Picks and Pans Review: A Terrible Liar

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Hume Cronyn

Memory can be a judicious editor, omitting trial and tribulation. It can also be a terrible liar." So Cronyn, one of his generation's most esteemed actors, explains his title, and this engaging memoir is short on tribulation. Born 80 years ago to an aristocratic Canadian family, Cronyn got his big break at 24, has been in demand since, and for 50 years has been married, by all accounts happily, to Jessica Tandy. His honors include a National Medal of Arts, Tony and Emmy awards, an Oscar nomination (for The Seventh Cross) and election to the Theater Hall of Fame.

Cronyn recounts a leisurely youth, but the pace quickens with his arrival, at 21, in New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Then in 1935 he ended up as the lead in a road company of George Abbott's Broadway success Three Men on a Horse. In 1940, after a brief marriage to a fellow acting student, Cronyn met Tandy, then unhappily married to British actor Jack Hawkins.

"The odds," he says, "were impossible....Why then did I fall in love? Because that condition has damn-all to do with rational thinking."

Cronyn and Tandy married in 1942, had two children and have triumphed apart and together.

A Terrible Liar has its slow stretches, in particular those recording the building of a home on a remote Bahamian island and a 1965 African safari.

But Cronyn is an excellent raconteur; there are fine sketches of Alfred Hitchcock and James Dean and of John Gielgud directing the Richard Burton Hamlet. An account of the filming, in Rome, of the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra is terrific stuff.

The book tracks Cronyn's life only to 1966. He does assess himself at 50: "In the theater I was established, but not a star.... In films I was just another useful character actor." Elsewhere, he cites a law of physics. Kirchhoff's Law of Radiation: "The best absorbers are the best emitters." Actors, he observes, "are in the business of emitting—of giving out—and you can't give out what you haven't taken in."

Kirchhoff holds true for writers also, and Cronyn, having absorbed for a long time, emits wonderfully well. (Morrow, $23)

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