University Press of Mississippi 2012
Dana Andrews was one of the major films stars of the 1940s, and yet he was never nominated for an Academy Award. The posterboy for the ‘male mask’ archetype that typified the decade, Andrews portrayed the ‘masculine ideal of steely impassivity’ in such classics as Laura and Fallen Angel. In Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews(University Press of Mississippi, 2012) biographer Carl Rollyson cracks the mask, providing intimate insight into Andrews’s extraordinary talent and his life.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Rollyson’s account is that, in the end, Andrews appears to have been beloved by everyone. Often, biographies- particularly biographies of Hollywood stars- batter one’s affection for their subjects, illuminating horrible personality traits or an atrocious work ethic or a cruelty towards children, animals, and/or wives. Hollywood Enigma does no such thing. Rather, it tells the story of a man who, in Rollyson’s words, ‘always showed up for work on time, always knew his lines, and was never less than a gentleman.’
That Hollywood Enigma is about a nice man doesn’t make it any less interesting. Origin stories in biographies are notoriously tedious- long lists of grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, like something out of Genesis- but Rollyson lays out Andrews’s story at a brisk and engaging pace. Born in rural Mississippi (a town with such an exquisite sense of humor that it christened itself ‘Don’t’ solely so that its postal abbreviation might be ‘Don’t, Miss.’), he grew up in Texas then moved to California, where he worked as an accountant, a gas station attendant, and at various other odd jobs before an employer helped finance his lessons in opera. That, in turn, led to a gig at the community theater and, nine years after setting foot in L.A., Andrews appeared onscreen.
Andrews would a remain a popular star through the 1940s, only to drift into B-movies in the 1950s and 1960s. But he would resurface in the 1970s, hitting upon something of a second act when he began publicly discussing his struggle with alcoholism. Andrews helped de-stigmatize alcoholism- a disease that was still taboo- while also reframing the way people thought about alcoholics.
Hollywood Enigma is, ultimately, the story of a man who, in an industry known for its frivolity and excesses, stood out as an enigma precisely because he knew who he was.