Sunday, April 24, 1994.
OPENING SHOTS: THE UNUSUAL, UNEXPECTED, POTENTIALLY CAREER-THREATENING FIRST ROLES THAT LAUNCHED THE CAREERS OF 70 HOLLYWOOD STARS. By Damien Bona. Thomas Allen, 1994. 395 pp. Illus. $17.95.
IT TAKES TALENT.
It takes luck.
Most of all, though, it takes unstoppable drive.
The stars who made it big all wanted to act in the worst way.
And that, says Damien Bona in his new book Opening Shots, often meant working in the worst films. With an almost malicious glee, the New York movie buff recalls "those performers who became stars despite their film debut, not because of it."
Take, for example, 1980 Oscar winner Sissy Spacek. In the 1971 thriller Prime Cut, she played a spaced-out waif who Lee Marvin finds naked in a Kansas City pigsty.
Bona reminds us that Donald Sutherland made his screen debut in drag playing an old witch in a 1963 Italian horror show called Castle of the Living Dead. And, he says, Marsha Mason never mentions her role as a teen tease in the drive-in epic Hot Rod Hullabaloo (1966).
In all, Bona cheerfully exposes the cinematic skeletons in the closets of 72 stars (74, if you count each of The Three Stooges). They range from Wallace Beery's 1914 debut (as a female impersonator) to Annette Bening's role as Dan Aykroyd's surly spouse in The Great Outdoors (1987).
The co-author (with Mason Wiley) of 1986’s Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, Bona is a new-breed Hollywood groupie. An enthusiastic collector of movie trivia, he has a breathless writing style and the soul of a dedicated film publicist.
Adding to the entertainment value of his book is its marginalia. Bona can't resist offering up extra information, and his page edges brim with fascinating factoids.
Among them are lists of actors who became politicians; of dancers who became actors; of actors whose kids appear in their films; of movies in which Melanie Griffith appears topless.
Not so entertaining is his occasional bitchiness (when writing of Charlton Heston), a sarcasm that tips over into unconditional mean-spiritedness (towards Sylvester Stallone). Readers are also advised to keep a dictionary handy.
Bona, who once practised law, has an unfortunate fondness for postgraduate vocabulary. Some of the fun words to watch for:
● Afflatus: "Bob Hope provided (Woody Allen) with an afflatus." It means inspiration.
● Hebephrenic. "(Larry Fine does) a hebephrenic Cossack dance." Silly.
● Hebetudinous. "(Kurt Russell was a) hebetudinous child actor." Lethargic.
● Parturient. "The parturient stage of (Jodie Foster's) success story." Childbirth.
● Starets. Ellen Burstyn "found a starets in Lee Strasberg." Spiritual adviser.
● Thaumaturgic. "(Mary Stuart Masterson's) seemingly thaumaturgic mixture of fragility and free-spirited toughness." Magical.
● Vaticinates. "The moment that best vaticinates (Jodie Foster's) no-nonsense quality." Predicts.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: In 1980, Damien Bona graduated from New York University with a law degree. After two years as a practicing lawyer, though, he realized that his heart wasn’t in it. In 1986, after the publication of his first book, he told a Los Angeles times interviewer "I had to choose between a job and an obsession. I chose the obsession." In Bona’s case, that obsession was the movies, and together with fellow obsessive Mason Wiley, he researched and wrote Inside Oscar: the Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. Over the next 10 years, their 850-page tome underwent annual revisions, growing to some 1,250 pages, while becoming the definitive Academy Awards reference. Wiley’s death in 1994 left Bona as the world’s best-known Oscars expert. Throughout, Bona displayed an appreciation of the random risibility of the entertainment industry, an attitude on view in his two solo books, 1994’s Opening Shots (reviewed above) and Starring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn: Hollywood's All-Time Worst Casting Blunders (1996). In 2002, he published Inside Oscar 2, a sequel to the Unofficial History that covered the years 1995-2000. Damien Bona died in 2012 at the age of 56.
See also: In 1993, British entertainment writer Anthony Holden published his take on Hollywood’s annual awards extravaganza, Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards.