Many celebrities approach writing their memoirs with a sense of trepidation, assuming they actually do any of the actual writing themselves. Some use them as an opportunity boast and crow. Some seize the chance to set the record straight, at least from their own (sometimes slightly jaundiced) point of view. The end results can be varied in interest: sometimes they can be a very dull affair, even if they don’t end up using the form as an opportunity to throw muck and level accusations. Anybody who has ever read the notorious memoirs of Klaus Kinski – alternatively known as All I Need is Love or Kinski Uncut, depending on the printing – will understand this only too well: sometimes the form is best approached and appreciated as performance art. When Peter Cushing elected to write of his life in the mid-1980s, he did so on the bittersweet understanding that his time on life might be short – and that his opportunity continue acting might well also have become a thing of the past.
With this in mind, it’s amazing to find just how vibrant and upbeat “An Autobiography” really is – it is laced with pathos and tragedy, of course, with much emphasis on the devastating loss of his beloved wife Helen in January of 1971. Helen was clearly the “rock” which gave his life meaning and he details their relationship in loving detail. He also proves to be only too willing to address, however obliquely, his own shortcomings. Helen was a sickly woman from the time they met and he undertook work in horror films simply as a means of providing steady income to pay for her various treatments. He states that he “strayed” on multiple occasions and hints that this tormented him for many years. Even more alarmingly, he paints a vivid and distressing portrait of his life spiraling out of control when she passed away – he attempted suicide that same night, but his firm religious convictions prevented him from following through. One gets the sense in all of this that Cushing was a complicated man, given to indulging his whims when he felt like it, but also so intensely in love with his wife that it turned into an obsessive form of co-dependency. Theirs was a loving but peculiar relationship, part husband and wife, part mother and son. Cushing also details his health woes, which began in earnest in 1982 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The prognosis was not good and doctors informed him that he would likely be dead within a year … news which Cushing took in stride because, quite frankly, he had tired of life without Helen. Needless to say, he beat the odds – and he would live for another 12 years.
Indeed, Cushing would spend so much of “An Autobiography” detailing his relationship with Helen, as well as his childhood, that he neglected to give a great deal of attention to his film work. It made for a very intriguing and heart-felt personal account, but many fans felt a bit cheated by the lack of Hammer Horror talk and were open in saying so. Always one to listen to his fans, Cushing responded with a second volume of memoirs, titled “Past Forgetting.”
“Past Forgetting” also works in plenty of personal information, but it seeks to quiet the fan base by discussing his many and varied film roles in greater detail. Cushing doesn’t dish much in the way of gossip, being far too much of a gentleman, but he pays loving tribute to some of his best friends in the business – including fellow horror icons Christopher Lee and Vincent Price – and discusses the mostly harmonious relationship he had with the producers at Hammer and Amicus. Cushing elects to gloss over a rather ugly (albeit temporary) falling out with James Carreras over his dropping out of The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) at short notice but he was clearly appreciative of the steady work they supplied him down through the years and was never one – unlike Christopher Lee – to publicly slam the material they provided for him.
The combination of these two volumes paints a far more multi-faceted portrait of the great man than any of the available books on him. Cushing does not shy away from admitting his failings. He has his moments of vanity. He could be difficult when he felt he was in the right. All of this simply serves to paint him as an honest-to-God human being, albeit one with tremendous empathy, compassion, professionalism and good manners. Cushing’s prose is clipped and precise, much like his diction, but the books never comes off as stodgy or ill-humored. As a man, Cushing wore his heart on his sleeve – and these volumes make this aspect of his personality all too clear.
The two volumes were originally issued separately, of course, but have since been condensed into one handy volume by Midnight Marquee Press in America. The volume is professionally laid out and offers up a nice selection of images, including documents and artwork penned by Cushing himself. The book is topped off by a nice tribute to Cushing from his long-time secretary and assistant, Joyce Broughton. The Midnight Marquee edition can be obtained directly from: http://www.midmar.com/bioscushing.html