Monday, March 18, 2024

Between Books - What Have We Here?


Book cover for What Have We Here? with Billy Dee Williams turning to make a blue cape flow up on his back.

I remember falling in love with history as a kid. It was a youth biography about Albert Einstein. It had me on the edge of what seemed like every word! It was the life of someone who was an academic and not as exciting as a biography of a suave debonair hero should be. I just got done reading Billy Dee Williams’ autobiography and I expected that sort of feeling again for someone who truly could be one of the coolest men in Hollywood. Oddly, I found myself thinking about my first biography read, and how I was left with very different feelings. 

What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life by Billy Dee Williams tells the professional and personal life of the actor who is best known for his portrayal of Lando Calrissian. Born in 1930s New York, Williams was part of a close-knit family of loving parents who found the time in their busy schedules to expose their twin children to the world around them. Young Billy Dee found that he was attracted to artistic pursuits, painting and acting. Thinking that he was going to be a professional portrait painter, he entered art school and further refined his craft. But he could not escape the call of the theater, walking away from painting and taking roles in theater and eventually film and television. He officially made his mark in Hollywood with Lady Sings the Blues and Brian’s Song. His roles and his private life crafted the image of him as a romantic leading man, of any color. After the release of Star Wars, George Lucas was criticized for a lack of diversity, and he cast Williams as the Lando in The Empire Strikes Back. Despite taking on what some would see as a silly sci-fi role, Williams threw himself into creating a character, one who included many of the suave characteristics of the real-life Williams, and was a figure not just defined by race. This role propelled Williams from more than an actor well-known by African-American audiences but by the wider movie-going audience. This opened new roles, endorsements, and opportunities for Williams. It also, put greater scrutiny on his personal life including his wife, children, and girlfriends. He would also reconnect with painting. The autobiography reaches its end as Williams returns to Lando in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Williams does an excellent job of showing his love for his supportive parents, grandmother, sister, and children. These relationships are really the foundation of his life which he sees as well-lived. However, it’s also clear that many of his relationships, and thoughts, are somewhat atypical. For example, his third marriage would likely be defined as open and included a long period where spouses lived separately with Billy Dee living with another woman. This arrangement, and many of his relationships, make me feel like this lifestyle is less exciting than outsiders may believe.

Also a gentleman does not kiss and tell. Billy Dee’s life story is more romantic, dare I say erotic than I expected. I saw a public image that I assumed was more myth than reality. But in his own words, it’s reality. Yet in one sentence wrap up an entire romantic adventure, leaving you with a lot of questions. And I found myself not wanting more detail. But these stories tend to provide more essay than romantic fiction notes.

It is the Star Wars stories that bring in the readers. That was likely my favorite part due to my fandom. I would not say he provides any bombshells in this section. Carrie Fisher was funny and gorgeous! She does come off as the tough princess we want. And it is all about the cape! But these sections to me lack anything that will become clickbait headlines due to their new nature or scandal. 

Billy Dee Williams at the time the book was published is an older gentleman in his mid 80’s. He has lived a life. He was a young man who wanted to be a leading man, but being African-American faced challenges in casting and typecasting. While he does not deal with this issue to the detail he likely could have, he to me, is the archetype of the romantic dashing lead. But the fine gentleman in What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life generally avoids scandal and perhaps tells a less exciting version of his life than the one he lived. There is so much that could be expanded on in his experiences and worldview that are not.  I sadly, I think that unless you are a big big big Star Wars fan you can likely skip past this title.


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