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Alec Baldwin’s Nevertheless, reviewed: Memoirs are for closers

Alec Baldwin said of his own memoir: ‘The editors at Harper Collins were, I imagine, too busy to do a proper and forensic edit of the material.‘

Evan Agostini/The Associated Press

Alec Baldwin

To go by his new memoir, Nevertheless, Alec Baldwin loves two things in this world: good women and great fights.

On that first count, Baldwin has simply been lucky, having worked alongside the most talented performers in show business, from Tina Fey ("When I first met Tina … I had the same reaction that I'm sure many men and women have: I fell in love") to Megan Mullally ("madly in love") to Mary-Louise Parker ("like no other woman I'd worked with before") to Michelle Pfeiffer ("[she] tempted you to confuse acting with reality") and on and on.

The second of his great passions, though, is more fundamental to the Tao of Alec, in which conflict is the ineffable essence of daily existence. To live is to brawl, to scrap, to lunge with furious indignation at the unjust forces in the world that only exist to keep you down. For all Baldwin professes his love of acting, the importance of family, the joys of storytelling, it is the squabbles that keep the man motivated, and that energize this trip down memory lane.

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The memoir duly chronicles blood feuds with Oliver Stone ("the director as hostage taker"), Harrison Ford ("a little man, short, scrawny, and wiry, whose soft voice sounds as if it's coming from behind a door"), ex-wife Kim Basinger ("Kim was about Kim") and the legions upon legions of lawyers with whom Baldwin tussled over his divorce, his custody of first-born daughter, Ireland, and various incidents in which the personal and the professional messily collided (one litigator earns the nickname Jabba the Hutt).

Hell, it's not even two weeks since Nevertheless was released, and already the assembled recollections have spawned their own ancillary scandals, roping in everyone from producer Dana Brunetti (accused of lying about a performer's age for the indie Mini's First Time) to Baldwin's own publisher ("The editors at Harper Collins were, I imagine, too busy to do a proper and forensic edit of the material," Baldwin said on Facebook last week, meaning his material).

But if it is the fighting that fuels Baldwin, then so be it, because when he gets deep into the inner workings of Hollywood, the actor offers a rollicking, captivating peek into one of the world's most vainglorious industries, as well as a sincerely moving portrait of the artist driven by irascible conflict. This is Alec Baldwin's story, dammit – he's going to tell it on his own terms, and cannot be bothered with who might get burned along the way. (That sentence, like most of the lines in Nevertheless, sounds infinitely better when read in Baldwin's own deep, scratchy baritone.)

Baldwin makes the case for brutal honesty right from the start. "I'm writing it because I was paid to write it," he writes in the prelude. "And as we go along, you'll know that the mercenary force is strong in this one." Of course, Baldwin is also keenly aware of that motivation's flip side, in that we're only reading his book to see what dirt he's prepared to dish. On that front he delivers, offering lengthy, gossip-laden anecdotes about such monster projects as The Hunt for Red October and The Edge, and pithy, but still revealing, hints at a rash of late-period work, most of which you've likely never heard of. (There's only one note of concern here: The Boss Baby is given just one lone mention across 272 pages; Alec, the people need to know more!).

As fun as Nevertheless's dumpster-diving is, though, the entire exercise might also simply have been a good excuse for Baldwin to walk himself through his own troubling childhood, which is rich enough to mine for a film itself. Growing up in South Shore Long Island, sandwiched between two sisters and three brothers, Alexander Baldwin III was raised by a stay-at-home mother and a workaholic (though constantly cash-strapped) father, left to find his own path out from a life of poverty. As he chronicles this tumultuous coming of age, one marked by the straining of relationships and the spilling of family secrets, it's easy to get lost in the natural arc Baldwin builds, all broken dreams, earth-shifting drama, lucky breaks, eternal heartache, and addiction – early chapters are like Fitzgerald crossed with Cheever but chased with a lukewarm Budweiser.

Baldwin only loses his grip on the narrative when he strays into the world of politics, with the back quarter of his book engineered as a stump speech for a campaign that is surely just a few years away. Gone are the witty retellings of celebrity feuds or the genuine angst he feels over his relationship with Ireland, replaced with too-earnest love letters to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Baldwin's devotion to progressive causes is admirable, but for a man who plays Donald Trump with such revolting accuracy, there is precious little gallows humour or real-world drama – something the master actor should have picked up on when he put pen to paper.

Whatever tension remains is further diluted by a check-list of his philanthropic endeavours, and starry-eyed slices from his now-perfect life with wife Hilaria (seemingly genuine, but dull all the same).

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By the end, it's as if Baldwin were wrestling with just what Nevertheless was supposed to be (besides an excuse to cash a cheque). If he had fought more with himself, and less with everyone else, then Alec Baldwin might have penned a memoir for the ages. Let's call it a draw.

Barry Hertz is The Globe and Mail's film editor.

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