All I know about Mary Pickford came from Granny Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and all Granny ever said was how much she liked Mary and how Mary was ‘one of them.’ Or something like that. It’s been awhile since I watched that particular old show, though I do love it.
Combining an affection for Granny Clampett and a love of historical fiction, I jumped at the chance to get an ARC of Melanie Benjamin’s novel about Mary Pickford and famed early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, who I had never heard of.
Though I finished the book, my trust in Granny was slightly misguided.
I’ve never been particularly fond of novels about Real People. I haven’t read many because I’m not overly fond of the idea of them. Is it really a biography if it’s largely made up? No. And should a ‘fictional biography’ even be a thing? Not if you ask me. Not before I read THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE and, to be honest, not after reading it.
It took me too long to realize that Fran’s parts of the book are written in first person and Mary’s are third person. At first, I liked it. Then I didn’t like it so much. I’m not sure I understand Benjamin’s purpose with the dueling narratives. Is it because Mary is the Film Star and Frances is the one behind the scenes? That’s what it seems like and, for a story meant to be about an equal friendship, it doesn’t seem quite right.
My general problem with historical biographies and novels about real people is how much is made up. It can be done well. Or it can be done not quite right. This book falls more in line with not quite right. Things go too easily for Mary and Fran, even when they’re going badly. Everything is colored with old Hollywood glamour and it makes things almost too… Hollywood. Like, their life reads like a script that will have a happily-ever-after because that’s what the audience demands.
That’s not real life.
Even when Frances goes to Europe during World War I as a filmmaker, and sees the aftermath of Verdun, it’s through the lens of ‘filmmaker’ and that takes something from the realness of the war.
It is, however, a good look at the fabled Old Hollywood of entertainment history. It sent me to Wikipedia to research the actors and directors and, to be honest, that was almost more interesting at times than the book.
One thought that stuck with me as I read the book was a question about the source material Benjamin used. Were there articles written about Mary and Fran? Did they write autobiographies or even leave journals detailing their friendship? Did some other witness to their friendship leave stories behind? The answer to all that seems to be maybe. It is, according to Benjamin’s afterward. She even admits that fights she created between the women were created solely based on the fact that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion didn’t work together again after one particular movie.
So what, I wonder makes this better than writing biographies about two of the most powerful women in early Hollywood? Possibly, probably it’s just that I shouldn’t read these types of books.
That being said, I did read it and I did, for the most part, enjoy my time reading it. If you like historical biographies and old Hollywood, this is the book for you.
(I received a copy of THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE through NetGalley and Random House Ballantine Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)