After a bit of a binge on biographies and autobiographies of the film directors that I admire I thought I'd offer up some thoughts and recommendations.
Top of the league so far, in terms of directors who throw out great advice, is Billy Wilder who luckily was still alive when Charlotte Chandler wrote Nobody's Perfect - Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography. The book tells his life story which she gathered during a series of conversations with the director during which he threw out pearls of wisdom on the craft in which he was surely one of the 20th Century's chief masters. It's one of those books that I started again from the beginning as soon as I finished it.
If you want a blistering good read however I would recommend Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, which was adapted and edited by his last wife Sandy. what is staggering about Sturges is that his life up until the age of about 22 was so packed with adventure and frenetic activity that this period constitutes the majority of the text. In fact his film making period, when he churned out brilliant movies like Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), is squeezed into the last quarter of the short book.
The reason Sturges early life was so extraordinary was that he had a very Bohemian mother - and she in turn was heavily influenced in her choice of lifestyle by the then world-famous dancer Isadora Duncan, who was her best friend. To give just one example of how insane Preston's life was, at one point, when still a child, his mother had an affair with the notorious satanist Aleister Crowley. Preston witnessed the hideous spectacle of the bonkers Crowley mutilatibg his own arm with a small knife every time his mother used the word "I" which Crowley had banned.
A real discovery for me has been Puffin Asquith by R.J.Minney. Anthony Asquith has fallen utterly out of fashion as a director, but I believe his Importance of Being Earnest (1951) will never be bettered as a film version of Oscar Wilde's best play and I remember being utterly riveted by The Winslow Boy (1948) when it came on TV once when I was about the same age as the eponymous hero. I always knew that Asquith was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister and therefore I had assumed him to be a patrician son of privilege sailing into his chosen profession and rather lording it up. He was indeed the son of dizzying privilege (the family nickname for the King, who used to pop by, was 'Kingy'), but Asquith turns out to have been one of the sweetest and most humble people I have ever read about.
He wore worker's overalls while directing and was often mistaken for a gaffer or spark. When not directing he used to go and help out at a roadside cafe where he would rise at dawn and deliver papers. He was one of those rare people who actually managed to beat alcoholism but like a lot of people of that era he smoked incessantly which almost certainly killed him.
In fact cigarettes cut a swathe through 20th Century film makers - possibly because there is so much waiting around on a film set and having a smoke is a great way to kill time and an aid to thinking. A truly fascinating fact about Asquith is that his father was Home Secretary when Oscar Wilde was effectively hounded to death by the establishment because of his sexuality. Anthony may have been homosexual although the book leaves the question unresolved. He certainly had no sexual relations with women. It is tantalising to think that a man who drove homosexuality underground for half a century may have had a gay son. It is also extraordinary to think that the son produced the perfect film version of Oscars most famous play.
David Lean was also probably killed by tobacco and I suspect we would have had one or two more of his elegant masterpieces left in him had he managed to kick the habit. His life is described in great detail by the film historian Kevin Brownlow in his magisterial biography David Lean. Brownlow was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the director but his knowledge of British film history serves him well in a book that gives a wonderful portrait of the early years of the industry in England. David Lean comes over as a pure filmmaker with a genius for telling stories with the lense of a camera that clearly derived partly from his years working as Britains foremost film editor. If you ever doubt Lean's genius I recommend going to see Lawrence of Arabia (which Kevin Brownlow was responsible for restoring beautifully) if it ever gets a cinema showing near you. I went when the restoration was brand new and it blew my socks off.
What I did not know about Lean was that he was not a particularly intellectual man and he could show astonishing ignorance about something as fundamental as the nature of gravity. The reason was his interest was entirely driven by his instinct to tell stories. If a story had come up that required him to understand gravity he would probably have mastered it.
Finally I have recently started reading Carol Read, A Biography, by Nicholas Wapshott. Reed easily earns his place as one of the immortals of the cinema on the strength of The Third Man (1949) alone (I urge you to catch the new print) but I am also a huge fan of his musical Oliver! (1968) which, with each passing year, is looking increasingly like a beautiful capturing of a certain spirit of old London - exemplified by the glorious 'Who Will Buy" sequence. I performed in this as a milkmaid as a prep-school boy in the 1970's - an experience that has never quite left me!
I had no idea that Reed was the illegitimate son of the Victorian actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a now obscure figure who once bestrode London's theatre land like a colossus. Wapshott usefully provides a 'biography within a biography' of Beerbohm Tree, supplying a fascinating glimpse into a lost world. To give an idea of how successful Beerbohm Tree was he was able to build Her Majesty's theatre in the Haymarket in Central London and created a private apartment for himself inside the dome at the top. A compulsive philanderer he ran two family homes, one his wife's and one his mistess's. Carol Reed was the son of his mistress and was inordinately proud of his father's renown until his mother was called down to King's School Canterbury to order his son not to talk about his father because of the shame of illegitimacy in Edwardian England. The impact of this conversation changed him forever.