Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Print the legend: David Niven at the Oscars

Having had to take a break from writing for a while, one way I’ve been distracting myself is by looking at old film-related footage and comparing it with the things I have read about the events in question. Consider David Niven’s best actor Oscar win for Separate Tables in 1959.

Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, and its companion piece Bring on the Empty Horses, were two of the funniest, most enjoyable film books I encountered in my early teens, and they still rank among my favourite pick-it-up-and-randomly-open-a-page reads. From his account of the Oscar ceremony:

Irene Dunne was finally introduced and I carefully composed my generous-hearted-loser face, for she it was who would open the big white envelope […]

Such was my haste to get on that stage that I tripped up the steps and sprawled headlong. Another roar rent the air. Irene helped me up, gave me the Oscar, kissed me on the cheek, and left me alone with the microphone. I thought the least I could do was to explain my precipitous entrance, so I said “The reason I just fell down was…” I had intended to continue “…because I was so loaded with good-luck charms that I was top-heavy”. Unfortunately, I made an idiot pause after the word “loaded” and a third roar raised the roof.

I knew I could never top that, so I said no more on the subject, thereby establishing myself as the first self-confessed drunk to win the Academy Award.
Fun story. Now compare it with what happens in this video (starting around the 50-second mark):

No tripping, no sprawling (though quite possibly he was doing all that in his head) – just an elegant Brit cantering up the steps and then saying: “I’m so loaded down with good-luck charms I could hardly make it up the steps” (no pause after “loaded”, no mirthful roar of misunderstanding from the audience).

In his written account, Niven also neglected to mention the presence of John Wayne (somewhat hard to miss at 6 feet 4) on the stage. That isn’t such a big deal, but it may be relevant here to recall a famous line from a great film Wayne would star in a few years later: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Rereading The Moon’s a Balloon now, I wonder just how much else Niven embellished as he tried to be the PG Wodehouse of memoir writing. Perhaps, given that he was chronicling his years in a profession built around artifice, and his time in Hollywood the dream factory, he felt it would be apt to try some fantasy-making of his own.

Or maybe these books are just reminders of how unreliable our memories are, how we create narratives about ourselves in our heads until at some point they become "true" and What Really Happened is replaced by What Should Have Happened. Another win for poetic realism.

[More in this series soon]


  1. I guess one should treat all such writing as unreliable, and certainly not cite anything from any first-person writing to make a point in any argument.

    Geoff Dyer said in an interview that the proportion of made-up stuff in his non-fiction was as high as in his fiction! A statement like that, while so startling for readers, may not surprise writers at all, even if most are not so forthright. After reading a friend's blog about a holiday, I asked about one of the incidents ("How did you manage to do that!?!") and the answer was that it did not happen

    Geoff Dyer's words:
    "This book is a ripped, by no mean reliable map of some of the landscapes that make up a particular phase of my life. It’s about places where things happened or didn’t happen, places where I stayed and things that have stayed with me, places I’d wanted to see or places I passed through or just ended up. In a way they’re all the same place—the same landscape—because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all things that happened or didn’t happen in these and other places. Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by that same token, all the things that didn’t happen didn’t happen there too." (Wikiquote)

    Thanks for this reminder of Niven's book, which I read long ago. From what i remember, his acting career and American years are covered in this light-hearted tone. His childhood and early years - time in school, etc - are quite different, but maybe even more unreliable.

  2. As your piece argues, I think it’s human tendency to subconsciously recall incidents in our lives in a way that is more congenial to our perception of ourselves. Or it may be an unconscious defence mechanism to mitigate the effect of a painful or embarrassing experience. The discrepancy between reality and what is projected in memoirs can be the result of the tricks played by memory, an inaccurate but bona-fide reinterpretation of past events, or the author deliberately embroidering/obfuscating facts for whatever reason. Or it could be a bit of all of these factors.

    In a work of fiction, of course, the author is obviously at total liberty to embroider as much as he or she wants, but that propensity to project a somewhat idealised version of ourselves still comes through. Even the greats were very much susceptible to it. E.g. In his preface of the second edition of ‘David Copperfield’ Dickens writes "like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield." Dickens had based the child and adult David Copperfield on himself. In ‘Anna Karenina’ Tolstoy again modeled the character of Konstantin Levin, who is projected as the hero of the novel, on himself. The novel is highly sympathetic to his flaws. The same tendency, to a lesser extent even manifests itself here and there in the works of Charlotte Bronte, who I am personally a huge fan of.

    There are, however, more modern works/ memoirs where the author is so brutally honest and explicit about both himself and those around him, that you actually end up wishing that he had some sense of charity. Both Frank McCourt’s memoirs ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and ‘Tis’ fall in this category, where you end of feeling kind of sorry for his long suffering mother Angela. Her every indignity, failing, indiscretion etc. has been catalogued by her son in the novel/memoir and immutably set in print. The memoirs are very evocative pieces of writing in themselves, but that baring of absolutely everything about those who are near and dear to you, can generate a somewhat mixed reaction.

  3. That unflinching honesty and refusal to soften or gloss over anything is partly what made 'Angela's Ashes' such a memorable and stirring book, but as stated earlier u kind of feel for some of the characters who are spared nothing in the process. The veracity of this memoir is also contested, but it does read quite convincingly.

  4. His description was really funny until you mentioned that the reality wasn't like that at all :) But, yeah, you are right, whenever I meet an old friend, people tend to give a different account of events, which happened just 10-15 years ago. I think we all like drama. Also liked this category - "pick-it-up-and-randomly-open-a-page". Such a bliss such books tend to be at times.

  5. Quite different indeed from the video. I had to wonder if he tried repeating this in some other awards ceremony but tripped, did the pause, and stopped at the reaction? However, it is interesting that he identifies the person handing out the awards (correctly I presume?)