Book Review – Behind the Screen Door: Tales from the Hollywood Hills
I was recently offered the chance to take a peak “Behind the Screen Door” and read about the life of Richard Gregson, a Hollywood agent and producer and former husband of Natalie Wood. Even though I had admittedly never heard of him before, I accepted the offer because the book sounded like it would provide an interesting glimpse into life in 1960’s Hollywood.
The 1960’s are not necessarily my favorite decade for movies, but I do enjoy hearing about the social scene from that time period, like for instance, stories about Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Just looking at this cool picture of the group standing in front of The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas makes me wish I could take a trip back in time and be a part of that scene.
As Richard Gregson discussed some of his encounters with Frank Sinatra and his relationship with Natalie Wood, the book did at times bring me back to where I could imagine myself being there with him as he socialized with some of Hollywood’s elite. However, that is not the main thing I took away from reading this book. Besides learning a lot about the ins and outs of working as one of Hollywood’s top agents, I also took away a couple of lessons that I think anyone can learn from and apply to their life.
“No one sets out to be an agent. It’s one of those odd, arcane professions we fall into by chance.” ~ Richard Gregson
Behind the Screen Door: Tales from the Hollywood Hills begins with the story of how Richard Gregson got his start working as an agent. Afraid he was about to get in trouble after telling the managing director of the religious bookstore where he worked that what he really wanted to do was to be in show business, he instead found himself being introduced to a partner in a successful literary agency who helped him get started in the business.
As corny as it may sound, this story taught me one of those aforementioned lessons; that you should never be afraid to reveal your dreams to others, no matter how big or unattainable they may seem, because you just never know what opportunities will open up to you once you do. It may really be that he became an agent “by chance” but it was only after he found the courage to admit the truth that he was able to realize his dream.
I have to admit that as I read the next couple of chapters and realized that the book wasn’t necessarily a chronological biography of his life but was more a collection of short stories that jumped around in time and subject, I had a bit of a hard time connecting with the book. Gregson does a lot of name dropping in this book (I don’t mean that in a bad way!) and I wasn’t very familiar with many of them, so it was somewhat difficult to really be invested in some of the stories.
Agent to Award Winning Talent
But as I would come to find out after reading on and doing a bit of outside research, the names he was mentioning included some very successful and influential producers, directors, and writers such as David Merrick (Tony award winning producer), Jimmy Woolf (producer of the Oscar winning movie Room at the Top), and Joseph Janni (writer and producer of the Oscar winning movie Darling). These names may be familiar to those of you with more extensive knowledge of Hollywood history, but for me it was a chance to get to know many of them for the first time.
There were some other big names that I was very familiar with, and they provided some of my favorite stories from the book. They included the stories of how he helped rebuild the career of producer and director Joseph Mankiewicz after his failure with the movie Cleopatra, and how he became the agent for Robert Redford, who would become the first actor that he represented.
One of the things I noticed while reading those stories is that Richard Gregson seemed to have a unique way of approaching potential new clients. Not that other agents are not, but he always seemed truly interested in getting to know them as people first instead of looking at them as ways to increase his bank account.
This provided me with the other lesson I took away from this book; that you can achieve success if you show a genuine concern for others and and are true to who you are as a person. There’s no need to try to imitate your competitors or use cheap and dirty tactics.
Saying Goodbye to Natalie Wood
In the last chapter and the one that was most interesting to me, Richard Gregson talks about the night he discovered that his ex-wife, Natalie Wood, had drowned. I literally got chills when he recounted in stunned disbelief how death by drowning had been her “phobic nightmare” and how she often told him how terrified she was of the “dark water”.
True to the thoughtful nature he revealed throughout the rest of the book, I was especially touched by the kind and loving way he discussed his relationship with Natalie, who he had once again become close to after their divorce. It’s obvious that it was very important to him to maintain a good relationship with her for the sake of their daughter Natasha, and his love for both of them was evident as he told the heartbreaking story of bringing his daughter to see her mother’s body.
For this and other stories, he could have resorted to sensationalism and tales of gossip but instead told the story in a way that was sensitive to all those who were greatly affected by Natalie’s death, including her husband at the time, Robert Wagner, and for this I have great respect for the author.
Behind the Screen Door: Tales from the Hollywood Hills can be purchased through Amazon Kindle, and you can preview the book using their Look Inside! feature.
Disclosure: I would like to express my thanks to Richard Gregson for sending me a copy and giving me the opportunity to review his book.