Legions of fans today remember Gloria Swanson as the mad movie queen of Sunset Boulevard, a label that several believed described the actress into her personal life. Author Tricia Welsch lifts the veil and unearths a woman filled with tenacity and passion who sadly failed to make responsible decisions in her life that caused her grief for decades. Receiving career comebacks several times, Swanson was a Renaissance woman jumping onto the bandwagon of things that we now consider staples of the industry. Filled with captivating details and a wide swath of research materials, we might have the definitive biography on Gloria Swanson here.
Swanson started out as a girl with an alcoholic father and a mother who didn’t want her to enter the movie business. Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up explores the woman as an actress first and woman second. I had very little information on the actress beforehand, knowing only of her famous role as the mad Norma Desmond of Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard. In 480 pages you get a literal close-up into Swanson’s life from her childhood to her death and everything in between. Welsch remains classy to the end in her portrayal of Swanson, mimicking the star who epitomized glamour and opulence. Swanson lived a life with regrets, particularly the termination of a pregnancy, yet had no qualms about airing her dirty laundry in her own autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. Having not read that prior tome, I’m uncertain whether there’s any revelations here, but Welsch depicts Swanson’s life honestly. There’s no lingering on the salacious, despite Swanson admitting to affairs with Joseph Kennedy and Joel McCrea, because Swanson’s life speaks for itself. The reader buckles up and prepares to take a trip through movie history and Welsch’s straight-forward prose keeps you riveted to every page.
Gloria Swanson refused to capitulate to anyone, be it husband or movie mogul. This trait could be perceived as stubbornness, but for Swanson it was the only way to get what she wanted out of her life and career. Tricia Welsch’s biography uses this theme of tenacity to emphasize how this ultimately helped, and hindered, Swanson in a career that went from silents to talkies, big-screen to small. Swanson was ahead of her time, realizing that she needed to jump into talking pictures and becoming the first A-list celebrity to invade people’s homes when television took over. The book even details Swanson’s corporation, called Multiprises, which sought to bring inventors together in order to put out revolutionary inventions (although Welsch never answers whether anything came out of the company). Unfortunately, no matter how many irons Swanson had in the fire she was perpetually struggling for money. A series of bad business decisions, particularly her issues getting Erich von Stroheim‘s Queen Kelly made, kept Swanson on a perpetual journey to stay afloat. Thankfully, these led to her getting into television, Broadway, and a host of other mediums that showcased the actress’s range of talents. After the success of Sunset Boulevard, Swanson was irritated that audiences only wanted to watch her play Desmond, and the last third of the book focuses on the several films and stageplays Swanson did in an effort to distance herself from the role.
Welsch avoids hyperbole or unnecessary gimmicks to compel you to read. Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up is determined to present a fact-based, warts and all, biography on Swanson that’s both readable and captivating. It’s a must-read for fans of old Hollywood, silent films, or Wilder’s iconic film; it’s also worth a read to discover a woman not content to wait for the world to catch up with her. Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up is available on bookshelves now.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.