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.
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.
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.