Best in showbiz

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Billy Connolly slept it off in a phone booth because he was too drunk to find the door. Laurence Fishburne was raised by an all-the-world’s-a-stage mom from hell — with an assist from puffing-daddy-o Dennis Hopper as babysitter. Richard Rodgers and his wife Mary were, in the apparently accurate eyes of their daughter, “quite crazy, disturbed, unhappy people.”

With its celebrity foibles, flaws and failures, John Lahr’s new anthology is worth its price in National Enquirers, except for the major distractions — genius and context. To get to the “dirt” you have to follow Lahr’s explication of the subjects’ genius that brought them to his (and our) attention in the first place. With a genius of his own, Lahr places the eyebrow-raising details alongside the merely important as if deftly and dispassionately solving a whodunit. In his New Yorker profiles, you’re thrilled by the stars in performance, following them back to the dressing room, back to their current homes and back to their childhoods. He can no more explain genius than anyone else, but he makes you feel like you’re close to it.

The son of Bert Lahr, the actor who played the cowardly lion of the screen classic The Wizard of Oz, Lahr says he grew up pondering the gulf between the pumped-up performer under the lights and the off-stage father who “deflated like a tire,” too tired to be attentive. That fascination led him to become his father’s biographer, and he’s pursued the same mysteries of public and private selves in the “mini-biographies” presented here. Typically, he explains, they’re the product of four months’ research, culled from 1,000 pages of notes, written at twice their published length, and then distilled — to about 20 pages each in book form.

The 14 subjects range from filmmakers Ang Lee and Mira Nair to songwriters Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers to playwrights August Wilson and Tony Kushner. If they have anything in common, it may be the determination to create.

“Work is the prayer,” says Baz Luhrmann, the film and stage director Lahr pegs as “an entrepreneur of astonishment.” “It wasn’t about making it. It was about doing it,” says Laurence Fishburne. “Don’t work out, work in,” says Billy Connolly. And here’s Ang Lee’s pitch, in his mid-30s, to prospective backers of his first feature film: “If I don’t make a movie soon, I think I’ll die.”

Of course, if such sentiments don’t jazz you, there’s a National Enquirer by the checkout counter.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail wkheron@metrotimes.com.

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