In the run up to Christmas you ran the risk of being buried alive by the towering stacks of celebrity autobiographies on sale at half price in WHSmith. We just can't get enough of the inside track on the lives of the rich and famous (even when the term 'life' may only refer to the ghost-written reminiscences of a twenty-year old). But where's the glamour and the romance? Enter Cheeta, film star and Guinness World Record holder as the world's oldest non-human primate (76 years and counting) who, in this satirical take on the Hollywood memoir, gives us a unique perspective on the Golden Age of cinema. I'll apologise now for the liberal use of quotation but it's just one of those books.
Plucked from millions of hopefuls in the jungles of Liberia, Cheeta (or 'Jiggs' as he is officially documented - 'As is almost traditional in these cases, my name was misspelled at Immigration') tells us first of his liberation from the jungle. This rose-tinted view makes his journey across the Atlantic in a crate a period of 'rehabilitation' consisting 'of almost permanent darkness, coupled with a total lack of potentially distressing or dangerous social interaction, and strictly no exercise.' With this naive perspective it is all too obvious that we are supposed to see us humans as the cruel, manipulative sadists we are. And this is before he's even reached Hollywood.
This early section is only partly successful. The reverse anthropomorphism (zoomorphism?), whereby Cheeta sees the world around him like the social hierarchies of the jungle, makes the studio bosses 'the seven Alphas' of Hollywood and almost the whole of Western civilisation an attempt 'to attract the attention of some sexually receptive females'. But the faux naivety is a bit too cute, even for Cheeta himself who interrupts some of his own long winded descriptions. Having dropped a few cracking judgements early on (Rex Harrison for example: 'an absolutely irredeemable cunt who tried to murder me') it is the searing put downs we want more of and he has plenty of them.
As a comedian himself he is uniquely placed to comment on Charlie Chaplin 'the Utopian dolt, satyromaniac, cradle-snatcher, self-mythologizer and (need I say it?) sentimentalist.'
'...the garnering of critical acclaim has never meant much to me -quite unlike the role it played in Charlie's life, which was pretty similar to the role morphine played in Bela Lugosi's, or the erect male sexual organ in dear, sweet Mary Astor's, which is to say, he was hopelessly dependent upon it.'
Ouch! Not just one hit but three in a single sentence. Sometimes he's subtle, 'I retain a loathing for two things in particular (three if you count Mickey Rooney).' other times less so, 'If Dietrich was a good German, I thought, then the bad ones must be absolutely fucking terrifying.' But most of the time he's deliciously salacious especially with his co star the 'inimitable' Maureen O'Hara ('in reality highly imitable. I myself can do a reasonable Maureen O'Hara by simply screeching as loudly as I can and flinging my excrement around').
So, where's the romance? Well there is one human whom Cheeta admires and loves above all others of course, Johnny Weissmuller.
'...this silvery-white creature on the screen was the paragon of animals, the ultimate alpha. You looked at him and thought - the rest of us? We're just beasts. If you can come up with something as beautiful as that, well, then, maybe you're right: we ought to obey you.'
The evocation of their relationship is filled with warmth, affection and moments of genuine insight. The moment when they are reunited, this heroic figure now physically ruined by strokes, reduces Johnny to sobs and may well have you tearing up too. Weissmuller went through several marriages, yet may never have found a more loyal companion than his simian co-star. You find yourself filled with sympathy for this gentle giant who ended his life both broke and broken despite never really having done anything wrong. Even Cheeta has recognised earlier the simple facts of the matter:
'If you're a star, Hollywood is a playground, and if you're not,they're right, it is a jungle. It's a town of heartless bottom-lines and harsh decisions and betrayals so ugly that from time to time the very earth beneath it shudders in contempt, like its teeth have been set on edge.'
It is as a satire of Hollywood, and everything that word seems to mean, that this book really excels. The put-downs are often laugh out loud funny (although with the book being a little too long you find some of the same jokes returning with diminishing effect) and the persist ant rumours about the exact nature of Cheeta's relationship with Dolores del Rio will keep you guessing to the end. We read books like these because we want to know what it feels like to be famous but despite the golden hue there is something sad about the conclusions of 'perhaps the most famous animal alive today'.
'...picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence, with nothing to be said, the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is. '
(And for those of you wondering who the real author is (bless you if you believed it might really be just him and a typewriter) this insider tale of LA excess comes from James Lever, Oxford-educated son of a High Court judge.)