In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. by Wil Haygood
Tonight at the 78th Academy Awards, Hollywood got defensive. Although they cut off the producer of the Best Picture winner in the middle of her speech, time was set aside for a montage of epic films, the purpose of which was, I guess, to convince viewers at home that Netflix is a poor substitute for paying $10 to sit in uncomfortable chairs and eat cold popcorn with strangers.
After saluting his fellow nominees, George Clooney went on to get defensive about Hollywood's politics in his acceptance speech. And I was right on board until he lauded the Academy for giving Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 "when blacks were still sitting in the back of theatres." Apparently, Hattie McDaniel was initially seated in the back of the room the year she won the award (the producer of Gone With the Wind eventually arranged for her to be moved to a better table). I appreciate the sentiment behind Clooney's speech, but let's not kid ourselves and say that Hollywood is a great place to be a black actor.
Take a look at Sammy Davis, Jr., arguably the greatest performer and entertainer of the 20th century. His talents were limitless - actor, singer, comedian, impersonator, drummer, and dancer. He was the most literate member of the Rat Pack by a long shot, yet he never attended a day of school in his life. And Hollywood was not exactly sweet to him.
Haywood's biography doesn't spend much time on Davis's years with the Rat Pack, but treats extensively his lost childhood (he began performing in vaudeville shows when he was about 6), his Broadway career, and his struggles for acceptance in both the white and black community.
And Haywood's portrait (constructed out of exhaustive research and over 250 interviews) is not entirely flattering - Davis was immature, emotionally needy, insecure, a womanizer, an absent father, a spendthrift, a reluctant latecomer to the civil rights movement. But he was also generous, disciplined, and by all accounts, not a person who met him didn't instantly adore him. The best parts of the book detail Davis's stage performances. While it's no substitute for being in the audience at the Copacabana, the writing still leaves you breathless at the capacity of Davis's talent.
If you liked...: Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy, Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle, or books about the rise and fall of vaudeville, soft-shoe, and great nightclub performers, this book is for you.
* Inscription on Davis's gravestone