On my way out west to see family, I found great escapist distraction in Frank Langella's memoir "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them" When the book was first released earlier this year, I thought it sounded so distasteful so I didn't pick it up. As it turns out Billy Held an Oscar wouldn't let me go without reading it and sent me a copy as an early birthday gift. Thanks, Billy!
I hadn't realized that Langella was only talking about dead celebrities -- sorry, no shacked-up-with-Whoopi Goldberg or Frost/Nixon chapters! -- and I can't decide if that makes the sometimes unflattering anecdotes more wonderful or more distasteful. Probably both. Initial reservations aside the book is well written and a real page turner. Langella even predicts and silences most "they can't defend themselves!" criticisms with a clearly stated prologue, including this bit:
Separate and diverse individuals as they may be, my subjects have in comon the inevitable outcome awaiting us all: to live only in memories. In this case, mine.
I admit that they are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionst, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of events as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories.
I am forcing myself to read the book very slowly so as not to exhaust all the juicy anecdotes quickly. I still have a lot to read but my favorite story thus far is remarkably not about a movie star at all but about the movie starriest of American presidents John F Kennedy, who Langella met when he was all of 15 at a rich friend's parent's brunch. Langella, who is now 74 has a wealth of material to draw from given that his showbiz career started as a teenager and he's achieved success on the stage, in film and on television.
CHARLES LAUGHTON & ELSA LANCHESTER
The Oscar winning ham and the Bride of Frankenstein were married for over 30 years and Langella was invited to Elsa's house a decade after Laughton's death when she learned he was a huge fan of her late husband's work. It was the early seventies and Langella was attempting to make the transfer from stage to screen. She gave him a tour and shared a lot about her husband including these two anecdotes.
'Charles was devastated by bad notices,' Miss Lanchester said. 'He would take to his bed in agony, reading them again and again. Finally, he devised a method for exorcising them from his soul. He taught a Shakespeare class here at the house in his studio and he would gather the notices and perform them for his students. If a critics said, 'Mr. Laughton is pompous,' he would deliver the word with ten time the venom it engendered. He'd act the review with tremendous power and vitriol, exhausting himself and then burn it in his bucket. It was very entertaining.'
See? NEVER believe actors when they say they don't read their own reviews.
But back to the book...
We ended the tour of the house in Mr. Laughton's bedroom, not very bright, also suitably tattered, with books by the hundreds. Then on to her room.
'Come here to the window,' she said. 'Look out. What's that you see?'
'Your swimming pool'
'Yes. Can you see all four corners?'
'No. Only three.'
'Yes! Only three. There is an area of the pool that cannot be seen from any window of the house. And had you visited when Charles was alive, that is the area in which he would have taken you, suggested you swimi in the nude, and then seduced you. That's where he took the beautiful boys. He was homosexual, you know.'
'I'm not that easily seduced,' I said.
'Don't be too certain, dear boy. Charles could be very persuasive.'
Quelle scandale! No wonder Laughton was so convincingly Oscar-nominated for not-so subtextually lusting after Clark Gable & Franchot Tone in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). But really, who could blame him?
If this book excerpt amuses you, I may share more. Subjects range from movie legends like Liz & Marilyn to TV stars like Ricardo Montalban. The very brief bit on Montgomery Clift hurt my heart and the chapter on Paul Newman pissed me off. It's that kind of book: amusing, irritating, and fascinating in roughly equal measure.