BOOK REVIEW — EMPIRE OF DREAMS: THE EPIC LIFE OF CECIL B. DeMILLE by Scott Eyman
(Simon & Schuster)
I’ve always been fascinated by Cecil B. DeMille. Not only was he the most famous moviemaker of his time; his name is practically synonymous with the early days of Hollywood. I’ve read a number of books written about him over the years and none of them has fully captured the sweep and scope of the man’s extraordinary life…until now. Finally, DeMille has the book he deserves, thanks to that astute and eloquent biographer Scott Eyman. Not only does Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (Simon & Schuster) capture the many contradictions of DeMille the man: it also assesses his films and restores their often-tarnished reputations.
The author provides a good summation of his subject in this paragraph: “DeMille’s personality embodied unresolvable tensions bred by a devout Episcopalian father and a flamboyant Jewish mother—lust mixed with God, God mixed with Mammon, with a strangely—
—naïve sophistication informing the life choices of a sincere moralist who contained a strong dose of libertine. All these contradictions seeped from his life into his work. It is these dichotomies that animate DeMille’s best films, and that make both the man and the work so fascinating.”
Like any good storyteller, Eyman opens the book with a grabber, illustrating how DeMille refashioned his dialogue for the memorable scene he played opposite Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Wilder admired him and gave him a wide berth, but also said he took direction well. As much as any film of his own, Sunset Blvd. helped cement C.B.’s public image as the emblematic old-school Hollywood director, and Eyman’s behind-the-scenes portrait is a great way to begin his saga.
I can’t imagine the sheer labor involved in creating this massive tome. Eyman plowed through the DeMille archives which contain everything from his parents’ love letters to his weekly financial statements; the man saved everything. (Unlike most of his contemporaries, he even saved 35mm prints of his films, which is the only reason so many of his silent pictures survive today.)
If you only know the bullet points of DeMille’s career, or think of him as nothing more than a cornball showman, you may find this book a revelation. He was an extremely intelligent and canny individual, a skilled and even innovative filmmaker in his early years whose flaws and failings came to light later on. Eyman is clear-eyed in his assessment of the man, who like most people wasn’t all good or bad: known in later years as a reactionary because of his famous Communist witch-hunting, he was actually an individualist whose ego was so great he didn’t tend to go along with any party line.
I especially love the evocation of DeMille’s first flush of success, after moving to Hollywood with his partner Jesse Lasky and setting up shop in a converted barn. “In the memories of all who experienced these first years in Hollywood, that was a golden time. They were young, deeply emotional friends and lovers engaged in something that felt like summer camp, but actually went beyond a goofy lark into the realm of an astonishing artistic conspiracy. They were pushing, daring each other to accomplish something available to only a few people in any century: to simultaneously create an art form and a business empire.”
It is also poignant—and ironic—to read his speech upon receiving a citation from the Producers Guild in 1956, following his production of The Ten Commandments. Here, more than fifty years ago, he chided his colleagues for not taking their own history more seriously. “The great classics of the screen deserve better treatment,” he said, at a time when most studios were not taking care of their archives. “They remain, not second-rate, but first-rate specimens of the motion picture art. And I include among them a number of the old silent pictures—which, for pure motion picture art, have not been surpassed… The industry will not come of age until it makes a determined effort to keep its own great classics alive—and to present them regularly to the public in a manner worthy of their merit.” If only someone had heeded his cry!
Empire of Dreams is a great book, one of the best movie-related biographies I’ve ever read, because it presents both the big picture and the tiniest details that illuminate an extraordinary life. (I had to stop, in almost every chapter, to read a paragraph or two to my wife, because there are so many amazing discoveries in Eyman’s research and observations…things we’d never known before about a man we thought we knew.)
Full disclosure: Scott Eyman is an old and valued friend. I have enjoyed, and reviewed, most of his previous works—on Mary Pickford, Ernst Lubitsch, the dawn of sound, John Ford, and Louis B. Mayer. If they weren’t exceptional books I might have had to write something polite; fortunately, I needn’t worry that friendship is blurring my vision. Scott’s work speaks for itself.
I was pleased to host an evening honoring the book’s publication several weeks ago at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater (which opened its doors in 1922 with DeMille’s The Ten Commandments). Cecil’s granddaughter, Cecelia DeMille Presley, hosted a reception and introduced Scott and me to a sizable audience. We talked about the director and introduced a screening of Cleopatra, in the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s restored print, which looked magnificent on the giant Egyptian screen. Then we talked some more and answered questions from the audience. (Cece bought out the house so there was no admission charge.) It was a most satisfying evening, and a fitting way to kick off a great biography of one of Hollywood’s founding fathers.