My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I first laid eyes on A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O'Brien, the book was in the fifth position of a “five Hollywood lives” list compiled by author Susanna Moore for the Wall Street Journal. I was surprised to see only two familiar titles on said list in a nonfiction genre that I’m as familiar with as the back of my hand. Well! I would have to see just what this was about. Turns out, the semi-fictionalized memoir of O’Brien’s Hollywood adolescence is just a treat from first page to last—that rare combination of a subject I wanted to read about written by someone with a singular position to have witnessed and a singular talent for describing *just* that. Some of the raunchier passages aside, I was dazzled by O’Brien’s ear for dialogue and admired the dry, deadpan wit of his observations of life in the movie colony as his actor parents’ respective stars began to fade and then blink out altogether.
O’Brien’s parents were George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, two silent movie stars who, to put it kindly, had limited success in the talkie era. By the time the book opens, sometime in the early fifties’, the two former celebrities are navigating a messy divorce and a transition to civilian life, neither able to accomplish this pivot with any particular degree of grace. Our narrator, grade-school aged, finds himself caught in between helping his mother plan boozy dinner parties and picking her up from her occasional suicide attempts, while his father is mostly exiled from his life by his mother’s resentment over the divorce. This material, in less capable hands, would be the stuff of a Jerry-Wald-produced soap opera style tearjerker, à la I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Instead, O’Brien makes the occasionally lurid episode seem oddly mundane with his detached, trenchant insights into his mother’s behavior. Her overfrank discussions with her son about her sex life, her problems with her ex-husband, and her own disappointments in life feel as inappropriate as they do real. After Churchill’s second marriage, to a Russian sculptor, falls apart spectacularly in Rome, O’Brien is sent home to California to live with his father, whose Gary Cooper-isms and sincere good-naturedness are a sea change from the constant hysteria of the first several chapters of the book with his mother. George O’Brien, too, is a broken character—listlessly existing from week to week in an “after the parade’s gone by” state of nostalgia for his career in westerns and burying himself in volunteer work at the local Catholic church for lack of other obligations. However, O’Brien’s father seems like a much calmer broken character, and you develop an odd affection for him and his aw shucks manners, compared to the mild antagonism I felt towards Churchill for just how little she seemed to care about anyone besides herself.
Later, O’Brien goes to live with a schoolmate’s family at their palatial Beverly Hills estate, and sees first-hand the behind the scenes life of Sam Caliban, a B-picture mogul who seems to be an amalgam of several old Hollywood directors/producers. Caliban balances gambling debts, production overages, his son and wife, and a starlet girlfriend with a juggler’s grace, and his brief dominance of the middle third of the book makes you wish he had his own spin-off. There’s a liberated, sexy love interest in the form of Linda, O’Brien’s would-be girlfriend whose contradictory endorsement of the free love movement and the looming presence of her actual steady boyfriend keep the two at arms-length. In spite of these focus shifts and a few cameos, including a well-read if monocular John Ford, the two real stars of the book are O’Brien’s parents, who feel as flawed and realistic as if they were sitting in front of you. George O’Brien’s occasionally cowboyish dialogue in particular (“I want you to know there’s always a bunk for you here and all the chow you can eat”, he tells his son at one point) reads half-humorous, yet wholly earnest—you get a feel in some of the less folksy, more formal aspects of pater O’Brien’s speech for a lost time, of someone born at the turn of the century. A scene between father and son over a small inheritance in the book’s last scene is as strangely moving and mildly disturbing an observation of character as anything you’d read in a classic novel, it really took my breath away.
If you’re looking for a star-studded tell-all, this is definitely not the right book for you—but as a terrifically unique, brilliantly well-written period piece, A Way of Life, Like Any Other 's sense of time and place is transportive and just really a lot of mordant fun to read. O’Brien wrote several other fiction and nonfiction titles before his premature death in 1998 from cancer, and I’m so excited to discover more from this highly original voice in literature.
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