SB Authors: Vicki Riskin's Hollywood Memoir
The multitalented Victoria Riskin is out with “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” a behind-the-scenes tale of movie-making’s Golden Age, told through the heady lives and devoted marriage of her famed parents.
Wray starred in more than 120 films during a 65-year career, playing opposite Gary Cooper, William Powell and Spencer Tracy, among other legendary leading men, and will be forever remembered perched atop the Empire State Building with a giant ape in 1933’s “King Kong.”
Riskin was a seminal, Academy Award-winning screen writer and playwright who invented the screwball comedy genre and brought forth a steady stream of enduring classics, from “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to “Lost Horizon” and “Meet John Doe.”
Meet the author. The indefatigable Vicki, herself an award-winning screenwriter and producer, is known locally for her generosity and good works, notably her service on the International Board of Human Rights Watch and her leadership in rebuilding and revitalizing Antioch University Santa Barbara (where, in a former incarnation, she took a degree that led to a longtime psychology practice).
Sadly, Vicki and writer husband David Rintels lost their home in the Montecito debris flow disaster, and have decamped, at least for now, to Martha’s Vineyard; All Right Thinking People agree, urge and demand that her periodic visits lead to a more permanent return,
The author's far-flung book tour, which begins in Santa Barbara on Friday and continues into the fall, will include appearances during a special, two-week festival of Wray and Riskin films at New York’s Film Forum.
Five Questions With... Before she dashed out of town again, Newsmakers’ high-powered Department of Tinsel Town Glamour and Celluloid Storage Facilities caught up with Riskin at Smithy Kitchen + Bar (don’t miss the Blistered Brussel Sprouts) for a quiet conversation, followed up with an email interview:
Q: You’re best known as a community hero who’s been a leader in Human Rights Watch, Antioch University and other progressive causes; it’s less well known in Santa Barbara that you grew up as Hollywood royalty. What were some of the movies on which your parents were prominent?
A: My father’s screenwriting career included several film classics like "It Happened One Night," "Lady for a Day," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Lost Horizon," "You Can’t Take it with You," "Meet John Doe," among two dozen others. He was the creator of films that became known as the Frank Capra films but that reflected my father’s philosophy, wit and humor, and worldview rather than Capra’s.
My mother is best known for her role as Ann Darrow in "King Kong." In fact she made over 120 films beginning in silent movies starring in films mostly through the 1930s but also later in television. In one two-year period, 1933-34, she starred in over 20 films opposite the leading men of her day, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, Spencer Tracy. My favorite film of hers is the legendary silent called "The Wedding March," written, directed and starring Erich von Stroheim. She’s magical.
Q: You say in the book that, in the course of your research, you learned a great deal about your parents and their marriage that you previously did not know. Why did you decide to focus your memoir on their marriage and what were some of the surprises you learned?
A: I was organizing some documents requested by a documentary film company who was doing a film about my father’s filmmaking project during World War II for the Office of War Information.
In a box, I came across my father’s letters to my mother while they were dating and then when he was overseas after they married. They were marvelous reading and I realized with a new understanding the quality of the man – his affection, humanity, humor.
I also began to reflect on the arc of my mother’s life which was extraordinary, from a dusty little mining town in Utah to stardom. My parents began to emerge as multidimensional people who were interesting – remarkable – people and I wanted to write about them and learn even more.
Q: Your cousin, Rebecca Riskin, was killed in the Montecito debris flow disaster and you and David lost your home on Randall Road and most of its contents. How did you keep going in the wake of the catastrophe?
A: Nine months before the event, we had bought a home on Martha’s Vineyard and we had shipped some things we loved back to the house to make it feel our own. Having that house on a beautiful island was a sanctuary after the mudslides. I have a husband who is my best friend and vice versa so we feel we have what’s most important – each other.
Regarding my cousin Rebecca, I miss her – she was a sparkly spirit --but when I think of her upbeat nature, her memory gives me comfort.
Q: When you searched the ruins of your house, you were surprised to find that one of the few things that survived was a batch of old photographs. Describe what they included and how you used them in the book.
A: Although almost everything in our house in Santa Barbara was lost, the box with the things I had set aside to finish the book, and with personal items for safekeeping, survived in the debris – photographs of my parents, small gifts they had given each other, a silver cigarette box from their wedding day, letters, notes for the book. Finding the box undamaged was a miracle.
Q: Do you plan to return to Santa Barbara? We miss you.
A: Santa Barbara is the most beautiful town in the country and will always be in my life and a home. For now, I am heading out on a book tour and when I am done, I will be back. I miss California, Santa Barbara and my friends.
Images: The book cover; Victoria Riskin; Robert Riskin (standing) with Frank Capra; Fay Wray, in the grip of King Kong; Vicky surveys the site of her former home on Randall Road after the debris flow disaster (Melinda Burns); Vicky's book jacket image.