Picks and Pans Review: Curtain
The protagonists of this overblown novel are dashing, brilliant, handsome Robert Vane (read Laurence Olivier) and the beautiful, fastidious, mercurial, unbalanced Felicia Lisle (read Vivien Leigh)—the greatest theater couple of their generation. Lisha I may have cast a longer shadow in 1940s Hollywood—after all, she won an Oscar for] her portrayal of a Southern belle—but Robby carries off the palm for achievement onstage. Of course, the drama Vane and Lisle whip up onstage isn't a patch to the drama offstage. In fact, Vane and Lisle have a lot of trouble keeping straight just when the curtain's up and when it's down:
"Vane felt, as he so often did when he was with Felicia, the blurring of that fine line between acting and life. Sometimes he didn't know whether he was acting out a love scene with her or genuinely making love. It was a torment to him that often he couldn't tell the difference."
Indeed, when he comes to visit Felicia at the sanitarium that the actress retreats to after suffering a nervous breakdown during the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Vane manages to play himself only with the most supreme concentration:
"He knew his lines. 'I need you and I love you,' he said in a firm, low voice. 'I want you home, beside me, forever. Now.' "
Felicia "knew her lines too. I'll never leave you again, Robby,' she said. 'I promise.'
"They embraced, heads turned toward Dr. Vogel, as if waiting for applause."
Korda, author of Queenie, effectively evokes both pre-World War II Hollywood with its vulpine producers and excesses and London's theatrical world. He is, however, less successful in evoking Robert and Felicia. For all Korda talks about their love, their passion, the magic between them, the book deals mostly with the period after the pair's happy years, and a reader can only take it on faith that here is a couple whose union only death could put asunder.
Frankly, they are a tiresome pair, unworthy of a reader's sympathy: Lisha with her absurd jealousies and vanities; Vane, who veers from foolishly uxorious to a man whose devotion to the theater takes a backseat to no one. And the novel's climax is harder to choke down than an uncut version of King Lear. (Summit, $19.95)