Book Review: Zachary Scott: Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad (2013)

zachary scott

Zachary Scott: Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad
Ronald L. Davis
Release Date: July 24, 2013 (Reprint); February 27, 2006 (Original printing)

University Press of Mississippi 
Softcover, 238 pages

Last summer, the University Press of Mississippi reprinted Ronald L. Davis’ biography of character actor Zachary Scott, subtitled Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad, in paperback. As today marks the centennial of Scott’s birth on February 21, 1914, we can think of no better way to remember him than by taking a look at one of the preeminent sources of information about this talented star.

Zachary Scott’s time in the spotlight was relatively brief. The scion of a wealthy Texas family who was already a well-versed performer on the stage, Scott arrived in Hollywood in the midst of World War II, when there was a shortage of appealing leading men. But with his film debut in 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, an unfortunate precedent was set. Scott’s performance as the dangerous, deceitful title character was so effective that many of his subsequent roles would fall into that same villainous wheelhouse, including what is undoubtedly his most memorable character–the sly playboy Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce (1945). But while the actor proved he was equally adept at drama (The Southerner, 1945), comedy (Pretty Baby, 1950), and even the occasional Western (South of St. Louis, 1949), he was unable to fully shake the evil onscreen persona that he donned so well.

Ann Blyth, Scott, and Joan Crawford in a pivotal scene from Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ann Blyth, Scott, and Joan Crawford in a pivotal scene from Mildred Pierce (1945)

Davis’ research into Scott’s life and career, which he details in the preface, included access to Scott’s papers (held by the actor’s alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin) and appears to be extensive. In building his narrative retelling of the actor’s life, Davis relies heavily on invaluable personal correspondence between Scott and various family members, particularly his mother, Sallie Lee, with whom Scott shared a close bond (in one letter, Scott calls her his “best girl”). Davis’ reprinting of selections from Scott’s letters is the strongest element of the book; from the actor’s own hand, we see more of his personality revealed, whether he is soliciting funds from his parents to supplement his income, raving about the woman in his life at that time, or expressing a heartbreaking sense of self-doubt at his own abilities as a performer.

But at the same time, that reliance on personal correspondence leads to some tangential details that have little do with the story of Scott himself. The most egregious example of this occurs when John Steinbeck enters the picture; the noted author fell in love with Scott’s first wife, Elaine, pursuing her until she eventually reciprocated his feelings and left her husband. Davis uses excerpts from love letters between Steinbeck and Elaine, as well as selections from Steinbeck’s personal diary, to build a portrait of that relationship–one that, in the end, adds nothing to our understand of the biography’s purported subject, Scott. It’s an odd, somewhat jarring divergence from the prevailing narrative, the only purpose of which seems to be to pad the length of the book.

Still, in the end, Davis’ reflection on Scott’s life is rather engaging and provides new insight into the life of an actor who has largely remained relatively enigmatic over the years. Though its short length makes this book an all-too-quick read, Zachary Scott: Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad nonetheless provides a fuller portrait of the perennially underrated Scott than has ever been produced. While the book is uneven at times, the depth of research is commendable, and readers will benefit from Davis’ sympathetic yet unsentimental portrayal of the complicated and appealing actor.

True Classics thanks the University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

One thought on “Book Review: Zachary Scott: Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad (2013)

  1. Love this guy. Together with George Saunders, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally and others, he, probably unknowingly, bequeathed us a treasured cache of indelible portraits of villains-we-love-to-hate.

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