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September 19, 2007

CR Review: Show Business Is No Business


Creator: Al Hirschfeld
Publishing Information: Simon and Schuster, hardcover, 144 pages, 1951, 88 cents
Ordering Numbers: 0306762218

imageThe best book I've found this year for 25 cents at the local library sale, Show Business is No Business isn't a comic by anyone's definition, but an illustrated book. Its author Al Hirschfeld was to many people's minds a caricaturist instead of a cartoonist, with a completely different approach to what is exemplified and what is downplayed in each piece of art. That doesn't mean you shouldn't read it, nor that there's nothing here that could inform someone's comics. More to the point, I really enjoyed this book, mostly for its virtuoso display of Hirschfeld's skill at a point in his long and distinguished career when he did far more than the elegant, stylized portraiture for which he's best known. There's no impulse to look for a "Nina" when the artist is doing killer scene work and character studies like Hirschfeld accomplishes here, a mix of his newspaper work and his lovely run at the underrated Holiday magazine. Hirschfeld supplements stock character portrayals like the producer and the playwright with a more intimate look at the theater scene as a crush of out-sized characters and a series of simmering crowd scenes with every agent at cross-purposes. Anyone who's ever done a play or enjoyed a movie about a cast marching through their paces will recognize the dynamic of the crowd scenes. Hirschfeld was rarely better than in suggesting a moment by the way he dragged the eye from face to torso to pose to smile to grimace and up and back again. Each picture borders on social documentary.

Much is made in the introduction to the work of Hirschfeld's surprising skill as a writer. His prose proves to be very amusing, a serviceable accompaniment to the frequently sublime artwork. The artist offers up a kind of humor you don't see very often anymore but which used to dominate a certain kind of discourse to an almost staggering degree: slightly exaggerated description of people's odd behavior as if one were a slightly detached observer, on the audience's side as someone completely cognizant that what they're observing is crazy: point and cluck reportage. It's a tradition that stretches back through Benchley to at least Twain, if not further, and Hirschfeld is a viable practitioner:
"The Theatre is the only business in the world where prospective employees are made to sing, dance, recite and parade in their underwear before they are hired."

"Your surprise will be genuine when the director, after a cursory reading of the new material, realizing that he is supposed to restage practically the whole play before the evening performance, carefully rolls the script into a tight bat and tries to open your skull with it."

"Learn to accept the fact that if it weren't for your play the producers would have a smash hit on their hands."
What's nice about this approach is that it plays well into Hirschfeld's identity as the artist of that scene: the trustworthy witness, the person who brings a keen eye and boils what he sees on stage into some sort of digestible essence. He's a natural guide. Show Business Is No Business isn't a classic, but it's a sturdy performer that deserves a matinee-price purchase by anyone who likes to see beautiful, expressive art yoked to a funny and well-structured narrative. If it shows up in the quarter box at your library's book sale, I totally recommend you pick it up.

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