A long way from Oz

Show and Tell: New Yorker profiles

John Lahr<em> Bloomsbury, 335pp, £20</em>

John Lahr is the perennial talking head (and what a head - a Hallowe'en pumpkin with a gherkin for a nose) on every arts documentary that is produced. Noel Coward, Kenneth Williams, Joe Orton, Barry Humphries: there's John, yakking away, very pleased with himself, a sort of American Sheridan Morley - and, like Morley, he is a pundit with a famous father. Lahr's claim to fame is that he is the son of the cowardly lion from Oz; and the piece on his papa in Show and Tell, a gathering of profile essays first published in the New Yorker, is absolutely magnificent, making allowances for filial piety and sentiment.

Bert Lahr, his tawny ringlets in ribbons, clutching at Judy Garland for safety and shadow-boxing like crazy ( "Put 'em up, put 'em uuuhp!"), gave one of the world's most beautiful comic performances, but a Hollywood career never quite materialised ("Well, how many lion parts are there?" he murmured philosophically) and a mood of anxious gloom settled over the household. John Lahr grew up in an atmosphere of "morbid worry", as his father returned to work on Broadway musicals, continued to give the public much pleasure, but failed to find any contentment in his personal life. "It was awful and laughable at the same time," we are told.

The paradox was that the moroseness he brought into the room with him at home was funny on the stage. It is fair to say, I think, that these are the symptoms John Lahr continues to seek in his subjects. It is as if he's still trying to fathom what made his strange father who he was. When Ingmar Bergman describes his old man as "a lamentable terrified wretch full of compressed hatred", you can virtually hear Lahr cry: "Snap!" Writing on plays and films, actors and actresses, comedians, cabaret artistes, novelists and playwrights, Lahr's doctrine seems to be that art is the product of mental illness. For example, there's "a tremendous amount of deep, deep fear and insecurity" animating Orson Welles; Mike Nichols is frequently "in a state of deep depression" or experiencing "a psychotic breakdown"; David Mamet has "learned to turn aggression into art: the knife became a pen" (thank goodness for that); and as for Frank Sinatra's mixture of violence and mawkishness, "like song, his fury served as a kind of antidepressant".

If, to Lahr's mind, the creative artist is a basket case, subjects such as Bergman ("a walking chaos of conflicting emotions"), Roseanne ("Every book I have is about serial killers and abnormal psychology") and Woody Allen (with his sense of "loss and isolation") fit his bill perfectly. But, like all pat theories, it is the exception that disproves the rule. To say of Eddie Izzard's frocks and nail varnish that "transvestism is a way of keeping his mother in mind" is Freudianism gone bananas.

As a critic, Lahr is nothing if not uncritical. He fails to show or tell us how or why Mike Nichols is funny or talented. The director of The Graduate seems boorish and overpraised here. And can it really be true that, in New York, if you've read E M Forster you are a voracious reader, and if you've heard of Hugo von Hofmannsthal you are a genius? While I, too, would be a little intimidated by Mamet's anger, rage, confusion, I'd still like to know why he elected to adapt The Winslow Boy, of all things (it is like Quentin Tarantino doing Jane Austen); and if Ingmar Bergman can't find his way out of his "mist of unhappiness", where did Smiles of a Summer Night or The Magic Flute come from?

Too much space in Lahr's non-astringent pieces is taken up with slavishly transcribed interview material, inconsequential chatter that is complete - indeed replete - with cuss words. Everybody effs and blinds like billy-o. That Roseanne appears as a foul-mouthed witch is perhaps fully in keeping with her character. But it is odd to allege Mamet's intellectual superiority and to be impressed (as Lahr is) when, in response to a suggestion about a script, the playwright's comment is: "Tell him to suck my dick!"

The scurrility and abuse is unremitting, and Lahr's own prose, which can be aphoristic and elegant (for example, he writes of his mother: "she liked to be entertained but didn't entertain . . . she liked to be kissed but wouldn't embrace"), gets lost amid the padding and the slop. (Lahr reminds me of those meek magazine journalists of the 1940s who'd write adoringly of Joan Crawford's kitchen, with the kettle whistling on the hob, and ignore the star's monstrous manipulativeness.) Too busy with his subjects' anxieties and the evidence of their "soul's unease", he seems to have forgotten, or not to have known, that the intention of show business is not counselling and art is not therapy. It is not meant to make its practitioners feel better. The purpose of art is to demonstrate and create energy, heat. It is dangerous, voluptuous, aphrodisiacal.

Roger Lewis's latest book is Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988: the man who was Private Widdle (Faber and Faber, £9.99)