A thorough study of classic film history is never complete without a look at the “star machine,” a system used by the biggest movie studios of the day that was designed to give the actors and actresses in their rosters more star quality. This included bestowing them with memorable stage names and whipping up sometimes outlandish but always fascinating and exotic biographies for each performer. A classic example is that of silent film vamp Theda Bara, who was widely believed to have been the Egyptian-born daughter of a French stage actress and an Italian sculptor. According to Fox Studios (with whom Bara had a contract), she spent her childhood traveling through the Sahara desert and caught the acting bug after visiting Paris. In actuality, Bara was born in Cincinnati, Ohio as Theodosia Burr Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor from Poland. Almost all movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood were subjected to the star machine in some degree.
All of them except Errol Flynn, that is.
Flynn was perhaps the only classic film star whose life story had to be toned down in the eyes of the movie studios and the press. Too volatile and interesting for his own good, Flynn was one of the most controversial figures of the mid 20th century, and still continues to be one today.
Although Warner Bros. presented Flynn as a bourgeois Irishman from a well-to-do family, the truth of the matter was a lot more interesting. And this is where My Wicked, Wicked Ways comes in–perhaps one of the best-written autobiographies you could hope to find. It was Flynn’s golden opportunity to tell his very exaggerated version of the truth.
My Wicked, Wicked Ways was written towards the very end of Flynn’s short, destructive life with the aid of ghostwriter Earl Conrad and was published posthumously. However, while reading the book, I was hard-pressed to find any interference from the ghostwriter. The book is 100% Errol’s voice. Reading it gives you the feeling of being a child again, listening to the exciting tall tales of your adventurous grandfather. The tone is casual, conversational, and even intimate as the Hollywood legend lets you in on the salacious details of his life.
Throughout the book, we see that Flynn was unapologetically self-aware of who he was: a hellraiser, a rake, and a black sheep in an otherwise illustrious family. His philosophy since a very early age was to live his life to the absolute fullest, and he often blamed his many mess-ups on his insatiable curiosity and thirst for adventure. He was bold and heady, an ardent admirer of all earthly pleasures. There were times in which he even seemed to revel in his bad reputation. However, Flynn’s self-awareness of his character had its limits, and there were a few instances in which he seemed to question how and why his life blew up into the trainwreck that it became, a field day for the voracious press but an uncontrollable monster that eventually destroyed Flynn’s life.
The son of a world-renowned biologist, Flynn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The early chapters in which he recounts his life by the seas of Hobart are amongst the best chapters in the book. Flynn was never one to meet his father’s academic prowess, and was expelled from countless schools throughout Australia and England for his bad behavior. He eventually left Australia in his teens to try his luck in the gold fields of New Guinea. Instead of striking it rich, he became a plantation owner and a slave trader. He eventually cheated his way out of the jungles of New Guinea, became a Hollywood star, fell prey to his demons (alcohol, drugs, and women, to name a few), and died at age 50 in Vancouver, Canada.
For most of the book, Flynn’s voice is glib, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. Yes, many of the episodes in his lif were controversial to say the least and yes, his views on certain topics were offensive, but Flynn is so charming in his retelling that the reader is inclined to forgive him of even his worst crimes. There is a boyishness to Flynn that is adorable on the surface, but as time wears on, it is easy to see Flynn’s immaturity unraveling his life. Towards the end of the book, we see Flynn become more pensive and sober, trying to make sense of where it all went wrong. Knowing what happens to Flynn, the end of the book is tinged with a haunting melancholy.
In short, My Wicked, Wicked Ways is more exciting than any swashbuckling adventure Warner Bros.’ scriptwriters dreamt up. Without a doubt, Flynn was a larger than life character but he was also a complex figure, more than the media clown he was made out to be. Entertaining, reflective, and humorous, My Wicked, Wicked Ways is a perfect celebrity autobiography. If I were alive during Flynn’s time, he definitely would’ve been someone I would love to rub shoulders with.