book reviews, celebrities

A review of Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir by Wil Wheaton…

As a card carrying member of Generation X, I grew up watching a lot of cable TV. Sometimes, I also went to the movies. In fact, I went to the movies a lot more often in those days than I do today. In any case, at some point in my adolescence, I saw the 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand By Me. Based on a spooky novella by Stephen King, Stand By Me was a coming of age film starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. They were four 1959 era twelve year old boys from Castlerock, Oregon, who set out on a mission to see a dead body. On their way to find the body, the boys bond and have some near misses with both nature and technology.

Stand By Me also had a great soundtrack.

As most of Stephen King’s stories are, this one– originally known as “The Body”– was very poignant, compelling, and sometimes even funny. It also had four teenaged stars in it who were about my age. Most of my peers loved River Phoenix, who was an up and coming star. Tragically, he died in 1993 at just 21 years old, a victim of a drug overdose in Los Angeles. I was telling Bill last night that if River had lived beyond young adulthood, he would have been an enormous star.

I liked River fine, but Wil Wheaton’s performance in Stand By Me was the one that always stuck with me. He played the sensitive, thoughtful, aspiring writer, Gordie Lachance. I identified with Gordie, because I had my own aspirations of becoming a writer. In those days, I wrote a lot of fiction. Also, my journalism teacher in tenth grade was named Mr. LaChance, and I liked him, and that class. I probably should have stuck with journalism.

Stand By Me was probably the only vehicle of which I’ve seen much of Wil Wheaton’s acting, except for maybe guest spots on 80s era television shows. I see he was a guest on Family Ties, which was one of my favorite shows, back in the day. He was also on St. Elsewhere, although I didn’t really watch that show, because it was on past my bedtime. He was on Tales from the Crypt, which was a great HBO show I watched when I had the opportunity, and he voiced Martin in the film, The Secret of NIMH. Wheaton also famously played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Apparently, Wesley Crusher was aptly named, because based on Wheaton’s book, Still Just a Geek, it seems that he wasn’t very well received in that role. I have no opinion on that, since I never watched the original Star Trek, let alone the reincarnations. I don’t know why I never watched it. Bill is a huge fan. Star Trek just never appealed to me.

Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher.

Some time ago, someone turned me on to Wil Wheaton’s Facebook page. I started following it, and decided I kind of liked Wil. He seems like a basically normal, decent man who happens to work in the entertainment industry. He’s also a writer and award winning narrator. And, as a fellow child of 1972, I relate to a lot of what he posts on social media. We’re from the same era.

I was following Wil’s page when he started promoting his book, Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir. I ended up downloading it around the time it was released last spring, but I didn’t get around to reading it until I read Jennette McCurdy’s book, I’m Glad My Mom Died. I figured Wheaton’s book would be a good follow up to McCurdy’s book about her “crazy” mother and chaotic upbringing in show business, against her will. Wil Wheaton has openly said that he went “no contact” with his parents, and had never actually wanted to be a child actor. Wheaton has maintained that it was his mother who had wanted to be an actress, and she pressured her children to go into the business. Wil happened to have talent, just as Jennette McCurdy did, and in the mid 80s, he was a household name. But what he really wanted to do was be a kid. He’s also found that writing is his true passion, just as Jennette has.

So anyway, it was Jennette McCurdy who prompted me to read Wil’s book, Still Just a Geek. Still Just a Geek is based on Wil’s first book, Just a Geek, which came out in 2004 and apparently didn’t sell well. He includes the original book in this book, along with annotations– explanations, contextual notes, and sometimes revised opinions of his that have changed since 2004. After the first book, Wheaton continues with chapters about his life today. A lot has changed since 2004, which it’s bound to do. In 2004, he was a young man, married to his wife Anne, and stepfather to her young sons from another relationship. In 2022, he’s still married to Anne, and has legally adopted Anne’s now adult sons, Nolan and Ryan. They changed their last names and everything. Wil has also stopped drinking alcohol– circa 2016– so some of what he wrote in 2004 doesn’t apply to his lifestyle today.

To be honest, I’m left with some mixed feelings about this book. I thought it was mostly very well written. I appreciated how candid Wheaton is, although there were times when I wish he’d shared more of the original stories that prompted some of his conclusions. For example, in the original book, it’s clear that Wil sees himself as his sons’ stepfather. He refers to himself in that way, although he also mentions that their bio father was a real jerk. He vaguely mentions that their bio father kept taking Anne to court for custody, and implies that he’s a shithead for doing that. Now… I don’t know much at all about Anne, other than seeing her in some photos with Wil, and reading his gushing comments about her. And, God knows, I totally understand about being the second spouse of someone who has a narcissistic or abusive former spouse.

Because I’m a second wife, I am not so quick to automatically accept what people say or write about their exes (and just to be clear, I get that not everyone believes me when I rail about Ex in my blog). In my case, I wasn’t allowed to be a stepmother to my husband’s daughters, and he wasn’t allowed to be his kids’ “everyday dad”. And he was painted as a horrible, abusive monster to his daughters, which just plain isn’t true at all. Wil never explains much about Anne’s ex, other than to write that he’s a bad person. And, for all I know, he really is a shitty person, and Nolan and Ryan were totally right to ask Wil to be their legal dad.

On the other hand, Wil is himself estranged from his own father, claiming that his dad has always been abusive and negligent toward him. He doesn’t write a lot about that, either, at least not in this book. However, Wil did write a few passages that indicated to me that his father wasn’t all bad. Like, for instance, he wrote about his father’s touching reaction to Wil’s grandfather’s death, and how Wil realized that one day, he would be mourning his own father’s passing. That was in 2004, though, before he had ceased contact with his dad. So, I guess I just wish he’d provided more context to both of those stories, and the one involving his stepsons who are now his sons. Maybe it’s not my business– but if it’s not my business, it probably shouldn’t have been included in this book. I can, by the way, also relate to Wil’s having a rocky relationship with his dad. I had a rocky relationship with my dad, too, although we were never really estranged. I understand that going “no contact” is sometimes necessary for one’s sanity, but I also think it’s something that should be done as a last resort.

The footnotes were a bit distracting for me, although reading on Kindle gives readers the choice to read them or not. I enjoyed Wil’s notes, especially when they were funny or provided context. Sometimes, though, I found some of Wheaton’s comments a little annoying and self- indulgent. It stands to reason that people try to present themselves in the best possible light, even when they admit to not being their best. Wheaton provides quite a few examples of when he sometimes acted like a jerk, as we all do sometimes. However, there were a few times when I wanted him to just state, “I was a jerk,” and not make any excuses for being a jerk. He apologizes a lot for acting the way most of us did in less enlightened times. It gets tiresome after awhile, and doesn’t always ring as sincere. Sometimes, it felt like he was trying too hard to be sensitive and “woke”, and it came across as a little fake to me. I sense this on his Facebook page, too, especially when he posts about certain issues– like the pandemic, and how we should all be handling it. Some of his comments come across to me as more like what he believes he “should” be thinking instead of what he actually thinks, if that makes sense.

But that early career helped launch his current career… if he hadn’t been a child star, where would he be today?

I did enjoy reading about Wheaton’s experiences making Stand By Me, which I still think is a fabulous film. I couldn’t relate to his comments about Wesley Crusher, although I do know who William Shatner is. Reading about his encounter with Shatner made me cringe a bit for Wheaton… Shatner was allegedly quite the asshole to Wil. Reading about his encounter with Shatner made me glad I was never a Star Trek fan. I also liked reading about Wil’s experiences being a computer geek in the 80s. I wasn’t a computer geek then, but I did have a friend who was one. And some of what he writes about his experiences with BASIC and other computer languages remind me of the time when I still counted my former friend as my best friend. Those were fun times, before reality set in, and I realized she wasn’t actually a good friend, after all.

At the end of the book, Wheaton includes some interviews and speeches he’s given, along with a couple of “Ask Me Anything” posts he did. To be honest, I kind of skimmed through most of that stuff, because speeches are meant to be heard, and aren’t that much fun to read. I did notice that the fresh content of this book comprises only about thirty percent of the book. The rest of it is old stuff cobbled together into this volume. That was okay for me, since I never read the first book, and I’ve not followed his career closely. Super fans who pay a lot of attention to what Wil’s been doing his whole life might be disappointed by Still Just a Geek. I see some Amazon reviewers have given Wil low ratings and claimed he’s not a good writer. I disagree with that. I think Wil’s writing is fine. I just wish he’d written something fresh, and included fewer footnotes, which can be very distracting. And I wish he’d just write his story and explain why he has so much animosity toward his parents and his wife’s ex. I get that they’re personal stories, and maybe he’s already explained elsewhere. But in Still Just a Geek, he makes many references to those people without really explaining his feelings behind the negative comments. I was left a little confused and wanting more information.

And finally, I admire Wil for reinventing his career, doing what he wants to do, making healthy choices, and loving his wife and sons so much. I’d give this book 3.5 stars out of 5 and would recommend it to those who haven’t read Still a Geek and are interested in Wil Wheaton’s story. I think it will particularly appeal to those who care about Star Trek, which I don’t. But I was sincerely interested in the parts about Stand By Me, and enjoyed reading those sections.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: book review of “You’ll Never Nanny in this Town Again”…

Here’s an as/is repost of a review I wrote in 2011. It’s light reading… maybe I should read more books like this one.

Although I have a stack of books on heavy topics just waiting to be read, I recently felt like reading something fun and vapid.  I spotted Suzanne Hansen’s 2006 book You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again: The True Adventures of a Hollywood Nanny on my Kindle and decided I wanted to read it.  It looked like it might be lightweight reading and maybe a little juicy.  And having finished this book yesterday, I can say that You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again lived up to its appearance.

The premise

It’s the late 1980s and 19 year old Suzy Hansen has just finished nanny school in Portland, Oregon.  She comes from tiny Cottage Grove, Oregon and has visions of making her way in the world and shaping young lives with her nannying skills.  Hansen eventually ends up in Los Angeles, California, where, at least in the late 1980s, there was a booming job market for nannies.  Hansen lands some interviews with a few eccentric celebrities, eventually taking a job working for Michael and Judy Ovitz looking after their three young children.

Who are Michael and Judy Ovitz you ask?  Well, maybe you aren’t asking now, but I sure was.  I had never heard of either of them when I first started reading this book, but it turns out they were an extremely powerful Hollywood couple back in the day.  Michael Ovitz is a talent agent who founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA) back in 1975.  CAA represented huge stars like Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few. 

In the late 80s, Ovitz had a reputation for being a workaholic who drove himself and his employees relentlessly.  He was a master at dealmaking and blacklisting.  No one ever dared to say no to him, lest they suffer the consequences.  And when Michael Ovitz found a trusted employee who worked for a fair wage, he wasn’t above putting them in “golden handcuffs” to keep them from jumping ship to work where conditions and pay were better.  Naturally, innocent lamb Suzy didn’t know all of this when she took the job as a live in nanny looking after Joshua, Amanda, and Brandon, the Ovitzes’ young kids.  Hansen gave pseudonyms to the children in order to “protect their privacy”, but you can Google them if you want to know their real names.

This book is Hansen’s story of what it was like to work for the Ovitz family.  She details the thrill of meeting celebrities, living among genuine Picassos, making friends with the other “help”, learning to love the children, and being treated like an object with no personal needs.  Hansen spent over a year with the Ovitz family and says she did good work, but eventually became burned out.  She wasn’t paid well enough, didn’t get enough time off, and started feeling bitter and angry.  She dared to quit the job, even after Michael Ovitz allegedly threatened that she would “never nanny in Hollywood again”. 

As is turns out, Hansen did work as a Hollywood nanny again, even though Ovitz supposedly did his damnedest to blacklist her.  She found a job with another maverick who had left Ovitz’s stable of showbiz clients.  But while the Ovitz family had expected Suzy to do everything for their kids, Suzy’s new boss was a hands-on parent.  She didn’t last long there because there wasn’t enough for her to do.

Suzy’s third nannying experience was with yet another Hollywood power couple from the 1980s.  Even though this family had dealings with Michael Ovitz, who had yet again tried to interfere with Suzy’s employability, they were kind enough to assess her themselves.  But by the time Suzy had spent a few months with them, she discovered she was tired of nannying and ready to switch careers.

My thoughts  

I have to admit that I sort of enjoyed this book, probably because I’m about Suzy Hansen’s age and the stars she was rubbing elbows with are stars that were big when I was growing up.  I like celebrity tell-alls and this book, with its perspective from a normal girl thrust into the Hollywood fishbowl, was unique.  I got the sense that Hollywood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and suddenly felt glad I never had any desire to be a nanny, particularly for celebrity families.

That being said, I had to wonder if Suzy felt bad for revealing so much about her former employers and their kids.  She’s particularly harsh when she writes about the Ovitzes, probably because they didn’t treat her as well as the other two celebrity families she worked for.  Maybe there was a little revenge going on when she decided to write this book?  She changes the kids’ names, but anyone with a computer can look them up.  Besides, they’re all adults now anyway.

Hansen writes well and her anecdotes are mostly entertaining, even if they are kind of distasteful.  A few other reviewers have mentioned that this book was re-published around the time The Nanny Diaries came out.  I don’t know about that; never read The Nanny Diaries.  And maybe if you weren’t around in the late 1980s, this book won’t be interesting to you.  But I have to admit, I liked You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again.  I found myself rooting for Suzy, especially as she wrote about how Michael Ovitz apparently “had it out” for her and tried to mess with her ability to work. 

Overall   

If you like true stories about celebrities or trashy tell-alls, this book might be of interest.  I give it four stars.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: A review of Going My Own Way by Gary Crosby…

Here’s a repost of a review I wrote on January 2, 2015 about Gary Crosby’s tell all book on growing up as Bing Crosby’s son, Going My Own Way. It appears here as/is.

For years, I heard about the controversial book the late Gary Crosby, eldest son of the late Bing Crosby, wrote about his parents.  The book, entitled Going My Own Way, was published in 1983 and was considered a “scathing” account of the reality of what it was like to grow up the son of a big Hollywood star who portrayed himself as the consummate family man.  I am a little too young for Bing Crosby, though I do remember the duet he did with David Bowie back in the 70s…

A classic Christmas duet circa 1977…

I didn’t actually see the Christmas special that spawned this version of “The Little Drummer Boy”, but over the years, the video has been replayed during the holiday season.  I also remember Mary Crosby, Bing’s daughter, who played Kristin Shepard on Dallas and was credited with shooting J.R. Ewing.  Aside from that, I only heard about Bing… and Bill has told me that a few years after Gary Crosby’s book came out, the late Phil Hartman, who was then on Saturday Night Live, did a spoof about how when Bing’s sons misbehaved, they needed to go have a “talk” in the library.

I was curious about the book and the cultural references to it, so I decided to purchase a used copy.  I recently finished reading Going My Own Way and, I must admit, it was very interesting.  As “scathing” memoirs go, I didn’t think it was all that bad.  Gary Crosby was Bing Crosby’s eldest son with his first wife, Dixie Lee.  He grew up in a huge house in Hollywood, surrounded by servants, many of whom were black.  Crosby’s mother was a strict disciplinarian and a serious alcoholic who relied on an Irish nurse named Georgie to keep Gary and his brothers, Phil, Denny, and Lindsay, in line. 

Like his wife, Bing Crosby was also a very strict disciplinarian who strongly believed in employing corporal punishment, strict rules, and verbal abuse to control his sons.  Crosby writes that it was difficult for him to have friends because his parents were so strict.  It wasn’t often that he was allowed to bring friends over or go to friends’ houses.  Crosby’s parents were quick to remind their sons that they were not special simply because they were Bing Crosby’s sons.  Though they were educated at private schools, they were not treated differently and didn’t hang out with Hollywood types.  Indeed,  from the time the boys were eleven until they were adults, each summer Bing Crosby sent them to work at a ranch he owned.  They learned how to herd cattle and make hay bales alongside men of much more modest means.  Crosby writes that he hated the ranch work because his father forced him to do it, though he might have enjoyed it a lot more if he’d been the one who chose to go. 

Gary Crosby had a weight problem when he was growing up.  His backside was wide, which caused his father to refer to him as “bucket butt” or “satchel ass”.  According to Gary, Bing would even call his son these names in public, particularly in front of Bing’s friends.  Bing Crosby ordered his son to lose weight and would force him to endure weigh ins.  If he didn’t lose weight, Gary would get a whipping.   Bing used a belt that had metal studs in it and would beat his boys until they bled.  At the first drop of blood, the beating would stop.  Gary writes that he used to hope he’d bleed early.  

Bing Crosby and Gary Crosby perform together…

When Gary became a teenager, he had a strict curfew and would often have to leave social events early in order to appease his father, who would not hesitate to use a belt and verbal abuse to get his point across.  It wasn’t until Gary was 18 years old and had finally had enough that the whippings stopped.  By that time, his father had traded the belt for a cane.  I must admit, reading that part of the book resonated with me.  I had a similar experience with my own father, who was also a proponent of physical punishment and last struck me when I was almost 21 years old.  My father was also one to use verbal abuse…  indeed, reading about some of Crosby’s experiences rang very true to me, since my dad did a lot of the same things to a milder extent.  Crosby also writes about his father’s penchant for womanizing and drinking, as well as holding gifts over his sons’ heads in order to control them.  Gary Crosby had his own issues with alcohol and drugs, which he writes about in the book.  He also was one to get in fist fights when the mood struck.

Crosby uses a lot of slang and filthy language in his memoir.  Personally, I wasn’t offended by it.  In fact, the slang sort of gave the book a 50s nuance, which makes sense, since Crosby was born in the 30s and would have been a young person in the 50s.  I liked that he included photos, which helped me put faces to his stories.  I also got the sense that despite the abuse, he did love his parents, especially his mother.  He even writes a message to his other siblings, products of Bing Crosby’s second marriage to Kathryn Crosby, that the father he knew was not the same man as the father who raised them.  And Crosby even admits that his father passed along musical talent to him and the ranch work gave him useful skills outside of show business.  As one who has a perverse interest in Pat Boone’s career, I liked that Gary Crosby also writes about what it was like to work with Boone.  Apparently, Crosby thought Boone was a nice guy and easy to work with, despite his love of “clean livin’.”  Pat Boone, as we all know, is also a big believer in spankings.

Gary and Bing sing with Frank Jr.

Gary Crosby’s mother died in 1952 of ovarian cancer.  At the time of Dixie Lee’s passing, Gary was studying at Stanford University, where he wasn’t a particularly good student.  I was moved by how he described his father’s pained reaction to his mother’s deteriorating condition.  Yes, he writes a lot about how “the old man” abused him and his brothers, but he also somehow manages to give his father a human face.  That’s why I say the memoir wasn’t that scathing.  Yes, it was probably shocking to those who grew up with Bing Crosby and loved his music, but as someone who also grew up with an alcoholic and occasionally abusive father, I thought Gary Crosby was just being honest.  I think back in the 80s, when this book was originally published, corporal punishment and verbal abuse were much more accepted as normal parenting than they are now.  While I think sometimes Americans are going a little too far in the other direction with how they are parenting their children, as someone who experienced growing up with an alcoholic, I feel like Gary Crosby was very truthful in his account.  He was not just a whiner.   

Gary Crosby died in 1995 of lung cancer. He was 62 at the time of his death and had married three times. You can read a chapter of Going My Own Way here. Here is an article from a 1983 issue of People magazine about Gary’s book.

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