Growing Up in Hollywood: A Way of Life, Like Any Other

A James Joyce scholar, a best-selling author of true-crime tales, Darcy O'Brien was also a Hollywood prince whose autobiographical novel “A Way of Life, Like Any Other” is superb.

A James Joyce scholar, a best-selling author of true-crime tales, Darcy O’Brien was also a Hollywood prince whose autobiographical novel “A Way of Life, Like Any Other” is superb.

Darcy O’Brien (1939 – 1998) was a scholar of Irish literature, and also the author of several best-selling works in the true-crime genre. “Two of a Kind: The Hillside Strangler” (1985) was adapted into the television film, “The Case of the Hillside Stranglers” starring Richard Crenna.

“Murder in Little Egypt,” (1989) is about a small-town Illinois doctor whose bizarre often violent behavior was overlooked by his neighbors for years, until the doctor was unmasked as a ghastly abuser and murderer of his own children.

Just before he tragically passed away from a heart attack at the age of 59, O’Brien completed work on “The Hidden Pope,” a book about the little-known friendship between Pope John Paul II and a Jewish schoolmate in Poland that helped bring about Vatican recognition of Israel in 1994.

O’Brien was also a Hollywood prince, son of silent star George O’Brien, who appeared in several John Ford films. His mother was Marguerite Churchill, a beautiful and talented actress who, along with other numerous credits, was also a Ford player.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise” ('27) considered one of the greatest silent films ever made.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise” (’27) considered one of the greatest silent films ever made.

O’Brien’s childhood in Hollywood during its golden age, surrounded by John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, the Marx Bros., and other Hollywood luminaries, is fictionalized in his first novel, “A Way of Life, Like Any Other.”

The protagonist of A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a Hollywood child, whose life was steeped in privilege until his movie star parents careers crash and burn.

With limpid prose, elegant almost Joycean Irish rhythms, O’Brien sketches  a devastating portrait of the mother: a histrionic narcissist, and a chronically unfaithful wife whose husband, clinging to his Hollywood memories, is decent and amiable, but quietly manipulative. Naturally, these two wreak emotional havoc on their sensitive son.

On the surface, this sounds like a standard coming-of-age story set in the jungles of tinseltown — and it is. But O’Brien spins his tale with supreme pathos and wit. His scenes are at once hilarious, and then heartbreakingly poignant. The author has keen insight into Hollywood’s inbred pathologies that shatter entire families.

John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill, The Big Trail, ('30).

John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill, “The Big Trail” (’30).

In just 160 pages, O’Brien’s autobiographical tale feels epic as his main character heroically tries to cope with two irresponsible parents, and an environment where the line between make-believe and true-life is often indistinguishable.

Memorable scenes and characters abound. Meet Sam Caliban, a film director whose pictures always make money. When asked to explain the secret to his success, Caliban says:

“I got an instinct  for the property. I know what’s gonna entertain your average person who goes to see a movie. Why? Because I’m an average guy myself. Maybe a little smarter, maybe I work a little harder, but I think like the man in the street, and I never forgot where I came from. From nowhere. The business is changing. Not too many guys like me left. A lot of these young guys, they got too much education or too much something, I don’t know, they all wanna be Tolstoy, you know what I mean? Back when I started, all the big men were like me. Pants pressers, right? So they knew what everybody liked and they all made money. People laugh about Sol Wurtzel. They laugh like about what he said when they came to him with a script Dante’s Inferno. Sol said, ‘O.K. make it. But one thing. Don’t open in the summer.’ Sure it’s funny. But don’t you know something? Sol Wurtzel was a genius. There wasn’t no air conditioning in those days. A lot of these new guys think you can cram a lot of crap down people’s throats and call it art and expect people to pay two dollars for the privilege. Me, I make ’em happy. So what’s wrong with that? I pay my taxes.”

Notice how O’Brien effortlessly captures the grammar and speech pattern of a New York Jew, the son of Eastern European immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side and clawed his way to the sunshine kingdom of Hollywood.

Our young hero admires Sam Caliban and his family who offer shelter and love to this exiled Hollywood prince. But O’Brien is too smart, too devastatingly merciless in his knowledge of Hollywood and the Shakespearean flaws of human character. Soon, Sam Caliban also self-destructs — a Vegas degenerate.

Hilarious and scathing this almost-memoir is one of the best portraits of Hollywood I have ever read. And I have read way too many.

a-way-of-life

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7 Comments

  1. Michael Kennedy
    Posted February 27, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    There is a lot about George O’Brien in several books about John Ford I have read. The only movie I saw him in was “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Michael:

      O’Brien turned into a fine character actor. His turn in “Yellow Ribbon” is certainly memorable.

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  2. Yossel
    Posted February 27, 2015 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for the ‘tip’. I just ordered a copy of ‘A Way of Life, Like Any Other’. Fascinating to hear of the familial connection to Orin O’Brien. I’ve been regularly attending NY Philharmonic concerts since 1963 and I remember when she was first admitted to the orchestra in 1966, during Leonard Bernstein’s term as music director. It was something of an event because she was one of the first to break the gender barrier. She’s now one of the orchestra’s longest-serving members.
    Good Shabbos Tetzave to one and all.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      Yossel:

      Hope you enjoy the book. Let me know how you react. Good Shabbos to you and yours.

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  3. Barry
    Posted February 26, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I read both of Darcy’s semi biographical books, Margaret In Hollywood, the companion to A Way of Life Like Any Other. Both heartbreaking. It was always my view that they were fictionalized but basically honest renderings of the O’Brien/Churchill ménage. I have been told that is not the case by an acquaintance of George O’Brien, but remain unconvinced. both parents lived a relatively lengthy lives, but in light of the privilege at their disposal clearly and financially died behind the eight ball if not in actual want.

    The survivor is Orin O’Brien, sister and daughter, a bassist with The New York Philharmonic.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 26, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m reading Margaret in Hollywood right now, and like it very much.

      BTW, did you notice an anecdote in “A Way of Life…” which concerns: popcorn, penis, and an unsuspecting girl. Looks as if Barry Levinson lifted this anecdote for his ’82 film, “Diner.” O’Brien’s novel was published in ’77.

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      • Barry
        Posted February 26, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Right, of course. Thought both books were keepers to be read again. When you reach the final few pages in Margaret there is something I did not quite get, or perhaps did and wish I had not.
        We’ll talk when you reach that time… Oh, hell. George O’Brien or John Wayne?

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