Busting Myths About Buster: A Talk with the Author of the Definitive Keaton Bio We’ve All Been Waiting For
I’ve been in love with Buster Keaton since the third grade and feel like I’ve been waiting just about that long for a definitive bio to come out—and I’m guessing lots of other Buster lovers share that frustration. The three so far have all had their merits: Tom Dardis’s The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down had great research; Marion Meade’s Cut to the Chase had some interesting insights, and of course Rudi Blesh’s Keaton had the benefit of input from Buster himself.
But all of them felt massively incomplete in some way. Enter James Curtis—a Buster fan since childhood and author of terrific biographies of Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields, William Cameron Menzies and Preston Sturges—to finally give Buster the biography he deserves. No surprise that the legendary Kevin Brownlow—whose brilliant three-part documentary A Hard Act to Follow helped stoke more interest in Buster—called Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life “brilliant! I was totally absorbed, couldn’t stop reading it, and I was sorry when it ended.” So was I.
Reading this beautiful book, you feel like you’re going along on Buster’s journey, from the rough and tumble vaudeville years to his early interest in film, his stardom, his lost years, and his rediscovery. Curtis also recounts, with clear-eyed compassion, Buster’s struggles with alcoholism and depression, and well as his troubled relationships before meeting Eleanor. And he never gets in the way of his subject: I don’t really need anyone to tell me why I love Buster Keaton, or to give me dime-store sociology lessons on his place in the societal and cultural pantheon.
Where other authors might fill in factual gaps by inserting their own opinions, Curtis does the real work. His research is nothing short of awe-inspiring: In addition to deeply mining every available source out there, he also tracked down all the research Dardis had gathered from MGM, which is no longer available to archivists, while Brownlow gave him access to all the unedited interviews from his documentary series.
The result is as complete a portrait of Buster’s life, as an artist as a man, as we will ever see. Finally.
I recently sat down with Curtis—or rather we sat down 3,000 miles apart for an audio call—to talk about Buster and the book. At some point soon I hope to have a podcast—because honestly I don’t feel like elevendy zillion podcasts are quite enough—but in the meantime, click below for a listen. (The first minute or so consists hubs and me setting up the audio—which may explain why I haven’t figured out podcasting yet—but then the actual conversation with Curtis is terrific, and offers a lot of new info for Buster fans!)