Seth Hahne's Reviews > Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death

Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling
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Oct 21, 09

Read in October, 2009

History is a lie. But that doesn't mean it can't be engaging, revealing, and rewarding.

Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone is absolutely fascinating for the way it draws out the impossibility of there existing something called True History. Oh, certainly in the abstract sense, there could exist some ultimate record of event free from the colouring of memory, vanity, or nostalgia, but that would require an impartial, omniscient observer. And biographers, even if they had access to such an impossible (barring the metanatural) source, probably wouldn't wish to make use of it for fear of losing some of the more outrageous possibilities in the unveiling of their respective subjects.

As Frayling pulls the curtain back on the Italian director's life and work, we find that coming to any solid understanding of what really happened and what he was really about is a task for fables rather than for mortals. In relating any given event, Frayling gives us the Leone version (which we are given to take rarely as the whole truth—or sometimes even as half-truth) and then the usually conflicting versions of his actors, friends, relatives, scriptwriters, cinematographers, and producers. And even the actors, friends, relatives, scriptwriters, cinematographers, and producers cannot come up with stories that corroborate each other.

The life and work of Sergio Leone were myth well before he was even dead. And if interview with first hand participants in his life in a book published a mere decade after his death cannot come to anything resembling a stable view of who Sergio Leone was and what he was about, imagine then the impossibility of relying on any century-old historical record of accurately capturing the lives and events of that record's subjects.

Frayling's book is a fantastic look at humans in both nature and perspective. And along the way, it happens to given a wonderful account of one of the most influential directors of the twentieth century.

The biography is sensibly organized around Leone's major works, with room enough at beginning and end to see how the man arrived and departed. Frayling offers an enormous collection of insights into the director's sense of self, others' sense of the director's sense of self, and the director's indisputable passion for cinema. The author includes the words of numerous participants in Leone's movies and life, from Eastwood and Fonda to Bertolucci and Donati to De Niro and Wallach. Friends and the bitter disenchanted alike give testimony to the life of Sergio Leone.

We are given to see his gradual rise through the ranks of the Italian film industry, the blatant theft of a Kurosawa film that would rocket him to fame, and the continual second-guessing and overreaching that would both plague him and endear him to thousands. Frayling details the production of his five major films (as well as some of his lesser lights), taking time to discuss Leone's demand for detail, for authenticity in the midst of hallucinatory mythicism, his sometimes volatile relationships with his actors, his always volatile relationship with his scriptwriters, his method for shooting and framing, his collaboration with Ennio Morricone (probably the most widely recognized aspect of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and his critical reception for each film.

Something to Do with Death is everything I could want in a biography and for all but the most entrenched and knowledgeable Leone fan, it should hold more than enough details and revelations to keep the reader interested. Fascinating man, fascinating life, fascinating book.
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message 1: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Some day, I will become a movie buff. Sigh.


Seth Hahne I think the great thing about this is that apart from all the stuff about the Italian film industry, the book really does open up a whole philosophy of history probably without intending it. Plus, Leone is *so* self-centered and self-conscious that he can't help but be amusing in the ridiculous things he asserts about himself.


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