Miriam Hopkins : life and films of a Hollywood rebel

Allan Ellenberger's biography of Miriam Hopkins is a nuanced and in-depth look at one of the most dazzling and provocative personalities from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The book follows Hopkins’ rise to stardom; her participation in some of Hollywood’s most revolutionary films; the fascinating events and people that marked her personal life as well as her inexplicable disappearance from the public eye. Most astonishing, Ellenberger’s book is probably the first biography ever written on Hopkins.

Hopkins was a Georgia-born southern belle, raised by a domineering mother, with whom she regularly clashed. As a young girl Hopkins developed a taste for performing, and when old enough, she fled to New York to elbow her way into a career in the theater. She garnered a degree of acclaim for her stage work, and that's when Paramount Studios came knocking at her door. Looking for talent to populate the newly minted talking pictures, Paramount offered her a contract. In the 1930s Miriam achieved the fame she sought, becoming one of Hollywood’s most revered stars, and more importantly, she was recognized as one of its most talented actresses. She became involved with many landmark productions including the first sound film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the film credited with ushering in enforcement of the Production Code; The Story of Temple Drake (1933), the first Technicolor feature; Becky Sharp (1935); Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931); Trouble in Paradise (1932); and Design for Living (1933); as well as four films with director William Wyler, including two undisputed classics: These Three (1936) and The Heiress (1949). In the 1930s, Hopkins was gold and became a prominent figure in the talkies, where she was universally praised for her talent. However it was her off-screen theatrics that quickly earned her the reputation as a prima donna.

Hopkins was notoriously difficult, and in many respects, it may have been her downfall. She was infamous for her temperamental attitude and being generally difficult while working on both stage and film. She regularly upstaged and undermined her co-stars and most of her directors were left exasperated. Sometime co-star Bette Davis described Hopkins as unprofessional, explaining that she was a “real bitch," and the two were at odds throughout the pair of films they made together. Edward G. Robinson had a similar experience with Hopkins on the set of Barbary Coast (1935), and he chastised her for what he saw as underhanded behavior. Of course Hopkins' “difficulty” also extended to confronting studio heads like Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner whenever she believed she was justified in doing so. There were few who would dispute the assertion that Hopkins was difficult to work with, including those with whom she was friendly. For example, Tennessee Williams befriended Hopkins when she starred in his first produced play, but seemed to feel that her difficulty was part of her charm. He would describe her as a “magnificent bitch,” and the two formed a bond that would last throughout Hopkins’ lifetime.

Despite the chaos she may have stirred up at work, her personal life was nothing short of intriguing. Hopkins was an art collector and avid reader who spent years decorating her dream house to perfection. She adopted a child while unmarried (it’s still unclear if the child was her biological offspring); engaged in casual love affairs with F. Scott Fitzgerald and other well-known men;  financially supported her mother and sister; married upon a whim and divorced just as quickly, then had to suffer through the death of her true love. She found herself embraced by artists, writers, intellectuals and other creative personalities who had genuine affection for her. She maintained friendships with Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein and held the distinction of being Margaret Mitchell’s choice to play Scarlett O’Hara in the film version of Gone with the Wind. Within these circles Miriam and her temperament were welcomed, and these friendships helped to shape her social and political consciousness. Gradually, Miriam’s once conservative southern values developed into more liberal, progressive ideas that would ultimately bring her under scrutiny by the FBI for possible communist sympathies.

Among the more sensational episodes in the book are the chapters that recount the hostilities between Hopkins and Bette Davis. For decades Davis openly reviled Hopkins and questioned her professionalism in books and televised interviews. Despite narratives to the contrary, Hopkins denied any animosity between the two and chose not to publicly comment on Davis. Ellenberger examines the conflict, confirming that hostilities did exist and provides answers as to why Hopkins may have been antagonistic to Davis, and in many respects her hostility was defensible.

Ellenberger spent nearly a decade researching Hopkins’ life and his book is full of rich details that bring us as close as possible to understanding this complex, accomplished actress. He has clearly scoured every resource imaginable, which included befriending surviving family members, and may have written the definitive text. Her son Michael passed away shortly before the book’s publication, but shared many personal stories about his mother, and provided the family photos found throughout the book. The author rewards the reader with a meticulous and fascinating biography of a complicated, yet undeniably talented artist, as well as a woman who was nothing short of captivating.