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Book Review: Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb (2007) by Peter Bart

Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart’s latest book takes aim at blockbusters—but not just any big hits. The eclectic selection of movies, television shows and stage plays that he has focused on often have only one thing in common: an epic struggle to exist. From The Best Years of Our Lives to The Godfather to the unstoppable CSI juggernaut, Bart chronicles the difficulties that almost prevented them from making it to the stage or screen.

In the introduction, Bart chronicles the history of Variety, from its early days as a vaudeville gossip rag printed by Sime Silverman, a street hood who bought a used printing press and recruited his barely literate friends to write for him. The plainspoken, streetwise writing effectively invented the “Variety jargon”—boffo, payola, sitcom—that has made its way into the lexicon. The history of the periodical is laugh-out-loud funny and a great primer for Bart’s unusual selections.

I have a strong interest in movie history, and Bart’s book stands out from others in two ways. Reflecting each of his selections through the prism of Variety‘s day-to-day reporting, he does an exceptional job of bringing us into the mindset and business climate of the times (necessary since some of his selections date back to cinema’s infancy), giving us a full understanding of the risks taken and the success (not just financial) achieved for each profiled project. Bart also dredges up a few nuggets of information that I’ve never heard before, despite my familiarity with many of these films. For projects I knew much less about—like Mamma Mia! and Baywatch—I found myself admiring the passion and sincerity of its champions despite my total lack of interest in them as entertainment.

Bart’s writing style is a bit dull, which might put off some readers initially. I’d encourage them to stick with it, because his thoroughness makes the overall reading experience rewarding. If you’re looking for exposure to some classic (and not-so-classic, but popular nonetheless) film/TV/theatre history, you can’t do much better than Boffo.

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