I am a sucker for a Hollywood memoir and have long been a fan of the wonderful Teri Garr, who I think is one of the best comic actors to have come out of Hollywood. I was keen to read her autobiography for more personal reasons as she has MS, which I too have, and she has spent many years advocating for those with this disease.
Garr is probably best known for her breakout role in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, but has also worked with other many other well-known directors in her varied career. Her first role was in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, she played Richard Dreyfuss’s wife in Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and was Oscar nominated for her role in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie. Her legendary comic status was cemented when she was perfectly cast as Phoebe’s equally ditsy mother in Friends.
For 10 years, Garr was a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman and the repartee between them became almost legendary.
Garr’s path to Hollywood was almost ordained. Her father was a travelling showman, but not a very successful one and the family travelled around the country, following him to wherever he got work. Garr’s mother was a Rockette and Garr originally trained as a dancer, appearing in a number of Elvis Presley films and as a regular on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
However, the major reason Garr wrote her memoir is to tell her story of hitting one of those “speed bumps” of life — her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a chronic, degenerative disease of the nervous system. Garr experienced troubling intermittent symptoms for a shocking 20 years before she was finally diagnosed. She lived for two decades with a range of symptoms, which affected her walk and her vision. The book details how difficult it was for her to get a diagnosis and how rumours of her ill health and the possibility that she might have MS meant that the offers of work dried up.
Garr explores the first hints of the illness, from a tingling in her foot at the age of 17 to having to wear a leg brace to correct a limp in her forties. MS is a tough and harsh illness, particularly so for someone whose life is lived out in the public eye. Garr eventually embraced the illness that she did not want to define her by becoming a spokesperson and advocate for MS charities.
Life’s toughest challenge is in finding a way to move past those hurdles to find joy. My body has given me a great life so far. Now it’s time for my mind and spirit to return the favour.
The honesty with which she writes about her illness is woven throughout the book. Garr is refreshingly honest about her inability to settle down in a steady relationship. She married once and adopted her daughter, Molly, but she is clear-eyed about her love of independence, and traces her fear of commitment back to her peripatetic childhood. She watched her mother drag the family across country from temporary home to temporary home in a desperate attempt to keep her relationship allowed and Garr vowed never to be in the same position.
Despite the subject matter, this book is not a depressing read at all. Garr has a determined optimism that makes this rather by-the-numbers autobiography irresistible. Growing up, her mother hung a sign in their kitchen which read ‘Kwithcer Bitchin’’ and it is a motto which she has lived by.
Garr seems to have known everyone in Hollywood and there are some fantastic anecdotes packed into the pages. She jokingly talks about the parts she did not get, a failed love affair with Francois Truffaut, recalls a disastrous performance at the Oscars where the Los Angeles Times noted that ‘if a brick could sing, it would sound like Teri Garr’. She recounts a surreal meeting with the indie director David O Russell and she is forthright about the movies she has done that just did not work.
However, what shines through is the pragmatism with which she has accepted her illness. Between the lines, it is easy to see that live cannot have been easy for Garr. Disability is not something openly discussed or accepted, and even less so in Hollywood. As a hard-working and successful actor, plagued with incomprehensible symptoms for which no doctor could find an explanation, the manner in which the disease affected her ability to move is particularly painful to read about.
I have to admit that sometimes I dream about being Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, about running up the stairs in Philadelphia, waving my fists in triumph. I miss dancing my heart out. I miss being able to walk like I used to. I miss my days as the Italian Stallion.
Packed with famous names, wonderful anecdotes, a bracing honesty and a warm wit, Speedbumps is an enjoyable journey with an inspirational woman.
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