opposite Laurence Olivier in the infamous Korean War epic Inchon (1982), and wooing a nude Bo Derek – onscreen only, he laments good-naturedly – in John Derek’s Ghosts Can’t Do It (1990). He considers Gong Li to be his favorite actress and Gene Hackman his favorite actor … which immediately makes Jon T. Benn OK in my book. !

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