Thursday, February 25, 2016

A review of Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood

Although I was not yet born when the television show Family Affair was originally broadcast, I had heard about the show from people who had watched it when it aired from 1966-71.  I think I might have seen a couple of episodes at some point, though I was much more of a Brady Bunch fan.  Family Affair was about three orphaned kids-- "twins" Buffy and Jody (played by non twins Anissa Jones and Johnny Whittaker) and Cissy, the fifteen year old big sister (played by Kathy Garver, who was actually a young adult and student at UCLA at the time).  The three children's parents die in a car accident and they descend upon their Uncle Bill (Brian Keith), a confirmed bachelor who travels the world, and his gentleman's gentleman butler, Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot).  


The Family Affair theme song.

Kathy Garver's role of Cissy made her famous, even though as a child of the 70s and 80s, I couldn't have told you who she was before I read her recently published book, Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood.  To be honest, I think I bought this book because of the picture on the cover.  It looked like it was going to be a sordid tale and I am a sucker for sordid tales.  Well, I just finished Ms. Garver's book and it's definitely not a sordid tale.  Indeed, it reads a little like a Christmas brag letter.  Kathy Garver seems awfully proud of her long career in show business and the many important and notable people she's met along the way.

Although I usually like show biz memoirs, this one was a bit of a struggle to get through.  Garver has a formal writing style that is technically mostly correct, but comes across as stilted and affected.  It also felt like the book was a little too long and could have been edited down somewhat.  Garver has had a few trials in her life, but none that merited the amount of "airtime" they get in Surviving Cissy.  She writes about her house falling down a hill during a rainstorm, her house catching on fire,  breaking her leg, having her one and only son at age 44, and her husband overdosing on potassium that she purchased off the Internet from a company in Vietnam.  The rest of the book is mostly a breathless and saccharine accounting of all the things she's done and how wonderful she is.

On the positive side, the few chapters about some of the challenges Kathy Garver has had to face were somewhat interesting.  And I did also learn a little bit about Family Affair and what it's like to be a child actor, or at least what it was like in the 60s and 70s.  Garver was a child actor before she was on Family Affair.  She had a supportive family who helped her in her career and fostered her development into an adult actor.  She writes that many child actors have parents who do everything for them except recite their lines on camera.  Garver was able to learn how to do her own legwork.  Also, since she looked young for a long time, she was able to play roles that were written for children.  That worked to her advantage, since as a young adult, she wasn't limited by the child protection laws designed to prevent exploitation of minors.

While some readers may be interested in reading about Kathy Garver's many wonderful friends and ex boyfriends from show business, real estate, law, and school, others will probably find this aspect of the book pretty dull.  To me, it came across more as Garver's showing everybody how special her life is rather than offering insight into her career.  Patty Duke wrote the foreword to this book.  I read Duke's book, the excellent Call Me Anna, which was about Duke's harrowing childhood as a child star and her struggle with bipolar disorder.  In my opinion, that book was a lot more intriguing and engaging than Surviving Cissy is.  Moreover, Garver really doesn't explain why she needed to "survive" Cissy.  To me, it seemed like Cissy was just her defining role... and one she played long ago at that.

Another thing I noticed is that Kathy Garver is not someone you want to cross.  She writes about suing people, even though the things she sued over seemed to be at least partially her fault.  For example, her house caught on fire because she bought a new dryer.  The dryer didn't reach the electrical outlet, so the guy who installed it asked if she had an extension cord.  She did, but it didn't have the capacity to handle the electrical current.  It only had two prongs instead of three.  Two weeks later, the machine caught on fire and burned down her house, which her husband had failed to adequately insure.  So she sued the department store that sold her the dryer.

She also sued her son's Montessori school because he fell and cut his face on a radiator that was turned on.  While I'm not sure she was totally wrong to sue over that, the way she goes on about her "gorgeous" son and his marred face came across as a bit unbecoming to me.  It was in jarring contrast to the self-congratulatory tone in the rest of the book.

Anyway, I will say that this book did inspire me to watch part of the pilot episode of Family Affair.  I was surprised to find that the show was well written and genuinely funny as opposed to corny.  I probably would have been a fan had I been old enough to see it when it first aired.  I can't say I'm very familiar with Garver's work as an actress, despite having seen The Princess Diaries, in which she and her son had bit roles.  It's my guess that she's a better actress than writer.

I think I'd give this book about three stars.





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