Me Cheeta by James Lever

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Nice idea, well executed. A seventy-something former actor sits in the warmth of Palm Springs and looks back over his years in Hollywood, dishing the dirt on various figures of the ‘Golden Age’: nothing unusual about that. The twist here is that the actor is none other than Cheeta, the chimpanzee who co-starred in Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies. It’s a riot. Cheeta loves alcohol and cigarettes and bemoans the fact that other chimps will not have the opportunity to enjoy them due to well-meaning interference from animal rights activists. We meet him on the set of Doctor Doolittle in 1967, a failed comeback for the simian. Box-office poison for everyone else too. Rex Harrison is mistreating Cheeta, much to Richard Attenborough’s dismay (‘Dickie, do piss off and stop blubbering.’) It’s a typical scene: James Lever has made up some characters and invented things about others. The specifics of the celeb orgies are a little…well, specific. And Harold Lloyd never had a nine-hole golf course on which the ninth green is a trompe l’oeil pond. But he should have had. And now that idea is out there, Donald Trump should just get on and make it a reality somewhere rather than bothering innocent voters. Perhaps most importantly, one chimp did not act in all the Tarzan films. But then, Me Cheeta purports to be an autobiography written by a chimpanzee so of course it’s bloody well made up. The clue here comes from Cheeta himself, who observes: ‘It’s not Shakespeare, sure, but I’m totally amazed at how well it’s turned out, given that I’ve been randomly prodding at the keyboard.’ Lever is having fun. If only more writers were as playful. Chapter 8 ‘has been removed on legal advice’. Its title, still in the contents, is ‘Fucking Bitch!’ which perhaps explains why. The index carries a number of references for the chapter, which is about Weissmuller’s fellow aquatic movie star, Esther Williams (‘egomania of’; ‘ingratitude towards Johnny Weissmuller’; and so on). Yet for all the knockabout meta-ribaldry, Lever can certainly write: Cheeta’s final meeting with Weissmuller, in a Mexican swimming pool, is genuinely, surprisingly moving. Quite an achievement, given the cheerfully idiotic premise of the book.

 

 

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