December 1, 2008

The Books: "Shelley, Also Known As Shirley" (Shelley Winters)

3269_1.JPGNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters

There are so many great Shelley Winters stories (and this is only the first volume of her autobiography - there's another one that follows) but the following is my favorite. I can't even remember where I heard it -maybe from her. I've heard her speak a couple of times. She is exactly what you would imagine. A little bit crazy, insightful as hell, bawdy, funny, and you wish she would never stop talking. The story goes: Shelley Winters is in her 60s. She has already had a long and crazily successful career, but she is now getting old. An up-and-coming director is considering her for a role in a movie and he makes a beginner's mistake - he asks her to audition. You don't ask stars to audition. You have meetings with them, you do lunch, but you don't ask a star to come in and read sides, as though she is a beginner. It is assumed that Shelley Winters knows how to act. That is one of the perks of being a star! Now Shelley Winters was never a dummy or a diva - she liked to WORK (and her career shows that - she was working, and very well, right up to the end), but she did think, "Audition?? What are you, cracked?" She went to meet the director at his office. She was dressed in her normal attire: urban bag-lady with a big floppy hat. She carried an enormous bag over one shoulder. The director was a big fan of hers, "Oh, so excited you're coming to read, Miss Winters, thank you so much ..." Shelley Winters sat down, opened her bag, rummaged around in it for a bit, and pulled out one Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Then she reached into the bag again, rummaged around again, and pulled out a second Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Barked, "So. Do I still need to audition?"

Naturally, she got the part. Lessons learned all around. I just love that. At that point, who gives a fuck? She sure didn't. She made her point.

Shelley Winters' autobiography is not as relentlessly entertaining as Lana Turner's (excerpt here) but it's pretty damn close. She didn't have quite the tabloid frenzy surrounding her that Turner did, and much of her career was about, you know, ACTING, so her books have a different focus - but they are just as much fun to read. Shelley Winters gossips like crazy, tells stories, spares no one, and yet also comes across as generous and big-hearted. She always gives credit where credit is due. Even if it's to herself! Winters was an oddball, a kind of gangly big-boned girl with a funny-looking face that could look glamorous in certain lights, but that was not what she was known for. She was known for her blasted-open performances, she was known for her hard work and her disinterest in being liked. That is one of the great gifts of NOT being beautiful. She didn't have to worry so much about pleasing people, she didn't have that problem that so many beautiful people in the business have.

77111-004-9E12C89A.jpg

She went about her business, and got some pretty damn great parts, she worked hard, and also played hard. She slept with everyone. She sounds like a riot. If Lana Turner remembers every outfit she ever wore, then Shelley Winters remembers every meal she ever had. The books are full of food! From the tuna sandwiches she had as a kid, to the chocolate milk shakes she would share with her roommate, Marilyn Monroe ... Winters loved food! The books have a zest for life that really comes across. You know that she is telling you conversations word for word that probably never really went down that way ... but it doesn't matter. She's chatting with you, the reader, about what she remembers. Also, she's an entertainer. Like I said, she was no dummy. She knows how to tell a good tale.

David Thomson writes of her in his Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Blowsy, effusive, brash, and maternal, either voluptuous or drab, Shelley Winters is at her best when driven to wonder, "How did a girl like me get into a high-class movie like this?"

shelley.jpg

The highlights of her career are well-known. But the book is full of everything else, her commitment to the Actors Studio and working on her craft (which never stopped for her), her romances, her fuck buddies, her struggles to either be taken seriously or to NOT be taken seriously, her rehearsal process, how she worked, how she thought about script and character ... These are wonderful books. She's a terrific companion. Crazy, still proud of her triumphs, unafraid to be honest about herself, unafraid also to say, "You know what? I was terrific in that part", and funny as hell. Great anecdotal portraits of other people too - George Cukor, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Marilyn Monroe - all of her colleagues and friends and co-workers ... she gives us generous portraits of all of them.

I have written before about the epiphany I had when I was 12 years old after seeing Dog Day Afternoon and East of Eden. Those movies led me on a research frenzy which brought me into contact, very early, with all of those Actors Studio afficianados - Carroll Baker, Paddy Chayefsky, Ben Gazzara, Michael Gazzo, the Strasbergs ... I would pore through the index pages of entertainment biographies looking for mention of James Dean, and that was how I started. I hadn't heard of any of those people at the time I was 12. But by the time I was 13, I felt like I knew them all personally. Shelley Winters' autobiographies were a big part of that journey. I read them both when I was 12, basically looking only for mention of James Dean and Marlon Brando but I got sucked into them in their own right. I had not seen Place in the Sun or Lolita, although I HAD seen Poseidon Adventure and it was amazing to me that that fat woman underwater was the cheesecake blonde in a bathing suit I saw in the photos of the book. But she was. Same person.

life-shelley-winters.jpg

Since then, I've read both of the books multiple times. They're a lot of fun. I've actually lost the second volume in my various moves so I will have to rectify that!

You know, Montgomery Clift was apparently dismayed at her performance in Place in the Sun. He thought she was terrible, way too whiny. I think that might be the case of someone being too close to the work to really be able to see it. It is her whininess in Place in the Sun that helps elevate it to the dark American tragedy that it is. Not that anyone deserves to be murdered, but her character is so relentlessly whiny and needy that a strange thing happens to me, the viewer, as I watch that film: I start to want to get rid of her too. Even though she is an innocent, a victim of circumstance! NONE of it is her fault. You'd whine too if some guy knocked you up and refused to deal with it, instead spent his time at the house on the hill, hanging out with the hottie daughter who looks like Elizabeth Taylor! Shelley Winters fearlessly brings out the unpleasant nature of that character, simpering and hovering, with a scarf over her head, getting more and more upset and awful as the film goes on, as her situation deepens its desperation. This is not a woman used to sticking up for herself, this is not a woman who knows how to say, "Look, buddy, you had sex with me, I'm pregnant, deal with yourself!" Let us not forget that Shelley Winters herself, in real life, WAS the type of person who would say, "Listen, jagoff, I'm knocked up and you did it and you're involved whether you want to be or not." So she's ACTING here. This is not who she is. That character does not make open demands. Instead, she stares at him longingly, not saying a word, until he is driven mad by guilt and rage. She NEEDS to be that annoying in order for his actions to make sense. Yes, he is driven by his twisted version of the American dream, and she needs to be out of the way in order for him to ascend ... so there is THAT ... but also, her unpleasantness, her unlikeability, gives the film a startling uneasy tension. I always feel implicated myself when I watch it. Because I find myself thinking like HIM. I find myself thinking, "If only she could just disappear somehow ..." It's upsetting. I don't like MYSELF when I watch that movie, and that's really something. How often do movies do that?

sjff_01_img0390.jpg

Here is an excerpt from the first volume. Shelley Winters had had some success on the New York stage, and had done some movies. She was making her way. At some point, she was offered the role of Ado Annie in the long-running smash hit Oklahoma. She would be replacing the actress playing the part - always a kind of daunting experience. Winters was back in New York, getting ready to step into the role, and was spending her days studying at the Actors Studio. That's the excerpt I chose today.

Wonderful books. Wonderful actress.


winters-shelley_1.jpg

EXCERPT FROM Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters


The next morning I did have a slight hangover, and although I brushed my teeth five times, I could still taste the onions. I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late because I couldn't get a cab in the rain. Very New York. I rushed past the St. James Theater doorman and onto the bare stage, tearing off my coat. I was running so fast I almost fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. The stage manager caught me; he was with an assistant stage manager and a rehearsal pianist under a work light. "Miss Winters, I presume," he said. "You're fifteen minutes late; that means you're docked three dollars. A dollar for every five minutes."

That was his opening line to me. Our relationship deteriorated for the next nine months, so you can imagine what his closing line was.

Still trying to establish some kind of rapport, I smiled and said, "That's all right. I'll be making five hundred dollars a week in this show. But from now on I'll be on time."

When I said $500 a week, his face got chalky. He grabbed my arm and whispered tensely, "Don't you tell anyone else in the cast that. Lawrence Langner must have lost his mind."

I pulled my arm away, rubbed it and said, "Listen, Mr. Simon Legree, this show has been running for almost five years. Maybe I'll give it a shot in the arm if you don't break my arm first."

He replied, "Unfortunately you have a run-of-the-play contract, and the understudy who did just beautifully for the past eight weeks is back in the chorus. I'll be damned if I know why they needed you."

"Charming. Would you like to cut my throat now or later?"

Then started the most peculiar rehearsal I've ever had in my life, before or since. The stage manager held the script and read each line as he wanted me to read it - exactly as Celeste Holm had done it nearly five years ago. I was supposed to imitate him imitating her. Whenever he read my cue, I forgot my line because I have this strange habit of having language come out of my mouth as a result of thought. I had been trained by the New Theater School and George Cukor to perform this way, even in a musical comedy: The funniest comedy is when the timing is realistic and natural.

I tried, I really tried. The chalk marks which indicated the sets confused me, and when we got to the songs, the same thing happened. I knew the lyrics backward and forward, but my efforts to mimic him would make me forget them. The rehearsals were a struggle to the death. I thought I would go crazy. So did he.

I called Equity to find out if this was the way new actors were put into established roles, but Equity said, "We can't make artistic decisions for the producers." But what Equity did do for me was to inform the Theater Guild office that I was allowed to rehearse only four hours a day and not at all on matinee days. Happily this schedule allowed me to attend the Actors' Studio almost immediately.

Soon the other understudies began to rehearse with me, thank God. I saw the show every night, and although the music and dancing were wonderful, there was a peculiar robot quality to the acting. I was to find out later that when actors stay in a show as long as five years, eight performances a week, the only way they can survive is to develop a technique whereby they literally turn off their minds at eight-thirty and don't wake up again until eleven-fifteen. All the performances are done by rote, and they don't have to even think about what they are saying or doing. Their brains just take a rest.

When we finally got to the dress rehearsal with the full cast, I really tried to imitate Celeste Holm, but I could no more do it than I could fly without an airplane. Langner and Theresa Helburn and Rodgers and Hammerstein watched my miserable strained rehearsal. It really was terrible. Langner asked me afterward what had happened to that performance I had given at the audition, so I told him the truth. "Mr. Langner, I can't imitate another actress. I don't know how. I have to give it my own interpretation and try to stick as close to the character as the author intended. I want this job, but I just can't do it if I have to imitate someone else."

The producers and writers had an artistic huddle, and then Langner said, in front of the whole cast, the chorus, the ballet and the stage manager, "For the last year the show has been looking very tired. The word of mouth has not been good, and business has been falling off. We have a huge company and thirty stagehands, and we need a great deal of publicity to keep the show alive. That's why we brought Shelley all the way from Hollywood, to try to pep things up. So tomorrow, Shelley, when you go into the show, you do it your way. I'm going to give you another rehearsal with the orchestra, and then I'll take another rehearsal of the scenes you're involved in. And at tomorrow's matinee I want you all to wake up and pay close attention and answer Shelley's line readings because they will be different from what you're used to. And unless you really talk to her, it will throw off your timing." After two weeks of hellish rehearsals, I wanted to hug and kiss him right there in front of everybody.

Then I put everything else out of my mind, and for the next hour I had a wonderful rehearsal with the beautiful music of Oklahoma!, and I sang "I Cain't Say No" in such a funny way that the rest of the cast started to laugh. I think they began to enjoy re-creating their roles, too, because I was different from the girls who had played it during the past five years. Everybody on the stage was enjoying himself.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took me to Sardi's for dinner. Whenever Hammerstein went to the phone or the men's room, Rodgers would tell me that the remarkable thing about Oklahoma! was its music and that I must sing out and be sure the audience heard the lovely melodies. I must sing as loudly as I could. Of course, I agreed. When Rodgers went to the phone, Oscar Hammerstein impressed on me how brilliant the lyrics were and that I must enunciate carefully so that the audience could understand all the funny lines or the show wouldn't work. Never mind trying to sing too much, because the orchestra was playing the melodies anyway. Of course, I agreed with him too.

I went home to my little apartment hotel, confused and tremulous, and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. How could I satisfy everybody? Then I remembered what Charles Feldman had whispered in my ear as I was leaving Universal a week before, "When you've got a good director, do as exactly as he says." Lawrence Langner had been a fine director and had created the Theatre Guild and made it the most distinguished theatre company in America. And he had directed me to do it my way. I went to sleep content, resolved to obey my director, who in this case was my producer.

The next day I opened in the matinee. The house was packed with high school kids, probably a benefit or on twofers. Agnes de Mille, the show's choreographer, came into my dressing room before the "half hour" and handed me a bouquet of toy oil wells, which, she said, was the state flower of Oklahoma. This made me laugh, and I stopped being so nervous.

The orchestra struck up the overture, a medley of music which by then was adored throughout the world. I made my entrance in a farmyard scene, bumping into a fence which had not been on the chalk marks that the stage manager had drawn on the bare stage at rehearsal. I kicked the fence and said, "Now, who jest put that darned thing there? It weren't there last night when we was spoonin'." And since this was in character for Ado Annie, the audience screamed with laughter. So did the orchestra and the rest of the cast. I was so encouraged by their laughter that I found every comic nuance I could for my "little hot-pants Ado Annie". The show ran five minutes overtime because of the extra laughs.

As I left the stage, I was flying high, exhilarated with the joy of being in front of a live Broadway audience again who obviously loved and enjoyed me. The stage manager was waiting for me. "Listen, you Method actor," he said, using the word as if it were the worst curse word in the language, "we only want laughs where they've been established. And on matinees the curtain is supposed to come down at five-fifteen, not five-twenty. Or else I have to pay the crew overtime."

The producers and Rodgers and Hammerstein came rushing backstage into my dressing room, saying things like: "Shelley, this is the best show we've had since opening night. The audience is milling around the lobby, buying programs and the records."

And Langner said, "The way you did it today, do it every show, and we'll be back doing capacity business in no time." The stage manager slunk out of the dressing room. They all took me to dinner at Sardi's, but I didn't eat much or drink anything, I was so high and happy. I knew I had another performance in a little while, and I wanted to rest and be fresh.

The Cold War was on in Europe, but it was nothing compared to the Cold War that was going on backstage at the St. James Theater. This went on for the nine months I was in the show. Even so, I came to love Oklahoma! with its beautiful music and ballet. I would stand in the wings opposite the stage manager and watch the show over and over again, especially Agnes de Mille's ballets.

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The Books: "Shelley, Also Known As Shirley" (Shelley Winters)

3269_1.JPGNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters

There are so many great Shelley Winters stories (and this is only the first volume of her autobiography - there's another one that follows) but the following is my favorite. I can't even remember where I heard it -maybe from her. I've heard her speak a couple of times. She is exactly what you would imagine. A little bit crazy, insightful as hell, bawdy, funny, and you wish she would never stop talking. The story goes: Shelley Winters is in her 60s. She has already had a long and crazily successful career, but she is now getting old. An up-and-coming director is considering her for a role in a movie and he makes a beginner's mistake - he asks her to audition. You don't ask stars to audition. You have meetings with them, you do lunch, but you don't ask a star to come in and read sides, as though she is a beginner. It is assumed that Shelley Winters knows how to act. That is one of the perks of being a star! Now Shelley Winters was never a dummy or a diva - she liked to WORK (and her career shows that - she was working, and very well, right up to the end), but she did think, "Audition?? What are you, cracked?" She went to meet the director at his office. She was dressed in her normal attire: urban bag-lady with a big floppy hat. She carried an enormous bag over one shoulder. The director was a big fan of hers, "Oh, so excited you're coming to read, Miss Winters, thank you so much ..." Shelley Winters sat down, opened her bag, rummaged around in it for a bit, and pulled out one Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Then she reached into the bag again, rummaged around again, and pulled out a second Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Barked, "So. Do I still need to audition?"

Naturally, she got the part. Lessons learned all around. I just love that. At that point, who gives a fuck? She sure didn't. She made her point.

Shelley Winters' autobiography is not as relentlessly entertaining as Lana Turner's (excerpt here) but it's pretty damn close. She didn't have quite the tabloid frenzy surrounding her that Turner did, and much of her career was about, you know, ACTING, so her books have a different focus - but they are just as much fun to read. Shelley Winters gossips like crazy, tells stories, spares no one, and yet also comes across as generous and big-hearted. She always gives credit where credit is due. Even if it's to herself! Winters was an oddball, a kind of gangly big-boned girl with a funny-looking face that could look glamorous in certain lights, but that was not what she was known for. She was known for her blasted-open performances, she was known for her hard work and her disinterest in being liked. That is one of the great gifts of NOT being beautiful. She didn't have to worry so much about pleasing people, she didn't have that problem that so many beautiful people in the business have.

77111-004-9E12C89A.jpg

She went about her business, and got some pretty damn great parts, she worked hard, and also played hard. She slept with everyone. She sounds like a riot. If Lana Turner remembers every outfit she ever wore, then Shelley Winters remembers every meal she ever had. The books are full of food! From the tuna sandwiches she had as a kid, to the chocolate milk shakes she would share with her roommate, Marilyn Monroe ... Winters loved food! The books have a zest for life that really comes across. You know that she is telling you conversations word for word that probably never really went down that way ... but it doesn't matter. She's chatting with you, the reader, about what she remembers. Also, she's an entertainer. Like I said, she was no dummy. She knows how to tell a good tale.

David Thomson writes of her in his Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Blowsy, effusive, brash, and maternal, either voluptuous or drab, Shelley Winters is at her best when driven to wonder, "How did a girl like me get into a high-class movie like this?"

shelley.jpg

The highlights of her career are well-known. But the book is full of everything else, her commitment to the Actors Studio and working on her craft (which never stopped for her), her romances, her fuck buddies, her struggles to either be taken seriously or to NOT be taken seriously, her rehearsal process, how she worked, how she thought about script and character ... These are wonderful books. She's a terrific companion. Crazy, still proud of her triumphs, unafraid to be honest about herself, unafraid also to say, "You know what? I was terrific in that part", and funny as hell. Great anecdotal portraits of other people too - George Cukor, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Marilyn Monroe - all of her colleagues and friends and co-workers ... she gives us generous portraits of all of them.

I have written before about the epiphany I had when I was 12 years old after seeing Dog Day Afternoon and East of Eden. Those movies led me on a research frenzy which brought me into contact, very early, with all of those Actors Studio afficianados - Carroll Baker, Paddy Chayefsky, Ben Gazzara, Michael Gazzo, the Strasbergs ... I would pore through the index pages of entertainment biographies looking for mention of James Dean, and that was how I started. I hadn't heard of any of those people at the time I was 12. But by the time I was 13, I felt like I knew them all personally. Shelley Winters' autobiographies were a big part of that journey. I read them both when I was 12, basically looking only for mention of James Dean and Marlon Brando but I got sucked into them in their own right. I had not seen Place in the Sun or Lolita, although I HAD seen Poseidon Adventure and it was amazing to me that that fat woman underwater was the cheesecake blonde in a bathing suit I saw in the photos of the book. But she was. Same person.

life-shelley-winters.jpg

Since then, I've read both of the books multiple times. They're a lot of fun. I've actually lost the second volume in my various moves so I will have to rectify that!

You know, Montgomery Clift was apparently dismayed at her performance in Place in the Sun. He thought she was terrible, way too whiny. I think that might be the case of someone being too close to the work to really be able to see it. It is her whininess in Place in the Sun that helps elevate it to the dark American tragedy that it is. Not that anyone deserves to be murdered, but her character is so relentlessly whiny and needy that a strange thing happens to me, the viewer, as I watch that film: I start to want to get rid of her too. Even though she is an innocent, a victim of circumstance! NONE of it is her fault. You'd whine too if some guy knocked you up and refused to deal with it, instead spent his time at the house on the hill, hanging out with the hottie daughter who looks like Elizabeth Taylor! Shelley Winters fearlessly brings out the unpleasant nature of that character, simpering and hovering, with a scarf over her head, getting more and more upset and awful as the film goes on, as her situation deepens its desperation. This is not a woman used to sticking up for herself, this is not a woman who knows how to say, "Look, buddy, you had sex with me, I'm pregnant, deal with yourself!" Let us not forget that Shelley Winters herself, in real life, WAS the type of person who would say, "Listen, jagoff, I'm knocked up and you did it and you're involved whether you want to be or not." So she's ACTING here. This is not who she is. That character does not make open demands. Instead, she stares at him longingly, not saying a word, until he is driven mad by guilt and rage. She NEEDS to be that annoying in order for his actions to make sense. Yes, he is driven by his twisted version of the American dream, and she needs to be out of the way in order for him to ascend ... so there is THAT ... but also, her unpleasantness, her unlikeability, gives the film a startling uneasy tension. I always feel implicated myself when I watch it. Because I find myself thinking like HIM. I find myself thinking, "If only she could just disappear somehow ..." It's upsetting. I don't like MYSELF when I watch that movie, and that's really something. How often do movies do that?

sjff_01_img0390.jpg

Here is an excerpt from the first volume. Shelley Winters had had some success on the New York stage, and had done some movies. She was making her way. At some point, she was offered the role of Ado Annie in the long-running smash hit Oklahoma. She would be replacing the actress playing the part - always a kind of daunting experience. Winters was back in New York, getting ready to step into the role, and was spending her days studying at the Actors Studio. That's the excerpt I chose today.

Wonderful books. Wonderful actress.


winters-shelley_1.jpg

EXCERPT FROM Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters


The next morning I did have a slight hangover, and although I brushed my teeth five times, I could still taste the onions. I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late because I couldn't get a cab in the rain. Very New York. I rushed past the St. James Theater doorman and onto the bare stage, tearing off my coat. I was running so fast I almost fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. The stage manager caught me; he was with an assistant stage manager and a rehearsal pianist under a work light. "Miss Winters, I presume," he said. "You're fifteen minutes late; that means you're docked three dollars. A dollar for every five minutes."

That was his opening line to me. Our relationship deteriorated for the next nine months, so you can imagine what his closing line was.

Still trying to establish some kind of rapport, I smiled and said, "That's all right. I'll be making five hundred dollars a week in this show. But from now on I'll be on time."

When I said $500 a week, his face got chalky. He grabbed my arm and whispered tensely, "Don't you tell anyone else in the cast that. Lawrence Langner must have lost his mind."

I pulled my arm away, rubbed it and said, "Listen, Mr. Simon Legree, this show has been running for almost five years. Maybe I'll give it a shot in the arm if you don't break my arm first."

He replied, "Unfortunately you have a run-of-the-play contract, and the understudy who did just beautifully for the past eight weeks is back in the chorus. I'll be damned if I know why they needed you."

"Charming. Would you like to cut my throat now or later?"

Then started the most peculiar rehearsal I've ever had in my life, before or since. The stage manager held the script and read each line as he wanted me to read it - exactly as Celeste Holm had done it nearly five years ago. I was supposed to imitate him imitating her. Whenever he read my cue, I forgot my line because I have this strange habit of having language come out of my mouth as a result of thought. I had been trained by the New Theater School and George Cukor to perform this way, even in a musical comedy: The funniest comedy is when the timing is realistic and natural.

I tried, I really tried. The chalk marks which indicated the sets confused me, and when we got to the songs, the same thing happened. I knew the lyrics backward and forward, but my efforts to mimic him would make me forget them. The rehearsals were a struggle to the death. I thought I would go crazy. So did he.

I called Equity to find out if this was the way new actors were put into established roles, but Equity said, "We can't make artistic decisions for the producers." But what Equity did do for me was to inform the Theater Guild office that I was allowed to rehearse only four hours a day and not at all on matinee days. Happily this schedule allowed me to attend the Actors' Studio almost immediately.

Soon the other understudies began to rehearse with me, thank God. I saw the show every night, and although the music and dancing were wonderful, there was a peculiar robot quality to the acting. I was to find out later that when actors stay in a show as long as five years, eight performances a week, the only way they can survive is to develop a technique whereby they literally turn off their minds at eight-thirty and don't wake up again until eleven-fifteen. All the performances are done by rote, and they don't have to even think about what they are saying or doing. Their brains just take a rest.

When we finally got to the dress rehearsal with the full cast, I really tried to imitate Celeste Holm, but I could no more do it than I could fly without an airplane. Langner and Theresa Helburn and Rodgers and Hammerstein watched my miserable strained rehearsal. It really was terrible. Langner asked me afterward what had happened to that performance I had given at the audition, so I told him the truth. "Mr. Langner, I can't imitate another actress. I don't know how. I have to give it my own interpretation and try to stick as close to the character as the author intended. I want this job, but I just can't do it if I have to imitate someone else."

The producers and writers had an artistic huddle, and then Langner said, in front of the whole cast, the chorus, the ballet and the stage manager, "For the last year the show has been looking very tired. The word of mouth has not been good, and business has been falling off. We have a huge company and thirty stagehands, and we need a great deal of publicity to keep the show alive. That's why we brought Shelley all the way from Hollywood, to try to pep things up. So tomorrow, Shelley, when you go into the show, you do it your way. I'm going to give you another rehearsal with the orchestra, and then I'll take another rehearsal of the scenes you're involved in. And at tomorrow's matinee I want you all to wake up and pay close attention and answer Shelley's line readings because they will be different from what you're used to. And unless you really talk to her, it will throw off your timing." After two weeks of hellish rehearsals, I wanted to hug and kiss him right there in front of everybody.

Then I put everything else out of my mind, and for the next hour I had a wonderful rehearsal with the beautiful music of Oklahoma!, and I sang "I Cain't Say No" in such a funny way that the rest of the cast started to laugh. I think they began to enjoy re-creating their roles, too, because I was different from the girls who had played it during the past five years. Everybody on the stage was enjoying himself.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took me to Sardi's for dinner. Whenever Hammerstein went to the phone or the men's room, Rodgers would tell me that the remarkable thing about Oklahoma! was its music and that I must sing out and be sure the audience heard the lovely melodies. I must sing as loudly as I could. Of course, I agreed. When Rodgers went to the phone, Oscar Hammerstein impressed on me how brilliant the lyrics were and that I must enunciate carefully so that the audience could understand all the funny lines or the show wouldn't work. Never mind trying to sing too much, because the orchestra was playing the melodies anyway. Of course, I agreed with him too.

I went home to my little apartment hotel, confused and tremulous, and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. How could I satisfy everybody? Then I remembered what Charles Feldman had whispered in my ear as I was leaving Universal a week before, "When you've got a good director, do as exactly as he says." Lawrence Langner had been a fine director and had created the Theatre Guild and made it the most distinguished theatre company in America. And he had directed me to do it my way. I went to sleep content, resolved to obey my director, who in this case was my producer.

The next day I opened in the matinee. The house was packed with high school kids, probably a benefit or on twofers. Agnes de Mille, the show's choreographer, came into my dressing room before the "half hour" and handed me a bouquet of toy oil wells, which, she said, was the state flower of Oklahoma. This made me laugh, and I stopped being so nervous.

The orchestra struck up the overture, a medley of music which by then was adored throughout the world. I made my entrance in a farmyard scene, bumping into a fence which had not been on the chalk marks that the stage manager had drawn on the bare stage at rehearsal. I kicked the fence and said, "Now, who jest put that darned thing there? It weren't there last night when we was spoonin'." And since this was in character for Ado Annie, the audience screamed with laughter. So did the orchestra and the rest of the cast. I was so encouraged by their laughter that I found every comic nuance I could for my "little hot-pants Ado Annie". The show ran five minutes overtime because of the extra laughs.

As I left the stage, I was flying high, exhilarated with the joy of being in front of a live Broadway audience again who obviously loved and enjoyed me. The stage manager was waiting for me. "Listen, you Method actor," he said, using the word as if it were the worst curse word in the language, "we only want laughs where they've been established. And on matinees the curtain is supposed to come down at five-fifteen, not five-twenty. Or else I have to pay the crew overtime."

The producers and Rodgers and Hammerstein came rushing backstage into my dressing room, saying things like: "Shelley, this is the best show we've had since opening night. The audience is milling around the lobby, buying programs and the records."

And Langner said, "The way you did it today, do it every show, and we'll be back doing capacity business in no time." The stage manager slunk out of the dressing room. They all took me to dinner at Sardi's, but I didn't eat much or drink anything, I was so high and happy. I knew I had another performance in a little while, and I wanted to rest and be fresh.

The Cold War was on in Europe, but it was nothing compared to the Cold War that was going on backstage at the St. James Theater. This went on for the nine months I was in the show. Even so, I came to love Oklahoma! with its beautiful music and ballet. I would stand in the wings opposite the stage manager and watch the show over and over again, especially Agnes de Mille's ballets.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

November 20, 2008

The Books: "Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art" (Gene Wilder)

115327__kissmelikeastranger_l.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

There's a magic about Gene Wilder. It is hard to describe or pin down, and maybe that's the biggest part of the magic: it can't really be expressed. He came and talked at my school and the man is truly riveting in person, but it's odd the impression he has: he gets laughs where you can't believe there's a laugh. Or he would say something serious, deeply serious, in such an amusing way that we would all burst into laughter - and he said at one point, "This always happens to me. I wasn't trying to be funny right there!" He's funniest when he is most serious. If you think about his best parts - it's not a manic funny energy that he has - it is a desperately serious energy, and when he's in a movie that is worthy of him, like The Producers or Young Frankenstein or all the movies he did with Richard Pryor ... it's pretty near genius. Because not once do you think that what this guy is going through is not serious and real to him. It is so so funny, and yet - the character may as well be in King Lear, that's how high the stakes are.

His book has a little bit too much therapy in it for my taste - and you can tell from the title the sort of book it will be ... but in terms of the choice anecdotes, the moments that make up a good career - he has no equal. For instance, my favorite, when he was basically accosted by Cary Grant:

Silver Streak was a big hit and was chosen as the Royal Performance for the queen of England and the royal family. I couldn't go to London because I was filming The World's Greatest Love at the time, but a month later, when Prince Charles came to visit 20th-Century Fox, I was invited to attend a luncheon in his honor, to be held in the Fox commissary.

As I was walking along the small street that leads from the office buildings to the commissary, a taxi pulled up and I heard someone shouting, "Oh, Mr. Wilder! ... Mr. Wilder!" I turned and saw Cary Grant stepping out of the taxi. My heart started pounding a little faster, but I didn't throw up this time, as I did when I met Simone Signoret. Cary Grant walked up to me, and after we shook hands, he said, "I was sailing on the QEII to England with my daughter, and on the second day out she said, 'Dad-dy, I want to see the Silver Streak -- they're showing it in the Entertainment Room.' And I said, 'No, darling, I don't go to movies in public.' And she said, 'Dad-dy, Dad-dy, please - I want to see the Silver Streak.' So I took her to see your film. And then we saw it again the next day, and the next. Tell me something, will you?"

"Of course."

"Was your film in any way inspired by North by Northwest?"

"Absolutely! Collin Higgins, who wrote the film, loved North by Northwest. It was one of his favorites. I think he was trying to do his version of it."

"I thought so," Mr. Grant said. "It never fails! You take an ordinary chap like you or me ... (An ordinary chap like you or me? Didn't he ever see a Cary Grant movie?) ... put him in trouble way over his head, and then watch him try to squirm out of it. Never fails!"

That makes me LAUGH. Cary Grant comparing himself to Gene Wilder - as though they would ever be cast in the same roles. An ordinary chap!! Beautiful!

I think, too, that there is a deep and lonely sadness about Gene Wilder, which sets him apart from most other mainly comic actors. And again, when he is allowed to tap into that in his roles - even if it comes out in a funny way - it's marvelous. He's one of my all-time favorites. I basically just love him.

He was dominated by his mother as a child, and he never felt he could express anger. Ever. (Like I mentioned: lots of therapy in the book.) But what he could do was make his mother laugh. It became his entire reason for living. Interestingly enough, he started out in New York studying at the Actors Studio, with so many others ... and he started to get bit parts in shows, where he always made some kind of impression. I mean, honestly, is there any one like Gene Wilder? I guess you could say he is a "type" but the personality beneath the type is 100% original. He got noticed.

Arthur Penn, a bigwig at the Actors Studio, was filming Bonnie and Clyde and he asked Wilder to do the small (but my God memorable) part of the undertaker who is kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde, et al. To me, that scene still packs a punch. Isn't he awesome? It was his first movie.

bac-wilder.png

Wilder talks about his experience on Bonnie and Clyde in the book. One of the things I really love about the book is how he lingers on what I would call his "A-ha Moments", when he started to understand the craft, and how to do it ... and it all started mixing together in a big pot in his subconscious. Here is him on Bonnie and Clyde:

My first scene began with Evan and me sitting in the back of her car, supposedly chasing the Barrow Gang. I waited for Arthur Penn to call "Action". Arthur was sitting alongside the camera - out of frame, of course - but not more than five or six feet away from me. As soon as I heard him say, "Action," I started to act. Sounds sensible, doesn't it? But Arthur immediately called out to the camera operator, "Keep rolling," and then he gave me my first revelation of what it means to be an "actor's director". While the camera was rolling, he said, "Gene, just because I say 'Action', doesn't mean you have to start acting - it just means that we're ready. I could see you had something cooking inside, but you weren't ready to act yet. Film is cheap. Keep working on whatever you're working on and start acting when you're ready."

The scene went very well.

When we took a break, the assistant director came up to me and said, "Don't get used to what just happened - you're not going to find many directors who work like Arthur."

Oh, and speaking of "A-ha Moments" - when Gene Wilder spoke at my school he told the following story about his response to seeing Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. You could almost say that Gene Wilder got the revelation for his entire career from watching what Chaplin did in that part:

I saw Charlie Chaplin in The Circus at a Chaplin film festival in New York.

Charlie has just gotten out of prison (one assumes) and is starving. He wanders onto the circus grounds and sees a father carrying his baby over one shoulder. The baby is holding a huge hot dog. The father - whose back is to Charlie - is talking to the man selling the hot dogs. The father looks back at Charlie once or twice.

Charlie makes the sweetest faces at the little boy, and - just when the father isn't looking - he takes a big bite out of the baby's hot dog. The father turns quickly to Charlie, who immediately stops chewing and makes sweet faces at the baby. When the father turns back to the hot dog salesman, Charlie takes another bite of the hot dog. The father turns around again, suspecting something fishy. Charlie stops chewing and makes wonderful googley faces at the baby.

The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet it inspired me for the rest of my career. If the thing you're doing is really funny, you don't need to "act funny" while doing it.

Wonderful stuff. Gene Wilder followed up Bonnie and Clyde with a project he had been working on for a long time with his insane friend Mel Brooks. Originally it was called Springtime for Hitler which, of course, became The Producers.

MV5BMTk3NjEyNjc5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTExOTQ3MQ%40%40._V1._SX385_SY400_.jpg

The Producers put Gene Wilder (and pretty much everyone involved) on the map. Wilder was nominated for an Oscar. It was an insane year for him. He became a giant and important star, and from then on was pretty much a huge playah. You list out some of his movies and you just shake your head, thankfully, that there were people around who knew how to utilize this talent. Thank God. If it were now, would it have happened? The material for wacko people like Wilder is just not as good. Who knows. Mel Brooks obviously was a big part of the whole story, and it's a collaboration that really stands alone. Look at what they did together!

But Wilder was not dependent on just one director after The Producers. He was a commodity. Everyone wanted him. Woody Allen cast him (hilariously) as the dude who falls in love (for realz, yo) with a sheep in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex ... and Wilder, in the book, is so funny about how he made that real for himself. He used his Actors Studio training, and would sit with the sheep, off-camera, staring into her (actually, I think the real sheep was a he) eyes - and finding the beauty there. It's hysterical. He goes into great detail in his book about the look of that sheep's eyelashes, and how - once he really started studying her (him), he saw that those eyes were actually sexy. I am laughing out loud as I type this. But see, that's what sets Wilder apart. He works on these ridiculously comedic parts with a seriousness that serves him. Yes, the result is so so funny ... but for him the "way in" was always through the reality of the moment.

gene_wilder_b011.jpg


I mean, think about his total FREAK OUT in that first scene of The Producers when he's running around Zero Mostel's office jibbering like a lunatic. That is REAL. That is not just a guy being all antic and high-energy ... It is highly specific. He is not giving us a lot of bluster and sound and fury trying to INDICATE panic ... he really IS panicked. Funniest scene ever.

His collaboration with Brooks gave us some of his most memorable parts - but in the 70s he hooked up with an unlikely partner, Richard Pryer, to make a movie called Silver Streak (which I love so much I can't even tell you). And a new partnership was born. Who would have thought that those two would have such chemistry? It's amazing to watch. I've seen all their movies - I think they made four of them altogether - and it's a friendship captured onscreen, it's like you're watching something real - like watching To Have and Have Not and knowing that Bogie and Bacall were falling in love during the filming of that movie. Watching Silver Streak is to see the birth of that friendship. One of the best movie friendships captured in history.

c.jpeg

You just LOVE to see them together. Partly because it's so bizarre and you wouldn't expect it. Pryor seems like such a solitary guy, and Wilder seems so almost surreal ... but together? Manic hilarity. Pryor was so quick, too - he needed a co-star who could keep up. Wilder could MORE than keep up. Most of those films were improvised, and seriously - I still watch some of them now and tears of laughter stream down my face. LOVE THEM.

Gene Wilder's book is rather touchy-feely, but if you can wade through that and get to his series of "A ha moments" about acting, it is well worth it. He's really an original. His career is unlike most other people's and although he seems to have pretty much retired from movies, he is still very active in the theatre, directing, adapting, etc.

I think one of the things that I get about Gene Wilder that a lot of movie stars don't have is that people really love him. Perhaps it's just because he was a widower so young and that generated sympathy for him but I don't think that's it. I think there is something about him in The Producers, and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and all the rest that people just flat-out love. Big romantic leading men are awesome, too, but sometimes they have a short shelf-life. Gene Wilder's shelf-life is long, long, long, and it's because of that warmth that he brings up in people. You can see it when you bring his name up.

The excerpt I wanted to choose today is kind of famous. Gene Wilder has told it often, and other people who were there have also told the story. I post it here because it's a great story.

gene_wilder.jpg

It illuminates, for me, what I think of as Gene Wilder's genius. Not everyone is a genius, and I've said it before - I think there are very few genius actors. I think there are a lot of actors with great skill and talent ... but geniuses don't come along that often. I think Gene Wilder is a genius. Not just because of what he is able to do while acting onscreen, although that is a part of it - but because of how he approaches things, how he looks at things, and how he sees things.

He was offered the role of Willy Wonka, and he thought about it, and came up with an idea, a thought, an image ... he didn't go any further than that, but he certainly knew where he wanted to start. It's not in the book. It came from Wilder's own imagination and it's brilliant. It MAKES the movie, in my opinion, and for exactly the reasons Wilder describes. Notice, too, how the director filmed - shot for shot - what Wilder said.


EXCERPT FROM Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

Although I liked Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I wasn't sure if I wanted to play Willy Wonka. The script was good, but there was something that was bothering me. Mel Stuart, the man who was going to direct the movie, came to my home to talk about it.

"What's bothering you?"

"When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk towards the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees that Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk towards them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself ... but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause."

" ... Why do you want to do that?"

"Because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."

Mel Stuart looked a little puzzled. I knew he wanted to please me, but he wasn't quite sure about this change.

"You mean - if you can't do what you just said, you won't do the part?"

"That's right," I answered.

Mel mumbled to himself, " ... comes out of the door, has a cane, cane gets stuck in a cobblestone, falls forward, does a somersault, and bounces back up ..." He shrugged his shoulders. "Okay!"

When I got to Munich - where the filming had already begun - Mr. Stuart showed me the entranceway to "Wonka's Chocolate Factory." I had practiced my forward somersault on a gym mat for three weeks before coming to Munich. The Scenic Department had made three Styrofoam bricks that looked just like cobblestones, which they laid into my entrance walk. That way I wouldn't have to hit the exact same brick with my pointed cane every time we did the scene. On the day they filmed my entrance, I did the scene four times, in just the way that we had planned. Then Mr. Stuart asked me to do just one without the cane. I took a deep breath, swallowed my better instincts, and did the scene without the cane. The next day, David Wolper - the head of the studio - watched the rushes of my entrance. As I was coming out of the commissary after finishing my lunch, Mel Stuart ran up to me.

"He loved it! David loved it!"

"What if he hadn't loved it?" I asked.

"Well, I would have used that take without the cane."

It's not that David Wolper doesn't have good artistic judgment - he does, and he loved what he saw. But if it had been Joe Levine who was bankrolling the film, I think he probably would have said, "What the hell's that guy doing with a cane? Where the fuck does it say that Willy What's-His-Name is a cripple?" I understood better why artistic control is so important to directors.


Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Books: "Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art" (Gene Wilder)

115327__kissmelikeastranger_l.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

There's a magic about Gene Wilder. It is hard to describe or pin down, and maybe that's the biggest part of the magic: it can't really be expressed. He came and talked at my school and the man is truly riveting in person, but it's odd the impression he has: he gets laughs where you can't believe there's a laugh. Or he would say something serious, deeply serious, in such an amusing way that we would all burst into laughter - and he said at one point, "This always happens to me. I wasn't trying to be funny right there!" He's funniest when he is most serious. If you think about his best parts - it's not a manic funny energy that he has - it is a desperately serious energy, and when he's in a movie that is worthy of him, like The Producers or Young Frankenstein or all the movies he did with Richard Pryor ... it's pretty near genius. Because not once do you think that what this guy is going through is not serious and real to him. It is so so funny, and yet - the character may as well be in King Lear, that's how high the stakes are.

His book has a little bit too much therapy in it for my taste - and you can tell from the title the sort of book it will be ... but in terms of the choice anecdotes, the moments that make up a good career - he has no equal. For instance, my favorite, when he was basically accosted by Cary Grant:

Silver Streak was a big hit and was chosen as the Royal Performance for the queen of England and the royal family. I couldn't go to London because I was filming The World's Greatest Love at the time, but a month later, when Prince Charles came to visit 20th-Century Fox, I was invited to attend a luncheon in his honor, to be held in the Fox commissary.

As I was walking along the small street that leads from the office buildings to the commissary, a taxi pulled up and I heard someone shouting, "Oh, Mr. Wilder! ... Mr. Wilder!" I turned and saw Cary Grant stepping out of the taxi. My heart started pounding a little faster, but I didn't throw up this time, as I did when I met Simone Signoret. Cary Grant walked up to me, and after we shook hands, he said, "I was sailing on the QEII to England with my daughter, and on the second day out she said, 'Dad-dy, I want to see the Silver Streak -- they're showing it in the Entertainment Room.' And I said, 'No, darling, I don't go to movies in public.' And she said, 'Dad-dy, Dad-dy, please - I want to see the Silver Streak.' So I took her to see your film. And then we saw it again the next day, and the next. Tell me something, will you?"

"Of course."

"Was your film in any way inspired by North by Northwest?"

"Absolutely! Collin Higgins, who wrote the film, loved North by Northwest. It was one of his favorites. I think he was trying to do his version of it."

"I thought so," Mr. Grant said. "It never fails! You take an ordinary chap like you or me ... (An ordinary chap like you or me? Didn't he ever see a Cary Grant movie?) ... put him in trouble way over his head, and then watch him try to squirm out of it. Never fails!"

That makes me LAUGH. Cary Grant comparing himself to Gene Wilder - as though they would ever be cast in the same roles. An ordinary chap!! Beautiful!

I think, too, that there is a deep and lonely sadness about Gene Wilder, which sets him apart from most other mainly comic actors. And again, when he is allowed to tap into that in his roles - even if it comes out in a funny way - it's marvelous. He's one of my all-time favorites. I basically just love him.

He was dominated by his mother as a child, and he never felt he could express anger. Ever. (Like I mentioned: lots of therapy in the book.) But what he could do was make his mother laugh. It became his entire reason for living. Interestingly enough, he started out in New York studying at the Actors Studio, with so many others ... and he started to get bit parts in shows, where he always made some kind of impression. I mean, honestly, is there any one like Gene Wilder? I guess you could say he is a "type" but the personality beneath the type is 100% original. He got noticed.

Arthur Penn, a bigwig at the Actors Studio, was filming Bonnie and Clyde and he asked Wilder to do the small (but my God memorable) part of the undertaker who is kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde, et al. To me, that scene still packs a punch. Isn't he awesome? It was his first movie.

bac-wilder.png

Wilder talks about his experience on Bonnie and Clyde in the book. One of the things I really love about the book is how he lingers on what I would call his "A-ha Moments", when he started to understand the craft, and how to do it ... and it all started mixing together in a big pot in his subconscious. Here is him on Bonnie and Clyde:

My first scene began with Evan and me sitting in the back of her car, supposedly chasing the Barrow Gang. I waited for Arthur Penn to call "Action". Arthur was sitting alongside the camera - out of frame, of course - but not more than five or six feet away from me. As soon as I heard him say, "Action," I started to act. Sounds sensible, doesn't it? But Arthur immediately called out to the camera operator, "Keep rolling," and then he gave me my first revelation of what it means to be an "actor's director". While the camera was rolling, he said, "Gene, just because I say 'Action', doesn't mean you have to start acting - it just means that we're ready. I could see you had something cooking inside, but you weren't ready to act yet. Film is cheap. Keep working on whatever you're working on and start acting when you're ready."

The scene went very well.

When we took a break, the assistant director came up to me and said, "Don't get used to what just happened - you're not going to find many directors who work like Arthur."

Oh, and speaking of "A-ha Moments" - when Gene Wilder spoke at my school he told the following story about his response to seeing Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. You could almost say that Gene Wilder got the revelation for his entire career from watching what Chaplin did in that part:

I saw Charlie Chaplin in The Circus at a Chaplin film festival in New York.

Charlie has just gotten out of prison (one assumes) and is starving. He wanders onto the circus grounds and sees a father carrying his baby over one shoulder. The baby is holding a huge hot dog. The father - whose back is to Charlie - is talking to the man selling the hot dogs. The father looks back at Charlie once or twice.

Charlie makes the sweetest faces at the little boy, and - just when the father isn't looking - he takes a big bite out of the baby's hot dog. The father turns quickly to Charlie, who immediately stops chewing and makes sweet faces at the baby. When the father turns back to the hot dog salesman, Charlie takes another bite of the hot dog. The father turns around again, suspecting something fishy. Charlie stops chewing and makes wonderful googley faces at the baby.

The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet it inspired me for the rest of my career. If the thing you're doing is really funny, you don't need to "act funny" while doing it.

Wonderful stuff. Gene Wilder followed up Bonnie and Clyde with a project he had been working on for a long time with his insane friend Mel Brooks. Originally it was called Springtime for Hitler which, of course, became The Producers.

MV5BMTk3NjEyNjc5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTExOTQ3MQ%40%40._V1._SX385_SY400_.jpg

The Producers put Gene Wilder (and pretty much everyone involved) on the map. Wilder was nominated for an Oscar. It was an insane year for him. He became a giant and important star, and from then on was pretty much a huge playah. You list out some of his movies and you just shake your head, thankfully, that there were people around who knew how to utilize this talent. Thank God. If it were now, would it have happened? The material for wacko people like Wilder is just not as good. Who knows. Mel Brooks obviously was a big part of the whole story, and it's a collaboration that really stands alone. Look at what they did together!

But Wilder was not dependent on just one director after The Producers. He was a commodity. Everyone wanted him. Woody Allen cast him (hilariously) as the dude who falls in love (for realz, yo) with a sheep in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex ... and Wilder, in the book, is so funny about how he made that real for himself. He used his Actors Studio training, and would sit with the sheep, off-camera, staring into her (actually, I think the real sheep was a he) eyes - and finding the beauty there. It's hysterical. He goes into great detail in his book about the look of that sheep's eyelashes, and how - once he really started studying her (him), he saw that those eyes were actually sexy. I am laughing out loud as I type this. But see, that's what sets Wilder apart. He works on these ridiculously comedic parts with a seriousness that serves him. Yes, the result is so so funny ... but for him the "way in" was always through the reality of the moment.

gene_wilder_b011.jpg


I mean, think about his total FREAK OUT in that first scene of The Producers when he's running around Zero Mostel's office jibbering like a lunatic. That is REAL. That is not just a guy being all antic and high-energy ... It is highly specific. He is not giving us a lot of bluster and sound and fury trying to INDICATE panic ... he really IS panicked. Funniest scene ever.

His collaboration with Brooks gave us some of his most memorable parts - but in the 70s he hooked up with an unlikely partner, Richard Pryer, to make a movie called Silver Streak (which I love so much I can't even tell you). And a new partnership was born. Who would have thought that those two would have such chemistry? It's amazing to watch. I've seen all their movies - I think they made four of them altogether - and it's a friendship captured onscreen, it's like you're watching something real - like watching To Have and Have Not and knowing that Bogie and Bacall were falling in love during the filming of that movie. Watching Silver Streak is to see the birth of that friendship. One of the best movie friendships captured in history.

c.jpeg

You just LOVE to see them together. Partly because it's so bizarre and you wouldn't expect it. Pryor seems like such a solitary guy, and Wilder seems so almost surreal ... but together? Manic hilarity. Pryor was so quick, too - he needed a co-star who could keep up. Wilder could MORE than keep up. Most of those films were improvised, and seriously - I still watch some of them now and tears of laughter stream down my face. LOVE THEM.

Gene Wilder's book is rather touchy-feely, but if you can wade through that and get to his series of "A ha moments" about acting, it is well worth it. He's really an original. His career is unlike most other people's and although he seems to have pretty much retired from movies, he is still very active in the theatre, directing, adapting, etc.

I think one of the things that I get about Gene Wilder that a lot of movie stars don't have is that people really love him. Perhaps it's just because he was a widower so young and that generated sympathy for him but I don't think that's it. I think there is something about him in The Producers, and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and all the rest that people just flat-out love. Big romantic leading men are awesome, too, but sometimes they have a short shelf-life. Gene Wilder's shelf-life is long, long, long, and it's because of that warmth that he brings up in people. You can see it when you bring his name up.

The excerpt I wanted to choose today is kind of famous. Gene Wilder has told it often, and other people who were there have also told the story. I post it here because it's a great story.

gene_wilder.jpg

It illuminates, for me, what I think of as Gene Wilder's genius. Not everyone is a genius, and I've said it before - I think there are very few genius actors. I think there are a lot of actors with great skill and talent ... but geniuses don't come along that often. I think Gene Wilder is a genius. Not just because of what he is able to do while acting onscreen, although that is a part of it - but because of how he approaches things, how he looks at things, and how he sees things.

He was offered the role of Willy Wonka, and he thought about it, and came up with an idea, a thought, an image ... he didn't go any further than that, but he certainly knew where he wanted to start. It's not in the book. It came from Wilder's own imagination and it's brilliant. It MAKES the movie, in my opinion, and for exactly the reasons Wilder describes. Notice, too, how the director filmed - shot for shot - what Wilder said.


EXCERPT FROM Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, by Gene Wilder

Although I liked Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I wasn't sure if I wanted to play Willy Wonka. The script was good, but there was something that was bothering me. Mel Stuart, the man who was going to direct the movie, came to my home to talk about it.

"What's bothering you?"

"When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk towards the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees that Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk towards them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself ... but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause."

" ... Why do you want to do that?"

"Because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."

Mel Stuart looked a little puzzled. I knew he wanted to please me, but he wasn't quite sure about this change.

"You mean - if you can't do what you just said, you won't do the part?"

"That's right," I answered.

Mel mumbled to himself, " ... comes out of the door, has a cane, cane gets stuck in a cobblestone, falls forward, does a somersault, and bounces back up ..." He shrugged his shoulders. "Okay!"

When I got to Munich - where the filming had already begun - Mr. Stuart showed me the entranceway to "Wonka's Chocolate Factory." I had practiced my forward somersault on a gym mat for three weeks before coming to Munich. The Scenic Department had made three Styrofoam bricks that looked just like cobblestones, which they laid into my entrance walk. That way I wouldn't have to hit the exact same brick with my pointed cane every time we did the scene. On the day they filmed my entrance, I did the scene four times, in just the way that we had planned. Then Mr. Stuart asked me to do just one without the cane. I took a deep breath, swallowed my better instincts, and did the scene without the cane. The next day, David Wolper - the head of the studio - watched the rushes of my entrance. As I was coming out of the commissary after finishing my lunch, Mel Stuart ran up to me.

"He loved it! David loved it!"

"What if he hadn't loved it?" I asked.

"Well, I would have used that take without the cane."

It's not that David Wolper doesn't have good artistic judgment - he does, and he loved what he saw. But if it had been Joe Levine who was bankrolling the film, I think he probably would have said, "What the hell's that guy doing with a cane? Where the fuck does it say that Willy What's-His-Name is a cripple?" I understood better why artistic control is so important to directors.


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November 19, 2008

The Books: "Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans" (Simon Callow)

14453__hello_americans_l.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow

The second volume of Callow's huge Orson Welles project (excerpt and discussion of the first volume here), this takes us through a chaotic (or, more so than usual) period in Welles' life. He had been brought to Hollywood in the wake of the War of the Worlds brou-haha, and had been referred to left and right as the "boy genius". His first movie - Citizen Kane - which took on William Randolph Hearst, a thing you just didn't do - was a debacle. Time has vindicated the film but nobody saw it when it first came out, because it was not distributed widely. It was buried, for fear of unleashing the wrath of Hearst himself. In this second volume, we see Welles trying to pick up the pieces. He went back to New York and did theatre, he directed his second film - The Magnificent Ambersons - World War II broke out, and he was sent down to Rio de Janiero to film Carnival, as a way of promoting friendship between Brazil and America.

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That turned into a complete runaway train, along the lines of Francis Coppola filming Apocalypse Now for two years, with no end in sight. Welles had the time of his life in Brazil, and yet the memos flying back and forth from the studio to Brazil and back speak to the increasing anxiety of the bigwigs at what their "boy genius" was really doing down there. You can start to feel the larger forces of "the industry" at work. Because there is nothing more fun in Hollywood than pulling someone DOWN whom you have once built UP.

Volume II is more upsetting than Volume I, because, in a way, you can feel his demise approaching. And you wonder what that will mean for him, how he will handle it.

He was not just a victim of circumstance, of course. He could be wild and uncontrollable, and many times he didn't understand (or didn't want to understand) the rules of the game. Perhaps he understood the rules, but he had always felt that the rules didn't really apply to him. And for so many years they DIDN'T. I mean, if you spend your teens and early 20s having the most extraordinary journey of anyone ever, where you repeatedly do the impossible and are praised for it, you certainly can't be blamed for having an expectation that the rest of your life will go like that. Orson Welles was a giant man, a big lumbering man - but inside, he could be quite immature. He liked to party, to eat, to drink. He didn't really have discipline, he liked to work when HE wanted to work, and when he wanted to party - well, let's all party. He would have spurts of unbelievable productivity - it's like he never slept - and he had entire productions of things trapped inside his head, so when he would go to direct them - out it would all come. Set design, lighting, costumes, blocking - he had it ALL inside his head. Amazing imagination.

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But let's talk about Callow's book for a moment. Volume 1 ends with Citizen Kane in 1941. Volume 2 goes from 1941 to only 1947. It is almost 450 pages long. This gives you some idea of the level of detail Callow goes into that I mentioned before. He seems incapable (and this is not quite a criticism) of discerning what is more important than something else. Volume 2 covers only six years. Orson Welles died in 1985! Of course Callow had to push it to three volumes, but judging from the first two - he might have to push it to 5, 6 volumes. There are times when I do think: "Okay ... I don't need to know anymore about this particular topic, thank you very much ... let's move on ..." But I cannot help but be awed at the amount of work he has done, and, frankly - although I knew the major events of Welles's life, Callow's book shows me that I didn't know the half of it. What happened between is given as much face-time as the big famous moments. I enjoy Callow's thoroughness. One of the reasons I enjoy it is because his writing is so good. You can hear his voice, first of all - it gives the book an almost warm feeling. You are in the presence of a guide, a guide who knows more than you do, but who can spin a yarn in a way that you want to keep listening. Callow analyzes everything. He, an actor, knows that much of what happens in an actor's life is the downtime, so he doesn't skip over it. But still: just know going in: This book is 444 pages long and it covers only six years.

To be honest, I don't care if it does go to 6 volumes. I'd read them all. It is a bit much, excessive, really ... but then again: I think Welles warrants that. It's a singular type of career, its own thing ... nobody else had a journey like his ... there is nothing in it that is similar to anybody else's. And THAT is worth noting at length. Which, God love him, Callow does.

I do think the strength in the books - and why they will last, and why they are important - is because of the analysis of events, not just the telling of them. Callow analyzes things. He looks at Welles's work, and is not such a fan that he cannot discern what doesn't work. But he doesn't ever just stop with "this doesn't work" - he goes into WHY. Now that, for me, is like blood to a vampire. I want MORE of that in these types of biographies, not less.

While Welles was whooping it up in Brazil, he left his film The Magnificent Ambersons in the hands of the editors at the studio, a tragic mistake. Famously, the film was butchered, and all of the existing prints - of Welles's version of it - were destroyed. A horrible loss. One which Welles never recovered from. His spirit was broken, in a way, by that experience.

He went on, though, and made Lady From Shanghai, a film I adore - with his then-wife, the troubled Rita Hayworth (whom he made a blonde).

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The excerpt I wanted to choose today (and again: there are so many! I didn't know what to pick!) - has to do with Welles' filming of Jane Eyre, with Joan Fontaine as Jane. Welles played Mr. Rochester. It was a troubled shoot, and it showed one of Welles's weaknesses: he wasn't directing the film, and so all of his energies had to go into his acting - but he found that to be boring and frustrating. It was not in his nature to just be an employee. He was meant to LEAD. So without that "leader" role ... who would he be? The situation at that time, in Hollywood, was not set up to congratulate and reward "auteurs" and the guys who did end up making names for themselves as personal film-makers (John Ford, Howard Hawks, others) - were company men, and able to work within the system. They loved the system. Hawks has said he never did a damn thing he didn't want to do. I believe him. But for Welles, it was more difficult. He had a problem with authority - unless it was him in charge. You can see the ego at work here, the ego that had served him so well up to that point - making it possible for him to break barriers and do the impossible ... but now it's starting to harm him. You can feel it happen in the book. You want to quietly pull him aside and speak with him seriously ... but alas, it is already too late.

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Dying for the next volume to be published, Mr. Callow, even if it's a 700 page book about a two-week period. Let's get a move on.


EXCERPT FROM Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow

Whatever the ill will between Welles and RKO, Hollywood at large had not dismissed him; he was still a huge figure in the landscape. But what to do with him? In 1942, the producer David O. Selznick was planning another of his grandiose literary adaptations; unlike his recent triumphs, Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), this one was to be drawn from a truly great source, Jane Eyre. He decided that Welles should play Jane's moody employer, Edward Rochester. Welles had known the producer since they had dined together after a performance of Doctor Faustus in 1936, when Selznick had offered him the job of head of his story department. (Welles slyly suggested that his then business partner, John Houseman, might be better at it). As was his wont, Selznick sought to throw every particle of talent he could muster at the project. Jane Eyre was the dream of the English-born director Robert Stevenson, who had been under contract to Selznick for some time without actually making a film for him. His biggest success in America had been Tom Brown's Schooldays; he had just completed a decent and financially productive French Resistance movie, Joan of Paris, for RKO, and was preparing to join the Forces himself, as soon as Jane Eyre was shot. Selznick had equipped him with an army of writers, including Aldous Huxley (not hitherto noted either for his expertise in the work of the Brontes or for his skill as a screenwriter) and John Houseman, now indeed (just as Welles had suggested he should be seven years before) part of Selznick's permanent staff.

Selznick was not, in fact, technically speaking, the producer of Jane Eyre: having packaged the film, he had sold it to Twentieth Century Fox, who appointed William 'Bill' Goetz - another son-in-law, like Selznick himself, of Louis B. Mayer - as producer, but Selznick kept a sharp eye on the production from beginning to end. It was Selznick's idea to cast Orson Welles as Edward Rochester to Joan Fontaine's Jane; he may have hoped that some of Welles's genius would rub off on Stevenson. Such was his regard for Welles's work as a director that he had begged RKO to deposit a copy of Welles's original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a tantalising prospect that, needless to say, never materialised. Selznick had long admired him as an actor and thought him, with some reason, peerless as a director of dramatised novels on radio; he had vexed Alfred Hitchcock during preparations for Rebecca by constantly referring to the version of the novel that Welles had just made for The Campbell Playhouse: 'if we do in motion pictures as astute a job as Welles did on the radio,' he had told Hitch in one of his celebrated memos, 'we are likely to have the same success the book had and the same success that Welles had.'

From Welles's point of view, Jane Eyre was from the start a questionable enterprise, compromising as it did his status as a so-called quadruple-threat. His profile as producer-director-writer-actor had been perceived by his advisors (and to an extent by him) as being the sine qua non of his reputation. In the end, financial considerations - the money he owed RKO, his alimony, his tax arrears, the extravagance of his lifestyle - demanded that he accept the job, but he and his representatives did everything they could to protect his position. Anxious that Welles might be mistaken for a mere actor, Herb Drake told Look magazine that Welles was only doing Jane Eyre 'in the interest of Uncle Sam's tax department,' demonstrating a dangerous contempt for acting on Welles's part. Perhaps Welles thought that by affecting to despise his job, he would win public sympathy; the opposite is invariably true, as in the case of Marlon Brando's similar statements of some twenty years later. Why should anybody want to pay money to see someone do something for which they have contempt? Welles's attorney Lloyd Wright took issue with Twentieth Century Fox's proposed contract, insisting that 'he must not deviate from his well-earned position, that of a recognised independent producer,' even if he was only to act in the film, and had nothing whatsoever to do with its physical realisation. Wright suggested a credit for him: PRODUCTION DESIGNED BY ORSON WELLES. Merely acting in a film was clearly regarded by Welles and his team as a dire demotion: how could he, who had done every job on a movie, simply take direction from some lesser mortal?

Selznick was aware of the anomaly and, when he wrote to Goetz telling him that he'd like to be present at a forthcoming casting meeting for Jane Eyre, he added, 'I should like also to urge you to have Orson there, because I know few people in the history of the business who have shown such talent for exact casting, and for digging up new people.' There was from the beginning some confusion about exactly what Welles would be doing on the film, a confusion that Welles did nothing to dispel. This was a pattern that would be repeated many times throughout his career: the creation of a suspicion that he might have had something of a guiding hand in the realisation of another director's film. In the case of Jane Eyre, the impression is even more insistent because, in addition to the casting of three of Welles's actors - Erskine Sandford, Eustace Wyatt and the great Agnes Moorehead - two of his key collaborators worked on the film: Bernard Herrmann (a great deal of the music, as it happens, is recycled from Herrmann's score for Welles's radio version of Rebecca); and, no doubt to Welles's considerable displeasure, John Houseman. In the event, Houseman - to the relief of both himself and Welles - was not present at any point during either filming or the pre-production period.

There was an active move on Welles's part, or that of his representatives, to secure a formal credit for him as producer of Jane Eyre, a move that Selznick equally actively resisted. 'I don't believe Orson himself would any more think of taking this credit, once he had all the facts and understood what he might be doing to Stevenson, than he would think of taking directing or co-directing credit,' he wrote to Goetz. 'Actually, direction or co-direction credit would be no more damaging to Stevenson in this case than production credit for Orson, for the latter places Stevenson in the position of simply having carried out Orson's plans, than which nothing could be more inaccurate.' Selznick had already conceded Welles's first billing over Joan Fontaine (an undisputed star since Rebecca), because an acting-only credit would 'reduce' him from his status as a producer-director-actor-writer. For him to have associate producer status would thus be 'a double injustice - to Stevenson, and to Joan's status as a star of the first magnitude ... I do not think that he will want anything that is not his due, as the expense of another man for whom he has professed - very sincerely, I am sure - great admiration.' Interestingly, only a few weeks after sending this to Goetz, Selznick wrote to Joe Schenck of Twentieth Century in very different terms, agreeing to Welles receiving credit as producer, while Fontaine gets first billing. Among the various practical reasons he cites, there is, he says, 'general disbelief' that they would not give first billing to Fontaine, ceding second billing 'to a man who, whatever his prestige, is clearly not in the same category as a star'. Conversely, it was thought absurd to lose the prestige of Welles's name as producer in the credits; in their eyes, his stature was clearly unaffected by the RKO debacle. Stevenson, Selznick continued, was going into the army, so Welles's credit would not damage him; the publicity department, meanwhile, had reported that 'there can be no wide-spread belief that Mr Stevenson is not the director of the film in every sense of the word'. So much for appearances. More significantly from Welles's perspective, Selznick reports that they have just learned that 'Welles did a great more producing on the picture than we had previously known. We have been informed by people from your studio that Mr Welles worked on the sets, changes in the script, in casting, among other things, and that he had charge of the editing.'

All of this is extraordinary, but what is conveyed by the last phrase (my italics) is simply sensational. To edit another man's movie is to cut his balls off, as Welles had better reason than most to know - to edit creatively, that is, rather than merely functionally. In the technical sense, moreover, at this point Welles was scarcely the master of editing that he later became, having only directed Citizen Kane (largely edited in the camera) and The Magnificent Ambersons (on which Welles's editing contribution amounted to precisely three days - and nights - in Miami). And yet: he had charge of the editing. The letter ends: 'please understand that we are in no sense pressing this [the suggestion that Welles should receive a credit as producer], and are extending it purely as a courtesy to 20th Century-Fox.' For whatever reason, it never happened: Welles received no producer credit, and he had to settle for second billing to the star.

On the set, however, he hardly composed himself as a mere actor, according to Joan Fontaine's not entirely objective account. 'Orson Welles was a huge man in 1943. Everything about him was oversize, including his ego,' she wrote in her autobiography, No Bed Of Roses. 'Orson's concern was entirely for Orson: Jane Eyre was simply a medium to show off his talents.' She describes how, on the first day of filming, the cast and crew were assembled at one o'clock; at about four, the stage door suddenly burst open and Welles whirled in, accompanied by his doctor, his manager, his secretary and his valet. 'Orson strode up to a lectern ... placing his script on it and standing before our astonished group, he announced to the director and cast, "Now we'll begin on page four!" ' Stevenson - 'slight, timid, gentlemanly' - was 'suddenly demoted to director-in-name-only.' The journalist Sheilah Graham wrote a profile of Welles during the making of the film, in the course of which she reported that 'Welles has four secretaries, two offices, and is making a government "short" in between takes of Jane Eyre. At the same time he is scripting one broadcast a week and cutting Journey Into Fear. Also,' she added, with casual savagery, 'he is directing the director of Jane Eyre on how to direct.'

It is worth noting that at this stage Welles had never been directed by anyone else on film - indeed, he had hardly been directed by anyone else in any medium, at least since his youthful days at the Gate and the slightly later period with Katherine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic. It must have been a hard adjustment for him, one that he did not handle with grace. It signals the beginning of his essentially awkward relationship with the film community: if you hired him as an actor, you got so much more - more perhaps than you wanted. It is fair to observe that, in this particular case (perhaps unbeknownst to Fontaine), he had been involved in both the screenplay and the casting, so it is hardly surprising that he expected to be treated differently from everyone else. But this behaviour (no doubt exaggerated by Fontaine, though there are plenty of comparable reports, then and later) suggests a childish determination to demonstrate his importance. It also marks the beginning of the long sulk that so often coloured his work in other men's films: they won't let him make his own movies, so he's damned if anyone else is going to enjoy making theirs.

This attitude was not, however, inflexibly maintained: 'Orson couldn't keep up to the position he assumed,' wrote Fontaine. 'He was undisciplined, always late, indulged in melodrama on and off the set.' On one occasion he failed to show up on time for a photo shoot: 'He'd been lying in the bath sulking because I didn't trust him to show up on time.' This aspect of Welles - the infantile tyrant - is widely attested, and coexists with the passionate and high-flown broadcaster, the political writer, the master-craftsman and the inspiring leader. They were all Welles, and the different personae could succeed each other with bewildering speed, or could indeed be on display simultaneously. At the time, Welles was having an affair with Lena Horne, who was singing in a nightclub on Sunset Strip, and he liked to report his wilder activities to Fontaine while they were shooting. (Shorty Chirello, Welles's chauffeur-valet, confided in her that in fact Welles sat in bed every night with a tray, 'which didn't jibe at all with Orson's version of his nocturnal exploits.' For once, Welles's version of his own life may be more reliable than his chauffeur's.) Despite everything, Fontaine realized, he wanted to be liked. Eventually she warmed to him. Moreover, she noted that, despite all Welles's peacock displays, Stevenson quietly and slowly regained the directorial reins. With filming completed, however, he joined the army and Welles was presumably able to assert his authority in the editing suite.

Whatever the truth of this, the film - though certainly dominated by Welles's startling interpretation of the character of Edward Rochster - is not especially Wellesian in style; indeed, to a large extent it is actually opposed to his aesthetic. The very opening of the film, showing a bookshelf laden with great tomes of the past, proudly declares itself a literary adaptation, which might be thought to have been anathema to the radical educationalist in Welles. The film ends with a photograph of a bound copy of the novel with the slogan 'Buy yours in the theatre'. The cinema as a route to literature, not an art form in its own right. If Welles stood against anything as a movie-maker, that was it. The cinematography, by the distinguished cameraman George Barnes (who had just shot Rebecca for Hitchcock), is of great refinement of tone, softly focused, evocative and painterly in a way that Welles and Toland - formerly Barnes's assistant - had utterly set themselves against in Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons, too, though aspiring to a period look, uses depth of focus and a kind of energy in the camera movements to engage the viewer critically with the way in which the story is being told. Barnes's work in Jane Eyre, by contrast, contrives to create a world in which the viewer can forget that he or she is watching a film and simply marvel at the expressive beauty of the pictures. In his own films, Welles did everything he could to prevent this. It is not a style ideally suited to Welles's talents as a performer. Indeed, it might be argued that Welles's acting is always at its best with the cinematographic style that came to be associated with his name - one of unexpected angles, sudden distortions, epic perspectives (the style Carol Reed adopted for The Third Man, in which Welles gives arguably his finest performance). The performance he chooses to give in Jane Eyre is on the brink of the grotesque, in much the same manner as his aged Kane: curiously doll-like, strapped into corsets, a great beak of a nose imposed on his own, his facial skin pulled back by the gum of his wig. Interestingly, the image he creates is not unlike the one he invented for himself as a thirteen-year-old playing Richard III. He wears the make-up, which reproduces Bronte's 'stern features and a heavy brow ... gathered eyebrows,' like a mask, affecting a highly theatrical, consciously stentorian vocal delivery; his British accent is not that of an English squire, but of an English actor (sometimes tipping over into the lordly Anglo-Irish tones of his youth in the Dublin theatre); it is part of a theatrical gesture. His Rochester is an impersonation, not an interpretation; with Welles, the outside never goes in.

This is by no means to say that the performance is uninteresting; on the contrary, Welles sees the character as a kind of tortured monster, physically strange, clumsy, only half-human. It is exactly the sort of line on the character that another actor, Charles Laughton, might have taken. Had Laughton done so, he might well have created an equally extreme physical life, but he would (at his best) have transfigured the portrait, touching some universal chord, provoking pity as well as terror, giving us the man within. With Welles, the interpretation is an idea, put on (like a suit of armour), very striking, very powerful, but merely a thing manipulated by the actor, and thus incapable of moving us. It betrays, as much of his acting does, the influence of German Expressionism, the most theatrical of all filmic styles. This, his first conscious bid for movie stardom, was not a promising calling card; the gesture is so extreme that he only suffers by comparison with the rest of the acting in the film, which in its straightforwardly realistic manner is excellent, ranging from the childish charms of Elizabeth Taylor and the remarkable skill of the teenage Peggy Ann Garner (as the young Jane), through the stalwart and strikingly accurate character work of Henry Daniell and the human warmth of the Abbey Theatre veteran Sally Allgood, to the uptight vulnerability of Joan Fontaine in one of her best roles. In this company Welles seems distinctly out of place. So, it might be argued, is Edward Rochester, but Welles's massive presence and anguished histrionics have a distinctly unbalancing effect on the film. Jane Eyre was not released till 1944, a long year after Journey Into Fear finally hit the screen in February of 1943; as far as the public was concerned, they scarcely knew what to make of him as an actor. Up to that point Orson Welles's performances on film had consisted of the many-faceted but not necessarily many-layered Charles Foster Kane, and the preposterously corny Colonel Haki. The release of Jane Eyre was something of a moment of truth for him as an actor.

Welles moodily told Robert Stevenson that the notices he received for the performance had been 'the worst accorded to an American actor since John Wilkes Booth'. On the whole, in fact, the reviews were baffled, as well they might have been, though respectfully so. The Hollywood Reporter detected 'certain over-emphases that are occasionally offensively flamboyant and approximate', while Variety noted Welles's 'declamatory delivery'. Only James Agee in the Nation really took the gloves off, describing Welles's 'road-operatic sculpturings of body, cloak and diction, his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side-orders of jelly. It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead-pan parody; I imagine he did.' Unkindly Agee adds that he might have enjoyed it himself, 'if I hadn't wanted, instead, to see a good performance.'

Friends were not much more supportive. Welles was not encouraged by receipt of a telegram from Micheál MacLíammóir praising him for his performance of Mr Rochester as Count Dracula, though that sharp little sally has a bit more in it than pure malice. Welles's performance is indeed in his line of tortured monsters, of which his radio Dracula is the most remarkable. The problem is that his desire to provoke pity is a notion, an intellectual ambition: he does not take the steps necessary to effect it in the viewer, such as connecting with his own experience or allowing his imagination to engage at a deep (as opposed to a merely pictorial) level. Welles defended himself on curious grounds: 'There are about eight or nine parts that every individual actor can really play and the Rochester role is one of my eight or nine,' he told an interviewer. 'I don't agree with those sedulous character actors who study and "live" a role for seven months in advance of playing it. If they have to work at it that long, it's a sure thing they aren't fitted for it. They can only ... detract from the true possibilities of the role ... if the role doesn't fit the actor then he's fake no matter if he lived it 100 hours a day, and no matter how great his talent for mimicry. I'm striking a blow for realism.' Realism was not a characteristic that either the press or the public were much inclined then - or ever - to associate with the name of Orson Welles, and his comment suggests that self-knowledge continued to elude him.


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The Books: "Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans" (Simon Callow)

14453__hello_americans_l.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow

The second volume of Callow's huge Orson Welles project (excerpt and discussion of the first volume here), this takes us through a chaotic (or, more so than usual) period in Welles' life. He had been brought to Hollywood in the wake of the War of the Worlds brou-haha, and had been referred to left and right as the "boy genius". His first movie - Citizen Kane - which took on William Randolph Hearst, a thing you just didn't do - was a debacle. Time has vindicated the film but nobody saw it when it first came out, because it was not distributed widely. It was buried, for fear of unleashing the wrath of Hearst himself. In this second volume, we see Welles trying to pick up the pieces. He went back to New York and did theatre, he directed his second film - The Magnificent Ambersons - World War II broke out, and he was sent down to Rio de Janiero to film Carnival, as a way of promoting friendship between Brazil and America.

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That turned into a complete runaway train, along the lines of Francis Coppola filming Apocalypse Now for two years, with no end in sight. Welles had the time of his life in Brazil, and yet the memos flying back and forth from the studio to Brazil and back speak to the increasing anxiety of the bigwigs at what their "boy genius" was really doing down there. You can start to feel the larger forces of "the industry" at work. Because there is nothing more fun in Hollywood than pulling someone DOWN whom you have once built UP.

Volume II is more upsetting than Volume I, because, in a way, you can feel his demise approaching. And you wonder what that will mean for him, how he will handle it.

He was not just a victim of circumstance, of course. He could be wild and uncontrollable, and many times he didn't understand (or didn't want to understand) the rules of the game. Perhaps he understood the rules, but he had always felt that the rules didn't really apply to him. And for so many years they DIDN'T. I mean, if you spend your teens and early 20s having the most extraordinary journey of anyone ever, where you repeatedly do the impossible and are praised for it, you certainly can't be blamed for having an expectation that the rest of your life will go like that. Orson Welles was a giant man, a big lumbering man - but inside, he could be quite immature. He liked to party, to eat, to drink. He didn't really have discipline, he liked to work when HE wanted to work, and when he wanted to party - well, let's all party. He would have spurts of unbelievable productivity - it's like he never slept - and he had entire productions of things trapped inside his head, so when he would go to direct them - out it would all come. Set design, lighting, costumes, blocking - he had it ALL inside his head. Amazing imagination.

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But let's talk about Callow's book for a moment. Volume 1 ends with Citizen Kane in 1941. Volume 2 goes from 1941 to only 1947. It is almost 450 pages long. This gives you some idea of the level of detail Callow goes into that I mentioned before. He seems incapable (and this is not quite a criticism) of discerning what is more important than something else. Volume 2 covers only six years. Orson Welles died in 1985! Of course Callow had to push it to three volumes, but judging from the first two - he might have to push it to 5, 6 volumes. There are times when I do think: "Okay ... I don't need to know anymore about this particular topic, thank you very much ... let's move on ..." But I cannot help but be awed at the amount of work he has done, and, frankly - although I knew the major events of Welles's life, Callow's book shows me that I didn't know the half of it. What happened between is given as much face-time as the big famous moments. I enjoy Callow's thoroughness. One of the reasons I enjoy it is because his writing is so good. You can hear his voice, first of all - it gives the book an almost warm feeling. You are in the presence of a guide, a guide who knows more than you do, but who can spin a yarn in a way that you want to keep listening. Callow analyzes everything. He, an actor, knows that much of what happens in an actor's life is the downtime, so he doesn't skip over it. But still: just know going in: This book is 444 pages long and it covers only six years.

To be honest, I don't care if it does go to 6 volumes. I'd read them all. It is a bit much, excessive, really ... but then again: I think Welles warrants that. It's a singular type of career, its own thing ... nobody else had a journey like his ... there is nothing in it that is similar to anybody else's. And THAT is worth noting at length. Which, God love him, Callow does.

I do think the strength in the books - and why they will last, and why they are important - is because of the analysis of events, not just the telling of them. Callow analyzes things. He looks at Welles's work, and is not such a fan that he cannot discern what doesn't work. But he doesn't ever just stop with "this doesn't work" - he goes into WHY. Now that, for me, is like blood to a vampire. I want MORE of that in these types of biographies, not less.

While Welles was whooping it up in Brazil, he left his film The Magnificent Ambersons in the hands of the editors at the studio, a tragic mistake. Famously, the film was butchered, and all of the existing prints - of Welles's version of it - were destroyed. A horrible loss. One which Welles never recovered from. His spirit was broken, in a way, by that experience.

He went on, though, and made Lady From Shanghai, a film I adore - with his then-wife, the troubled Rita Hayworth (whom he made a blonde).

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The excerpt I wanted to choose today (and again: there are so many! I didn't know what to pick!) - has to do with Welles' filming of Jane Eyre, with Joan Fontaine as Jane. Welles played Mr. Rochester. It was a troubled shoot, and it showed one of Welles's weaknesses: he wasn't directing the film, and so all of his energies had to go into his acting - but he found that to be boring and frustrating. It was not in his nature to just be an employee. He was meant to LEAD. So without that "leader" role ... who would he be? The situation at that time, in Hollywood, was not set up to congratulate and reward "auteurs" and the guys who did end up making names for themselves as personal film-makers (John Ford, Howard Hawks, others) - were company men, and able to work within the system. They loved the system. Hawks has said he never did a damn thing he didn't want to do. I believe him. But for Welles, it was more difficult. He had a problem with authority - unless it was him in charge. You can see the ego at work here, the ego that had served him so well up to that point - making it possible for him to break barriers and do the impossible ... but now it's starting to harm him. You can feel it happen in the book. You want to quietly pull him aside and speak with him seriously ... but alas, it is already too late.

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Dying for the next volume to be published, Mr. Callow, even if it's a 700 page book about a two-week period. Let's get a move on.


EXCERPT FROM Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow

Whatever the ill will between Welles and RKO, Hollywood at large had not dismissed him; he was still a huge figure in the landscape. But what to do with him? In 1942, the producer David O. Selznick was planning another of his grandiose literary adaptations; unlike his recent triumphs, Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), this one was to be drawn from a truly great source, Jane Eyre. He decided that Welles should play Jane's moody employer, Edward Rochester. Welles had known the producer since they had dined together after a performance of Doctor Faustus in 1936, when Selznick had offered him the job of head of his story department. (Welles slyly suggested that his then business partner, John Houseman, might be better at it). As was his wont, Selznick sought to throw every particle of talent he could muster at the project. Jane Eyre was the dream of the English-born director Robert Stevenson, who had been under contract to Selznick for some time without actually making a film for him. His biggest success in America had been Tom Brown's Schooldays; he had just completed a decent and financially productive French Resistance movie, Joan of Paris, for RKO, and was preparing to join the Forces himself, as soon as Jane Eyre was shot. Selznick had equipped him with an army of writers, including Aldous Huxley (not hitherto noted either for his expertise in the work of the Brontes or for his skill as a screenwriter) and John Houseman, now indeed (just as Welles had suggested he should be seven years before) part of Selznick's permanent staff.

Selznick was not, in fact, technically speaking, the producer of Jane Eyre: having packaged the film, he had sold it to Twentieth Century Fox, who appointed William 'Bill' Goetz - another son-in-law, like Selznick himself, of Louis B. Mayer - as producer, but Selznick kept a sharp eye on the production from beginning to end. It was Selznick's idea to cast Orson Welles as Edward Rochester to Joan Fontaine's Jane; he may have hoped that some of Welles's genius would rub off on Stevenson. Such was his regard for Welles's work as a director that he had begged RKO to deposit a copy of Welles's original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a tantalising prospect that, needless to say, never materialised. Selznick had long admired him as an actor and thought him, with some reason, peerless as a director of dramatised novels on radio; he had vexed Alfred Hitchcock during preparations for Rebecca by constantly referring to the version of the novel that Welles had just made for The Campbell Playhouse: 'if we do in motion pictures as astute a job as Welles did on the radio,' he had told Hitch in one of his celebrated memos, 'we are likely to have the same success the book had and the same success that Welles had.'

From Welles's point of view, Jane Eyre was from the start a questionable enterprise, compromising as it did his status as a so-called quadruple-threat. His profile as producer-director-writer-actor had been perceived by his advisors (and to an extent by him) as being the sine qua non of his reputation. In the end, financial considerations - the money he owed RKO, his alimony, his tax arrears, the extravagance of his lifestyle - demanded that he accept the job, but he and his representatives did everything they could to protect his position. Anxious that Welles might be mistaken for a mere actor, Herb Drake told Look magazine that Welles was only doing Jane Eyre 'in the interest of Uncle Sam's tax department,' demonstrating a dangerous contempt for acting on Welles's part. Perhaps Welles thought that by affecting to despise his job, he would win public sympathy; the opposite is invariably true, as in the case of Marlon Brando's similar statements of some twenty years later. Why should anybody want to pay money to see someone do something for which they have contempt? Welles's attorney Lloyd Wright took issue with Twentieth Century Fox's proposed contract, insisting that 'he must not deviate from his well-earned position, that of a recognised independent producer,' even if he was only to act in the film, and had nothing whatsoever to do with its physical realisation. Wright suggested a credit for him: PRODUCTION DESIGNED BY ORSON WELLES. Merely acting in a film was clearly regarded by Welles and his team as a dire demotion: how could he, who had done every job on a movie, simply take direction from some lesser mortal?

Selznick was aware of the anomaly and, when he wrote to Goetz telling him that he'd like to be present at a forthcoming casting meeting for Jane Eyre, he added, 'I should like also to urge you to have Orson there, because I know few people in the history of the business who have shown such talent for exact casting, and for digging up new people.' There was from the beginning some confusion about exactly what Welles would be doing on the film, a confusion that Welles did nothing to dispel. This was a pattern that would be repeated many times throughout his career: the creation of a suspicion that he might have had something of a guiding hand in the realisation of another director's film. In the case of Jane Eyre, the impression is even more insistent because, in addition to the casting of three of Welles's actors - Erskine Sandford, Eustace Wyatt and the great Agnes Moorehead - two of his key collaborators worked on the film: Bernard Herrmann (a great deal of the music, as it happens, is recycled from Herrmann's score for Welles's radio version of Rebecca); and, no doubt to Welles's considerable displeasure, John Houseman. In the event, Houseman - to the relief of both himself and Welles - was not present at any point during either filming or the pre-production period.

There was an active move on Welles's part, or that of his representatives, to secure a formal credit for him as producer of Jane Eyre, a move that Selznick equally actively resisted. 'I don't believe Orson himself would any more think of taking this credit, once he had all the facts and understood what he might be doing to Stevenson, than he would think of taking directing or co-directing credit,' he wrote to Goetz. 'Actually, direction or co-direction credit would be no more damaging to Stevenson in this case than production credit for Orson, for the latter places Stevenson in the position of simply having carried out Orson's plans, than which nothing could be more inaccurate.' Selznick had already conceded Welles's first billing over Joan Fontaine (an undisputed star since Rebecca), because an acting-only credit would 'reduce' him from his status as a producer-director-actor-writer. For him to have associate producer status would thus be 'a double injustice - to Stevenson, and to Joan's status as a star of the first magnitude ... I do not think that he will want anything that is not his due, as the expense of another man for whom he has professed - very sincerely, I am sure - great admiration.' Interestingly, only a few weeks after sending this to Goetz, Selznick wrote to Joe Schenck of Twentieth Century in very different terms, agreeing to Welles receiving credit as producer, while Fontaine gets first billing. Among the various practical reasons he cites, there is, he says, 'general disbelief' that they would not give first billing to Fontaine, ceding second billing 'to a man who, whatever his prestige, is clearly not in the same category as a star'. Conversely, it was thought absurd to lose the prestige of Welles's name as producer in the credits; in their eyes, his stature was clearly unaffected by the RKO debacle. Stevenson, Selznick continued, was going into the army, so Welles's credit would not damage him; the publicity department, meanwhile, had reported that 'there can be no wide-spread belief that Mr Stevenson is not the director of the film in every sense of the word'. So much for appearances. More significantly from Welles's perspective, Selznick reports that they have just learned that 'Welles did a great more producing on the picture than we had previously known. We have been informed by people from your studio that Mr Welles worked on the sets, changes in the script, in casting, among other things, and that he had charge of the editing.'

All of this is extraordinary, but what is conveyed by the last phrase (my italics) is simply sensational. To edit another man's movie is to cut his balls off, as Welles had better reason than most to know - to edit creatively, that is, rather than merely functionally. In the technical sense, moreover, at this point Welles was scarcely the master of editing that he later became, having only directed Citizen Kane (largely edited in the camera) and The Magnificent Ambersons (on which Welles's editing contribution amounted to precisely three days - and nights - in Miami). And yet: he had charge of the editing. The letter ends: 'please understand that we are in no sense pressing this [the suggestion that Welles should receive a credit as producer], and are extending it purely as a courtesy to 20th Century-Fox.' For whatever reason, it never happened: Welles received no producer credit, and he had to settle for second billing to the star.

On the set, however, he hardly composed himself as a mere actor, according to Joan Fontaine's not entirely objective account. 'Orson Welles was a huge man in 1943. Everything about him was oversize, including his ego,' she wrote in her autobiography, No Bed Of Roses. 'Orson's concern was entirely for Orson: Jane Eyre was simply a medium to show off his talents.' She describes how, on the first day of filming, the cast and crew were assembled at one o'clock; at about four, the stage door suddenly burst open and Welles whirled in, accompanied by his doctor, his manager, his secretary and his valet. 'Orson strode up to a lectern ... placing his script on it and standing before our astonished group, he announced to the director and cast, "Now we'll begin on page four!" ' Stevenson - 'slight, timid, gentlemanly' - was 'suddenly demoted to director-in-name-only.' The journalist Sheilah Graham wrote a profile of Welles during the making of the film, in the course of which she reported that 'Welles has four secretaries, two offices, and is making a government "short" in between takes of Jane Eyre. At the same time he is scripting one broadcast a week and cutting Journey Into Fear. Also,' she added, with casual savagery, 'he is directing the director of Jane Eyre on how to direct.'

It is worth noting that at this stage Welles had never been directed by anyone else on film - indeed, he had hardly been directed by anyone else in any medium, at least since his youthful days at the Gate and the slightly later period with Katherine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic. It must have been a hard adjustment for him, one that he did not handle with grace. It signals the beginning of his essentially awkward relationship with the film community: if you hired him as an actor, you got so much more - more perhaps than you wanted. It is fair to observe that, in this particular case (perhaps unbeknownst to Fontaine), he had been involved in both the screenplay and the casting, so it is hardly surprising that he expected to be treated differently from everyone else. But this behaviour (no doubt exaggerated by Fontaine, though there are plenty of comparable reports, then and later) suggests a childish determination to demonstrate his importance. It also marks the beginning of the long sulk that so often coloured his work in other men's films: they won't let him make his own movies, so he's damned if anyone else is going to enjoy making theirs.

This attitude was not, however, inflexibly maintained: 'Orson couldn't keep up to the position he assumed,' wrote Fontaine. 'He was undisciplined, always late, indulged in melodrama on and off the set.' On one occasion he failed to show up on time for a photo shoot: 'He'd been lying in the bath sulking because I didn't trust him to show up on time.' This aspect of Welles - the infantile tyrant - is widely attested, and coexists with the passionate and high-flown broadcaster, the political writer, the master-craftsman and the inspiring leader. They were all Welles, and the different personae could succeed each other with bewildering speed, or could indeed be on display simultaneously. At the time, Welles was having an affair with Lena Horne, who was singing in a nightclub on Sunset Strip, and he liked to report his wilder activities to Fontaine while they were shooting. (Shorty Chirello, Welles's chauffeur-valet, confided in her that in fact Welles sat in bed every night with a tray, 'which didn't jibe at all with Orson's version of his nocturnal exploits.' For once, Welles's version of his own life may be more reliable than his chauffeur's.) Despite everything, Fontaine realized, he wanted to be liked. Eventually she warmed to him. Moreover, she noted that, despite all Welles's peacock displays, Stevenson quietly and slowly regained the directorial reins. With filming completed, however, he joined the army and Welles was presumably able to assert his authority in the editing suite.

Whatever the truth of this, the film - though certainly dominated by Welles's startling interpretation of the character of Edward Rochster - is not especially Wellesian in style; indeed, to a large extent it is actually opposed to his aesthetic. The very opening of the film, showing a bookshelf laden with great tomes of the past, proudly declares itself a literary adaptation, which might be thought to have been anathema to the radical educationalist in Welles. The film ends with a photograph of a bound copy of the novel with the slogan 'Buy yours in the theatre'. The cinema as a route to literature, not an art form in its own right. If Welles stood against anything as a movie-maker, that was it. The cinematography, by the distinguished cameraman George Barnes (who had just shot Rebecca for Hitchcock), is of great refinement of tone, softly focused, evocative and painterly in a way that Welles and Toland - formerly Barnes's assistant - had utterly set themselves against in Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons, too, though aspiring to a period look, uses depth of focus and a kind of energy in the camera movements to engage the viewer critically with the way in which the story is being told. Barnes's work in Jane Eyre, by contrast, contrives to create a world in which the viewer can forget that he or she is watching a film and simply marvel at the expressive beauty of the pictures. In his own films, Welles did everything he could to prevent this. It is not a style ideally suited to Welles's talents as a performer. Indeed, it might be argued that Welles's acting is always at its best with the cinematographic style that came to be associated with his name - one of unexpected angles, sudden distortions, epic perspectives (the style Carol Reed adopted for The Third Man, in which Welles gives arguably his finest performance). The performance he chooses to give in Jane Eyre is on the brink of the grotesque, in much the same manner as his aged Kane: curiously doll-like, strapped into corsets, a great beak of a nose imposed on his own, his facial skin pulled back by the gum of his wig. Interestingly, the image he creates is not unlike the one he invented for himself as a thirteen-year-old playing Richard III. He wears the make-up, which reproduces Bronte's 'stern features and a heavy brow ... gathered eyebrows,' like a mask, affecting a highly theatrical, consciously stentorian vocal delivery; his British accent is not that of an English squire, but of an English actor (sometimes tipping over into the lordly Anglo-Irish tones of his youth in the Dublin theatre); it is part of a theatrical gesture. His Rochester is an impersonation, not an interpretation; with Welles, the outside never goes in.

This is by no means to say that the performance is uninteresting; on the contrary, Welles sees the character as a kind of tortured monster, physically strange, clumsy, only half-human. It is exactly the sort of line on the character that another actor, Charles Laughton, might have taken. Had Laughton done so, he might well have created an equally extreme physical life, but he would (at his best) have transfigured the portrait, touching some universal chord, provoking pity as well as terror, giving us the man within. With Welles, the interpretation is an idea, put on (like a suit of armour), very striking, very powerful, but merely a thing manipulated by the actor, and thus incapable of moving us. It betrays, as much of his acting does, the influence of German Expressionism, the most theatrical of all filmic styles. This, his first conscious bid for movie stardom, was not a promising calling card; the gesture is so extreme that he only suffers by comparison with the rest of the acting in the film, which in its straightforwardly realistic manner is excellent, ranging from the childish charms of Elizabeth Taylor and the remarkable skill of the teenage Peggy Ann Garner (as the young Jane), through the stalwart and strikingly accurate character work of Henry Daniell and the human warmth of the Abbey Theatre veteran Sally Allgood, to the uptight vulnerability of Joan Fontaine in one of her best roles. In this company Welles seems distinctly out of place. So, it might be argued, is Edward Rochester, but Welles's massive presence and anguished histrionics have a distinctly unbalancing effect on the film. Jane Eyre was not released till 1944, a long year after Journey Into Fear finally hit the screen in February of 1943; as far as the public was concerned, they scarcely knew what to make of him as an actor. Up to that point Orson Welles's performances on film had consisted of the many-faceted but not necessarily many-layered Charles Foster Kane, and the preposterously corny Colonel Haki. The release of Jane Eyre was something of a moment of truth for him as an actor.

Welles moodily told Robert Stevenson that the notices he received for the performance had been 'the worst accorded to an American actor since John Wilkes Booth'. On the whole, in fact, the reviews were baffled, as well they might have been, though respectfully so. The Hollywood Reporter detected 'certain over-emphases that are occasionally offensively flamboyant and approximate', while Variety noted Welles's 'declamatory delivery'. Only James Agee in the Nation really took the gloves off, describing Welles's 'road-operatic sculpturings of body, cloak and diction, his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side-orders of jelly. It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead-pan parody; I imagine he did.' Unkindly Agee adds that he might have enjoyed it himself, 'if I hadn't wanted, instead, to see a good performance.'

Friends were not much more supportive. Welles was not encouraged by receipt of a telegram from Micheál MacLíammóir praising him for his performance of Mr Rochester as Count Dracula, though that sharp little sally has a bit more in it than pure malice. Welles's performance is indeed in his line of tortured monsters, of which his radio Dracula is the most remarkable. The problem is that his desire to provoke pity is a notion, an intellectual ambition: he does not take the steps necessary to effect it in the viewer, such as connecting with his own experience or allowing his imagination to engage at a deep (as opposed to a merely pictorial) level. Welles defended himself on curious grounds: 'There are about eight or nine parts that every individual actor can really play and the Rochester role is one of my eight or nine,' he told an interviewer. 'I don't agree with those sedulous character actors who study and "live" a role for seven months in advance of playing it. If they have to work at it that long, it's a sure thing they aren't fitted for it. They can only ... detract from the true possibilities of the role ... if the role doesn't fit the actor then he's fake no matter if he lived it 100 hours a day, and no matter how great his talent for mimicry. I'm striking a blow for realism.' Realism was not a characteristic that either the press or the public were much inclined then - or ever - to associate with the name of Orson Welles, and his comment suggests that self-knowledge continued to elude him.


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November 18, 2008

The Books: "Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu" (Simon Callow)

road_to_xanadu.jpegNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow

The first volume of actor/writer Simon Callow's gigantic Orson Welles project. Volume II came out last year, and there will be a third and final volume. I am blown away by what he has done here. I am blown away on so many levels. This is not a surface biography. This does not just deal with events, although it certainly does do that as well, in intimate detail. This is a highly articulate book of analysis, and I just have to say: To anyone who is interested in Hollywood, Orson Welles, the craft of acting, the craft of directing, Shakespeare, the history of America, movies in general ... these books are MUST-HAVES.

There are times when you can tell Callow is so in love with his subject that he goes on for what I think is too long ... but that's part of the beauty of these books. Callow is under a spell. He is under Orson Welles' spell. He does not judge one thing to be more important than another. A play that Orson Welles wrote when he was 14 years old gets just as much face-time as his Voodoo Macbeth, one of the most important moments in American theatre. (Let's not forget that as a mere teenager he published a book - in conjunction with his acting teacher at school, Roger Hill, called Everybody's Shakespeare - Three Plays Edited for Reading and Arranged for Staging, which showed Welles' early theories as a director, and adaptor). I mean, there is a lot to discuss there - Welles was a prodigy.

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(That's him at school.)


This is probably why there needs to be three volumes.

Nothing gets short-shrift. Callow is not an uncritical eye, let me not paint it incorrectly. This is not a fanboy. This is someone who is obsessed. And I understand obsession. It is not about LOVE. It is about CURIOSITY that will never ever ever end. Even the bad moments, the awkward moments, the failures have their interests ... or, perhaps to a true obsessive, the failures are even MORE interesting, because then the character of the person you are obsessed with can truly be revealed. Who knows. Callow is unafraid to criticize Welles, and he does so in a voice that is truly his own. We all know Simon Callow's acting. He has a distinctive speaking voice, kind of snotty and humorous. You can hear that in the prose here. You know, he'll include an excerpt from one of Welles' schoolboy compositions and say, "This is dreadful stuff, really, but it has good energy." (or something like that). He does not think that by criticizing Welles he is diminishing him. He does not feel he needs to protect or defend Welles. On the contrary. Someone as complex as Welles deserves to be taken seriously, and deserves to have his work be looked at on its merits - without all the myth and legend and brou-haha that normally is erected around it. People tend to be positional about Welles, and that does diminish him. Callow does not go that route (and he is eloquent about his reasons for this in the introduction to the book.) He weighs in everyone else's opinions, but he is trying to get at the whole man, in all his infuriating excess, and shining brilliance and crashing failures. Callow is absolutely wonderful. I cannot get enough of these books and I am dying for volume III to come out. Good work, Mr. Callow. These are MAJOR contributions to the Welles library - major major biographies ... and you deserve every accolade you receive for these extraordinary books.

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Much of the Welles story is difficult to put together because he himself was such a teller of tall tales. You know, he went to Morocco when he was 16 years old and the stories he told of his time there, hanging out with a sheik in a freakin' tent and chillin' with the Arabs smoking a hookah pipe in the mountains, stuff like that, have just grown in the telling, and Callow just throws his hands up trying to corroborate some of the stories. All he can do is tell what Welles told, and then get eyewitnesses, if possible ... but a lot of the times he just says, "We'll never know what really happened in Morocco." Then there are times, like his time in Ireland as a teenager (which really is amazing) when he basically strolled into an audition at the up-and-coming Gate Theatre (trying to rival the Abbey) and got a part. Welles made it seem, in his letters home, and then later in his life, that he was given a lead INSTANTLY. That's not quite how it went, but he did, indeed, take the Ireland theatre world by storm as a teenager. He was the toast of Dublin at age 17. Like - what??

But for Welles, truth was never as interesting as fantasy, and he is at his best when he can project himself into his own fantasies - I mean, isn't that what Citizen Kane was all about, and War of the Worlds? If you build it, he will come. But still: Welles always had to embellish, even if the truth was already so fantastical it beggared belief! So Callow wades through all of Welles' elaborations, and tries to put together what really happened in Ireland, etc. He is a detective. This is never about tearing Welles down. This is not about, "See, Welles told us THIS happened, but now we know that THIS is what REALLY happened, so everything that Welles ever did can now be seen as suspect!" I hate that kind of biography. It seems to resent contradiction, it seems to resent life itself, with all its ups and downs. Biographies that praise consistency above all else are terrible. What - is the biographer always consistent in his own life? Does he never contradict himself? Is he not large, does he not contain multitudes? I've had people who read my blog who want to catch me in inconsistencies - it seems to be the #1 reason that some people read blogs. "You said THIS in 2003, and now you say THIS in 2007?" Well, first of all, get a life. And second of all, yes. Because I felt THAT way in 2003, and I feel THIS way in 2007. You've never changed your mind? What the hell is your problem? I am not thrown off by inconsistencies. At least not in a private citizen like myself or like Welles. We do want consistency in public figures, in politicians ... inconsistencies THERE should be analyzed and questioned, since these people are actually trying to LEAD us, and create LAWS, etc. that affect us. But a blogger like myself who writes about boys she kissed in 1988 and movie stars she loves? What is the point of playing "Gotcha" with someone like me? Retarded. The same goes for biographies. I think it is in the inconsistencies that you can actually approach the source of life. That's where the real good stuff is: the gap between reality and fantasy, the gap between what really happened and what we SAY happened: Isn't that when we really can see someone?

I have to say that there were times, reading both of Callow's books, that I actually felt exhilarated, and that is a rare sensation indeed when reading a book. I was exhilarated by the detail, sure ... of these famous events I have already heard so much about - the Cradle Will Rock experience (which John Houseman describes so wonderfully in his own memoirs), the voodoo Macbeth done in Harlem with all black actors in the 1930s - Welles directed it at age 22 - boy was a phenom ... the Mercury Theatre, the War of the Worlds broadcast, the precedent-breaking deal with RKO which led to Citizen Kane ... and I was also exhilarated by how in-depth Callow went! He really tries to understand, not just what happened - but where it came from, and also the source of the success. Why was Welles' voodoo Macbeth so groundbreaking? And let's not just stay on the surface (black actors, Harlem) ... but let's look at his adaptation of Macbeth, what he chose to cut, how he rearranged things (Welles saw Shakespeare not as a great man to be revered and feared - but as a guy who wrote some awesome plays and they could certainly stand to be mucked up with a bit) - and what the adaptation said about where Welles was at that time. What interested him? Let us look at what he chose to cut, and speculate on why he felt that had to go?

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Another reason why this massive biography of Orson Welles stands out is because Simon Callow is an actor. He writes like an actor. His concern is not intellectual, he is a man of the theatre - so he knows, in his bones, what an audition is like, what a first night is like, what rehearsals are like - but more than that: what the life of an actor really is all about. It's not fame, obviously, although it seems as though Welles HAD to be famous, there was really no other way. It is also the source of Welles' tragedy. But the life of an actor - trying to bring a text to life, and what that actually DOES to a person who lives that particular life. It's not a regular life. We all know that. It leaves wide swathes of space for creativity and fantasy - it HAS to. It's like the life of a writer which needs to leave wide swathes of space for solitude. Callow knows the camaraderie of being part of an acting company and his writing has ultimate authority. He also is a learned man of the theatre, having played Shakespeare and restoration comedy and every other thing for years - so he is on totally sure ground when he analyzes Welles' own interpretations of classic texts. He has that history at his command, which other biographers do not. Or if they do, it remains intellectual. When Callow says something like (and there's a certain phrase SOMEWHERE in these books that I am looking for, but I can't find it, so forgive the paraphrase), "This is one of the most difficult roles to bring to life in all of Western theatre, and it has sunk many an actor, from Olivier to Gielgud" - you know he speaks from deep experience. Perhaps he worked on that part and it sank him, too. Who knows. I LOVE that aspect of the book.

David Thomson, in his gigantic Biographical Dictionary of Film, has an enormous entry on Welles, and he closes it with:

In his last years, Welles did more commercials, he narrated documentaries, he attempted to launch fresh projects and to complete old ones. He appeared in It Happened One Christmas (77, Doald Wyre), The Muppet Movie (79, James Frawley), and Butterfly (81, Matt Cimber). But none of those matched his provocative role as the wise man in the back row of the theatre in his friend Henry Jaglom's Someone To Love (87). In short, he presided over the special chaos of his life as it closed, apparently seeking help and friends, yet secretly sealed against trespass. His unfinished films are now seeing the light of day - even pieces of It's All True. But so little about the life and work of Welles is all or anywhere near true. He inhaled legend - and changed our air. It is the greatest career in films, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.

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While much of Welles' journey was well-known to me, there was much I didn't know. He was clearly a prodigy of some kind, albeit a messy one. As a young boy, he was already on his way, and he was lucky enough (or persistent enough) to find mentors who could push him further and further along. He was doing summer stock as a teenager, appearing in Shakespeare, and he was also a student at an elite boy's school which had a stellar drama department. Welles remained connected with that school all his life. He did not forget his influences, and he did not forget where he came from (although he also would speak of things in retrospect and always put HIMSELF at the center of everything. It reminds me a bit of how Howard Hawks talked. Every great idea in Hollywood, every unpredictable yet ultimately successful casting decision was originally Hawks' idea. It's kind of endearing. It makes it hell on a biographer, but still: these men were storytellers and artists. If you're looking for literal truth, I don't know why you would look for it in show business and the people who practice it!)

Welles went to Ireland as a teenager, as I mentioned - and became highly involved in the Gate Theatre, which still exists, run by a fascinating guy named Micheál MacLíammóir. Look him up. Guy has as much interest as Orson Welles, and just as intense a reinvention of self. Welles was one of the most self-regarding of all artists, it was about the power of his personality - it always was - and how his voice (no surprise that Welles made his real mark in radio) could bring his personality (and others) to life. MacLíammóir's stories of Welles' first audition for them ("There's an American teenager in the lobby ... he says he wants to audition ... what should I tell him?") are laugh-out-loud funny. MacLíammóir in one of his autobiographies (he wrote several, and rightly so - what a life!!) describes being told about the American teenager in the lobby who was saying he was a lead actor at the Guild Theatre in America (none of it true) and that he wanted an audition. MacLíammóir says sure, send the kid in. In walks Orson Welles. MacLíammóir describes what happened next:

'Is this all the light you can give me?' he said in a voice like a regretful oboe. We hadn't given him any at all yet, so that was settled, and he began. It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to bellow with laughter, yet the laughter died on one's lips. One wanted to say, 'Now, now, really, you know,' but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than the mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.

Isn't that absolutely gorgeous?

Here is a photo I found that I love from 1950 - of Eartha Kitt, MacLíammóir, and Welles. The two stayed friends their whole lives. And it wasn't an easy friendship - I suppose it never was with Welles - but they remained colleagues and collaborators til the end.

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Welles' journey in the 30s, with the Federal Theatre Project, is well known. He hooked up with another young ambitious guy, John Houseman, and they began to put together projects, the first of which was what is now known as "the voodoo Macbeth" - a Macbeth put on entirely with black actors, mostly non-professional, at a big theatre in Harlem. Welles set the Macbeth in Haiti, with a stage full of crazy voodoo goddesses in headdresses, massive crowd scenes, drum beats - Welles was always about creating an impression, rightly or no. You can see clips of the voodoo Macbeth on Youtube, I think - and I've seen clips of it in the documentary I have about Welles at home. It may be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing - all style, no substance - hard to say - but it was a giant hit and it put Welles on the map. White people were flocking to Harlem to see the production. Black people came out in droves. It electrified the New York theatre world. Amazing. If I could have a time machine to go back and see certain productions, "voodoo Macbeth" is in my top 5. (If you must know, Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in Chicago in 1945 is # 1). But God, to see some of those productions!!

Welles' notoriety grew with the shutting down of The Cradle Will Rock (go read Houseman's memoir for an account - that was the excerpt I posted of his book) - and eventually he and Houseman decided to strike out on their own and form the Mercury Theatre. The Mercury put on stage productions - Doctor Faustus and others - they got a deal for a weekly radio show where they would read classic literature, all adapted by Welles (did the man ever sleep?) - and of course, eventually, the "War of the Worlds" craziness came out of that - which then led to Welles being famous not just in New York but around the world. Hollywood took notice and pretty much air-lifted the entire Mercury Theatre company (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, and all the rest) to do basically whatever the hell Orson Welles wanted. And what he wanted to do was a fictionalized life of William Randolph Hearst. The envy in Hollywood was intense. Who is this Orson Welles character and why was he given such a deal, while I slog along in my ridiculous contract having to do whatever the studio says?? There was never a lot of good will towards Welles.

Citizen Kane which, naturally, got its props eventually - was barely seen at the time, because William Randolph Hearst sparked a war against the studios, saying that he would instruct every one of his papers to BURY the movie, or ignore it completely ... if it were to go forward. Nobody wanted to alienate William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane was given a premiere, but that was pretty much it. It would be decades before anyone could see it again. Amazing. And so Welles made enemies from the get-go, and in a funny way, his career never really recovered its luster - although he would make some pretty damn fine movies (The Magnificent Ambersons comes to mind - although that film was so butchered by the studio that Welles, 40 years later, still couldn't talk about it without welling up with tears. I love that movie, but it is truly a tragedy what was done to it - and, seen in the light of retrospect, you can see the viciousness of the studio heads, sticking it to their young prodigy who had already caused so much trouble ... There is something personal in their attack on Welles. Well, you know how mediocrity hates genius! They set out to destroy him. Welles never really recovered emotionally from what was done to him with Magnificent Ambersons.)

Anyway, there is obviously a lot to talk about when we talk about Welles. And this is only the first volume! The first volume of the book takes us up through the short-lived release of Citizen Kane. I was tormented as to what excerpt to choose! His time in Ireland? Voodoo Macbeth?

The book is so juicy, so unbelievably interesting on every level ... you just let the book fall open and you dissolve into the events on the page, it's that engrossing.

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That's a sketch Welles did, around age 13, of a young William Shakespeare. And that leads me into the excerpt.

I decided to go with the excerpt of the Mercury Theatre's famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. Again, where the hell is my time machine? It was 1937 when that play went up. A terribly uneasy time in the world at large. The cataclysm was already happening elsewhere, and the mood was very very tense. Welles decided to set Macbeth in fascist Italy. This was not necessarily a new or an original idea, many companies had been doing putting classic works in a fascist European setting - however, many of these were out of New York, and so word would not have reached Welles about them. It appears to have been original to Welles, or perhaps just an expression of the universal mood at the time. Welles' gift was never, by the way, in being original. It was in being able to take the dream that was in his own head and create it out in the world in whatever production he was involved in. He was never strictly an innovator, although much of cinematography as we now know it imitates what was done in Citizen Kane. But much of that was Gregg Toland's contribution, not Welles's. Welles's contribution was in believing in the sheer size of the project, and making it happen. He was a showman of the old school, a PT Barnum, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't genius. He played tricks. There's a reason why this guy was obsessed with magic for his entire life. Welles had no reverence for Shakespeare. Instead, he had something better: he had love and passion. Shakespeare was just a fellow showman, as far as he was concerned, another practical man of the theatre. Welles chopped scenes up, deleted characters, he rearranged the order if it suited him - pulling things forward when normally they happened at the end, whatever ... You can tell that he would be a movie director, which is more of a non-linear medium (or can be, with its potential for flashback, or dreams, etc.) Welles kept the stage huge and black with billowing black curtains. Most of the characters wore the black military uniforms of Mussolini's jackbooted thugs, and there was an intense air of uneasiness and violence around the production. People were blown away by it. It seemed to speak directly to their time, directly to what was going on in Europe. It took New York by storm. Voodoo Macbeth had been earlier that year - so to then come out so quickly with this Caesar so soon after, so different from the Macbeth, and Welles was only 23 freakin' years old?? Unbelievable. Unprecedented. The voodoo Macbeth was all about the spectacle. It was all about crowd scenes, and traffic control, and creating an impression of madness, noise and controlled chaos. The Caesar was about giant empty cold spaces, and dwarfed human beings - the black of their costumes blending into the black of the drapes - so that their white faces shone out, in a tiny frightening way ... Such a different conception, look, feel ... from what he had done only 8 or 9 months previous.

Here is a series of images from Welles' Caesar, including some of his sketches for the costumes, setting, and lights (he did everything ... the whole production was in his head). I also included a Hirschfeld cartoon of the time.

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Callow devotes an entire chapter to Caesar, going into detail Welles' own thought process, his adaptation, the casting of the roles, the rehearsals. It's a 40 page chapter. This is not a book for those who just want the author to get on with it already ... To Callow, there is nothing to "get on with" ... It is the journey. Let us now look at the fascinating composition Welles wrote when he was 10, and see what it might reveal about his concerns. Let us devote an entire chapter to his burgeoning interest in magic and what that signifies. Let us try to piece together his trip to Ireland through letters and diaries and interviews and let us do it over the course of 30 pages. He skips over nothing. Actually, if he skips over anything, it is Welles's personal life - which is actually a lovely change! Welles's personal life was always on the backseat to his career, so it takes a backseat in the book. Good.

The generosity of Callow stuns me. He leaves no stone unturned. He is able to speak about the craft of acting openly, without shame or embarrassment (lots of biographers do not know how to talk about acting - even when their subject was an actor, the writer gets baffled when they try to describe what the subject was doing, you can tell they are out of their league) - Simon Callow takes acting seriously, sure, but he also knows the buffoonery and fun of a rehearsal process and how ridiculous it can be. He knows how to talk about all of it. He takes his obsession to the most logical conclusion (three volumes), and there isn't one page that isn't interesting or illuminating. Bravo, bravo. THANK YOU, Mr. Callow, for these books and I cannot wait for volume III! Get cracking!

EXCERPT FROM Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow

By 1937, though he didn't go so far as to propose changing the title, he had come to the conclusion that Brutus was very much the central figure of the play. The Mercury, the weekly bulletin that was in effect Welles's mouthpiece, stated: 'As those familiar with the play are aware, Julius Caesar is really about Brutus.' Welles himself added: 'Brutus is the classical picture of the eternal, ineffectual, fumbling liberal; the reformer who wants to do something about things but doesn't know how and gets it in the neck at the end. He's dead right all the time, and dead at the final curtain. He's Shakespeare's favourite hero - the fellow who thinks the times are out of joint but who is really out of joint with his time. He's the bourgeois intellectual who, under a modern dictatorship, would be the first to be put up against and wall and shot.'

He had concluded that the play was 'about' the anguish of the liberal in an age of dictators. This emphasis meant that a great deal of the political complexity of the play was sacrificed in order to focus on one man's dilemma. The version Welles fashioned by no means fulfilled Houseman's claim for the production that 'the stress will be on the social implications inherent in the history of Caesar and on the atmosphere of personal greed, fear and hysteria that surrounds a dictatorial regime' or indeed Welles's own claim at the same time that 'it's a timeless tragedy about Caesarism and the collapse of democracy under Caesarism.' Lepidus was axed entirely; Octavius and Antony downgraded, and the mob, so graphically individualised by Shakespeare, relegated to a largely choric function - in the text, that is.

Its function in the staging was heightened, streamlined; but it became a many-headed hydra, losing the dynamics of individuals in a crowd. 'Here we have true fan psychology,' he told The New York Times. 'This is the same mob that tears the buttons off the coat of Robert Taylor. It's the same mob, too, that hangs and burns negroes in the South, the same mob that maltreats the Jews in Germany. It's the Nazi mob anywhere.' Significantly Welles's version starts, not with the scene analysed by a million schoolchildren ('Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home!') but with Caesar silencing the crowd. 'Bid every noise be still!' We are in the presence of the Great from the start; there is no context. Rome is its leaders; a distinctly bourgeois reading of history.

Whatever the interpretation, the result was nothing if not effective; a great deal of the Mercury version, in fact, was devised for no other reason than to generate theatrical excitement. The text gives every appearance of having been shaped to accommodate the production, rather than the other way round. His adaptation is exactly comparable to those reviled eighteenth-century adaptors, Garrick and Cibber, his purposes exactly the same as theirs: to exploit the possibilities of their stage-craft and to fit the play to the temper of the times. 'In drastically cutting the last twenty minutes of the play,' wrote Hank Senber in The Mercury, 'Welles was working to clarify the personal aspects of the tragedy and to liberate the play from such concessions to Elizabethan tastes as drums, alarums and mock battles on stage.' And of course, those things did look and sound ridiculous when the warriors in question were wearing long black leather overcoats and jackboots. Welles certainly wasn't going to lose the stunning effectiveness of the uniforms because some of the play didn't fit. Cut it! The lurid theatricality of the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler was an essential element in choosing the context for the play, and the physical look of the production was absolutely clear in Welles's mind from the beginning. There seems, however, to have been some conceptual confusion. If the play - or at any rate the production - is a critique of Caesarism, what does Antony represent? He, surely, is the demagogue, not Caesar; he's Hitler, he's Mussolini. Is Caesar then Hindenburg? Somewhat defensively, Welles told The Mercury: 'I produced the play in modern dress to sharpen contemporary interest rather than to point up or stunt up present-day detail. I'm trying to let Shakespeare's lines do the job of making the play applicable to the tensions of our time.' It was a general feeling of contemporaneity that he was after; not a blow-by-blow parallel.

His absolute certainty about the physical realisation of the concept made his collaborators' work quite cut and dried. Jeanne Rosenthal wrote: 'Welles dictated very clearly and exactly the kind of look he wanted the production to have, a very simple look, based on the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. The patterns implied in the Nuremberg "festivals" were in terms of platforms, which were the basis of the scenery, and light which went up or down. The uplight was really taken from the effect the Nazis achieved.' (And which Houseman had used before in Panic.) Welles described his concept of the physical production in The Director in the Theatre Today the following year: 'I wanted to present Julius Caesar against a texture of brick, not of stone, and I wanted a color of red that had certain vibrations of blue. In front of this red brick wall I wanted levels and places to act: that was my conception of the production.' Welles's visual confidence is rare among directors. His own skills as a graphic artist, coupled with his experience in designing and building for the Todd Troupers and the Gate Theatre, made him a daunting prospect for a designer. Young Sam Leve, fresh from triumphs with the Federal Theatre Project and the Yiddish Art Theatre, in his own words 'oozing imagination', found that Welles was uninterested in his suggestions. In order to get them even considered, he had to convey them to Houseman, who might, if he liked them, pass them on, a 'humiliating process' for the young designer, in his own words. However, when Welles asked him for sketches, from the hundreds Leve would produce, on Leve's admission he would unerringly choose the best, dismissing the less good ones: 'Sam, you can do better than that.' The two men were exactly the same age, but as usual Welles immediately and automatically assumed command.

'At the Mercury,' wrote Jean Rosenthal, 'nobody else had any identity for him at all. You were production material. If he liked you, the association could be pleasant. If not, it was injurious. As a director, he approached other talents as he did his gargantuan meals - with a voracious appetite. Your contributions to his feast he either spat out or set aside untouched, or he ate them up, assimilated them, with a gusto which was extraordinarily flattering.' And fun: 'the initial stages of anything with Orson were immensely entertaining, which carried everything along ... he never counted the cost of anything to himself or to anyone else.' Rosenthal, who became one of the crucial figures in the development of American theatre lighting before her early death in the sixties, was keenly aware of the growth of the power of directors, and identified Welles as one of the first to dominate every single aspect of a production. Rosenthal avoided confrontation with Welles, but he never doubted her strength, demanding much of her within a framework of respect. Her final judgment, though, on her work with him is a chilling one: 'I do not think Orson made the utmost use of his collaborators' talent, although he often inspired their achievements. He did make the utmost use of his talents at the beginning, but perhaps his lack of respect for others accounts in some measure for the ultimate dissipation of his multiple talents.'

For the time being, the actors were not complaining. Few of them would have been aware of his psychological baggage. What they saw was a man with very determined ideas putting them into practice with a disarming combination of ruthless drilling and amiable anecdotalising, plus a good deal of horseplay. Exuberant, in some ways still a very young man, almost a boy, he dictated the pace and regularity of work according to his personal mood. 'When he felt like rehearsing, we rehearsed. When he felt like sleeping, we didn't rehearse. If he felt like rehearsing from 11.00 at night to 6.00 in the morning, damn stage hands' overtime, full speed ahead,' according to his then stage manager Howard Teichmann. 'He was a brilliant, inventive, imaginative director ... in a class all by himself. He would sit generally at a table in the centre aisle behind the table, and he would have a microphone on the table. And he would whisper his directions into the microphone. This table also served as his dining table. When he was hungry, he would send people out and they would bring in the steaks and the french fries and the ice cream and pots of coffee a foot and a half high, which he would consume with great relish. And when he was tired, he would say, "All right, children." Now mind you, he was younger than most of the people but we were his children.'

'There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Orson was the big star,' said Teichmann. 'He was a year or two older than I am, and he was slim, with a big head and round cheeks and very boyish. And "boy genius" was a term if he didn't create, he didn't fight it off ... You had to be a certain kind of personality to work with Orson. You either had to worship him or you had to meet him on an equal level, or you had to crumble. And a great many people, you know, would end up with ulcers and he was a great one for giving them. He loved everybody, but, boy, he was tough. "Who me, tough? I'm a pussycat." You know, that was his thing ... he played people off against each other.' His manner was calculated to be humorously high-handed, shouting out admonitions - 'shame on you!' a favourite - if the actor's work wasn't to his liking. He was not averse to having a whipping boy: young William Alland, later famous as the producer of The Creature of the Black Lagoon, and known to movie buffs as the shadowy reporter in Citizen Kane, had, when the Mercury was being set up, more or less thrown himself at Welles's feet, and that's more or less where he stayed, as actor, stage manager, gofer and pimp. Welles would roar his name o ut, abusing and cajoling him. It was good-humoured, but only just: a throw away from bullying. If you weren't on the receiving end, it could be fun; to Peg Lloyd it was cheap: 'he seemed a prep school boy with the cheap humour that preppies have. A genius preppy, that's what he was: the ringleader of the bullies on the corner.'

Rehearsals for Julius Caesar took place, initially, not in the theatre (the stage was still being reconstructed) but in an abandoned movie studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 'the place where the movie industry began' in the words of Elliot Reid. Under a couple of worklights, while the incessant rain dripped into strategically placed buckets and the plaster tumbled from the roof, Welles arranged his cast on the platforms which Sam Leve had found in an old Shubert warehouse, and which were the essential element of the set that he and Welles had devised. There were four platforms: the first fourteen foot deep (the downstage playing area), the second a narrow high step, the third an eight foot deep plateau, the last a narrower platform rising to a total height of six and a half foot above stage level; there were two flagpoles on either side of the stage. Within this framework, Welles laboured to create the images that he had in his mind. Despite the great informality with which he worked, the stories and the atmosphere of wild, almost boyish fun that he engendered, he was always straining towards a specific and precise visual notion, what Norman Lloyd (playing Cinna the poet) described as 'the shot'. 'Every scene had to have a production idea. Is it a shot? Is there something interesting in it?' He improvised the physical action, constantly altering the moves to achieve the desired shape; the scene wasn't worked out in advance, in the Reinhardt manner, every eyebrow, every sniffle planned. But the effect was much the same: there was no discussion of character or motivation, simply a dedication to discovering what Brecht had called the 'gestus', or gesture, of the scene.

Debate over his methods constantly raged amongst the company, though rarely to his face. Moody, sardonic Coulouris (who during breaks from rehearsal would throw tennis balls against the wall, muttering 'Be a singer, be a singer! Don't be an actor! Acting's horrible') openly challenged Welles, but he became, Jaques-like, a sort of licensed melancholic within the group. For the most part the actors worked happily at the service of Welles's invention. Nor was he intent simply on imposing his ideas on them. Norman Lloyd reports Welles as saying, 'I may not be able to direct actors very well, but once an actor gives me something, I know how to stage it.' Lloyd himself fretted over the absence of any sort of methodology, feeling that the essence or the truth of the scene was sometimes sacrificed to effect; he was none the less delighted by the opportunities Welles's staging afforded him. Welles's instinctive sense of how to release an actor and a scene in physical movement was the equal of his English contemporary, Tryone Guthrie, with whom he shared a revulsion for dealing with the inner life of the character, or indeed, the actor. 'Your problem!' Guthrie would briskly tell his actors as they wrestled with difficulties of this kind; the phrase could just as easily have come from Welles.

The concomitant of this external, linear approach was that if the scene was effective, it succeeded; if it wasn't, it was nothing. Welles struggled for weeks with scenes which resisted his best efforts; this process continued up to the very opening. One such was the scene in which Cinna the poet is killed by the mob. There was from the start a disagreement between actor an director over interpretation, Welles seeing the poet as a version of Marchbanks, all long hair and floppy ties, Lloyd, playing the part, seeing him rather as the sort of man who wrote letters to The New York Times, a prototypical liberal, brilliantly able to see both sides of the situation, congenitally incapable of deciding between them; Archibald MacLeish, in fact. Lloyd hoped to achieve, as he says, an 'essence'. 'I thought you could say "this is what it is to not take a position." ' Welles quickly gave in over the characterisation, because he was obsessed - 'consumed' is the word Lloyd uses - by an idea of how to stage the scene, a musical, choreographic conception of how to show a mob destroying an innocent man. First of all he needed more lines than Shakespeare had provided, so, after experimenting with improvisation, he drafted in a few from Coriolanus; then he enlisted Marc Blitzstein to orchestrate the voices using a beating drum to indicate the rhythm. Welles rehearsed 'this goddam chanting and boom boom boom' for over three weeks. Sometimes Blitzstein took over; neither of them spent any time on the characters or the acting as such.

As for Welles's own performance, it was a low priority. A stage manager stood in for him throughout rehearsals. The result was that by the time of the dress rehearsal, he had barely acted with his fellow players (which can scarcely have helped them in creating their own performances); nor, never having run the scenes himself, was he very clear about where he should actually be standing. No one knew where he would be coming from or where he would be going to and he was frequently shrouded in darkness. To add to the uncertainty, he was very shaky on his lines, having scarcely uttered them during rehearsals. Throughout his career, on film and on stage, he was never entirely in command of his texts. He was not a quick study and rarely had the time or the inclination to ensure that the words were so securely lodged in his memory that they would spring spontaneously to his lips at the appropriate moment. Fortunately, he had considerable powers of iambic improvisation, and could sonorously if meaninglessly coast along for minutes at a time until a familiar line would, to the relief of the actor who was waiting for his cue, emerge. Since he had not rehearsed the part of Brutus, he had of course no opportunity to explore the character, to experiment with his approach, or to open himself to anyone else's view of his work. He had decided at some earlier time who Brutus was - who his Brutus was - and simply slotted it in to the production. Brutus, he said on several occasions, was above all intelligent (the character description for Marcus Brutus in Everybody's Shakespeare reads: 'he is a fine patrician type, his face sensitive and intellectual'). It was Welles's belief that he had a special gift for playing 'thinking people': not, as he expressed it in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 'that they're thinking about what they're saying, but that they think outside of the scene ... there are very few actors who can make you believe they think ... that's the kind of part I can play.'

Happy the actor who knows his own gift. He has at least a chance, given a moderate amount of luck and a shrewd choice of work, of playing straight down the centre of the character to create a vivid and clear image of a particular human being. If he is struggling against type, to express things not in his personal experience or make-up, then he will almost certainly miss the core of the character, however interestingly he may embellish its surface. Though Welles was unquestionably intelligent, the most striking feature of his acting persona is not intelligence but power; he described himself, quite accurately, as 'he who plays the king'. Curiously enough, his portrayals of 'thinking people' often lack intellectual conviction: what he demonstrates is thoughtfulness. Partly this stems from a lack of structure in his own thinking; mostly it derives from the simple technical fact of not having completely mastered the text, and thus the thought. Welles, instead of actually thinking, acts it. It would seem that what really drew Welles to the role of Brutus was not so much his cerebral nature, but rather his nobility: this dark, wild, immature, titanically possessed young man wanted to present himself as the very soul of dignity and responsibility. His method of doing so was - according to his own formula - simply to suppress the ignoble parts of himself. Easy.

This cavalier attitude to his own performance is partly explicable by absorption in other responsibilities; but there is a strong suggestion that he became involved in his other responsibilities in order not to have to immerse himself in his own performance. He didn't want to evolve his performance; he didn't want to talk about it, or think about it. In Lehman Engel's acute words: 'His own performances happened suddenly for good or ill. They were or were not at the very outset.' In none of his utterances on the subject of acting does Welles ever speak of the work that goes into a performance. The assumption is that you can either play the part or you can't; if you can, then that's it: you play it. It is a complex matter: he seemed to want to be acclaimed for his acting, but not to have to work on it. He expected to be acknowledged as a major actor, while insisting that acting wasn't a terribly important thing anyway.


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The Books: "Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu" (Simon Callow)

road_to_xanadu.jpegNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow

The first volume of actor/writer Simon Callow's gigantic Orson Welles project. Volume II came out last year, and there will be a third and final volume. I am blown away by what he has done here. I am blown away on so many levels. This is not a surface biography. This does not just deal with events, although it certainly does do that as well, in intimate detail. This is a highly articulate book of analysis, and I just have to say: To anyone who is interested in Hollywood, Orson Welles, the craft of acting, the craft of directing, Shakespeare, the history of America, movies in general ... these books are MUST-HAVES.

There are times when you can tell Callow is so in love with his subject that he goes on for what I think is too long ... but that's part of the beauty of these books. Callow is under a spell. He is under Orson Welles' spell. He does not judge one thing to be more important than another. A play that Orson Welles wrote when he was 14 years old gets just as much face-time as his Voodoo Macbeth, one of the most important moments in American theatre. (Let's not forget that as a mere teenager he published a book - in conjunction with his acting teacher at school, Roger Hill, called Everybody's Shakespeare - Three Plays Edited for Reading and Arranged for Staging, which showed Welles' early theories as a director, and adaptor). I mean, there is a lot to discuss there - Welles was a prodigy.

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(That's him at school.)


This is probably why there needs to be three volumes.

Nothing gets short-shrift. Callow is not an uncritical eye, let me not paint it incorrectly. This is not a fanboy. This is someone who is obsessed. And I understand obsession. It is not about LOVE. It is about CURIOSITY that will never ever ever end. Even the bad moments, the awkward moments, the failures have their interests ... or, perhaps to a true obsessive, the failures are even MORE interesting, because then the character of the person you are obsessed with can truly be revealed. Who knows. Callow is unafraid to criticize Welles, and he does so in a voice that is truly his own. We all know Simon Callow's acting. He has a distinctive speaking voice, kind of snotty and humorous. You can hear that in the prose here. You know, he'll include an excerpt from one of Welles' schoolboy compositions and say, "This is dreadful stuff, really, but it has good energy." (or something like that). He does not think that by criticizing Welles he is diminishing him. He does not feel he needs to protect or defend Welles. On the contrary. Someone as complex as Welles deserves to be taken seriously, and deserves to have his work be looked at on its merits - without all the myth and legend and brou-haha that normally is erected around it. People tend to be positional about Welles, and that does diminish him. Callow does not go that route (and he is eloquent about his reasons for this in the introduction to the book.) He weighs in everyone else's opinions, but he is trying to get at the whole man, in all his infuriating excess, and shining brilliance and crashing failures. Callow is absolutely wonderful. I cannot get enough of these books and I am dying for volume III to come out. Good work, Mr. Callow. These are MAJOR contributions to the Welles library - major major biographies ... and you deserve every accolade you receive for these extraordinary books.

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Much of the Welles story is difficult to put together because he himself was such a teller of tall tales. You know, he went to Morocco when he was 16 years old and the stories he told of his time there, hanging out with a sheik in a freakin' tent and chillin' with the Arabs smoking a hookah pipe in the mountains, stuff like that, have just grown in the telling, and Callow just throws his hands up trying to corroborate some of the stories. All he can do is tell what Welles told, and then get eyewitnesses, if possible ... but a lot of the times he just says, "We'll never know what really happened in Morocco." Then there are times, like his time in Ireland as a teenager (which really is amazing) when he basically strolled into an audition at the up-and-coming Gate Theatre (trying to rival the Abbey) and got a part. Welles made it seem, in his letters home, and then later in his life, that he was given a lead INSTANTLY. That's not quite how it went, but he did, indeed, take the Ireland theatre world by storm as a teenager. He was the toast of Dublin at age 17. Like - what??

But for Welles, truth was never as interesting as fantasy, and he is at his best when he can project himself into his own fantasies - I mean, isn't that what Citizen Kane was all about, and War of the Worlds? If you build it, he will come. But still: Welles always had to embellish, even if the truth was already so fantastical it beggared belief! So Callow wades through all of Welles' elaborations, and tries to put together what really happened in Ireland, etc. He is a detective. This is never about tearing Welles down. This is not about, "See, Welles told us THIS happened, but now we know that THIS is what REALLY happened, so everything that Welles ever did can now be seen as suspect!" I hate that kind of biography. It seems to resent contradiction, it seems to resent life itself, with all its ups and downs. Biographies that praise consistency above all else are terrible. What - is the biographer always consistent in his own life? Does he never contradict himself? Is he not large, does he not contain multitudes? I've had people who read my blog who want to catch me in inconsistencies - it seems to be the #1 reason that some people read blogs. "You said THIS in 2003, and now you say THIS in 2007?" Well, first of all, get a life. And second of all, yes. Because I felt THAT way in 2003, and I feel THIS way in 2007. You've never changed your mind? What the hell is your problem? I am not thrown off by inconsistencies. At least not in a private citizen like myself or like Welles. We do want consistency in public figures, in politicians ... inconsistencies THERE should be analyzed and questioned, since these people are actually trying to LEAD us, and create LAWS, etc. that affect us. But a blogger like myself who writes about boys she kissed in 1988 and movie stars she loves? What is the point of playing "Gotcha" with someone like me? Retarded. The same goes for biographies. I think it is in the inconsistencies that you can actually approach the source of life. That's where the real good stuff is: the gap between reality and fantasy, the gap between what really happened and what we SAY happened: Isn't that when we really can see someone?

I have to say that there were times, reading both of Callow's books, that I actually felt exhilarated, and that is a rare sensation indeed when reading a book. I was exhilarated by the detail, sure ... of these famous events I have already heard so much about - the Cradle Will Rock experience (which John Houseman describes so wonderfully in his own memoirs), the voodoo Macbeth done in Harlem with all black actors in the 1930s - Welles directed it at age 22 - boy was a phenom ... the Mercury Theatre, the War of the Worlds broadcast, the precedent-breaking deal with RKO which led to Citizen Kane ... and I was also exhilarated by how in-depth Callow went! He really tries to understand, not just what happened - but where it came from, and also the source of the success. Why was Welles' voodoo Macbeth so groundbreaking? And let's not just stay on the surface (black actors, Harlem) ... but let's look at his adaptation of Macbeth, what he chose to cut, how he rearranged things (Welles saw Shakespeare not as a great man to be revered and feared - but as a guy who wrote some awesome plays and they could certainly stand to be mucked up with a bit) - and what the adaptation said about where Welles was at that time. What interested him? Let us look at what he chose to cut, and speculate on why he felt that had to go?

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Another reason why this massive biography of Orson Welles stands out is because Simon Callow is an actor. He writes like an actor. His concern is not intellectual, he is a man of the theatre - so he knows, in his bones, what an audition is like, what a first night is like, what rehearsals are like - but more than that: what the life of an actor really is all about. It's not fame, obviously, although it seems as though Welles HAD to be famous, there was really no other way. It is also the source of Welles' tragedy. But the life of an actor - trying to bring a text to life, and what that actually DOES to a person who lives that particular life. It's not a regular life. We all know that. It leaves wide swathes of space for creativity and fantasy - it HAS to. It's like the life of a writer which needs to leave wide swathes of space for solitude. Callow knows the camaraderie of being part of an acting company and his writing has ultimate authority. He also is a learned man of the theatre, having played Shakespeare and restoration comedy and every other thing for years - so he is on totally sure ground when he analyzes Welles' own interpretations of classic texts. He has that history at his command, which other biographers do not. Or if they do, it remains intellectual. When Callow says something like (and there's a certain phrase SOMEWHERE in these books that I am looking for, but I can't find it, so forgive the paraphrase), "This is one of the most difficult roles to bring to life in all of Western theatre, and it has sunk many an actor, from Olivier to Gielgud" - you know he speaks from deep experience. Perhaps he worked on that part and it sank him, too. Who knows. I LOVE that aspect of the book.

David Thomson, in his gigantic Biographical Dictionary of Film, has an enormous entry on Welles, and he closes it with:

In his last years, Welles did more commercials, he narrated documentaries, he attempted to launch fresh projects and to complete old ones. He appeared in It Happened One Christmas (77, Doald Wyre), The Muppet Movie (79, James Frawley), and Butterfly (81, Matt Cimber). But none of those matched his provocative role as the wise man in the back row of the theatre in his friend Henry Jaglom's Someone To Love (87). In short, he presided over the special chaos of his life as it closed, apparently seeking help and friends, yet secretly sealed against trespass. His unfinished films are now seeing the light of day - even pieces of It's All True. But so little about the life and work of Welles is all or anywhere near true. He inhaled legend - and changed our air. It is the greatest career in films, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.

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While much of Welles' journey was well-known to me, there was much I didn't know. He was clearly a prodigy of some kind, albeit a messy one. As a young boy, he was already on his way, and he was lucky enough (or persistent enough) to find mentors who could push him further and further along. He was doing summer stock as a teenager, appearing in Shakespeare, and he was also a student at an elite boy's school which had a stellar drama department. Welles remained connected with that school all his life. He did not forget his influences, and he did not forget where he came from (although he also would speak of things in retrospect and always put HIMSELF at the center of everything. It reminds me a bit of how Howard Hawks talked. Every great idea in Hollywood, every unpredictable yet ultimately successful casting decision was originally Hawks' idea. It's kind of endearing. It makes it hell on a biographer, but still: these men were storytellers and artists. If you're looking for literal truth, I don't know why you would look for it in show business and the people who practice it!)

Welles went to Ireland as a teenager, as I mentioned - and became highly involved in the Gate Theatre, which still exists, run by a fascinating guy named Micheál MacLíammóir. Look him up. Guy has as much interest as Orson Welles, and just as intense a reinvention of self. Welles was one of the most self-regarding of all artists, it was about the power of his personality - it always was - and how his voice (no surprise that Welles made his real mark in radio) could bring his personality (and others) to life. MacLíammóir's stories of Welles' first audition for them ("There's an American teenager in the lobby ... he says he wants to audition ... what should I tell him?") are laugh-out-loud funny. MacLíammóir in one of his autobiographies (he wrote several, and rightly so - what a life!!) describes being told about the American teenager in the lobby who was saying he was a lead actor at the Guild Theatre in America (none of it true) and that he wanted an audition. MacLíammóir says sure, send the kid in. In walks Orson Welles. MacLíammóir describes what happened next:

'Is this all the light you can give me?' he said in a voice like a regretful oboe. We hadn't given him any at all yet, so that was settled, and he began. It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to bellow with laughter, yet the laughter died on one's lips. One wanted to say, 'Now, now, really, you know,' but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than the mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.

Isn't that absolutely gorgeous?

Here is a photo I found that I love from 1950 - of Eartha Kitt, MacLíammóir, and Welles. The two stayed friends their whole lives. And it wasn't an easy friendship - I suppose it never was with Welles - but they remained colleagues and collaborators til the end.

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Welles' journey in the 30s, with the Federal Theatre Project, is well known. He hooked up with another young ambitious guy, John Houseman, and they began to put together projects, the first of which was what is now known as "the voodoo Macbeth" - a Macbeth put on entirely with black actors, mostly non-professional, at a big theatre in Harlem. Welles set the Macbeth in Haiti, with a stage full of crazy voodoo goddesses in headdresses, massive crowd scenes, drum beats - Welles was always about creating an impression, rightly or no. You can see clips of the voodoo Macbeth on Youtube, I think - and I've seen clips of it in the documentary I have about Welles at home. It may be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing - all style, no substance - hard to say - but it was a giant hit and it put Welles on the map. White people were flocking to Harlem to see the production. Black people came out in droves. It electrified the New York theatre world. Amazing. If I could have a time machine to go back and see certain productions, "voodoo Macbeth" is in my top 5. (If you must know, Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in Chicago in 1945 is # 1). But God, to see some of those productions!!

Welles' notoriety grew with the shutting down of The Cradle Will Rock (go read Houseman's memoir for an account - that was the excerpt I posted of his book) - and eventually he and Houseman decided to strike out on their own and form the Mercury Theatre. The Mercury put on stage productions - Doctor Faustus and others - they got a deal for a weekly radio show where they would read classic literature, all adapted by Welles (did the man ever sleep?) - and of course, eventually, the "War of the Worlds" craziness came out of that - which then led to Welles being famous not just in New York but around the world. Hollywood took notice and pretty much air-lifted the entire Mercury Theatre company (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, and all the rest) to do basically whatever the hell Orson Welles wanted. And what he wanted to do was a fictionalized life of William Randolph Hearst. The envy in Hollywood was intense. Who is this Orson Welles character and why was he given such a deal, while I slog along in my ridiculous contract having to do whatever the studio says?? There was never a lot of good will towards Welles.

Citizen Kane which, naturally, got its props eventually - was barely seen at the time, because William Randolph Hearst sparked a war against the studios, saying that he would instruct every one of his papers to BURY the movie, or ignore it completely ... if it were to go forward. Nobody wanted to alienate William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane was given a premiere, but that was pretty much it. It would be decades before anyone could see it again. Amazing. And so Welles made enemies from the get-go, and in a funny way, his career never really recovered its luster - although he would make some pretty damn fine movies (The Magnificent Ambersons comes to mind - although that film was so butchered by the studio that Welles, 40 years later, still couldn't talk about it without welling up with tears. I love that movie, but it is truly a tragedy what was done to it - and, seen in the light of retrospect, you can see the viciousness of the studio heads, sticking it to their young prodigy who had already caused so much trouble ... There is something personal in their attack on Welles. Well, you know how mediocrity hates genius! They set out to destroy him. Welles never really recovered emotionally from what was done to him with Magnificent Ambersons.)

Anyway, there is obviously a lot to talk about when we talk about Welles. And this is only the first volume! The first volume of the book takes us up through the short-lived release of Citizen Kane. I was tormented as to what excerpt to choose! His time in Ireland? Voodoo Macbeth?

The book is so juicy, so unbelievably interesting on every level ... you just let the book fall open and you dissolve into the events on the page, it's that engrossing.

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That's a sketch Welles did, around age 13, of a young William Shakespeare. And that leads me into the excerpt.

I decided to go with the excerpt of the Mercury Theatre's famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar. Again, where the hell is my time machine? It was 1937 when that play went up. A terribly uneasy time in the world at large. The cataclysm was already happening elsewhere, and the mood was very very tense. Welles decided to set Macbeth in fascist Italy. This was not necessarily a new or an original idea, many companies had been doing putting classic works in a fascist European setting - however, many of these were out of New York, and so word would not have reached Welles about them. It appears to have been original to Welles, or perhaps just an expression of the universal mood at the time. Welles' gift was never, by the way, in being original. It was in being able to take the dream that was in his own head and create it out in the world in whatever production he was involved in. He was never strictly an innovator, although much of cinematography as we now know it imitates what was done in Citizen Kane. But much of that was Gregg Toland's contribution, not Welles's. Welles's contribution was in believing in the sheer size of the project, and making it happen. He was a showman of the old school, a PT Barnum, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't genius. He played tricks. There's a reason why this guy was obsessed with magic for his entire life. Welles had no reverence for Shakespeare. Instead, he had something better: he had love and passion. Shakespeare was just a fellow showman, as far as he was concerned, another practical man of the theatre. Welles chopped scenes up, deleted characters, he rearranged the order if it suited him - pulling things forward when normally they happened at the end, whatever ... You can tell that he would be a movie director, which is more of a non-linear medium (or can be, with its potential for flashback, or dreams, etc.) Welles kept the stage huge and black with billowing black curtains. Most of the characters wore the black military uniforms of Mussolini's jackbooted thugs, and there was an intense air of uneasiness and violence around the production. People were blown away by it. It seemed to speak directly to their time, directly to what was going on in Europe. It took New York by storm. Voodoo Macbeth had been earlier that year - so to then come out so quickly with this Caesar so soon after, so different from the Macbeth, and Welles was only 23 freakin' years old?? Unbelievable. Unprecedented. The voodoo Macbeth was all about the spectacle. It was all about crowd scenes, and traffic control, and creating an impression of madness, noise and controlled chaos. The Caesar was about giant empty cold spaces, and dwarfed human beings - the black of their costumes blending into the black of the drapes - so that their white faces shone out, in a tiny frightening way ... Such a different conception, look, feel ... from what he had done only 8 or 9 months previous.

Here is a series of images from Welles' Caesar, including some of his sketches for the costumes, setting, and lights (he did everything ... the whole production was in his head). I also included a Hirschfeld cartoon of the time.

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Callow devotes an entire chapter to Caesar, going into detail Welles' own thought process, his adaptation, the casting of the roles, the rehearsals. It's a 40 page chapter. This is not a book for those who just want the author to get on with it already ... To Callow, there is nothing to "get on with" ... It is the journey. Let us now look at the fascinating composition Welles wrote when he was 10, and see what it might reveal about his concerns. Let us devote an entire chapter to his burgeoning interest in magic and what that signifies. Let us try to piece together his trip to Ireland through letters and diaries and interviews and let us do it over the course of 30 pages. He skips over nothing. Actually, if he skips over anything, it is Welles's personal life - which is actually a lovely change! Welles's personal life was always on the backseat to his career, so it takes a backseat in the book. Good.

The generosity of Callow stuns me. He leaves no stone unturned. He is able to speak about the craft of acting openly, without shame or embarrassment (lots of biographers do not know how to talk about acting - even when their subject was an actor, the writer gets baffled when they try to describe what the subject was doing, you can tell they are out of their league) - Simon Callow takes acting seriously, sure, but he also knows the buffoonery and fun of a rehearsal process and how ridiculous it can be. He knows how to talk about all of it. He takes his obsession to the most logical conclusion (three volumes), and there isn't one page that isn't interesting or illuminating. Bravo, bravo. THANK YOU, Mr. Callow, for these books and I cannot wait for volume III! Get cracking!

EXCERPT FROM Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow

By 1937, though he didn't go so far as to propose changing the title, he had come to the conclusion that Brutus was very much the central figure of the play. The Mercury, the weekly bulletin that was in effect Welles's mouthpiece, stated: 'As those familiar with the play are aware, Julius Caesar is really about Brutus.' Welles himself added: 'Brutus is the classical picture of the eternal, ineffectual, fumbling liberal; the reformer who wants to do something about things but doesn't know how and gets it in the neck at the end. He's dead right all the time, and dead at the final curtain. He's Shakespeare's favourite hero - the fellow who thinks the times are out of joint but who is really out of joint with his time. He's the bourgeois intellectual who, under a modern dictatorship, would be the first to be put up against and wall and shot.'

He had concluded that the play was 'about' the anguish of the liberal in an age of dictators. This emphasis meant that a great deal of the political complexity of the play was sacrificed in order to focus on one man's dilemma. The version Welles fashioned by no means fulfilled Houseman's claim for the production that 'the stress will be on the social implications inherent in the history of Caesar and on the atmosphere of personal greed, fear and hysteria that surrounds a dictatorial regime' or indeed Welles's own claim at the same time that 'it's a timeless tragedy about Caesarism and the collapse of democracy under Caesarism.' Lepidus was axed entirely; Octavius and Antony downgraded, and the mob, so graphically individualised by Shakespeare, relegated to a largely choric function - in the text, that is.

Its function in the staging was heightened, streamlined; but it became a many-headed hydra, losing the dynamics of individuals in a crowd. 'Here we have true fan psychology,' he told The New York Times. 'This is the same mob that tears the buttons off the coat of Robert Taylor. It's the same mob, too, that hangs and burns negroes in the South, the same mob that maltreats the Jews in Germany. It's the Nazi mob anywhere.' Significantly Welles's version starts, not with the scene analysed by a million schoolchildren ('Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home!') but with Caesar silencing the crowd. 'Bid every noise be still!' We are in the presence of the Great from the start; there is no context. Rome is its leaders; a distinctly bourgeois reading of history.

Whatever the interpretation, the result was nothing if not effective; a great deal of the Mercury version, in fact, was devised for no other reason than to generate theatrical excitement. The text gives every appearance of having been shaped to accommodate the production, rather than the other way round. His adaptation is exactly comparable to those reviled eighteenth-century adaptors, Garrick and Cibber, his purposes exactly the same as theirs: to exploit the possibilities of their stage-craft and to fit the play to the temper of the times. 'In drastically cutting the last twenty minutes of the play,' wrote Hank Senber in The Mercury, 'Welles was working to clarify the personal aspects of the tragedy and to liberate the play from such concessions to Elizabethan tastes as drums, alarums and mock battles on stage.' And of course, those things did look and sound ridiculous when the warriors in question were wearing long black leather overcoats and jackboots. Welles certainly wasn't going to lose the stunning effectiveness of the uniforms because some of the play didn't fit. Cut it! The lurid theatricality of the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler was an essential element in choosing the context for the play, and the physical look of the production was absolutely clear in Welles's mind from the beginning. There seems, however, to have been some conceptual confusion. If the play - or at any rate the production - is a critique of Caesarism, what does Antony represent? He, surely, is the demagogue, not Caesar; he's Hitler, he's Mussolini. Is Caesar then Hindenburg? Somewhat defensively, Welles told The Mercury: 'I produced the play in modern dress to sharpen contemporary interest rather than to point up or stunt up present-day detail. I'm trying to let Shakespeare's lines do the job of making the play applicable to the tensions of our time.' It was a general feeling of contemporaneity that he was after; not a blow-by-blow parallel.

His absolute certainty about the physical realisation of the concept made his collaborators' work quite cut and dried. Jeanne Rosenthal wrote: 'Welles dictated very clearly and exactly the kind of look he wanted the production to have, a very simple look, based on the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. The patterns implied in the Nuremberg "festivals" were in terms of platforms, which were the basis of the scenery, and light which went up or down. The uplight was really taken from the effect the Nazis achieved.' (And which Houseman had used before in Panic.) Welles described his concept of the physical production in The Director in the Theatre Today the following year: 'I wanted to present Julius Caesar against a texture of brick, not of stone, and I wanted a color of red that had certain vibrations of blue. In front of this red brick wall I wanted levels and places to act: that was my conception of the production.' Welles's visual confidence is rare among directors. His own skills as a graphic artist, coupled with his experience in designing and building for the Todd Troupers and the Gate Theatre, made him a daunting prospect for a designer. Young Sam Leve, fresh from triumphs with the Federal Theatre Project and the Yiddish Art Theatre, in his own words 'oozing imagination', found that Welles was uninterested in his suggestions. In order to get them even considered, he had to convey them to Houseman, who might, if he liked them, pass them on, a 'humiliating process' for the young designer, in his own words. However, when Welles asked him for sketches, from the hundreds Leve would produce, on Leve's admission he would unerringly choose the best, dismissing the less good ones: 'Sam, you can do better than that.' The two men were exactly the same age, but as usual Welles immediately and automatically assumed command.

'At the Mercury,' wrote Jean Rosenthal, 'nobody else had any identity for him at all. You were production material. If he liked you, the association could be pleasant. If not, it was injurious. As a director, he approached other talents as he did his gargantuan meals - with a voracious appetite. Your contributions to his feast he either spat out or set aside untouched, or he ate them up, assimilated them, with a gusto which was extraordinarily flattering.' And fun: 'the initial stages of anything with Orson were immensely entertaining, which carried everything along ... he never counted the cost of anything to himself or to anyone else.' Rosenthal, who became one of the crucial figures in the development of American theatre lighting before her early death in the sixties, was keenly aware of the growth of the power of directors, and identified Welles as one of the first to dominate every single aspect of a production. Rosenthal avoided confrontation with Welles, but he never doubted her strength, demanding much of her within a framework of respect. Her final judgment, though, on her work with him is a chilling one: 'I do not think Orson made the utmost use of his collaborators' talent, although he often inspired their achievements. He did make the utmost use of his talents at the beginning, but perhaps his lack of respect for others accounts in some measure for the ultimate dissipation of his multiple talents.'

For the time being, the actors were not complaining. Few of them would have been aware of his psychological baggage. What they saw was a man with very determined ideas putting them into practice with a disarming combination of ruthless drilling and amiable anecdotalising, plus a good deal of horseplay. Exuberant, in some ways still a very young man, almost a boy, he dictated the pace and regularity of work according to his personal mood. 'When he felt like rehearsing, we rehearsed. When he felt like sleeping, we didn't rehearse. If he felt like rehearsing from 11.00 at night to 6.00 in the morning, damn stage hands' overtime, full speed ahead,' according to his then stage manager Howard Teichmann. 'He was a brilliant, inventive, imaginative director ... in a class all by himself. He would sit generally at a table in the centre aisle behind the table, and he would have a microphone on the table. And he would whisper his directions into the microphone. This table also served as his dining table. When he was hungry, he would send people out and they would bring in the steaks and the french fries and the ice cream and pots of coffee a foot and a half high, which he would consume with great relish. And when he was tired, he would say, "All right, children." Now mind you, he was younger than most of the people but we were his children.'

'There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Orson was the big star,' said Teichmann. 'He was a year or two older than I am, and he was slim, with a big head and round cheeks and very boyish. And "boy genius" was a term if he didn't create, he didn't fight it off ... You had to be a certain kind of personality to work with Orson. You either had to worship him or you had to meet him on an equal level, or you had to crumble. And a great many people, you know, would end up with ulcers and he was a great one for giving them. He loved everybody, but, boy, he was tough. "Who me, tough? I'm a pussycat." You know, that was his thing ... he played people off against each other.' His manner was calculated to be humorously high-handed, shouting out admonitions - 'shame on you!' a favourite - if the actor's work wasn't to his liking. He was not averse to having a whipping boy: young William Alland, later famous as the producer of The Creature of the Black Lagoon, and known to movie buffs as the shadowy reporter in Citizen Kane, had, when the Mercury was being set up, more or less thrown himself at Welles's feet, and that's more or less where he stayed, as actor, stage manager, gofer and pimp. Welles would roar his name o ut, abusing and cajoling him. It was good-humoured, but only just: a throw away from bullying. If you weren't on the receiving end, it could be fun; to Peg Lloyd it was cheap: 'he seemed a prep school boy with the cheap humour that preppies have. A genius preppy, that's what he was: the ringleader of the bullies on the corner.'

Rehearsals for Julius Caesar took place, initially, not in the theatre (the stage was still being reconstructed) but in an abandoned movie studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 'the place where the movie industry began' in the words of Elliot Reid. Under a couple of worklights, while the incessant rain dripped into strategically placed buckets and the plaster tumbled from the roof, Welles arranged his cast on the platforms which Sam Leve had found in an old Shubert warehouse, and which were the essential element of the set that he and Welles had devised. There were four platforms: the first fourteen foot deep (the downstage playing area), the second a narrow high step, the third an eight foot deep plateau, the last a narrower platform rising to a total height of six and a half foot above stage level; there were two flagpoles on either side of the stage. Within this framework, Welles laboured to create the images that he had in his mind. Despite the great informality with which he worked, the stories and the atmosphere of wild, almost boyish fun that he engendered, he was always straining towards a specific and precise visual notion, what Norman Lloyd (playing Cinna the poet) described as 'the shot'. 'Every scene had to have a production idea. Is it a shot? Is there something interesting in it?' He improvised the physical action, constantly altering the moves to achieve the desired shape; the scene wasn't worked out in advance, in the Reinhardt manner, every eyebrow, every sniffle planned. But the effect was much the same: there was no discussion of character or motivation, simply a dedication to discovering what Brecht had called the 'gestus', or gesture, of the scene.

Debate over his methods constantly raged amongst the company, though rarely to his face. Moody, sardonic Coulouris (who during breaks from rehearsal would throw tennis balls against the wall, muttering 'Be a singer, be a singer! Don't be an actor! Acting's horrible') openly challenged Welles, but he became, Jaques-like, a sort of licensed melancholic within the group. For the most part the actors worked happily at the service of Welles's invention. Nor was he intent simply on imposing his ideas on them. Norman Lloyd reports Welles as saying, 'I may not be able to direct actors very well, but once an actor gives me something, I know how to stage it.' Lloyd himself fretted over the absence of any sort of methodology, feeling that the essence or the truth of the scene was sometimes sacrificed to effect; he was none the less delighted by the opportunities Welles's staging afforded him. Welles's instinctive sense of how to release an actor and a scene in physical movement was the equal of his English contemporary, Tryone Guthrie, with whom he shared a revulsion for dealing with the inner life of the character, or indeed, the actor. 'Your problem!' Guthrie would briskly tell his actors as they wrestled with difficulties of this kind; the phrase could just as easily have come from Welles.

The concomitant of this external, linear approach was that if the scene was effective, it succeeded; if it wasn't, it was nothing. Welles struggled for weeks with scenes which resisted his best efforts; this process continued up to the very opening. One such was the scene in which Cinna the poet is killed by the mob. There was from the start a disagreement between actor an director over interpretation, Welles seeing the poet as a version of Marchbanks, all long hair and floppy ties, Lloyd, playing the part, seeing him rather as the sort of man who wrote letters to The New York Times, a prototypical liberal, brilliantly able to see both sides of the situation, congenitally incapable of deciding between them; Archibald MacLeish, in fact. Lloyd hoped to achieve, as he says, an 'essence'. 'I thought you could say "this is what it is to not take a position." ' Welles quickly gave in over the characterisation, because he was obsessed - 'consumed' is the word Lloyd uses - by an idea of how to stage the scene, a musical, choreographic conception of how to show a mob destroying an innocent man. First of all he needed more lines than Shakespeare had provided, so, after experimenting with improvisation, he drafted in a few from Coriolanus; then he enlisted Marc Blitzstein to orchestrate the voices using a beating drum to indicate the rhythm. Welles rehearsed 'this goddam chanting and boom boom boom' for over three weeks. Sometimes Blitzstein took over; neither of them spent any time on the characters or the acting as such.

As for Welles's own performance, it was a low priority. A stage manager stood in for him throughout rehearsals. The result was that by the time of the dress rehearsal, he had barely acted with his fellow players (which can scarcely have helped them in creating their own performances); nor, never having run the scenes himself, was he very clear about where he should actually be standing. No one knew where he would be coming from or where he would be going to and he was frequently shrouded in darkness. To add to the uncertainty, he was very shaky on his lines, having scarcely uttered them during rehearsals. Throughout his career, on film and on stage, he was never entirely in command of his texts. He was not a quick study and rarely had the time or the inclination to ensure that the words were so securely lodged in his memory that they would spring spontaneously to his lips at the appropriate moment. Fortunately, he had considerable powers of iambic improvisation, and could sonorously if meaninglessly coast along for minutes at a time until a familiar line would, to the relief of the actor who was waiting for his cue, emerge. Since he had not rehearsed the part of Brutus, he had of course no opportunity to explore the character, to experiment with his approach, or to open himself to anyone else's view of his work. He had decided at some earlier time who Brutus was - who his Brutus was - and simply slotted it in to the production. Brutus, he said on several occasions, was above all intelligent (the character description for Marcus Brutus in Everybody's Shakespeare reads: 'he is a fine patrician type, his face sensitive and intellectual'). It was Welles's belief that he had a special gift for playing 'thinking people': not, as he expressed it in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 'that they're thinking about what they're saying, but that they think outside of the scene ... there are very few actors who can make you believe they think ... that's the kind of part I can play.'

Happy the actor who knows his own gift. He has at least a chance, given a moderate amount of luck and a shrewd choice of work, of playing straight down the centre of the character to create a vivid and clear image of a particular human being. If he is struggling against type, to express things not in his personal experience or make-up, then he will almost certainly miss the core of the character, however interestingly he may embellish its surface. Though Welles was unquestionably intelligent, the most striking feature of his acting persona is not intelligence but power; he described himself, quite accurately, as 'he who plays the king'. Curiously enough, his portrayals of 'thinking people' often lack intellectual conviction: what he demonstrates is thoughtfulness. Partly this stems from a lack of structure in his own thinking; mostly it derives from the simple technical fact of not having completely mastered the text, and thus the thought. Welles, instead of actually thinking, acts it. It would seem that what really drew Welles to the role of Brutus was not so much his cerebral nature, but rather his nobility: this dark, wild, immature, titanically possessed young man wanted to present himself as the very soul of dignity and responsibility. His method of doing so was - according to his own formula - simply to suppress the ignoble parts of himself. Easy.

This cavalier attitude to his own performance is partly explicable by absorption in other responsibilities; but there is a strong suggestion that he became involved in his other responsibilities in order not to have to immerse himself in his own performance. He didn't want to evolve his performance; he didn't want to talk about it, or think about it. In Lehman Engel's acute words: 'His own performances happened suddenly for good or ill. They were or were not at the very outset.' In none of his utterances on the subject of acting does Welles ever speak of the work that goes into a performance. The assumption is that you can either play the part or you can't; if you can, then that's it: you play it. It is a complex matter: he seemed to want to be acclaimed for his acting, but not to have to work on it. He expected to be acknowledged as a major actor, while insisting that acting wasn't a terribly important thing anyway.


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November 16, 2008

The Books: "The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage" (Eli Wallach)

TheGoodTheBad2_300_450_100.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach will be 93 years old on December 7. His career has spanned 50 years. An inspiration to many young actors (including myself), he continues to work, although more sporadically, and he and his wife, Anne Jackson (they have been married since 1948), also do performances together, of scenes and poems interspersed with their humorous banter (they're wonderful together - I've seen the show) - they perform at churches, schools, synagogues, YMCAs, benefits and charity functions ... it's really old-school what they do, almost vaudeville. It's charming.

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In 2003, Wallach's agent called him and said that Clint Eastwood (his old colleague) wanted him for a small part in a movie he was directing. Wallach was nervous. He hadn't been in front of the camera in a while, at least not in a major motion picture, and he was old, and nervous about all sorts of things: remembering the lines, and also the possibility that his one scene would be cut (always a fear of any actor who plays only one scene in a film). I love how he describes his experience on Mystic River. It makes me love everyone involved - Eastwood, Kevin Bacon - for the respect they showed this giant figure of the American cinema, and how it all turned out:

I flew up to Boston on a Wednesday knowing nothing of the story or the script. I found that I was to play a liquor store owner. I memorized the three pages of dialogue that were given to me and prepared to act in the scene the following day. On Thursday morning I walked out to the set. Clint greeted me warmly. "I'm happy you agreed to do the cameo," he said, and told me that I'd be playing opposite two wonderful actors - Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne.

Clint waited patiently while the scene was lit, then walked over to me and whispered, "Any time you're ready, Eli." Not one word of direction was given. I felt relaxed and happy to be before the camera again. Bacon and Fishburne assured me that my scene would not be deleted in the final cut.

"You give us an important clue to the solution of the crime we're investigating," Kevin Bacon said.

It's a fantastic scene, I remember it well. One of the deals with this cameo was that Wallach would go uncredited, and that his name would not be used in any of the advertising. I think that was a smart move because I know that for those of us like myself - who love Eli Wallach, and who have been watching his movies since they were in their teens, who have the entire scope of his career locked in their brains forever - to suddenly see his twinkling mischievous face in the middle of that dark movie - was a wonderful surprise. It was like seeing an old friend. It really was. I remember feeling the audience around me respond to him. He has a couple of funny moments - not even lines that are funny, but the way he said the lines - and the audience, needing to laugh, was totally with him, every step of the way. It was beautiful to see him up there again.

In the old days of the studio system, character actors would work in movie after movie, essentially playing the same part, and it was very smart - because in that way the audience gets to identify with the person. They immediately think, "Oh. I know him. That's that guy. I love him." It is not a constantly rotating cast of people you've never seen before - there is the familiarity factor. Eli Wallach, in that moment in Mystic River was embodying what that old studio system used to be about. Even if people in the audience didn't know who exactly he was, they recognized him, they knew they had seen him somewhere before, and because of that - they warmed to him immediately.

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Eli Wallach was born and raised in Brooklyn. His family was one of the only Jewish families in a primarily Italian neighborhood. I think it's interesting that Wallach played so many fiery Italians, onscreen and on Broadway, and if you think about it - even as a young man, he was an unlikely romantic lead. At least as far as his looks go. He was short, stocky, and not classically handsome. But women testify to his sex appeal time and time again in their own memoirs and autobiographies (Carroll Baker's comes to mind). He smouldered. He was one of those men who treated women with good humor and curiosity - which, naturally, made him a Chick Magnet. He wasn't cool or aloof, but emotional and impulsive - which really goes a long way to explaining his huge hit in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo (excerpt here) - where he played Alvaro, the hot and fiery truck driver who ends up shacking up with Serafina, the lonely sex-starved mystical widow who speaks mainly in Italian (played by Maureen Stapleton, in the role that made her a star). Talk about unlikely casting!! The story of how Stapleton got that part is one of those situations where an actress, in the audition process, just kept "showing up" - with all her talent and powers at full force - and they really had no choice but to cast her. Even though, on the face of it, she was all wrong. Stapleton had a plain face, a dumpy body, and wasn't seen as a romantic lead in any way, shape, or form. Stapleton said, in regards to her lack of beauty, "People looked at me on stage and said, 'Jesus, that broad better be able to act.'" I love her. God, I would have loved to see her in The Rose Tattoo!!

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After Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for her portrayal of Emma Goldman in Reds (well-deserved), she was asked if it was exciting to be acknowledged for her chops as an actress. She replied, "Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world." So you can see that Stapleton was perfect for Serafina, even if her looks weren't! Hilarious!

Wallach went to college in Texas and it was around that time that he started contemplating being an actor. It was really the only thing he wanted to do. He moved back to New York and studied acting at the famous Actors Studio, which helped him make all the contacts which would really matter to him in his career. He was one of those actors where it just as easily couldn't have happened, as could. He was on the cusp of the change in the acting world. If he had been a studio player in the 30s and 40s, he would have played crotchety small character parts (or, who knows, Bogart - with his shortness and his lisp and his toupee became a leading man - so I suppose anything is possible) ... but in the 50s, things were changing. A new style of acting was being practiced, made famous by people like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Wallach was a part of that. Not to mention the fact that very early on, he got himself connected to Tennessee Williams, which was one of the most important relationships in his entire career.

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Wallach did a bunch of plays in New York, one of the most formative being Tennessee Williams' short haunting play called "This Property is Condemned" (excerpt here). A young vivacious funny actress named Anne Jackson played the female lead (there are only two parts in the play). They hit it off. They hit it off so well that they moved in together (quite ahead of their time, in the 1940s!) and were married the following year. They have been married for 60 years. (So much for the old saying, "Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free" huh?) Amazing. They are good friends. You can feel their friendship when you see the two of them now.

Wallach spent his days studying sense memory at the Actors Studio, and his nights playing small parts on Broadway. There are very funny moments in the book where he talks about trying to meld what he was learning at the Studio with the more practical concerns of being in a show that played 8 times a week. Once, he was so fired up from his own emotional preparation, that he just couldn't wait - and said his line onstage - cutting 14 lines of his co-stars. He was devastated. How do you combine the two - your own needs and the need of the play? He went to Lee Strasberg, his teacher, upset. "I was ready to say my line THEN ... what should I have done?" Strasberg thought a bit and then said, "Wait for your cue." hahahahaha

Eventually, the big break came, with The Rose Tattoo, and he got spectacular reviews, as well as winning the Tony Award for Best Actor. Eli Wallach, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, was off and running.

He made his screen debut in another one of Tennessee Williams' projects - the highly controversial (as in condemned by the Catholic Church controversial) Baby Doll. This was a screenplay based on Williams' one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (excerpt here). I go into the differences between the two in that post, what was changed, altered. The movie is basically a comedy, albeit with its sicker elements (a grown woman lying in a crib sucking her thumb). In the play, she is obviously mentally disturbed, a stunted person who has the bodacious body of a full-grown woman - so she is treated like a sexual object when obviously, inside, she is about 10 years old. It is truly disturbing. In the play, Baby Doll (or "Flora") is ruined. In the film, she (played by Carroll Baker) is set free. It's still disturbing - obviously disturbing enough to cause the film to be protested widely upon its release ... but to see it now it's hard to imagine what the fuss was about.

Directed by Elia Kazan, they filmed on location (Kazan always liked to do that, he preferred it to using studio sets) - with locals as extras, which gives the film a true sense of place. Tennessee Williams called 27 Wagons a "Mississippi Delta comedy", which gives you some sense of where his mind was at - and I do think that Kazan and his cast (Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden) do capture that. Karl Malden is a ridiculous cuckolded figure, Carroll Baker is funny and sweet and unconsciously sexy, and Eli Wallach is manipulative and sexy).


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Eli Wallach never stopped going back to Broadway, even though his film career had also taken off. He appeared in premiere productions of Teahouse of the August Moon, Mr. Roberts, Tennessee Williams' Camino Real and others.

He was part of the troubled cast for John Huston's The Misfits, and he traveled to the desert of Nevada for the shoot, with his family in tow. I think his daughters were just babies. The shoot ended up being long-drawn-out and very problematic - and Clark Gable would die months after completion. The entire production was shut down so that Marilyn Monroe could recover in the hospital from her exhaustion (brought on by insomnia and addiction to sleeping pills) - and everything was insane and chaotic. A wonderful book has been written about that shoot, called The Making of the Misfits (I posted about that here)

I think, though, of all the things Wallach will be remembered for, it will be for his participation in the "spaghetti Western" genre - his roles are beloved, and his characters are quoted wildly. Sergio Leone cast him in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - probably one of his best-known performances. Wallach had already been cast as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, and there are funny stories about Wallach trying to figure out how to ride a horse, and all that, while on location. You'd never know he was a novice. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with those crazy close-ups, is a film fan favorite.

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Eli Wallach's book is wonderful. It's not self-indulgent or badly written. He knows the power of the anecdote, the ba-dum-ching anecdote. The book is full of them. It's a great mix of the personal and the professional - how he and Anne Jackson, who both had careers, made it work - or, let's say, just endured through it ... Jackson doing plays, Wallach doing movies, trying to raise a family and keep the household going. You really get a sense of the two of them. Funny story: When Baby Doll came out, he and Anne Jackson went to the premiere. Afterwards, he wondered what she thought.

As for my wife's review of the film, Anne sat next to me at the premiere. The moment I played my first scene with Karl Malden, she observed, "Never have two noses filled the screen so completely."

It's a real actor's book, because, in the end, Eli Wallach - with his diverse and sometimes bizarre career - was always all about the acting. He was not a huge star. Not like Brando or McQueen. He had leading roles, and was a "playah", as they say ... but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist, or what have you. So Wallach was always focusing, pretty much, on the job at hand. Each job has its challenges. It is the actor's job to make all of that comprehensible, to face each day with a problem-solving attitude, to look at a scene that might not be working and think to himself, "What can I do to make this happen?" Wallach's book is all about moments like that.

I knew immediately which excerpt I wanted to choose. Tennessee Williams had written a new play in the early 1950s. It was called Camino Real (excerpt here). One of Williams' most difficult plays, it predicts the experimental theatre of the 1960s, embodied by the work of Lanford Wilson (especially in his Balm in Gilead - excerpt here). It's surreal, not a strict linear play - it takes place in an imaginary place, an end of the road kind of place, and the stage is filled with people at all times: the misfits, the beggars and whores of the fringe ... not to mention cameos by fictional characters like Casanova and Lord Byron. These people all hover on "the Camino Real", a way-station for the lost of the world, the lonely ... I love the play. I understand why it is difficult to stage, and difficult for an audience to relate to ... and I actually have never seen it done, more's the pity. But I love it. It also has, in it, my favorite lines that Williams ever wrote:

Make voyages. Attempt them. There's nothing else.

Wallach was passionate about Camino Real. He was cast as the lead - "Kilroy" (as in the grafitti messages of the time). To him, it was the most important project he had ever done, the one he was most passionate about. He turned down the role that Frank Sinatra ended up playing in From Here to Eternity (and won an Oscar for) in order to do Camino Real.

One of the reasons I love the following excerpt is because: Camino Real was not a hit. As a matter of fact, it was a flop. After the great run of hits Williams had written - Glass Menagerie (excerpt here), Streetcar Named Desire (excerpt here), Summer and Smoke (excerpt here) and The Rose Tattoo - all wonderful works, but with a more classical structure - Camino Real was seen as incomprehensible, self-indulgent, whatever. This was the typical story of Williams constantly being judged against his earlier work, as though he was supposed to just continue repeating himself. Williams was too good an artist for that. He is quite eloquent on that point. The critics were never kind to him after the 50s ... everything was like, "Well, this is no Streetcar Named Desire ..." and Williams would respond, "Of course it isn't. I was a younger man when I wrote Streetcar. I'm older now, I have different concerns and interests." God forbid he should try to stretch and grow as an artist. I think time has vindicated Camino Real. It is one of those plays that was ahead of its time. Its failure frightened Williams. He did "go back" to writing more traditional plays after that - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (excerpt here), Orpheus Descending (excerpt here), Suddenly Last Summer (excerpt here), Night of the Iguana (excerpt here), Sweet Bird of Youth (excerpt here) (I mean, honestly - even just writing all of that out right now gives me goosebumps) ... but I seriously think Camino Real is one of his best. That play haunts me. This past summer the director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festiva (check out who's on their main page!) contacted me to write something about Camino Real for their catalog (Camino Real was one of the productions they were doing that summer). It was a thrilling opportunity for me, to write about that play for such an esteemed theatre festival!

Anyway, Eli Wallach's section in the book about Camino Real is my favorite part of all.


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(That's Wallach and Jackson in a production of Major Barbara).

Onto the excerpt.


EXCERPT FROM The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach

Cheryl Crawford had fallen in love with Camino and was determined to bring it to Broadway, even though it seemed like quite a gamble. Camino was unlike any of Williams's other work. It was a fantasy set in a dirty plaza somewhere below the border. It was filled with gypsies, pimps, panderers, fascist police, and a host of legendary characters: Lord Byron. Margerite Gautier from Camille, the Baron de Charlus, Don Quixote. I was to play the role of Kilroy, an ex-boxer and ex-sailor who first appears at the top of a flight of stairs. On a crumbling wall, there is a message scrawled in chalk: "Kilroy is coming." Kilroy crosses out the word coming and replaces it with here.

I enjoyed working with Kazan; he often used sly means to build tension during rehearsal. One time during a rehearsal, he took me aside and told me to approach a group of strangers onstage. "You're alone and you're scared," he said, "so go on and make friends." Meanwhile, he told the actors playing a motley crowd of peasants, "Ignore this stranger; he's a gringo, and he has bad breath."

Kazan worked long and hard shaping Tennessee's play into a bold and startling fantastic extravaganza. Rehearsals were long and exhausting and yet strangely exhilarating. All of us in the cast felt we were embarking on a trip to a world we had never encountered before. Even though Camino was a fantasy, Kazan told us that the play would be stronger if each role was performed with a sense of truth.

For me, the play was very physically demanding. At one point, I had to jump offstage while police chased me, then run through the audience screaming, "Where the hell is the Greyhound bus depot?" I'd run up one aisle, then down another. People would have to stand to allow me to pass. Then I'd run up to the balcony, enter the box seats, climb over the rail, and jump directly onstage, just like John Wilkes Booth did after he'd shot President Lincoln. Once I was caught by the police, I was ordered to kneel onstage and a clown's hat was clapped over my head. Fastened to the hat were eyeglasses with long string attached to them; the nose was a red Ping-Pong-ball-shaped bulb.

"Light your nose," the policeman would say, and I would press the button to light my nose, which kept blinking on and off as the theater lights went down.

Audiences were puzzled by some of the scenes. And in early previews, many walked out. The play was savagely attacked by the critics. Leading the charge was Walter Kerr, critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who ended his review with a terse sentence: "Williams is our greatest playwright. And this is his worst play."

After the reviews had come out, Tennessee sat down and wrote a letter to Cheryl Crawford, the producer:

Dear Cheryl,
Whenever I talk about you I say, "Cheryl is a great fighter. She's always there when you need her." In China, in the old days, they used to give an old man an opium pipe. I suppose now they just shoot him. I think we should show fight in this situation. I'm enclosing a letter I just wrote to that critic Walter Kerr.

Dear Mr. Kerr,
I'm feeling a little punch drunk from the feared, but not fully anticipated attack at your hands and a quorum of your colleagues. But I would like to attempt to get a few things off my chest in reply. What I would like to know is, don't you see that "Camino" is a concentrate, a distillation of the world and the time we live in?

Mr. Kerr, I believe in your honesty. I believe you said what you honestly think and feel about this play. And I wouldn't have the nerve to question your verdict. But silence is only golden when you have nothing to say. And I still think I have a great deal to say.
Cordially,
Tennessee Williams

I don't believe Kerr ever answered Tennessee's letter. But there's one line in the play that affected Anne and myself so greatly that we decided to adopt it as our motto. "Lately," Lord Byron says, "I've been listening to hired musicians behind a row of artificial palm trees instead of the single pure stringed instrument of my heart. For what is the heart, but a sort of instrument that translates noise into music, chaos into order. Make voyages, attempt them, there's nothing else." Anne and I decided that we would always make voyages and attempt them.

Camino's end came quickly, with a crisp closing notice posted on the backstage bulletin board. We had just completed our fifty-sixth performance. The closing of a play is like a death in the family, and it leaves a deep scar on an actor's ego. I remember packing up all my belongings in the dressing room, then walking out into the rainy night. "Why me?" I thought. I loved the cast, the writing, the direction, but thankfully Camino didn't die. Over the years, many regional theaters have given Williams's fantasy a second chance.

I've never regretted the choice of doing Camino Real instead of From Here to Eternity. To me, Camino was the greatest experience I had in the theater.


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The Books: "The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage" (Eli Wallach)

TheGoodTheBad2_300_450_100.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach will be 93 years old on December 7. His career has spanned 50 years. An inspiration to many young actors (including myself), he continues to work, although more sporadically, and he and his wife, Anne Jackson (they have been married since 1948), also do performances together, of scenes and poems interspersed with their humorous banter (they're wonderful together - I've seen the show) - they perform at churches, schools, synagogues, YMCAs, benefits and charity functions ... it's really old-school what they do, almost vaudeville. It's charming.

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In 2003, Wallach's agent called him and said that Clint Eastwood (his old colleague) wanted him for a small part in a movie he was directing. Wallach was nervous. He hadn't been in front of the camera in a while, at least not in a major motion picture, and he was old, and nervous about all sorts of things: remembering the lines, and also the possibility that his one scene would be cut (always a fear of any actor who plays only one scene in a film). I love how he describes his experience on Mystic River. It makes me love everyone involved - Eastwood, Kevin Bacon - for the respect they showed this giant figure of the American cinema, and how it all turned out:

I flew up to Boston on a Wednesday knowing nothing of the story or the script. I found that I was to play a liquor store owner. I memorized the three pages of dialogue that were given to me and prepared to act in the scene the following day. On Thursday morning I walked out to the set. Clint greeted me warmly. "I'm happy you agreed to do the cameo," he said, and told me that I'd be playing opposite two wonderful actors - Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne.

Clint waited patiently while the scene was lit, then walked over to me and whispered, "Any time you're ready, Eli." Not one word of direction was given. I felt relaxed and happy to be before the camera again. Bacon and Fishburne assured me that my scene would not be deleted in the final cut.

"You give us an important clue to the solution of the crime we're investigating," Kevin Bacon said.

It's a fantastic scene, I remember it well. One of the deals with this cameo was that Wallach would go uncredited, and that his name would not be used in any of the advertising. I think that was a smart move because I know that for those of us like myself - who love Eli Wallach, and who have been watching his movies since they were in their teens, who have the entire scope of his career locked in their brains forever - to suddenly see his twinkling mischievous face in the middle of that dark movie - was a wonderful surprise. It was like seeing an old friend. It really was. I remember feeling the audience around me respond to him. He has a couple of funny moments - not even lines that are funny, but the way he said the lines - and the audience, needing to laugh, was totally with him, every step of the way. It was beautiful to see him up there again.

In the old days of the studio system, character actors would work in movie after movie, essentially playing the same part, and it was very smart - because in that way the audience gets to identify with the person. They immediately think, "Oh. I know him. That's that guy. I love him." It is not a constantly rotating cast of people you've never seen before - there is the familiarity factor. Eli Wallach, in that moment in Mystic River was embodying what that old studio system used to be about. Even if people in the audience didn't know who exactly he was, they recognized him, they knew they had seen him somewhere before, and because of that - they warmed to him immediately.

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Eli Wallach was born and raised in Brooklyn. His family was one of the only Jewish families in a primarily Italian neighborhood. I think it's interesting that Wallach played so many fiery Italians, onscreen and on Broadway, and if you think about it - even as a young man, he was an unlikely romantic lead. At least as far as his looks go. He was short, stocky, and not classically handsome. But women testify to his sex appeal time and time again in their own memoirs and autobiographies (Carroll Baker's comes to mind). He smouldered. He was one of those men who treated women with good humor and curiosity - which, naturally, made him a Chick Magnet. He wasn't cool or aloof, but emotional and impulsive - which really goes a long way to explaining his huge hit in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo (excerpt here) - where he played Alvaro, the hot and fiery truck driver who ends up shacking up with Serafina, the lonely sex-starved mystical widow who speaks mainly in Italian (played by Maureen Stapleton, in the role that made her a star). Talk about unlikely casting!! The story of how Stapleton got that part is one of those situations where an actress, in the audition process, just kept "showing up" - with all her talent and powers at full force - and they really had no choice but to cast her. Even though, on the face of it, she was all wrong. Stapleton had a plain face, a dumpy body, and wasn't seen as a romantic lead in any way, shape, or form. Stapleton said, in regards to her lack of beauty, "People looked at me on stage and said, 'Jesus, that broad better be able to act.'" I love her. God, I would have loved to see her in The Rose Tattoo!!

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After Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for her portrayal of Emma Goldman in Reds (well-deserved), she was asked if it was exciting to be acknowledged for her chops as an actress. She replied, "Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world." So you can see that Stapleton was perfect for Serafina, even if her looks weren't! Hilarious!

Wallach went to college in Texas and it was around that time that he started contemplating being an actor. It was really the only thing he wanted to do. He moved back to New York and studied acting at the famous Actors Studio, which helped him make all the contacts which would really matter to him in his career. He was one of those actors where it just as easily couldn't have happened, as could. He was on the cusp of the change in the acting world. If he had been a studio player in the 30s and 40s, he would have played crotchety small character parts (or, who knows, Bogart - with his shortness and his lisp and his toupee became a leading man - so I suppose anything is possible) ... but in the 50s, things were changing. A new style of acting was being practiced, made famous by people like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Wallach was a part of that. Not to mention the fact that very early on, he got himself connected to Tennessee Williams, which was one of the most important relationships in his entire career.

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Wallach did a bunch of plays in New York, one of the most formative being Tennessee Williams' short haunting play called "This Property is Condemned" (excerpt here). A young vivacious funny actress named Anne Jackson played the female lead (there are only two parts in the play). They hit it off. They hit it off so well that they moved in together (quite ahead of their time, in the 1940s!) and were married the following year. They have been married for 60 years. (So much for the old saying, "Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free" huh?) Amazing. They are good friends. You can feel their friendship when you see the two of them now.

Wallach spent his days studying sense memory at the Actors Studio, and his nights playing small parts on Broadway. There are very funny moments in the book where he talks about trying to meld what he was learning at the Studio with the more practical concerns of being in a show that played 8 times a week. Once, he was so fired up from his own emotional preparation, that he just couldn't wait - and said his line onstage - cutting 14 lines of his co-stars. He was devastated. How do you combine the two - your own needs and the need of the play? He went to Lee Strasberg, his teacher, upset. "I was ready to say my line THEN ... what should I have done?" Strasberg thought a bit and then said, "Wait for your cue." hahahahaha

Eventually, the big break came, with The Rose Tattoo, and he got spectacular reviews, as well as winning the Tony Award for Best Actor. Eli Wallach, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, was off and running.

He made his screen debut in another one of Tennessee Williams' projects - the highly controversial (as in condemned by the Catholic Church controversial) Baby Doll. This was a screenplay based on Williams' one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (excerpt here). I go into the differences between the two in that post, what was changed, altered. The movie is basically a comedy, albeit with its sicker elements (a grown woman lying in a crib sucking her thumb). In the play, she is obviously mentally disturbed, a stunted person who has the bodacious body of a full-grown woman - so she is treated like a sexual object when obviously, inside, she is about 10 years old. It is truly disturbing. In the play, Baby Doll (or "Flora") is ruined. In the film, she (played by Carroll Baker) is set free. It's still disturbing - obviously disturbing enough to cause the film to be protested widely upon its release ... but to see it now it's hard to imagine what the fuss was about.

Directed by Elia Kazan, they filmed on location (Kazan always liked to do that, he preferred it to using studio sets) - with locals as extras, which gives the film a true sense of place. Tennessee Williams called 27 Wagons a "Mississippi Delta comedy", which gives you some sense of where his mind was at - and I do think that Kazan and his cast (Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden) do capture that. Karl Malden is a ridiculous cuckolded figure, Carroll Baker is funny and sweet and unconsciously sexy, and Eli Wallach is manipulative and sexy).


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Eli Wallach never stopped going back to Broadway, even though his film career had also taken off. He appeared in premiere productions of Teahouse of the August Moon, Mr. Roberts, Tennessee Williams' Camino Real and others.

He was part of the troubled cast for John Huston's The Misfits, and he traveled to the desert of Nevada for the shoot, with his family in tow. I think his daughters were just babies. The shoot ended up being long-drawn-out and very problematic - and Clark Gable would die months after completion. The entire production was shut down so that Marilyn Monroe could recover in the hospital from her exhaustion (brought on by insomnia and addiction to sleeping pills) - and everything was insane and chaotic. A wonderful book has been written about that shoot, called The Making of the Misfits (I posted about that here)

I think, though, of all the things Wallach will be remembered for, it will be for his participation in the "spaghetti Western" genre - his roles are beloved, and his characters are quoted wildly. Sergio Leone cast him in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - probably one of his best-known performances. Wallach had already been cast as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, and there are funny stories about Wallach trying to figure out how to ride a horse, and all that, while on location. You'd never know he was a novice. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with those crazy close-ups, is a film fan favorite.

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Eli Wallach's book is wonderful. It's not self-indulgent or badly written. He knows the power of the anecdote, the ba-dum-ching anecdote. The book is full of them. It's a great mix of the personal and the professional - how he and Anne Jackson, who both had careers, made it work - or, let's say, just endured through it ... Jackson doing plays, Wallach doing movies, trying to raise a family and keep the household going. You really get a sense of the two of them. Funny story: When Baby Doll came out, he and Anne Jackson went to the premiere. Afterwards, he wondered what she thought.

As for my wife's review of the film, Anne sat next to me at the premiere. The moment I played my first scene with Karl Malden, she observed, "Never have two noses filled the screen so completely."

It's a real actor's book, because, in the end, Eli Wallach - with his diverse and sometimes bizarre career - was always all about the acting. He was not a huge star. Not like Brando or McQueen. He had leading roles, and was a "playah", as they say ... but he never was in that heady echelon of actors who become symbols or manifestations of a Zeitgeist, or what have you. So Wallach was always focusing, pretty much, on the job at hand. Each job has its challenges. It is the actor's job to make all of that comprehensible, to face each day with a problem-solving attitude, to look at a scene that might not be working and think to himself, "What can I do to make this happen?" Wallach's book is all about moments like that.

I knew immediately which excerpt I wanted to choose. Tennessee Williams had written a new play in the early 1950s. It was called Camino Real (excerpt here). One of Williams' most difficult plays, it predicts the experimental theatre of the 1960s, embodied by the work of Lanford Wilson (especially in his Balm in Gilead - excerpt here). It's surreal, not a strict linear play - it takes place in an imaginary place, an end of the road kind of place, and the stage is filled with people at all times: the misfits, the beggars and whores of the fringe ... not to mention cameos by fictional characters like Casanova and Lord Byron. These people all hover on "the Camino Real", a way-station for the lost of the world, the lonely ... I love the play. I understand why it is difficult to stage, and difficult for an audience to relate to ... and I actually have never seen it done, more's the pity. But I love it. It also has, in it, my favorite lines that Williams ever wrote:

Make voyages. Attempt them. There's nothing else.

Wallach was passionate about Camino Real. He was cast as the lead - "Kilroy" (as in the grafitti messages of the time). To him, it was the most important project he had ever done, the one he was most passionate about. He turned down the role that Frank Sinatra ended up playing in From Here to Eternity (and won an Oscar for) in order to do Camino Real.

One of the reasons I love the following excerpt is because: Camino Real was not a hit. As a matter of fact, it was a flop. After the great run of hits Williams had written - Glass Menagerie (excerpt here), Streetcar Named Desire (excerpt here), Summer and Smoke (excerpt here) and The Rose Tattoo - all wonderful works, but with a more classical structure - Camino Real was seen as incomprehensible, self-indulgent, whatever. This was the typical story of Williams constantly being judged against his earlier work, as though he was supposed to just continue repeating himself. Williams was too good an artist for that. He is quite eloquent on that point. The critics were never kind to him after the 50s ... everything was like, "Well, this is no Streetcar Named Desire ..." and Williams would respond, "Of course it isn't. I was a younger man when I wrote Streetcar. I'm older now, I have different concerns and interests." God forbid he should try to stretch and grow as an artist. I think time has vindicated Camino Real. It is one of those plays that was ahead of its time. Its failure frightened Williams. He did "go back" to writing more traditional plays after that - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (excerpt here), Orpheus Descending (excerpt here), Suddenly Last Summer (excerpt here), Night of the Iguana (excerpt here), Sweet Bird of Youth (excerpt here) (I mean, honestly - even just writing all of that out right now gives me goosebumps) ... but I seriously think Camino Real is one of his best. That play haunts me. This past summer the director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festiva (check out who's on their main page!) contacted me to write something about Camino Real for their catalog (Camino Real was one of the productions they were doing that summer). It was a thrilling opportunity for me, to write about that play for such an esteemed theatre festival!

Anyway, Eli Wallach's section in the book about Camino Real is my favorite part of all.


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(That's Wallach and Jackson in a production of Major Barbara).

Onto the excerpt.


EXCERPT FROM The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach

Cheryl Crawford had fallen in love with Camino and was determined to bring it to Broadway, even though it seemed like quite a gamble. Camino was unlike any of Williams's other work. It was a fantasy set in a dirty plaza somewhere below the border. It was filled with gypsies, pimps, panderers, fascist police, and a host of legendary characters: Lord Byron. Margerite Gautier from Camille, the Baron de Charlus, Don Quixote. I was to play the role of Kilroy, an ex-boxer and ex-sailor who first appears at the top of a flight of stairs. On a crumbling wall, there is a message scrawled in chalk: "Kilroy is coming." Kilroy crosses out the word coming and replaces it with here.

I enjoyed working with Kazan; he often used sly means to build tension during rehearsal. One time during a rehearsal, he took me aside and told me to approach a group of strangers onstage. "You're alone and you're scared," he said, "so go on and make friends." Meanwhile, he told the actors playing a motley crowd of peasants, "Ignore this stranger; he's a gringo, and he has bad breath."

Kazan worked long and hard shaping Tennessee's play into a bold and startling fantastic extravaganza. Rehearsals were long and exhausting and yet strangely exhilarating. All of us in the cast felt we were embarking on a trip to a world we had never encountered before. Even though Camino was a fantasy, Kazan told us that the play would be stronger if each role was performed with a sense of truth.

For me, the play was very physically demanding. At one point, I had to jump offstage while police chased me, then run through the audience screaming, "Where the hell is the Greyhound bus depot?" I'd run up one aisle, then down another. People would have to stand to allow me to pass. Then I'd run up to the balcony, enter the box seats, climb over the rail, and jump directly onstage, just like John Wilkes Booth did after he'd shot President Lincoln. Once I was caught by the police, I was ordered to kneel onstage and a clown's hat was clapped over my head. Fastened to the hat were eyeglasses with long string attached to them; the nose was a red Ping-Pong-ball-shaped bulb.

"Light your nose," the policeman would say, and I would press the button to light my nose, which kept blinking on and off as the theater lights went down.

Audiences were puzzled by some of the scenes. And in early previews, many walked out. The play was savagely attacked by the critics. Leading the charge was Walter Kerr, critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who ended his review with a terse sentence: "Williams is our greatest playwright. And this is his worst play."

After the reviews had come out, Tennessee sat down and wrote a letter to Cheryl Crawford, the producer:

Dear Cheryl,
Whenever I talk about you I say, "Cheryl is a great fighter. She's always there when you need her." In China, in the old days, they used to give an old man an opium pipe. I suppose now they just shoot him. I think we should show fight in this situation. I'm enclosing a letter I just wrote to that critic Walter Kerr.

Dear Mr. Kerr,
I'm feeling a little punch drunk from the feared, but not fully anticipated attack at your hands and a quorum of your colleagues. But I would like to attempt to get a few things off my chest in reply. What I would like to know is, don't you see that "Camino" is a concentrate, a distillation of the world and the time we live in?

Mr. Kerr, I believe in your honesty. I believe you said what you honestly think and feel about this play. And I wouldn't have the nerve to question your verdict. But silence is only golden when you have nothing to say. And I still think I have a great deal to say.
Cordially,
Tennessee Williams

I don't believe Kerr ever answered Tennessee's letter. But there's one line in the play that affected Anne and myself so greatly that we decided to adopt it as our motto. "Lately," Lord Byron says, "I've been listening to hired musicians behind a row of artificial palm trees instead of the single pure stringed instrument of my heart. For what is the heart, but a sort of instrument that translates noise into music, chaos into order. Make voyages, attempt them, there's nothing else." Anne and I decided that we would always make voyages and attempt them.

Camino's end came quickly, with a crisp closing notice posted on the backstage bulletin board. We had just completed our fifty-sixth performance. The closing of a play is like a death in the family, and it leaves a deep scar on an actor's ego. I remember packing up all my belongings in the dressing room, then walking out into the rainy night. "Why me?" I thought. I loved the cast, the writing, the direction, but thankfully Camino didn't die. Over the years, many regional theaters have given Williams's fantasy a second chance.

I've never regretted the choice of doing Camino Real instead of From Here to Eternity. To me, Camino was the greatest experience I had in the theater.


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November 12, 2008

The Books: "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth" (Lana Turner)

Lana_Book.bmpNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner

You know, you can open up George Eliot's Middlemarch and find a gem of language on every page. Not an exaggeration. It's almost overwhelming that book, you want her to slow down ... because her genius is just too much, I am just a mere mortal, George, let me catch up! One of the things I like to do is just flip open Middlemarch to any page and read the first sentence that I see. It's amazing how often it's a really good one.

Well. Lana Turner's autobiography is the same way.

Is this the first time in the history of the planet that Lana Turner was compared to George Eliot? I hope so, because it's about time.

You literally cannot open this book without finding an awesome sentence. I'm not being sarcastic - although there is much to make fun of here as well. But why I think this book is so awesome is its complete and utter lack of irony (which is really quite refreshing) - not to mention its open-faced assumption that we will care about every detail. Of course we do, Lana! You're Lana Turner! Give us the dish! And boy does she ever. I suppose if you only looked at this book thru a cynical lens, you'd find it irritating and self-involved.

YOUR LOSS, cynics, YOUR LOSS.

It IS self-involved. That is the REASON it is so good. Also, I have to ask: Why are you reading the autobiography of a famous film star and looking for calm reasonable detachment? That's YOUR problem.

She appears to remember every outfit she has ever worn, first of all, in head-to-toe detail. She is open about her foolishness in love - and every date she has ever been on is accompanied by the memory of what she was wearing. She cared about being a good actress and improving at her craft. She knew she was lucky to be "discovered" - she was the original "sweater girl" -

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and she knew she needed to continue to get better if she would have a long career (and boy did she ever). She couldn't seem to stay out of trouble, though. You want to shout at the pages, "LANA, TRY BEING SINGLE FOR, LIKE, ONE SECOND. JUST TRY." But no, not Lana. She is all about love. And her clothes.

Again, if you're reading my words and assuming I'm making fun of all of this, you've totally got me wrong.

I love this book. I love every single word. There are plenty of "great" books out there that DON'T have an awesome sentence on each page - but this one does. Lana Turner and George Eliot, man, holding hands across the centuries.

Let's do an experiment. I will let the book fall open five times - and I will type the first thing I see each time. Sentence, paragraph, whatevs.

No cheating allowed. I promise to play by the rules.

Ready? Let's go.

Viewers of The Merry Widow may have noticed that all during the picture I wore long gloves or a very wide bracelet, or I carried a fur piece on my wrist. Filming of the picture began only a few days after my suicide attempt, and my slashed wrist remained bandaged for most of the shooting. No one at MGM seemed to doubt that my injury was an accident. I was bouncing back quickly, partly because of my natural resiliency. But I also had help. His name was Fernando Lamas.

That is an absolutely PERFECT paragraph. Beginning writers should study it.

Next.

I wore a full-length white fox coat and a silky white lace dress over a nude-colored slip. Before the ball a limousine drove us to the White House, and we filed into the room where Roosevelt delivered his Fireside Chats to the nation. The President sat behind a desk and greeted each person in turn. Fascinated, I studied his lined, handsome face and the marvelous grin I knew from the newsreels. As I approached I saw a look of recongition in his eyes. He didn't wait for an aide's introduction. He just extended his hand and said, "You are Miss Lana Turner." All I could say was, "Yes, Mr. President." He gave me a long look that seemed to take in everything.

Of course he did, Lana. I adore you.

Next:

Poor Liza (Minnelli) got twenty-one stitches in her leg, and her face was badly scraped from hitting the cement. The messy situation got worse when Sid Luft came home. He wanted to sue me, but Judy well knew that Liza had been sternly warned about the wall and the dog. As for Lex, he was so attached to Pulco that he refused to give him up, and in all fairness, he did have good reasons for wanting Pulco at the house. I'd been receiving some strange threatening letters, some of them worrisome enough to report to the police. And there had been that kidnap threat against Cheryl some years back. I no longer went out publicly as much as I had before, and when I did it would be to someone's home. Seclusion became important to me and Lex, and Acapulco appealed to us more and more.

Look, little Liza, Lana warned you about the wall and the dog, mkay?

Next:

Artie wasn't always surly. Sometimes he actually enjoyed life. One night there was an MGM bash at Earl Carroll's, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. Artie played the clarinet in the show, and I performed a dance number from Two Girls on Broadway. Phil Silvers did a comedy turn, and since he had no date, he tagged along with us after the show. At Artie's insistence, we headed home. I made drinks and went off to change. When I came back, Artie and Phil were smoking what they called "reefers". I'd heard of marijuana, of course, but I'd never seen it before. It was associated mainly with jazz musicians. Artie and Phil offered me some, and I said no.

Good for you, Lana. Good for you.

Next and last:

Our next stop was Rio, where we planned to arrive at Carnival time. I wasn't sorry to leave Buenos Aires. Argentina was torn by political strift. It was election time, and there were rough political rallies right in the plaza under our balcony. The Peronista guards would sweep into the crowd with their sabers drawn. It terrified and sickened me to see their battered victims, with blood streaming down their heads. Once, at three in the morning, someone threw a bomb into a service entrance of our hotel. The blast almost shook me and Sara out of our beds. For the rest of the night we sat up, terrified and shaking, in the living room of our suite. In Rio social life was far more pleasant. I had acquaintances there, who invited me to several posh parties. During Carnival the whole city throbbed with the seductive samba beat. We danced long and late. One night someone said, "Let's go into the streets!" Out there we were simply swept off into the crowds. Now it's forbidden, but at that time the men put a little perfumed ether on their handkerchiefs, which would be vaporized by the heat of their bodies. The air was sweet with intoxicating ether fumes. With that and the blaring wild music you just seemed to float on and on. In a seductive black satin halter dress, with flowers in my hair, I danced until dawn.

Of course you did, Lana. I wish I was there.

You know, I thought Don Delillo's supposed masterpiece Underworld was about 400 pages too long - but I wish Lana's book was 400 MORE pages long.

It's the lack of irony, like I mentioned - which gives it such a great zesty and ridiculous voice... and also the lack of self-consciousness. She does not come across as a dingbat, but she does paint herself in this way where you really can see her in all her self-dramatizing chaotic glory. It's self-serving, as all such books are ... but again - if she had laid down irony on top of her defensiveness, or even a sense of detachment or self-awareness- it would have been a terrible book. Here she is, and at times, it seems like she's putting her hands out up to heaven, shrugging at the reader, like, "How on earth can so much happen to one person?" (to paraphrase Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) And I, the reader, looking on, feel like saying to her, "Lana, the reason so much happens to you is because you have atrocious taste in men and you leap right into intimacy without thinking: ' Hmmmm ... before I commit myself to this gentleman, let me ponder the ultimate question: will my daughter one day stab this man to death?' Just HOLD BACK a bit before you fall in love again, I beg of you Lana, please!!" But if she held back, she wouldn't be Lana, yo, so you just have to sit back and keep your mouth shut, shaking your head with fondness and yet also a bit of judgment. "Oh, Lana, Lana, there you go again ..."

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I haven't even talked about her acting yet! Let me send you over to Alex's wonderful tribute piece - Lana Turner is one of her favorite actresses, and that's a wonderful post about why. Here is another insightful post about Lana Turner - a career deep and strange enough that it certainly deserves a second look.

Her star has faded a bit - she is now seen as a symbol of other things - but I've got to believe that someone whose career lasted that long (she may not have done a gazillion movies a year - but she worked steadily) had a hell of a lot of moxie, ambition, and ... maybe not smarts ... but survival skills. She started out as the "It Girl" because of how she looked in a sweater. "It Girls" are a dime a dozen. If you want to last beyond your big season of being the "It Girl", you need to have more going on than just looks, or luck. Will we ever have a Sienna Miller Blog-a-Thon day? Time will tell.

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I am not saying I think Lana Turner is under-rated. I don't. I do think she might be remembered for the wrong reasons, and for those of you who haven't seen her big films, I suggest you go back and have a look. Because she has some damn fine moments when she is used well - when a director "gets" her - and I celebrate that part of her. I really like watching her act. It's a bunch of hoo-hah, really - breathy sleepy-eyed hoo-hah -but that's part of why I like it.

I think Turner is a great example of a woman whose personal life is what she is now remembered for, as opposed to her acting. I love it when people whine about how out of control celebrities are today. Seriously? TODAY they're out of control? Oh, really? Do you have any sense of history? Do you have any grasp on, oh, FACTS? Do you realize how much the studios controlled the publicity of their stars, so most of the really bad stuff was kept from the public? But also, gotta ask: it was better at WHAT point in history? The purer sweeter time of, oh, Fatty Arbuckle? The well-behaved proper time of, uhm, Lana Turner? Like THOSE times?

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But oh well, some people just like to live in a fantasy that once upon a time things were BETTER than they are now, because then they always have something to bitch about!! But seriously, I do laugh sometimes when I hear that "now" celebrities are out of control. Dude. Google Lana Turner and check out what HER life was like, mkay? It makes it look like Lindsay Lohan was just blowing off some adolescent steam.

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Lana Turner led one of the most exhausting public lives I can think of. I want to plead, Good GOD, woman, lie down!!

Or, you could give her the opposite advice as the wonderful Frank O'Hara does in his poem about her.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up


(My friend Mitchell has actually done this piece as a dramatic monologue and it is so funny you stop being able to breathe by around line 6. Speaking of which, Ted just wrote a post on Frank O'Hara ...)


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Great book. Compulsively readable, far better than many serious works of literature I know, and also a book you can keep going back to, over and over again. I first read it when I was 14 (and I was WAY too young for the salacious nature of much of it!) and have read it probably 6 or 7 times ever since.

So ... lie down, Lana, or get up, Lana, either way, we love you.

Here's an excerpt. I basically just let the book fall open and decided to excerpt whatever I saw first, because it was just too hard to choose.

I just love how she defends herself here, and then starts a new paragraph with 'But I did go out a lot." Again, I'm not making fun of her. I am truly delighted at how, in every moment, she appears to be truthful. Even if the truth of one moment totally contradicts the truth of the moment before. But then, after a paragraph about her going beyond the velvet rope to her table, blowing kisses to people, etc. - she takes the edge off of us thinking she takes herself too seriously by writing, "Silly, I guess, but fun."

Yes, Lana, it IS silly, but fun!

LOVE YOU, LANA, PLEASE GET UP.

Put down Don DeLillo and pick up Lana. DeLillo will be waiting for you when you're done. Lana's book is a must-read.


EXCERPT FROM Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner

On New Year's Day, 1945, I became one of the most highly paid actresses in the world. My new contract paid me $4,000 a week, and by Hollywood ritual that meant it was time to buy a new home. I looked for a place in Bel-Air, a gracious section with handsome estates enclosed by Spanish-style adobe walls or ornate wrought-iron fences and sculptured hedges, and I found a lovely house hidden in the woods overlooking the ninth green of the Bel-Air Country Club. Sometimes golf balls smacked the windows or flew into the pool. Whenever I retrieved one I would fine the player a quarter for going out of bounds. It gives me a chuckle to remember those startled faces.

Now I was dating again. First it was Turhan Bey, an exotically handsome Turkish-Viennese actor. But when things turned serious, he introduced me to his mother, who seemed to dislike me on sight.

Once when I was dancing with Turhan at a party in Beverly Hills, Stephan appeared and tried to cut in. When I glanced at Turhan meaningfully he gallantly stepped aside to let Stephan take his place. I still wore Stephan's engagement ring, a three-carat diamond, which I'd had reset to my taste. Now Stephan told me he wanted it back.

"But it's been reset," I protested.

"I don't care. Give it back!"

He snatched my hand and yanked off the ring, then strode quickly away.

When Turhan saw me standing there, he asked me what had happened. I told him, then excused myself to recover. When I got back from the ladies' room, Turhan wasn't there, but everyone was rushing to the garden.

In the center of a knot of people were Turhan and Stephan, scuffling on the ground. the other guests pulled them apart before they could hurt each other. Thank goodness! But Stephan had dropped the ring and was searching frantically through the shrubbery.

The next day Anita May, who had given the party, called to say that her gardener had found the ring. I recovered it, but the story made the papers. The gossips inflated my connection with Turhan to the level of a grand passion. Those same busybodies linked my name to Rory Calhoun, Robert Hutton, and Frank Sinatra - the mention of Frank's name in this connection showed how little the gossips really knew about any of us. Yes, Frank had been a good friend for years, and I was close to his wife, Nancy. But the closest things to dates Frank and I enjoyed were a few box lunches at MGM. Despite our later differences of opinion about his relationship with Ava Gardner, I always found him warm and especially kind to me.

But I did go out a lot. The war had just ended, and the city was booming again. Affluence was in the air. Developers had bought up acres of land and dotted them with row upon row of small, brightly colored tract homes for returning servicemen. Almost overnight the orange groves and open spaces disappeared under the spreading blanket of suburbs, and the city got its first whiff of smog. But in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel-Air, Holmby Hills set high in the Santa Monica Mountains, prewar glamour and opulence were reborn, with a modern flair. The magnificent homes were palaces of glass that let the light stream in, not the tile-floored haciendas or Tudor manors of the past. Light - that's my strongest impression of that postwar time. After th elong years of blackouts and conservation, the city was adazzle with blazing bulbs, brilliant and glittering and fun.

And the men were home. They seemed to catch your eye everywhere you went, like the first greening after a thaw. How I'd love to dress up and go dancing with a handsome dark man. Ciro's was a favorite haunt. I'd walk up the steps and through the glass door, and pass the velvet rope that barred the less-fortunates. And the headwaiter would spring forward - "Ah, Miss Turner ..." and escort me in.

I had a special table right by the stairs so I could watch the comings and goings. I'd head straight there, never glancing right or left. And then, when I was seated, I'd give the room a long casing, bowing to this one or blowing that one a kiss. Silly, I guess, but fun.

Ciro's was designed for dramatic entrances and exits because a long flight of stairs led down to the tables and dance floor. And at the top of the stairs - that's where the stars stopped, to let everyone see them come in. It was all part of the game. Everyone would stare, and you knew you were making an Entrance.

I'd usually be dressed in something clingy, black or white, sometimes gold, occasionally red. I'd wear diamonds and a fur of some kind draped over one shoulder. Often white fur, my favorite. Maybe ermine or silver fox, the fashionable furs at that time. Or sable. I had beautiful sables. I'd have jewels in my hair, or flowers, and every hair in place.

But talk about an Entrance! Hedy Lamarr holds the record for that. One Entrance she made at Ciro's is a vision I'll never forget.

Hedy was at the height of her beauty, with thick, wavy, jet-black hair. With that stunning widow's peak, her face was magnificent. We all looked up and there she was at the top of those stairs. She wore a cape of some kind up to her chin, and it swept down to the floor. I can't even remember the color of the cape, because all I saw was that incredible face, that magnificent hair - and a huge diamond. The most fabulous solitaire diamond on her forehead, just at the tip of her widow's peak. She was enough to make strong men faint.

How the hell did she keep that diamond on her forehead? Was it pasted on? You couldn't tell. Later, Sidney Guilaroff told me that he had taken jet-black wire, very fine, and woven it into Hedy's hair. He anchored it with a little spot of glue. But that diamond was absolutely real. It was breathtaking.

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The Books: "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth" (Lana Turner)

Lana_Book.bmpNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner

You know, you can open up George Eliot's Middlemarch and find a gem of language on every page. Not an exaggeration. It's almost overwhelming that book, you want her to slow down ... because her genius is just too much, I am just a mere mortal, George, let me catch up! One of the things I like to do is just flip open Middlemarch to any page and read the first sentence that I see. It's amazing how often it's a really good one.

Well. Lana Turner's autobiography is the same way.

Is this the first time in the history of the planet that Lana Turner was compared to George Eliot? I hope so, because it's about time.

You literally cannot open this book without finding an awesome sentence. I'm not being sarcastic - although there is much to make fun of here as well. But why I think this book is so awesome is its complete and utter lack of irony (which is really quite refreshing) - not to mention its open-faced assumption that we will care about every detail. Of course we do, Lana! You're Lana Turner! Give us the dish! And boy does she ever. I suppose if you only looked at this book thru a cynical lens, you'd find it irritating and self-involved.

YOUR LOSS, cynics, YOUR LOSS.

It IS self-involved. That is the REASON it is so good. Also, I have to ask: Why are you reading the autobiography of a famous film star and looking for calm reasonable detachment? That's YOUR problem.

She appears to remember every outfit she has ever worn, first of all, in head-to-toe detail. She is open about her foolishness in love - and every date she has ever been on is accompanied by the memory of what she was wearing. She cared about being a good actress and improving at her craft. She knew she was lucky to be "discovered" - she was the original "sweater girl" -

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and she knew she needed to continue to get better if she would have a long career (and boy did she ever). She couldn't seem to stay out of trouble, though. You want to shout at the pages, "LANA, TRY BEING SINGLE FOR, LIKE, ONE SECOND. JUST TRY." But no, not Lana. She is all about love. And her clothes.

Again, if you're reading my words and assuming I'm making fun of all of this, you've totally got me wrong.

I love this book. I love every single word. There are plenty of "great" books out there that DON'T have an awesome sentence on each page - but this one does. Lana Turner and George Eliot, man, holding hands across the centuries.

Let's do an experiment. I will let the book fall open five times - and I will type the first thing I see each time. Sentence, paragraph, whatevs.

No cheating allowed. I promise to play by the rules.

Ready? Let's go.

Viewers of The Merry Widow may have noticed that all during the picture I wore long gloves or a very wide bracelet, or I carried a fur piece on my wrist. Filming of the picture began only a few days after my suicide attempt, and my slashed wrist remained bandaged for most of the shooting. No one at MGM seemed to doubt that my injury was an accident. I was bouncing back quickly, partly because of my natural resiliency. But I also had help. His name was Fernando Lamas.

That is an absolutely PERFECT paragraph. Beginning writers should study it.

Next.

I wore a full-length white fox coat and a silky white lace dress over a nude-colored slip. Before the ball a limousine drove us to the White House, and we filed into the room where Roosevelt delivered his Fireside Chats to the nation. The President sat behind a desk and greeted each person in turn. Fascinated, I studied his lined, handsome face and the marvelous grin I knew from the newsreels. As I approached I saw a look of recongition in his eyes. He didn't wait for an aide's introduction. He just extended his hand and said, "You are Miss Lana Turner." All I could say was, "Yes, Mr. President." He gave me a long look that seemed to take in everything.

Of course he did, Lana. I adore you.

Next:

Poor Liza (Minnelli) got twenty-one stitches in her leg, and her face was badly scraped from hitting the cement. The messy situation got worse when Sid Luft came home. He wanted to sue me, but Judy well knew that Liza had been sternly warned about the wall and the dog. As for Lex, he was so attached to Pulco that he refused to give him up, and in all fairness, he did have good reasons for wanting Pulco at the house. I'd been receiving some strange threatening letters, some of them worrisome enough to report to the police. And there had been that kidnap threat against Cheryl some years back. I no longer went out publicly as much as I had before, and when I did it would be to someone's home. Seclusion became important to me and Lex, and Acapulco appealed to us more and more.

Look, little Liza, Lana warned you about the wall and the dog, mkay?

Next:

Artie wasn't always surly. Sometimes he actually enjoyed life. One night there was an MGM bash at Earl Carroll's, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. Artie played the clarinet in the show, and I performed a dance number from Two Girls on Broadway. Phil Silvers did a comedy turn, and since he had no date, he tagged along with us after the show. At Artie's insistence, we headed home. I made drinks and went off to change. When I came back, Artie and Phil were smoking what they called "reefers". I'd heard of marijuana, of course, but I'd never seen it before. It was associated mainly with jazz musicians. Artie and Phil offered me some, and I said no.

Good for you, Lana. Good for you.

Next and last:

Our next stop was Rio, where we planned to arrive at Carnival time. I wasn't sorry to leave Buenos Aires. Argentina was torn by political strift. It was election time, and there were rough political rallies right in the plaza under our balcony. The Peronista guards would sweep into the crowd with their sabers drawn. It terrified and sickened me to see their battered victims, with blood streaming down their heads. Once, at three in the morning, someone threw a bomb into a service entrance of our hotel. The blast almost shook me and Sara out of our beds. For the rest of the night we sat up, terrified and shaking, in the living room of our suite. In Rio social life was far more pleasant. I had acquaintances there, who invited me to several posh parties. During Carnival the whole city throbbed with the seductive samba beat. We danced long and late. One night someone said, "Let's go into the streets!" Out there we were simply swept off into the crowds. Now it's forbidden, but at that time the men put a little perfumed ether on their handkerchiefs, which would be vaporized by the heat of their bodies. The air was sweet with intoxicating ether fumes. With that and the blaring wild music you just seemed to float on and on. In a seductive black satin halter dress, with flowers in my hair, I danced until dawn.

Of course you did, Lana. I wish I was there.

You know, I thought Don Delillo's supposed masterpiece Underworld was about 400 pages too long - but I wish Lana's book was 400 MORE pages long.

It's the lack of irony, like I mentioned - which gives it such a great zesty and ridiculous voice... and also the lack of self-consciousness. She does not come across as a dingbat, but she does paint herself in this way where you really can see her in all her self-dramatizing chaotic glory. It's self-serving, as all such books are ... but again - if she had laid down irony on top of her defensiveness, or even a sense of detachment or self-awareness- it would have been a terrible book. Here she is, and at times, it seems like she's putting her hands out up to heaven, shrugging at the reader, like, "How on earth can so much happen to one person?" (to paraphrase Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) And I, the reader, looking on, feel like saying to her, "Lana, the reason so much happens to you is because you have atrocious taste in men and you leap right into intimacy without thinking: ' Hmmmm ... before I commit myself to this gentleman, let me ponder the ultimate question: will my daughter one day stab this man to death?' Just HOLD BACK a bit before you fall in love again, I beg of you Lana, please!!" But if she held back, she wouldn't be Lana, yo, so you just have to sit back and keep your mouth shut, shaking your head with fondness and yet also a bit of judgment. "Oh, Lana, Lana, there you go again ..."

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I haven't even talked about her acting yet! Let me send you over to Alex's wonderful tribute piece - Lana Turner is one of her favorite actresses, and that's a wonderful post about why. Here is another insightful post about Lana Turner - a career deep and strange enough that it certainly deserves a second look.

Her star has faded a bit - she is now seen as a symbol of other things - but I've got to believe that someone whose career lasted that long (she may not have done a gazillion movies a year - but she worked steadily) had a hell of a lot of moxie, ambition, and ... maybe not smarts ... but survival skills. She started out as the "It Girl" because of how she looked in a sweater. "It Girls" are a dime a dozen. If you want to last beyond your big season of being the "It Girl", you need to have more going on than just looks, or luck. Will we ever have a Sienna Miller Blog-a-Thon day? Time will tell.

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I am not saying I think Lana Turner is under-rated. I don't. I do think she might be remembered for the wrong reasons, and for those of you who haven't seen her big films, I suggest you go back and have a look. Because she has some damn fine moments when she is used well - when a director "gets" her - and I celebrate that part of her. I really like watching her act. It's a bunch of hoo-hah, really - breathy sleepy-eyed hoo-hah -but that's part of why I like it.

I think Turner is a great example of a woman whose personal life is what she is now remembered for, as opposed to her acting. I love it when people whine about how out of control celebrities are today. Seriously? TODAY they're out of control? Oh, really? Do you have any sense of history? Do you have any grasp on, oh, FACTS? Do you realize how much the studios controlled the publicity of their stars, so most of the really bad stuff was kept from the public? But also, gotta ask: it was better at WHAT point in history? The purer sweeter time of, oh, Fatty Arbuckle? The well-behaved proper time of, uhm, Lana Turner? Like THOSE times?

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But oh well, some people just like to live in a fantasy that once upon a time things were BETTER than they are now, because then they always have something to bitch about!! But seriously, I do laugh sometimes when I hear that "now" celebrities are out of control. Dude. Google Lana Turner and check out what HER life was like, mkay? It makes it look like Lindsay Lohan was just blowing off some adolescent steam.

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Lana Turner led one of the most exhausting public lives I can think of. I want to plead, Good GOD, woman, lie down!!

Or, you could give her the opposite advice as the wonderful Frank O'Hara does in his poem about her.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up


(My friend Mitchell has actually done this piece as a dramatic monologue and it is so funny you stop being able to breathe by around line 6. Speaking of which, Ted just wrote a post on Frank O'Hara ...)


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Great book. Compulsively readable, far better than many serious works of literature I know, and also a book you can keep going back to, over and over again. I first read it when I was 14 (and I was WAY too young for the salacious nature of much of it!) and have read it probably 6 or 7 times ever since.

So ... lie down, Lana, or get up, Lana, either way, we love you.

Here's an excerpt. I basically just let the book fall open and decided to excerpt whatever I saw first, because it was just too hard to choose.

I just love how she defends herself here, and then starts a new paragraph with 'But I did go out a lot." Again, I'm not making fun of her. I am truly delighted at how, in every moment, she appears to be truthful. Even if the truth of one moment totally contradicts the truth of the moment before. But then, after a paragraph about her going beyond the velvet rope to her table, blowing kisses to people, etc. - she takes the edge off of us thinking she takes herself too seriously by writing, "Silly, I guess, but fun."

Yes, Lana, it IS silly, but fun!

LOVE YOU, LANA, PLEASE GET UP.

Put down Don DeLillo and pick up Lana. DeLillo will be waiting for you when you're done. Lana's book is a must-read.


EXCERPT FROM Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner

On New Year's Day, 1945, I became one of the most highly paid actresses in the world. My new contract paid me $4,000 a week, and by Hollywood ritual that meant it was time to buy a new home. I looked for a place in Bel-Air, a gracious section with handsome estates enclosed by Spanish-style adobe walls or ornate wrought-iron fences and sculptured hedges, and I found a lovely house hidden in the woods overlooking the ninth green of the Bel-Air Country Club. Sometimes golf balls smacked the windows or flew into the pool. Whenever I retrieved one I would fine the player a quarter for going out of bounds. It gives me a chuckle to remember those startled faces.

Now I was dating again. First it was Turhan Bey, an exotically handsome Turkish-Viennese actor. But when things turned serious, he introduced me to his mother, who seemed to dislike me on sight.

Once when I was dancing with Turhan at a party in Beverly Hills, Stephan appeared and tried to cut in. When I glanced at Turhan meaningfully he gallantly stepped aside to let Stephan take his place. I still wore Stephan's engagement ring, a three-carat diamond, which I'd had reset to my taste. Now Stephan told me he wanted it back.

"But it's been reset," I protested.

"I don't care. Give it back!"

He snatched my hand and yanked off the ring, then strode quickly away.

When Turhan saw me standing there, he asked me what had happened. I told him, then excused myself to recover. When I got back from the ladies' room, Turhan wasn't there, but everyone was rushing to the garden.

In the center of a knot of people were Turhan and Stephan, scuffling on the ground. the other guests pulled them apart before they could hurt each other. Thank goodness! But Stephan had dropped the ring and was searching frantically through the shrubbery.

The next day Anita May, who had given the party, called to say that her gardener had found the ring. I recovered it, but the story made the papers. The gossips inflated my connection with Turhan to the level of a grand passion. Those same busybodies linked my name to Rory Calhoun, Robert Hutton, and Frank Sinatra - the mention of Frank's name in this connection showed how little the gossips really knew about any of us. Yes, Frank had been a good friend for years, and I was close to his wife, Nancy. But the closest things to dates Frank and I enjoyed were a few box lunches at MGM. Despite our later differences of opinion about his relationship with Ava Gardner, I always found him warm and especially kind to me.

But I did go out a lot. The war had just ended, and the city was booming again. Affluence was in the air. Developers had bought up acres of land and dotted them with row upon row of small, brightly colored tract homes for returning servicemen. Almost overnight the orange groves and open spaces disappeared under the spreading blanket of suburbs, and the city got its first whiff of smog. But in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel-Air, Holmby Hills set high in the Santa Monica Mountains, prewar glamour and opulence were reborn, with a modern flair. The magnificent homes were palaces of glass that let the light stream in, not the tile-floored haciendas or Tudor manors of the past. Light - that's my strongest impression of that postwar time. After th elong years of blackouts and conservation, the city was adazzle with blazing bulbs, brilliant and glittering and fun.

And the men were home. They seemed to catch your eye everywhere you went, like the first greening after a thaw. How I'd love to dress up and go dancing with a handsome dark man. Ciro's was a favorite haunt. I'd walk up the steps and through the glass door, and pass the velvet rope that barred the less-fortunates. And the headwaiter would spring forward - "Ah, Miss Turner ..." and escort me in.

I had a special table right by the stairs so I could watch the comings and goings. I'd head straight there, never glancing right or left. And then, when I was seated, I'd give the room a long casing, bowing to this one or blowing that one a kiss. Silly, I guess, but fun.

Ciro's was designed for dramatic entrances and exits because a long flight of stairs led down to the tables and dance floor. And at the top of the stairs - that's where the stars stopped, to let everyone see them come in. It was all part of the game. Everyone would stare, and you knew you were making an Entrance.

I'd usually be dressed in something clingy, black or white, sometimes gold, occasionally red. I'd wear diamonds and a fur of some kind draped over one shoulder. Often white fur, my favorite. Maybe ermine or silver fox, the fashionable furs at that time. Or sable. I had beautiful sables. I'd have jewels in my hair, or flowers, and every hair in place.

But talk about an Entrance! Hedy Lamarr holds the record for that. One Entrance she made at Ciro's is a vision I'll never forget.

Hedy was at the height of her beauty, with thick, wavy, jet-black hair. With that stunning widow's peak, her face was magnificent. We all looked up and there she was at the top of those stairs. She wore a cape of some kind up to her chin, and it swept down to the floor. I can't even remember the color of the cape, because all I saw was that incredible face, that magnificent hair - and a huge diamond. The most fabulous solitaire diamond on her forehead, just at the tip of her widow's peak. She was enough to make strong men faint.

How the hell did she keep that diamond on her forehead? Was it pasted on? You couldn't tell. Later, Sidney Guilaroff told me that he had taken jet-black wire, very fine, and woven it into Hedy's hair. He anchored it with a little spot of glue. But that diamond was absolutely real. It was breathtaking.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

November 8, 2008

The Books: "Jimmy Stewart: A Biography" (Marc Elliot)

meliot-340-Jimmy_stewart_c.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, by Marc Elliot

I had misplaced this book and forgot about it - so even though we are now at "T" in the alphabet, I have to swoop back and include this book. I'm too OCD to let it slide.

Marc Elliot appears to be the new bigwig on the block, in terms of serious in-depth entertainment biographies. A couple of years ago, he came out with a detailed huge book about Cary Grant (Excerpt here), and he just came out with a book called Reagan: The Hollywood Years, which I am eager to read.

Here is what I think Elliot's gift is. He does not skimp on the movies themselves of his particular subject - he delves into the meaning of a career, rather than just its surface elements. So - what are the phases of Stewart's career? What did Capra bring out in him? What did Mann? What did Hitchcock? But I think his real gift (and I noticed this in the Cary Grant book too) is in breaking down for us, through meticulous research, all of the business decisions of the powers-that-be that made these men such giant stars (besides their talent, I mean). Elliot is brilliant on contracts and negotiations and the repercussions thereof. That stuff can be rather dry, especially for a fangirl like myself, but it's never dry with him. It becomes THE thing that sets his book apart from other books. Cary Grant had a precedent-breaking deal with a couple of studios - unheard-of at the time. He was basically freelance. How did he do that?? Elliot breaks it down for us, and makes us see just how prescient Grant was - he wasn't just lucky, he was smart - and he does the same thing here with Stewart. Stewart's agent got him a deal for the profits of the films he worked on - which catapulted him up into the highest echelon of salaries. He became a millionaire with that deal. Because the real money isn't in the salary you make as an actor. The REAL money is when you get a piece of the film itself. Actors nowadays all have such deals, it's part of being a star. You produce the film, or you help produce it - you negotiate for a portion of the gross profits. I remember when Jack Nicholson somehow got that kind of deal for himself when he played "The Joker" - not only did he get a portion of the film, but also a portion of all the memorabilia surrounding the film. It made front-page news at the time. That is a gargantuan sum. But back in the 30s and 40s, even though these people were huge stars, they were still, essentially, contract players. Now, naturally, they made a lot of money - but the deals of Stewart and Grant changed the industry. It was a prophecy of things to come, of the studio collapse, of all actors going freelance, and the result being that salaries skyrocketed. When Stewart got the deal for the profits of the film, every actor in Hollywood started pressing their agents to get them similar deals. The pressures on the studio were enormous. "If HE can have that, then I want it, too!"

I love this story that Quincy Jones tells, which is relevant. He and Grant were good friends. Grant came from a poverty-struck lower-class background, and Jones and he clicked on that level - Jones said something like, "The lower class in England was looked down upon like black people were in America - we understood each other." And once, he mentioned to Grant his theory of "horizontal money":

Sometimes I would get into a lot of mixed metaphors. The way I expressed things cracked Cary up because it was so un-British. For instance, I would say, 'I'm getting to the age where I've got to start making some more horizontal money.' He asked me what that meant. I explained, 'Well, when I'm up in the studio conducting, that's vertical money. But when you're at home watching TV and An Affair to Remember comes on, that's horizontal money.' Cary talked about that for years. He told all his friends.

The real money to be made is not the vertical money. That's just you WORKING for your living. But when you lie down to rest, and you STILL make money, then you're in the horizontal bracket, and you're then all set. Very few actors make horizontal money, although it's a little bit better now because of residuals. Although, let's be honest - those only really matter for the stars, the Bea Arthurs and the David Schwimmers and the Julia Louis-Dreyfuss who honestly never have to work again because of their residuals. My friend and I were recently laughing - her husband had a small part on The Sopranos, he appeared in one episode. He recently got a check - a CHECK - for eighteen cents. So that's what residuals are for your basic day-players - so that's not REALLY "horizontal money". My friend's husband was laughing like, "Do I CASH this? This is an insult!" Most actors, even successful ones, still have to hustle to sing for their supper. But people like Stewart and Grant saw the opportunity in that horizontal money - Grant was an independent spirit, he didn't even have an agent, for God's sake - he negotiated that deal for himself! In the 1930s! Unheard of. Stewart had a shark of an agent who did it all for him - but nevertheless there is a similarity in the two men's trajectories, in terms of horizontal money.

So Elliot is really really good on that level. Hollywood opens its secret doors of negotiations when you read him and you start to get a sense of how things actually work.

But he is also good, like I mentioned earlier, in describing the feel of a person's career. Not just "what happened", but what it MEANT. What was Jimmy Stewart's persona? How did it change? What did he mean to people? And how did THAT change? Elliot sometimes falls into the trap of analyzing Stewart's films in terms of how they fit in with Stewart's biography - and I'm not wacky about that because it seems to discount the creative spirit. Meaning, Elliot will say things like, "Stewart was probably attracted to the role because it showed a character who had unresolved issues with his father, and Stewart had those same issues." Uhm, not so fast. How about he was attracted to the role because it was a good part? Acting is NOT an exorcism of personal demons. Or, it can be - but that seems to me to be a byproduct, not a goal. Stewart may have been releasing some demons in some of his best parts (it is apparent that he was) - but the choice to DO the role is often more complex (or simple) than: "Let me work on this because I went through the same thing ..." Acting can be rather mysterious, especially for those who have a gift for it. You don't always know WHY you are attracted to something. It may just feel like a good role and then in retrospect you realize how much it dovetails with your own experience. I'm not saying Elliot is wrong - it just becomes too simplistic at times.

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Regardless, his analysis of the development of Stewart's career was really interesting and although I have always loved Stewart, I did not know a lot of his story. Much of this was new to me. I've seen most of his great movies and love him quite a bit, but I didn't know about the subtle change in him over the years, from naive idealist to dark torment ... or I noticed the change from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Vertigo but never really thought much about it. Jimmy Stewart was not a sex symbol. Women loved him, but they wanted to mother him. His early roles show that. He has a slow delivery of his lines, deliberate, he doesn't waste his energy. He doesn't push. He was a leading man, but not like Gary Cooper was a leading man, or Cary Grant. He had something different going on.

Capra illuminated the idealist, the man willing to almost destroy himself in pursuit of an idea, a goal - a shining martyr to America ... but how fascinating - you never could have predicted this: Anthony Mann saw something else in Stewart after WWII - and it probably saved his career. Stewart in a Western?

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This now seems so obvious, because he made so many good ones - but back in the early 40s that was not the case. Stewart was a small-town guy, totally present-day, a shambling slow-talking sweetheart, maybe a little too naive - but not idiotically so. Mann saw that Stewart could bring a cold intellectual quality to a role, there was something in him that was NOT passionate - and while in certain roles that made him the sweet man that he was, put into another context it could be quite threatening. Mann revived Stewart's career and gave it new life. It's interesting to consider that so many of Stewart's movies that are now seen as classics were not hits at the time. It's A Wonderful Life flopped. Vertigo didn't flop, but it wasn't a success. Stewart was one of those actors lucky enough to live long enough to see the development of television totally revive his career - he was in his twilight years when It's a Wonderful Life started its unstoppable juggernaut on holiday television, and it catapulted him back up into the stratosphere. Same with the film nuts of the 70s and 80s - famous people now - Scorsese and the like - who saw the depth and breadth of his work and ran film festivals of the films he did with Hitchcock or Mann. Stewart did not die in obscurity, only to be re-discovered with the advent of cable television and TCM. It's a Wonderful Life on television made him a huge star all over again.

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I know there are so many great moments in Jimmy Stewart's long and illustrious career, but I have to say - that that phone call scene in It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite bit of all. You just ache watching it. So so good.

Elliot is also very interesting on Jimmy Stewart's experiences in WWII and how it changed him forever. Here's a really nice tribute post about Stewart as a pilot - very inspiring (and that looks to be a really nice site, in general. I've been scrolling through his archives and I am very impressed and moved). Jimmy Stewart, post WWII, was darker and more tormented than he had been before. Scorsese writes:

If the prewar Stewart stood for something essentially American, the postwar Stewart stood for something truly universal. It's difficult to think of another American star who remade his own image so thoroughly, or so bravely.

It's a Wonderful Life came out after WWII, and it was thought it would be a huge hit, that the American populace would respond lovingly to its message, after so many years of fear and hardship. But that was not the case. Films after WWII got darker, more overtly political and paranoid, film noir became the next thing, and home and hearth were definitely not what the audiences were responding to. VERY interesting. Stewart realized that after the flop of It's a Wonderful Life and looked about for something to revive him, a new path, something different.

It was directors like Mann or Hitchcock who allowed him to express all of this new stuff - even though he didn't appear in war pictures. Stewart, after WWII, refused to ever appear as a soldier on film. There might have been one or two pictures where he caved on this stated principle of his - but in general, he did not want to be in a movie that depicted war, or glorified it. He had had it. He was a staunch lifelong Republican, he was proud of his service, and he was also proud of his son for serving (his son ended up dying in Vietnam, which shattered Stewart) - but he didn't want to participate in any way in films that glorified war. So he didn't. He also never spoke about his experiences (although the tributes given to him by men who served with him are eloquent and very moving), and whatever it was that had changed him remained private - but we can see the result in the films following WWII. Elliot analyzes the difference in the persona, pre- and post- and I hadn't really thought about it before, but you can really really see it in the films. Thank goodness Stewart had directors who saw something in him other than the aw-shucks idealist, because his career would have been short and boring otherwise. He's wonderful in romantic comedies - I love him in the sweetness of those old movies - but Hitchcock, in the same way he did with Cary Grant, saw something else in Stewart. And look at how different the two men are. You can't really picture Stewart in To Catch a Thief and it's hard to imagine Cary Grant in Vertigo. Hitchcock was brilliant in his perception at what was beneath the glitter in these two huge stars. Hitchcock kept coming back to Stewart. He was honing his own idea of the man, and you can see that in the development of the pictures they made together.

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Fascinating.

Jimmy Stewart is a great American actor, and it was really fun for me to get to know him as a person a little bit better. I admire him even more now. I don't think his longevity was an accident. I think he was a practical man, who thought practically about his choices as an actor, and was willing (especially in things like Vertigo) to show himself as weak, human and conflicted. This is not the case of most giant male stars. They get more cautious as they get older (phone for Robert DeNiro, a call for Robert DeNiro) - not Stewart. He got braver ... and braver ... and braver ... and braver ...

Remarkable.

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Here's an excerpt from the book about the byzantine negotiations that went in to the making of Philadelphia Story. It shows Marc Elliot's gift for making clear and real the contractual issues and back-and-forth that happens when getting ready to do a movie.

EXCERPT FROM Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, by Marc Elliot

In 1939, Cukor was then hired by Katharine Hepburn to make a movie out of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, a project she and Howard Hughes, her secret investor (and lover), had commissioned Barry to write for her and had taken to Broadway in an attempt to reestablish her popularity. Hayward, meanwhile, who had navigated Hepburn out of her free-fall and anticipated a major comeback with the film version of her smash-hit Broadway vehicle, looked to play the role of fixer for Jimmy as well by getting him a role in what was shaping to be on the most anticipated movies of 1940. If anything could save Jimmy's career, Hayward figured, it was The Philadelphia Story.1

Not that getting the film made was all that easy. Despite The Philadelphia Story's soaring success on stage that made it the talk of the 1939 Broadway season, its New York-based cast of actors and actresses - Joseph Cotten as C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy Lord's (Hepburn's) divorced first husband, Van Heflin as Macaulay Connor, the sardonic gossip columnist; and Shirley Booth as Macaulay's wisecracking sidekick, Elizabeth Embrie - failed to impress Hollywood when the studios came looking to buy the rights for a film version. Nobody wanted Cotten, Heflin, Booth, and especially Hepburn. When Selznick initially wanted to buy the property as a star vehicle for Bette Davis, Hepburn adamantly refused to sell to him. When MGM wanted it for Joan Crawford, Hepburn again said no. When Warner Bros. wanted it for Ann Sheridan, ditto. When independent film maker Samuel Goldwyn was willing to take Hepburn to get the rights to the play, but only if Gary Cooper were her co-star and William Wyler directed, Hepburn flatly turned him down. She then made it clear to one and all: either George Cukor directed her in the film version of The Philadelphia Story or there was not going to be a movie version.

Finally, Louis B. Mayer put an offer on the table that Hepburn liked - $175,000 for the rights, $75,000 for her to reprise her Broadway performance as Tracy Lord, and George Cukor at the helm. Mayer envisioned Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy (whom Hepburn had not yet met), or Robert Taylor in the role of C.K. Dexter Haven, and in the role of the gossip columnist Macaulay Connor (as a favor to Hayward, after the agent suggested to Mayer he could make the deal happen), James Stewart.

Gable, Tracy, and Taylor all turned down the film, presumably because they each felt it was still too risky a career move to star opposite box-office dud Hepburn. (Besides, Gable was already looking ahead to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind and didn't want to work with Cukor, anyway, who was gay, and who the homophobic Gable believed favored filming female stars over their male co-stars.)2

Jimmy's reactio to being offered the role of Macaulay Connor was, on the other hand, one of pleasant surprise. "When I first read the script," he said later on, "I thought I was being considered for that fellow engaged to Hepburn. But as I read it, I thought to myself, ooh, that reporter part [Connor] is a good one. I'll be happy to play it."

Unfortunately for Jimmy, Grant wanted to play Connor rather than the part he had been offered, of Lord's ex-husband Dexter Haven, believing, although it was essentially a supporting role rather than the male lead, it was better written and funnier. However, as far as Cukor and Hepburn were concerned, Grant had to be her romantic co-star. In the context of the film's re-worked script, so as not to impede too much on the film's romantic track, the role of Connor was reduced to little more than a foil to Grant's star turn as Tracy's disgruntled but still-in-love, once-and-future husband.3

Stewart accepted the role of Connor without hesitation, even after he learned from Hayward how much more money Grant and Hepburn were being paid. Grant, four years older than Stewart and with a far more established screen presence, had become the first actor to successfully overcome the hitherto-ironclad studio salary system in 1936 by not renewing his original five-year deal with Paramount. Instead he signed two nonexclusive multiple-picture deals with Columbia and RKO, and reserved the right to negotiate his fees and percentages on a per-film basis. When Mayer offered him The Philadelphia Story, he agreed to sign on with two conditions. The first was that he be paid $137,500 - twice what Hepburn was getting, figuring correctly that she would make her money on the back end if the film proved a hit. The second was that he receive top billing, to which Hepburn also agreed.

For Mayer, it was a sweet deal, especially considering that for all he was paying for Hepburn and Grant, he had Jimmy under a tight financial rein. He was paying him $3,000 a week, which meant that for the five weeks the film was in production, from July 5 through August 14, Jimmy would earn a total of $15,000. Although he was not happy about the discrepancy in salaries, he also knew he was in no position to complain and said nothing. But he wouldn't forget either when, two years down the line, it would be time to renew his own contract with the studio.


1 Generally credited with resurrecting Hepburn's career, Cukor always claimed to have "discovered" Cary Grant, although Grant had made twenty movies before Sylvia Scarlett, and had developed something of a name for himself playing opposite Marlene Dietrich for Josef von Sternberg in Blonde Venus (1932) and opposite Mae West two times, in Lowell Sherman's She Done Him Wrong (1933) and Wesley Ruggles's I'm No Angel (1933). In 1954, Cukor, at producer Sid Luft's urging, performed another female career resurrection a la Hepburn, this time for Judy Garland, against Warner Bros.' wishes, after she had been released by her contract at MGM, by casting her as the female lead in A Star Is Born.

2 Cukor was hired to direct Gone With the Wind, but was quickly fired at Gable's insistence, replaced by his friend, macho film veteran Victor Fleming.

3 When Grant went to Hepburn to enlist her help to get him the part of Connor, she assured him he could have the role if he really wanted it, but if he were smart, he would listen to Cukor and stick with Haven, a sure-thing Oscar for whatever actor played him. If there was one thing the Oscar-less Grant wanted more than the part of Connor, it was a gold statue from the Academy. Always unsure of himself when it came to casting, Grant went against his own doubting instincts and followed Hepburn's advice, leaving the role of Connor to Stewart. Cukor assured Grant he had made the right choice.

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November 6, 2008

The Books: "Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles" (Kathleen Turner)

send-yourself-roses.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)

I forget sometimes that Body Heat was Kathleen Turner's debut. How is that possible? Her performance is so strong, so suggestive of the entire history of film noir and femme fatales - it has its own specificity yet it also references every bad dame ever to stroll across celluloid ... She is smokin' hot, and she knows how to use it, but it's more of a long low smoulder than anything more flashy. You ache watching her. The movie is through Bill Hurt's eyes, so that's appropriate. This is a man who smashes through a window just because she's standing there. He MUST have her. Turner walks that line in her performance like an old pro. Another actress would have overdone the sexual-ness, being little more than a cat in heat, and missed that it is the SMOULDER that needs to be there, the long slow boil that will drive a man mad. That's hard to do. Lauren Bacall does it in To Have and Have Not. It requires the ability to be still, to hold back, to have it all be in the eyes.

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It was Turner's debut. The mind boggles. In her book, which came out last year, she writes a lot about that shoot, and what it was like for her. She was a stage actress, living in New York. Film-making was a total unknown thing to her. She had done some extra work on a soap opera, I think - that was her only experience in front of a camera. Amazing. So she learned on the job. Most people learn on the job with smaller roles first. Not her. She was learning on the job while playing a lead. That required full body nudity. She had a good head on her shoulders, and it's very interesting to read her version of events, her process. She was such a newbie. The fact that a whole morning would be spent filming a closeup of her fingers tapping on the counter blew her mind ... and she was such a theatre person, she would be thinking, "God, you would never see such a thing on stage ... THIS is what film can give you ..." But still. You never see what a newbie she is in that performance.

Her salary for Body Heat was $30,000. Afterwards, before it came out, she went back to New York and started waitressing again. Her agent and the studio wanted to hold Turner back - didn't want her to be in anything else that might dilute the impact of Body Heat. Now that is a hell of a risk to take. What if Body Heat had flopped? That means she would have stepped out of the business for almost a year - which you just can't do, especially not when you're a young hot woman. You have ZERO time to make your mark ... but Turner, always one for taking risks - you really get that in her book - said, "Okay, cool, I won't do anything until Body Heat comes out." Good thing she didn't because it was like she had come from out of nowhere - this sultry knowing ice-cool yet boiling-hot blonde ... where did SHE come from?? It intensified her impact. But still: remember it was a risk. $30,000 may sound like a lot for one job, but it's really not. Because let's say you made, oh, $5,000 the year before as an actress - in small parts or theatre roles - and then you supplemented your yearly income by waitressing or teaching or whatever. Much of that $30,000 would disappear instantly, already going to pay overdue bills from your years of living below the poverty-line (income-wise, I mean) ... and that's what happened with Turner. She was waitressing in New York, after filming Body Heat, and people would ask her what she was up to, and she'd say, "Yeah, I did this movie ... it hasn't come out yet though." She was about to become a huge star.


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I happen to love her in Romancing the Stone. That's another role where she had to, in her performance, reference other performances - it's a genre, a well-known style - the adventure movie, sure, but in the style of old serials, mixed with the delicious 1940s Howard Hawks gender wars with back-and-forth repartee between worthy foes who fight and fuck, basically ... This is not your straight drama or straight comedy. It's a parody, a spoof - as well as a movie that works on its own merits. (Can you tell I love it?) But what I'm trying to get at is, yet again, Turner was playing a reference-point - a certain KIND of part - same as she did in Body Heat, only now she totally switched it up and played the uptight-yet-romantic woman who is totally undone and frazzled and turned on by her encounter with this wild man. You know, the librarian who takes off her glasses. Nothing - NOTHING - would prepare you for Kathleen Turner's versatility from Body Heat. It's really rather amazing. I believe that if she had stayed playing hot temptresses her career would have been about 6 years long. But immediately following Body Heat, she started switching it all up - The Man with Two Brains, Romancing the Stone. Now what, to me, all of this really reveals - is Turner's love for camp. She "gets" it. It's not just a surface imitation - it's an embodiment of a certain style, and the campier the better. Body Heat, seen in this light, could be taken as one of the best camp performances of all time. I actually think that's what Sharon Stone was up to in Basic Instict - ridiculous film, but a deliciously campy performance - which I wrote about here - scroll down to the picture of Stone. I wrote:

I thought Stone gave one of the campiest (in the best way) most specific and fantastic performances of that entire decade. I look at it not as reality - or like she was trying to play a real person - I saw it as high camp - a nod to Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck and all the devious film-noir femme fatales. No wonder she became a star. I know she's nuts - but that was a star performance and she was NOT a star when she gave it. That takes balls. Well-deserved success, in my opinion.

It was great to see Turner and Michael Douglas again in War of the Roses - another campy romp. So much fun. They were great together.

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There's a BIG-ness to Kathleen Turner. Subtlety is not her strong suit. In a way, she is difficult to cast because of that, but she has been very lucky. Her sex appeal was enormous, and that wasn't an accident (she writes a lot about that in her book) - she worked at it. She describes it as "turning on a tap". She has her insecurities like anyone, and getting naked in front of an entire crew was nerve-wracking (although crews are notoriously the most professional types around - they've seen it all ... they know how to be respectful and create a safe space for the actors to do what they have to do.) But Turner said that she would have her moments, during filming of Body Heat when the cameras were on, and the crew were basically hanging off the balcony holding lights and booms - when she felt like she was in the Coliseum, gladiators battling it out - only it was her sexuality that she had to show. In between takes, she would go back to her trailer and weep. She didn't feel degraded, she makes that very clear - but showing that kind of energy is scary, and usually it's done privately - your husband or your boyfriend gets to see it - and even then it might be nervewracking to let the cat out of the bag. But to do so take after take, in front of a large crowd, was a "raw" experience (her word), and yet she realized very early on that that would be her stock in trade. That was what she had to offer, and it set her apart from other actresses. She wasn't just sexy. She was hot, and when she turned on that tap, people went nuts. She managed to negotiate that aspect of herself very gracefully, I think - and here she is, in her 50s, still trying to negotiate it. Because you see Turner now, and she's heavy (although still gorgeous) - and the memory of that slim burning flame of a woman is still in all of our brains ... a painful thing for many actresses. People can be unforgiving. They don't want to see their sex bombs get older. Turner has certainly experienced that in her life. Not to mention her health problems, her drinking, and her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

But we don't stop being sexual beings just because we're older (hopefully) - and Turner has been courageous enough to continue to explore that aspect of herself - now on Broadway rather than in films - in The Graduate as Mrs. Robinson (which I saw - not a very good show, but she was a lot of fun and the only one up on that stage who knew how to act in the THEATRE) - and then, spectacularly, as Martha in the highly acclaimed revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I saw that production and it was a high watermark for me, in terms of live performance. She was unbelievable. Her performance stayed with me for days. Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens was another high watermark for me. I'm trying to think of more - there aren't many. When I was in Ireland as a 12 year old girl, we went to see Ibsen's Doll's House at the Abbey and whoever that Irish actress was playing Nora - she was so blazingly good that I still remember some of her stage business and blocking so many years later. The scene where she desperately dances the tarantella to stop her husband from going to the mailbox? I have goosebumps right now typing this. That woman was out of this world. Acting rarely gets that good. Let's see, who else. I saw Bill Pullman do Edward Albee's The Goat on Broadway - and while I always liked Pullman I hadn't really realized how damn good he was until I saw him onstage. He was fantastic. And that is a hard play. An upper-class man falls in love with a goat that he sees during a drive in the country. This isn't a joke. He looks in that goat's eyes and sees a sexy kindred spirit. He hides his affair from his wife (played beautifully by Mercedes Ruehl) for a while until he can no longer stand it and comes clean. The play was uproariously funny but why it was funny was that Pullman played it all straight. He REALLY was in love, and his heart was torn to shreds because of it. That play could so have fallen flat on its face, but he was so damn good. I haven't forgotten it. Swoosie Kurtz in House of Blue Leaves was a high watermark for me, too. But although I've seen much good theatre, much that I really love - those performances that burn their way into your psyche - are few and far between.

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Kathleen Turner as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of the most powerful pieces of live acting I have ever seen. I saw it the week it opened, I think - it was very early on in the run - but I have friends who saw it later in the run and said it was just as intense, just as raw. Ted saw it (am I getting this memory right, Ted??) and as the audience left the theatre, Ted was following behind two women. The crowd dispersed down the sidewalk, and Ted found himself still behind those same two women. Half a block away from the theatre, one of the women suddenly buckled over, and burst into hysterical sobs. A delayed reaction from the play. She and her friend stood out of the way of the flow of traffic, and as Ted passed by, the woman was still out of control, sobbing. By the end of that play, you have been put through the wringer. Not just Turner was great - everyone was great - and Turner was just magnificent in that ensemble setting.

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Here's my review of the play.

The play is obviously funny. I laugh out loud when I read the script. Turner got a laugh on almost every line - she got laughs where I didn't see laughs. Her delivery was superb. It was JUICY, rich, bitchy, tragic - such a good performance. And then in the last scene of the play, where the secret comes out - she falls apart. Her work was so stunningly real that I couldn't believe that what she had done was actually part of the script, and when I got home, I pulled out the script to see if she had deviated, or if what she had done was actually on the page. And it was. This is the greatest compliment to an actress I can think of. When George comes out with the secret, Martha falls to her knees and her line is, "Oh no!" Now how does one play that? How does one go about playing such a moment? What exactly does one work on?

Meryl Streep tells a great story about the filming of the "choice" moment in Sophie's Choice. It goes a long way towards explaining her "process" (which is good, because she sure as hell can't explain it!). She said that she glanced at the script once, before filming, skipped her eyes over the scene, and never looked at it again until the day of filming. She didn't work on it, or agonize over it. She knew what would be required of her, and with just one glance-over she knew it would rip her heart out - so she didn't think about it at all until the moment came to film it. A moment like that, if your talent is fluid and accessible enough, plays itself. But it does require that you live it. You can't "phone in" a moment like that. A good actress knows when she has to work and when she doesn't. You work on the right things, you don't waste your energy. Streep didn't waste her energy worrying about that scene, knowing, in her heart, that when the time came to film it - her sense of reality and identification and horror would have no choice but to come flowing out.

And that's what I saw when I saw Kathleen Turner fall to her knees and call out, like a character from a Greek tragedy, "Oh, no!" It was a cry of the soul, all that character's grief and loss was in it - the grief of the ages. An amazing moment of live theatre and I still couldn't believe that that "Oh no" was ever stark words on the page because Turner so made it come to life. It was unbearable to watch. It's like when cameras and microphones are shoved into the faces of people who have just lost everything in a fire, flood, tornado. Their lives are ruined. They are bereft. "How do you feel?" shout the reporters. Watching them in their pain feels intrusive, like we should leave them alone - an animal slinking off to the woods to lick its wounds. Turner was a wounded animal in that moment, howling out her pain, and it was embarrassing. I LOVE being embarrassed like that in the theatre, it happens so rarely. Sometimes you're just embarrassed because the play sucks, but embarrassment like what I felt in that last scene of Virginia Woolf comes close to being a truly divine experience. It is the meaning of catharsis.


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Turner's book is honest, ballsy, and probably made her some enemies. She tells secrets. But not just on others - she tells secrets on herself, too. But her portrait of William Hurt during Body Heat is complex, she's not afraid to describe their conflicts. He was Mr. Method Man at the time and was really put off by the fact that Turner would be joking around with the crew moments before filming. He didn't get that that was her process - that she didn't want to expend her energy before the camera was rolling. He was annoyed. Turner describes the conflicts straight - you don't get the sense that she holds a grudge, she and Hurt are still good friends - but she has nothing to lose from being really honest. The book is honest as well about her drinking, and how much she came to need it.

And one of the other things that was amazing to me about her performance in Virginia Woolf was how physical it was - dancing, sashaying, falling over the couch, sitting on the floor - and Turner lives in almost constant physical pain from her arthritis. She did what she needed to do to be able to get through the run of that show without hurting herself - but when I think of her physical limitations and remember her falling to her knees, arms outstretched in horror, screaming, "Oh no" tears come to my eyes.

Good for her, man. Good for her.

I have chosen an excerpt from her book about how she campaigned to play Martha. I did not know the backstory to that production - that it was Turner who really made the whole thing happen, basically just by saying over and over to the powers-that-be, "I must play this part. I must play this part." There is a time to be humble, and then there is a time to be bold. "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid." When you are pushing Edward Albee to allow you to bring out a production of a show he has not allowed performed in New York in 30 years, that is NOT the time to be humble. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

I remember reading Ben Brantley's review in The NY Times (I wrote about it here) - the one she excerpts so proudly below (and rightly so) - and it was right after reading his review that I ordered tickets. Immediately. "I have to see this."

A funny thing: Turner had read the play in college and was blown away by it. It awakened something in her. She was 20 years old. She knew, "I HAVE to play this part someday." She had it in her head as a goal that she would play it before she turned 50. And I am very interested in how she made it her own. It's not an easy thing to do. It's like making Stanley Kowalski your own. And in many ways, an actor - when faced with that - has to say, "NO. MY version will be THIS ..." It requires a rejection of what has gone before. Not easy to do, especially with these roles that have been indelibly portrayed by others ... it's like you need to give yourself permission to do it your way.

She determined, at the ripe age of 20, that she would play that part when she was 50.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Kathleen Turner, opened on Broadway in March 2005, almost a year after her 50th birthday. She made her deadline!


EXCERPT FROM Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)

It's More Fun to Play a Bad Girl

I went about getting the role of Martha step by step, because I found her character so compelling from the very first time I read the play. I suppose I chose age fifty as my goal with the idea that she would be past childbearing age. Because the truth is, the play is not really a tragedy unless you know that Martha will never be able to have a child. If she's young enough that it would be possible for her still to hope for a child, then her character is not as deeply tragic as it could, should be. So I had fifty set in my mind. In this day and age, we think in terms of in vitro and other variations on the usual way of becoming pregnant. And we value women for attributes other than motherhood. But I think about Martha in 1960, when the play was set. Life was so different for women then, so much more restricted.

She is intelligent, ambitious, energetic. As she confesses, she worships her father, who was the president of the university. She so desires to please him. Her father has crippled her by not seeing who she is or what she has to offer. She had briefly married "the lawn mower", as they referred to the gardener at the boarding school she attended; that made her a damaged person to her father. If it were today, she could have aspired to be a university president herself, or to some other career of her choosing. That would have given her life a whole new purpose, a whole new meaning. But it's 1960, so her ambitions had to be channeled, funneled, achieved by a man - her father before she was married and thereafter, her husband.

As much as she and George love each other and always have, it's been a terrible disappointment to her that he has shared none of her ambitions and certainly will not be the heir to her father's presidency. After twenty-five years, George is still an associate professor. You have to work hard to fail that much.

And without children, what does she have? She gets to be on committees of faculty wives, to have a spring Easter egg hunt or a Christmas party or crap like that, which means nothing to her. She doesn't have any standing other than as her father's daughter or as her husband's wife. She's not a mother, can't be a baby maker, so she doesn't have that title of respect. Today, we women tend to have more options, not fewer, as we get older. Martha had almost none as she approached her fifties. This time of life that to me is so freeing, to Martha must have been terribly stifling.

So she sits in the empty house day after day and she starts drinking. Which I think many would do, frankly, in that situation. I think I would if i were sitting around with all that ability but no way to see that I could do something fruitful with it, or do something that used my abilities or challenged my mind. It would be dreadful. Anyone would feel defeated or might overeat or drink or do drugs.

Perhaps some exceptional women would have found another private outlet such as writing that they could control on their own. But I think that would be the exception and that they would have been seen as abnormal by the rest of society. Martha chafes at the irrational boundaries, but not in a political way. Her behavior has no boundaries. She has no limits physically or vocally. She just throws herself around without any thought as to the proper behavior.

Poor woman, I started out feeling very angry with her and quite disgusted, and I thought, Oh, stop it! Pull yourself together - this is rubbish. But then more and more I began to empathize with her. This happens to me often with characters. I play so many awful ones. They turn out to be more interesting than the good girls. You always know what a good girl is going to do. You never know what a bad girl is going to do. It's much more fun.

I didn't see the whole film and I've never seen a stage production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Knowing always that I wanted to do Martha, I would never willingly want to have someone else's performance in my head. But in my readings of it, I always thought it was extremely funny. I saw big laughs. I never understood why no one spoke of it that way. I like a hard-edged humor, and that's definitely Virginia Woolf to me. The little I saw of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film I disliked immensely, but I think that's because it was performed with acceptance of the culture of the time rather than a questioning of it. It seemed to me that their George and Martha were just two drunks screaming at each other and tearing each other apart for a night. I didn't understand this at all. Because my perception reading the play had been so very different.

With most characters, I find I go through stages where I truly dislike them, and then I start to find the reasons for their behavior - then I start to have sympathy for them and then empathy, and then I feel they're totally justified. Somebody says, "How could she do that?"

Because she had to, okay?

And I had to play Martha.

Jumping into the Fear

Fear tries to overtake me when I am between jobs. I had just finished the Broadway run of The Graduate and was looking anxiously to what I would do next. I am inclined to try to overcome fear by jumping right into its face, to do that which I am afraid of doing. I decided to ask directly for what I wanted most - to play Martha.

By the time I was forty-eight, I was on a comfortable standing with most of the major Broadway producers. I'd done enough work that was very good so I could speak with any of them if I wanted to. I set out to get the role I'd been coveting since I was twenty.

Liz McCann has been Edward Albee's producer for years. He doesn't allow anyone else to produce his plays. So I had to get to Liz. Fortunately, she's a great friend of the Nederlanders', who own theaters in which Albee's plays have been produced, and Jimmy Nederlander Jr. is a great friend of mine. I asked Jimmy and his fiancee, Margo MacNabb, also a dear friend, to set up a dinner with Liz and Jay and me. Just social, you know.

During the course of the evening, I told Liz that I wanted Virginia Woolf. "I want Martha," I said. And Liz said, "Well, I don't think that's going to happen." Edward had not allowed the play to be performed in New York since 1975. Liz told me he didn't express any desire to do it; he'd had some readings over the last few years with other actresses but had not approved any of them. And career-wise, he was still writing new plays. The Goat had come out that year. He didn't want to be known just for his old material. All of which was completely understandable.

I pressed on. "Yes, but you have no idea how well I would do this. I really need - no, you really need me to do this." "No, no, no, no" was her response.

I kept after Liz for weeks after that. I want to talk to Edward. I want to meet with Edward. I want to see him. Finally she set up a lunch and the three of us got together. This was before the presidential election in 2004. Edward and I are on the same side politically, and we share a great number of concerns. It was a very interesting, challenging conversation over lunch. The man is absolutely brilliant. We never even got to the play; we just talked politics and everything that goes with that. But I'm told that I became Martha during the course of the lunch.

Finally, as we were leaving the restaurant, Edward said, "All right, what do you want?" I said, "I want to read Martha."

When I met with Edward after that, I said, "Look, I'm funny and we'll get a funny George. I think the dark humor in the play has never been realized." He said, "Oh, you don't?" I said, "No, I don't think anybody's seen it created as the comedy it could and should be." He was skeptical but said, "Oh, fine, right."

So what did I want, he asked again. Again I said I wanted a reading. We agreed to put together the reading.

Then we started desperately thinking of who we would get as George. Bill Irwin's name came up and I thought, Oh, that's brilliant. He is a great comedian and an inspired clown, and talk about your timing - that boy has got it. Yeah, he's got it. He has the clear, clear intelligence that needs to be demonstrated by George. And he'd just played in Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in London for a time. I thought, Oh, this is a stunning idea. There were many other leading actors who wanted this reading, but once Bill's name came up, that was it for me. I said, "Yes, we've got to get him in here."

Next I took the extra step to make sure my own reading would be the best it could possibly be. I got together with Anthony Page, the very talented British director who has done many of Albee's plays, and he worked with us before we did the reading. Anthony later said he thought I looked like Martha, strong and somewhat plain, and unpretentious, as though I'd really lived. Ha! Is that a compliment? At any rate, working with Anthony in advance of the reading was a real plus in my preparation.

When we did our read-through, Edward was there along with the director, the producers, and a number of other people. Edward started laughing soon after we began. And let me tell you something: he doesn't laugh easily.

Now, everyone can see that in this production, there are huge laughs throughout the first act, every three or four lines. In the second act, there are fewer, and the third act, fewer still. But even in the most difficult parts, Albee sets up big laughs that previous productions have not generally made the most of. Even at the very end, when Martha says, "Show me the telegram," and George says, "I ate it." My God, it's a shock laugh, yes. But the physical action of laughing releases a great deal of tension in everyone. It allows you as an actor to build the tension back up again and to keep the audience with you.

That humor is a part of the characters' deep, deep hurt. They make each other laugh and they make each other laugh at themselves. Martha tries something and doesn't pull it off, George caps her, and she appreciates his effort. It's cool. It's part of their relationship. Honestly, I never understood why people didn't understand how funny this was.

At the end of the reading of the first act, Edward came over to me and he said he hadn't seen anything like it since Uta Hagen performed the role. And I said, "Well, thank you. We have two more acts to go. Hold on, baby."

In the break between the first and second act, everybody was just beaming. We were like Cheshire cats. We finished the reading around two in the afternoon. I went home thinking, It'll probably be weeks before we have a decision on whether or not this will be a go. And I was soon to turn my witching age of fifty!

They called at five-thirty that same afternoon and said, "So, do you want it?" I said, "What do you mean, do I want it? What, are you crazy? What the hell have I been saying for the last two years?"

I got the role of Martha just before I turned fifty.

And then I was really scared. I thought, Oh my God - is there a real plan here? It's not all random? All these steps I took really made it happen? No, I do not think it is random. My friends would say I "Kathleen Turnered" it. I can't seem to keep from taking action when I want to get something done, even if I am afraid.

I literally got the shakes once I knew I had Martha. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to pull off all my boasts. It was a huge undertaking, a huge test.

My last show on Broadway had been The Graduate, which was commercially a huge success but the critics were very tough on the play. Tough on me personally too. Ben Brantley, the New York Times theatre critic, called the play "weary" and my performance as Mrs. Robinson "little more than a stunt," more appropriate for Xena: Warrior Princess than the Broadway stage.

And of course there had been many other jokes about my twenty seconds of nudity onstage. Maureen Lipman, the brilliant British writer, actress, and comedienne, was doing a one-woman show when I was doing The Graduate in London. She sent a letter to one of the newspapers saying that she would be performing her show in glasses and socks so that one may see what a real forty-something-year-old woman looks like. And then she wrote me this note: "My ticket sales went down." The whole thing was a joke. My great friend Maggie Smith was doing Alan Bennett's play Lady in the Van at the time, and she said to Alan, "Kathleen's doing such wonderful business over there, I'm thinking that perhaps in the end scene when the lady rises, we should do that in the nude." She said there was this long pause. And she said, "Alan, I'm joking. I'd look like a Ubangi." It was very funny. Women, you know, don't take this as seriously as men. At least, actresses don't.

But I knew I had some tall mountains to climb to be given a fair evaluation as Martha.

Getting Myself Back

But if I hadn't done The Gradaute, I could never have done Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of the problems of having started my career as a younger beautiful woman known for sexuality - a woman whose characters have been sexy, I should say - is that there's an inherent dismissal of her as an individual. It probably extends to beautiful young men, but certainly to young, beautiful women. There's a sense of these women being quite interchangeable, not unique of individually necessary.

These days I face a different hurdle. People assume a woman my age is not supposed to be attractive or sexually appealing. I get very tired of that and relish opportunities to counteract that. Playing the role of Mrs. Robinson, who in her midforties seduces a young man less than half her age, was one of those stereotype-busting choices. But it had a deeper personal meaning to me too.

I started performing in The Graduate at forty-five. Performed it at forty-six in London. We brought it to New York when I was forty-eight. I don't think people in the audience doubted that Mrs. Robinson was capable of seducing Benjamin or that she had the allure, the power, and the sexuality to entrap this much younger man. That's greatly a matter of having the confidence and projecting that confidence to others.

Appearing nude on film was not easy when I was twenty-six in Body Heat; it was even harder when I was forty-six in The Graduate, on the stage, which is more up close and personal than film. After my middle-aged nude scene, though, I unexpectedly got letters from women saying, "I have not undressed in front of my husband in ten years and I'm going to tonight." Or, "I have not looked in the mirror at my body and you gave me permission."

These affirmations from other women were especially touching to me because when I began The Graduate I'd just come through a period when I felt a great loss of confidence, when my rheumatoid arthritis hit me hard and I literally couldn't walk or do any of the things I was so used to doing. It used to be that if I said to my body, "Leap across the room now," it would leap instantly. I don't know how I did it, but I did it. I hadn't realized how much my confidence was based on my physicality. On my ability to make my body do whatever I wanted it to do.

I was so consumed, not just by thinking about what I could and couldn't do, but also by handling the pain, the continual, chronic pain. I didn't realize how pain colored my whole world and how depressive it was. Before I was finally able to control my RA with proper medication, I truly had thought that my attractiveness and my ability to be attractive to men was gone, was lost. So for me to come back and do The Graduate was an affirmation to myself. I had my body back. I was back.

But I still had some other important body work to do to be ready to play Martha. Rheumatoid arthritis eats up your joints. I knew I had to have my right knee replaced in order to physically do the play. And once that was really clear to me - because you don't want to rush into things like replacing joints in your body - I immediately had the surgery. I had only about eight weeks to rehab and get back into shape to do the play.

And I did it. I did it. The surgery probably saved my left knee too because neither of them was very good. Martha could wear cushy padded slippers to cope with the pain in my feet, but she had to be very physical in the fight scenes and her body language throughout the play. It wouldn't have been fair if I'd been unable to go on because of the pain. So I had to have the surgery. But that added a great deal of stress to the already intense stress of taking on Martha.

And so when Virginia opened in New York to great reviews, and when Edward Albee wrote me a very kind note, which I had framed, telling me I made him happy to be a playwright, and when the critic Ben Brnatley apologized in print for underestimating me, for assuming that because I'd made the choice of playing Mrs. Robinson before, I wouldn't be capable of playing Martha now, I wept.

Oh, yes, this felt far better than winning a Tony ever could. Brantley saw exactly the points I wanted people to see, saw that I had been able to communicate with the audience exactly what I had intended. Even better, he really saw Martha.

At 50, this actress can look ravishing and ravaged, by turns. In the second act, she is as predatorily sexy as she was in the movie "Body Heat". But in the third and last act she looks old, bereft, stripped of all erotic flourish.

When she sits at the center of the stage quietly reciting a litany of the reasons she loves her dearly despised husband, you feel she has peeled back each layer of her skin to reveal what George describes as the marrow of a person. I was fortunate enough to have seen Uta Hagen, who created Martha, reprise the role in a staged reading in 1999, and I didn't think I would ever be able to see "Virginia Woolf" again without thinking of Ms. Hagen.

But watching Ms. Turner in that last act, fully clothed but more naked than she ever was in "The Graduate", I didn't see the specter of Ms. Hagen. All I saw was Ms. Turner. No, let's be fair. All I saw was Martha.

Aah, I thought to myself, well, now. People can say, "Maybe she was cute or sexy and she took her clothes off then," but they'd have to add, "Just look at what she can do now."


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The Books: "Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles" (Kathleen Turner)

send-yourself-roses.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)

I forget sometimes that Body Heat was Kathleen Turner's debut. How is that possible? Her performance is so strong, so suggestive of the entire history of film noir and femme fatales - it has its own specificity yet it also references every bad dame ever to stroll across celluloid ... She is smokin' hot, and she knows how to use it, but it's more of a long low smoulder than anything more flashy. You ache watching her. The movie is through Bill Hurt's eyes, so that's appropriate. This is a man who smashes through a window just because she's standing there. He MUST have her. Turner walks that line in her performance like an old pro. Another actress would have overdone the sexual-ness, being little more than a cat in heat, and missed that it is the SMOULDER that needs to be there, the long slow boil that will drive a man mad. That's hard to do. Lauren Bacall does it in To Have and Have Not. It requires the ability to be still, to hold back, to have it all be in the eyes.

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It was Turner's debut. The mind boggles. In her book, which came out last year, she writes a lot about that shoot, and what it was like for her. She was a stage actress, living in New York. Film-making was a total unknown thing to her. She had done some extra work on a soap opera, I think - that was her only experience in front of a camera. Amazing. So she learned on the job. Most people learn on the job with smaller roles first. Not her. She was learning on the job while playing a lead. That required full body nudity. She had a good head on her shoulders, and it's very interesting to read her version of events, her process. She was such a newbie. The fact that a whole morning would be spent filming a closeup of her fingers tapping on the counter blew her mind ... and she was such a theatre person, she would be thinking, "God, you would never see such a thing on stage ... THIS is what film can give you ..." But still. You never see what a newbie she is in that performance.

Her salary for Body Heat was $30,000. Afterwards, before it came out, she went back to New York and started waitressing again. Her agent and the studio wanted to hold Turner back - didn't want her to be in anything else that might dilute the impact of Body Heat. Now that is a hell of a risk to take. What if Body Heat had flopped? That means she would have stepped out of the business for almost a year - which you just can't do, especially not when you're a young hot woman. You have ZERO time to make your mark ... but Turner, always one for taking risks - you really get that in her book - said, "Okay, cool, I won't do anything until Body Heat comes out." Good thing she didn't because it was like she had come from out of nowhere - this sultry knowing ice-cool yet boiling-hot blonde ... where did SHE come from?? It intensified her impact. But still: remember it was a risk. $30,000 may sound like a lot for one job, but it's really not. Because let's say you made, oh, $5,000 the year before as an actress - in small parts or theatre roles - and then you supplemented your yearly income by waitressing or teaching or whatever. Much of that $30,000 would disappear instantly, already going to pay overdue bills from your years of living below the poverty-line (income-wise, I mean) ... and that's what happened with Turner. She was waitressing in New York, after filming Body Heat, and people would ask her what she was up to, and she'd say, "Yeah, I did this movie ... it hasn't come out yet though." She was about to become a huge star.


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I happen to love her in Romancing the Stone. That's another role where she had to, in her performance, reference other performances - it's a genre, a well-known style - the adventure movie, sure, but in the style of old serials, mixed with the delicious 1940s Howard Hawks gender wars with back-and-forth repartee between worthy foes who fight and fuck, basically ... This is not your straight drama or straight comedy. It's a parody, a spoof - as well as a movie that works on its own merits. (Can you tell I love it?) But what I'm trying to get at is, yet again, Turner was playing a reference-point - a certain KIND of part - same as she did in Body Heat, only now she totally switched it up and played the uptight-yet-romantic woman who is totally undone and frazzled and turned on by her encounter with this wild man. You know, the librarian who takes off her glasses. Nothing - NOTHING - would prepare you for Kathleen Turner's versatility from Body Heat. It's really rather amazing. I believe that if she had stayed playing hot temptresses her career would have been about 6 years long. But immediately following Body Heat, she started switching it all up - The Man with Two Brains, Romancing the Stone. Now what, to me, all of this really reveals - is Turner's love for camp. She "gets" it. It's not just a surface imitation - it's an embodiment of a certain style, and the campier the better. Body Heat, seen in this light, could be taken as one of the best camp performances of all time. I actually think that's what Sharon Stone was up to in Basic Instict - ridiculous film, but a deliciously campy performance - which I wrote about here - scroll down to the picture of Stone. I wrote:

I thought Stone gave one of the campiest (in the best way) most specific and fantastic performances of that entire decade. I look at it not as reality - or like she was trying to play a real person - I saw it as high camp - a nod to Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck and all the devious film-noir femme fatales. No wonder she became a star. I know she's nuts - but that was a star performance and she was NOT a star when she gave it. That takes balls. Well-deserved success, in my opinion.

It was great to see Turner and Michael Douglas again in War of the Roses - another campy romp. So much fun. They were great together.

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There's a BIG-ness to Kathleen Turner. Subtlety is not her strong suit. In a way, she is difficult to cast because of that, but she has been very lucky. Her sex appeal was enormous, and that wasn't an accident (she writes a lot about that in her book) - she worked at it. She describes it as "turning on a tap". She has her insecurities like anyone, and getting naked in front of an entire crew was nerve-wracking (although crews are notoriously the most professional types around - they've seen it all ... they know how to be respectful and create a safe space for the actors to do what they have to do.) But Turner said that she would have her moments, during filming of Body Heat when the cameras were on, and the crew were basically hanging off the balcony holding lights and booms - when she felt like she was in the Coliseum, gladiators battling it out - only it was her sexuality that she had to show. In between takes, she would go back to her trailer and weep. She didn't feel degraded, she makes that very clear - but showing that kind of energy is scary, and usually it's done privately - your husband or your boyfriend gets to see it - and even then it might be nervewracking to let the cat out of the bag. But to do so take after take, in front of a large crowd, was a "raw" experience (her word), and yet she realized very early on that that would be her stock in trade. That was what she had to offer, and it set her apart from other actresses. She wasn't just sexy. She was hot, and when she turned on that tap, people went nuts. She managed to negotiate that aspect of herself very gracefully, I think - and here she is, in her 50s, still trying to negotiate it. Because you see Turner now, and she's heavy (although still gorgeous) - and the memory of that slim burning flame of a woman is still in all of our brains ... a painful thing for many actresses. People can be unforgiving. They don't want to see their sex bombs get older. Turner has certainly experienced that in her life. Not to mention her health problems, her drinking, and her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

But we don't stop being sexual beings just because we're older (hopefully) - and Turner has been courageous enough to continue to explore that aspect of herself - now on Broadway rather than in films - in The Graduate as Mrs. Robinson (which I saw - not a very good show, but she was a lot of fun and the only one up on that stage who knew how to act in the THEATRE) - and then, spectacularly, as Martha in the highly acclaimed revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I saw that production and it was a high watermark for me, in terms of live performance. She was unbelievable. Her performance stayed with me for days. Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens was another high watermark for me. I'm trying to think of more - there aren't many. When I was in Ireland as a 12 year old girl, we went to see Ibsen's Doll's House at the Abbey and whoever that Irish actress was playing Nora - she was so blazingly good that I still remember some of her stage business and blocking so many years later. The scene where she desperately dances the tarantella to stop her husband from going to the mailbox? I have goosebumps right now typing this. That woman was out of this world. Acting rarely gets that good. Let's see, who else. I saw Bill Pullman do Edward Albee's The Goat on Broadway - and while I always liked Pullman I hadn't really realized how damn good he was until I saw him onstage. He was fantastic. And that is a hard play. An upper-class man falls in love with a goat that he sees during a drive in the country. This isn't a joke. He looks in that goat's eyes and sees a sexy kindred spirit. He hides his affair from his wife (played beautifully by Mercedes Ruehl) for a while until he can no longer stand it and comes clean. The play was uproariously funny but why it was funny was that Pullman played it all straight. He REALLY was in love, and his heart was torn to shreds because of it. That play could so have fallen flat on its face, but he was so damn good. I haven't forgotten it. Swoosie Kurtz in House of Blue Leaves was a high watermark for me, too. But although I've seen much good theatre, much that I really love - those performances that burn their way into your psyche - are few and far between.

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Kathleen Turner as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of the most powerful pieces of live acting I have ever seen. I saw it the week it opened, I think - it was very early on in the run - but I have friends who saw it later in the run and said it was just as intense, just as raw. Ted saw it (am I getting this memory right, Ted??) and as the audience left the theatre, Ted was following behind two women. The crowd dispersed down the sidewalk, and Ted found himself still behind those same two women. Half a block away from the theatre, one of the women suddenly buckled over, and burst into hysterical sobs. A delayed reaction from the play. She and her friend stood out of the way of the flow of traffic, and as Ted passed by, the woman was still out of control, sobbing. By the end of that play, you have been put through the wringer. Not just Turner was great - everyone was great - and Turner was just magnificent in that ensemble setting.

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Here's my review of the play.

The play is obviously funny. I laugh out loud when I read the script. Turner got a laugh on almost every line - she got laughs where I didn't see laughs. Her delivery was superb. It was JUICY, rich, bitchy, tragic - such a good performance. And then in the last scene of the play, where the secret comes out - she falls apart. Her work was so stunningly real that I couldn't believe that what she had done was actually part of the script, and when I got home, I pulled out the script to see if she had deviated, or if what she had done was actually on the page. And it was. This is the greatest compliment to an actress I can think of. When George comes out with the secret, Martha falls to her knees and her line is, "Oh no!" Now how does one play that? How does one go about playing such a moment? What exactly does one work on?

Meryl Streep tells a great story about the filming of the "choice" moment in Sophie's Choice. It goes a long way towards explaining her "process" (which is good, because she sure as hell can't explain it!). She said that she glanced at the script once, before filming, skipped her eyes over the scene, and never looked at it again until the day of filming. She didn't work on it, or agonize over it. She knew what would be required of her, and with just one glance-over she knew it would rip her heart out - so she didn't think about it at all until the moment came to film it. A moment like that, if your talent is fluid and accessible enough, plays itself. But it does require that you live it. You can't "phone in" a moment like that. A good actress knows when she has to work and when she doesn't. You work on the right things, you don't waste your energy. Streep didn't waste her energy worrying about that scene, knowing, in her heart, that when the time came to film it - her sense of reality and identification and horror would have no choice but to come flowing out.

And that's what I saw when I saw Kathleen Turner fall to her knees and call out, like a character from a Greek tragedy, "Oh, no!" It was a cry of the soul, all that character's grief and loss was in it - the grief of the ages. An amazing moment of live theatre and I still couldn't believe that that "Oh no" was ever stark words on the page because Turner so made it come to life. It was unbearable to watch. It's like when cameras and microphones are shoved into the faces of people who have just lost everything in a fire, flood, tornado. Their lives are ruined. They are bereft. "How do you feel?" shout the reporters. Watching them in their pain feels intrusive, like we should leave them alone - an animal slinking off to the woods to lick its wounds. Turner was a wounded animal in that moment, howling out her pain, and it was embarrassing. I LOVE being embarrassed like that in the theatre, it happens so rarely. Sometimes you're just embarrassed because the play sucks, but embarrassment like what I felt in that last scene of Virginia Woolf comes close to being a truly divine experience. It is the meaning of catharsis.


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Turner's book is honest, ballsy, and probably made her some enemies. She tells secrets. But not just on others - she tells secrets on herself, too. But her portrait of William Hurt during Body Heat is complex, she's not afraid to describe their conflicts. He was Mr. Method Man at the time and was really put off by the fact that Turner would be joking around with the crew moments before filming. He didn't get that that was her process - that she didn't want to expend her energy before the camera was rolling. He was annoyed. Turner describes the conflicts straight - you don't get the sense that she holds a grudge, she and Hurt are still good friends - but she has nothing to lose from being really honest. The book is honest as well about her drinking, and how much she came to need it.

And one of the other things that was amazing to me about her performance in Virginia Woolf was how physical it was - dancing, sashaying, falling over the couch, sitting on the floor - and Turner lives in almost constant physical pain from her arthritis. She did what she needed to do to be able to get through the run of that show without hurting herself - but when I think of her physical limitations and remember her falling to her knees, arms outstretched in horror, screaming, "Oh no" tears come to my eyes.

Good for her, man. Good for her.

I have chosen an excerpt from her book about how she campaigned to play Martha. I did not know the backstory to that production - that it was Turner who really made the whole thing happen, basically just by saying over and over to the powers-that-be, "I must play this part. I must play this part." There is a time to be humble, and then there is a time to be bold. "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid." When you are pushing Edward Albee to allow you to bring out a production of a show he has not allowed performed in New York in 30 years, that is NOT the time to be humble. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

I remember reading Ben Brantley's review in The NY Times (I wrote about it here) - the one she excerpts so proudly below (and rightly so) - and it was right after reading his review that I ordered tickets. Immediately. "I have to see this."

A funny thing: Turner had read the play in college and was blown away by it. It awakened something in her. She was 20 years old. She knew, "I HAVE to play this part someday." She had it in her head as a goal that she would play it before she turned 50. And I am very interested in how she made it her own. It's not an easy thing to do. It's like making Stanley Kowalski your own. And in many ways, an actor - when faced with that - has to say, "NO. MY version will be THIS ..." It requires a rejection of what has gone before. Not easy to do, especially with these roles that have been indelibly portrayed by others ... it's like you need to give yourself permission to do it your way.

She determined, at the ripe age of 20, that she would play that part when she was 50.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Kathleen Turner, opened on Broadway in March 2005, almost a year after her 50th birthday. She made her deadline!


EXCERPT FROM Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)

It's More Fun to Play a Bad Girl

I went about getting the role of Martha step by step, because I found her character so compelling from the very first time I read the play. I suppose I chose age fifty as my goal with the idea that she would be past childbearing age. Because the truth is, the play is not really a tragedy unless you know that Martha will never be able to have a child. If she's young enough that it would be possible for her still to hope for a child, then her character is not as deeply tragic as it could, should be. So I had fifty set in my mind. In this day and age, we think in terms of in vitro and other variations on the usual way of becoming pregnant. And we value women for attributes other than motherhood. But I think about Martha in 1960, when the play was set. Life was so different for women then, so much more restricted.

She is intelligent, ambitious, energetic. As she confesses, she worships her father, who was the president of the university. She so desires to please him. Her father has crippled her by not seeing who she is or what she has to offer. She had briefly married "the lawn mower", as they referred to the gardener at the boarding school she attended; that made her a damaged person to her father. If it were today, she could have aspired to be a university president herself, or to some other career of her choosing. That would have given her life a whole new purpose, a whole new meaning. But it's 1960, so her ambitions had to be channeled, funneled, achieved by a man - her father before she was married and thereafter, her husband.

As much as she and George love each other and always have, it's been a terrible disappointment to her that he has shared none of her ambitions and certainly will not be the heir to her father's presidency. After twenty-five years, George is still an associate professor. You have to work hard to fail that much.

And without children, what does she have? She gets to be on committees of faculty wives, to have a spring Easter egg hunt or a Christmas party or crap like that, which means nothing to her. She doesn't have any standing other than as her father's daughter or as her husband's wife. She's not a mother, can't be a baby maker, so she doesn't have that title of respect. Today, we women tend to have more options, not fewer, as we get older. Martha had almost none as she approached her fifties. This time of life that to me is so freeing, to Martha must have been terribly stifling.

So she sits in the empty house day after day and she starts drinking. Which I think many would do, frankly, in that situation. I think I would if i were sitting around with all that ability but no way to see that I could do something fruitful with it, or do something that used my abilities or challenged my mind. It would be dreadful. Anyone would feel defeated or might overeat or drink or do drugs.

Perhaps some exceptional women would have found another private outlet such as writing that they could control on their own. But I think that would be the exception and that they would have been seen as abnormal by the rest of society. Martha chafes at the irrational boundaries, but not in a political way. Her behavior has no boundaries. She has no limits physically or vocally. She just throws herself around without any thought as to the proper behavior.

Poor woman, I started out feeling very angry with her and quite disgusted, and I thought, Oh, stop it! Pull yourself together - this is rubbish. But then more and more I began to empathize with her. This happens to me often with characters. I play so many awful ones. They turn out to be more interesting than the good girls. You always know what a good girl is going to do. You never know what a bad girl is going to do. It's much more fun.

I didn't see the whole film and I've never seen a stage production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Knowing always that I wanted to do Martha, I would never willingly want to have someone else's performance in my head. But in my readings of it, I always thought it was extremely funny. I saw big laughs. I never understood why no one spoke of it that way. I like a hard-edged humor, and that's definitely Virginia Woolf to me. The little I saw of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film I disliked immensely, but I think that's because it was performed with acceptance of the culture of the time rather than a questioning of it. It seemed to me that their George and Martha were just two drunks screaming at each other and tearing each other apart for a night. I didn't understand this at all. Because my perception reading the play had been so very different.

With most characters, I find I go through stages where I truly dislike them, and then I start to find the reasons for their behavior - then I start to have sympathy for them and then empathy, and then I feel they're totally justified. Somebody says, "How could she do that?"

Because she had to, okay?

And I had to play Martha.

Jumping into the Fear

Fear tries to overtake me when I am between jobs. I had just finished the Broadway run of The Graduate and was looking anxiously to what I would do next. I am inclined to try to overcome fear by jumping right into its face, to do that which I am afraid of doing. I decided to ask directly for what I wanted most - to play Martha.

By the time I was forty-eight, I was on a comfortable standing with most of the major Broadway producers. I'd done enough work that was very good so I could speak with any of them if I wanted to. I set out to get the role I'd been coveting since I was twenty.

Liz McCann has been Edward Albee's producer for years. He doesn't allow anyone else to produce his plays. So I had to get to Liz. Fortunately, she's a great friend of the Nederlanders', who own theaters in which Albee's plays have been produced, and Jimmy Nederlander Jr. is a great friend of mine. I asked Jimmy and his fiancee, Margo MacNabb, also a dear friend, to set up a dinner with Liz and Jay and me. Just social, you know.

During the course of the evening, I told Liz that I wanted Virginia Woolf. "I want Martha," I said. And Liz said, "Well, I don't think that's going to happen." Edward had not allowed the play to be performed in New York since 1975. Liz told me he didn't express any desire to do it; he'd had some readings over the last few years with other actresses but had not approved any of them. And career-wise, he was still writing new plays. The Goat had come out that year. He didn't want to be known just for his old material. All of which was completely understandable.

I pressed on. "Yes, but you have no idea how well I would do this. I really need - no, you really need me to do this." "No, no, no, no" was her response.

I kept after Liz for weeks after that. I want to talk to Edward. I want to meet with Edward. I want to see him. Finally she set up a lunch and the three of us got together. This was before the presidential election in 2004. Edward and I are on the same side politically, and we share a great number of concerns. It was a very interesting, challenging conversation over lunch. The man is absolutely brilliant. We never even got to the play; we just talked politics and everything that goes with that. But I'm told that I became Martha during the course of the lunch.

Finally, as we were leaving the restaurant, Edward said, "All right, what do you want?" I said, "I want to read Martha."

When I met with Edward after that, I said, "Look, I'm funny and we'll get a funny George. I think the dark humor in the play has never been realized." He said, "Oh, you don't?" I said, "No, I don't think anybody's seen it created as the comedy it could and should be." He was skeptical but said, "Oh, fine, right."

So what did I want, he asked again. Again I said I wanted a reading. We agreed to put together the reading.

Then we started desperately thinking of who we would get as George. Bill Irwin's name came up and I thought, Oh, that's brilliant. He is a great comedian and an inspired clown, and talk about your timing - that boy has got it. Yeah, he's got it. He has the clear, clear intelligence that needs to be demonstrated by George. And he'd just played in Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in London for a time. I thought, Oh, this is a stunning idea. There were many other leading actors who wanted this reading, but once Bill's name came up, that was it for me. I said, "Yes, we've got to get him in here."

Next I took the extra step to make sure my own reading would be the best it could possibly be. I got together with Anthony Page, the very talented British director who has done many of Albee's plays, and he worked with us before we did the reading. Anthony later said he thought I looked like Martha, strong and somewhat plain, and unpretentious, as though I'd really lived. Ha! Is that a compliment? At any rate, working with Anthony in advance of the reading was a real plus in my preparation.

When we did our read-through, Edward was there along with the director, the producers, and a number of other people. Edward started laughing soon after we began. And let me tell you something: he doesn't laugh easily.

Now, everyone can see that in this production, there are huge laughs throughout the first act, every three or four lines. In the second act, there are fewer, and the third act, fewer still. But even in the most difficult parts, Albee sets up big laughs that previous productions have not generally made the most of. Even at the very end, when Martha says, "Show me the telegram," and George says, "I ate it." My God, it's a shock laugh, yes. But the physical action of laughing releases a great deal of tension in everyone. It allows you as an actor to build the tension back up again and to keep the audience with you.

That humor is a part of the characters' deep, deep hurt. They make each other laugh and they make each other laugh at themselves. Martha tries something and doesn't pull it off, George caps her, and she appreciates his effort. It's cool. It's part of their relationship. Honestly, I never understood why people didn't understand how funny this was.

At the end of the reading of the first act, Edward came over to me and he said he hadn't seen anything like it since Uta Hagen performed the role. And I said, "Well, thank you. We have two more acts to go. Hold on, baby."

In the break between the first and second act, everybody was just beaming. We were like Cheshire cats. We finished the reading around two in the afternoon. I went home thinking, It'll probably be weeks before we have a decision on whether or not this will be a go. And I was soon to turn my witching age of fifty!

They called at five-thirty that same afternoon and said, "So, do you want it?" I said, "What do you mean, do I want it? What, are you crazy? What the hell have I been saying for the last two years?"

I got the role of Martha just before I turned fifty.

And then I was really scared. I thought, Oh my God - is there a real plan here? It's not all random? All these steps I took really made it happen? No, I do not think it is random. My friends would say I "Kathleen Turnered" it. I can't seem to keep from taking action when I want to get something done, even if I am afraid.

I literally got the shakes once I knew I had Martha. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to pull off all my boasts. It was a huge undertaking, a huge test.

My last show on Broadway had been The Graduate, which was commercially a huge success but the critics were very tough on the play. Tough on me personally too. Ben Brantley, the New York Times theatre critic, called the play "weary" and my performance as Mrs. Robinson "little more than a stunt," more appropriate for Xena: Warrior Princess than the Broadway stage.

And of course there had been many other jokes about my twenty seconds of nudity onstage. Maureen Lipman, the brilliant British writer, actress, and comedienne, was doing a one-woman show when I was doing The Graduate in London. She sent a letter to one of the newspapers saying that she would be performing her show in glasses and socks so that one may see what a real forty-something-year-old woman looks like. And then she wrote me this note: "My ticket sales went down." The whole thing was a joke. My great friend Maggie Smith was doing Alan Bennett's play Lady in the Van at the time, and she said to Alan, "Kathleen's doing such wonderful business over there, I'm thinking that perhaps in the end scene when the lady rises, we should do that in the nude." She said there was this long pause. And she said, "Alan, I'm joking. I'd look like a Ubangi." It was very funny. Women, you know, don't take this as seriously as men. At least, actresses don't.

But I knew I had some tall mountains to climb to be given a fair evaluation as Martha.

Getting Myself Back

But if I hadn't done The Gradaute, I could never have done Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of the problems of having started my career as a younger beautiful woman known for sexuality - a woman whose characters have been sexy, I should say - is that there's an inherent dismissal of her as an individual. It probably extends to beautiful young men, but certainly to young, beautiful women. There's a sense of these women being quite interchangeable, not unique of individually necessary.

These days I face a different hurdle. People assume a woman my age is not supposed to be attractive or sexually appealing. I get very tired of that and relish opportunities to counteract that. Playing the role of Mrs. Robinson, who in her midforties seduces a young man less than half her age, was one of those stereotype-busting choices. But it had a deeper personal meaning to me too.

I started performing in The Graduate at forty-five. Performed it at forty-six in London. We brought it to New York when I was forty-eight. I don't think people in the audience doubted that Mrs. Robinson was capable of seducing Benjamin or that she had the allure, the power, and the sexuality to entrap this much younger man. That's greatly a matter of having the confidence and projecting that confidence to others.

Appearing nude on film was not easy when I was twenty-six in Body Heat; it was even harder when I was forty-six in The Graduate, on the stage, which is more up close and personal than film. After my middle-aged nude scene, though, I unexpectedly got letters from women saying, "I have not undressed in front of my husband in ten years and I'm going to tonight." Or, "I have not looked in the mirror at my body and you gave me permission."

These affirmations from other women were especially touching to me because when I began The Graduate I'd just come through a period when I felt a great loss of confidence, when my rheumatoid arthritis hit me hard and I literally couldn't walk or do any of the things I was so used to doing. It used to be that if I said to my body, "Leap across the room now," it would leap instantly. I don't know how I did it, but I did it. I hadn't realized how much my confidence was based on my physicality. On my ability to make my body do whatever I wanted it to do.

I was so consumed, not just by thinking about what I could and couldn't do, but also by handling the pain, the continual, chronic pain. I didn't realize how pain colored my whole world and how depressive it was. Before I was finally able to control my RA with proper medication, I truly had thought that my attractiveness and my ability to be attractive to men was gone, was lost. So for me to come back and do The Graduate was an affirmation to myself. I had my body back. I was back.

But I still had some other important body work to do to be ready to play Martha. Rheumatoid arthritis eats up your joints. I knew I had to have my right knee replaced in order to physically do the play. And once that was really clear to me - because you don't want to rush into things like replacing joints in your body - I immediately had the surgery. I had only about eight weeks to rehab and get back into shape to do the play.

And I did it. I did it. The surgery probably saved my left knee too because neither of them was very good. Martha could wear cushy padded slippers to cope with the pain in my feet, but she had to be very physical in the fight scenes and her body language throughout the play. It wouldn't have been fair if I'd been unable to go on because of the pain. So I had to have the surgery. But that added a great deal of stress to the already intense stress of taking on Martha.

And so when Virginia opened in New York to great reviews, and when Edward Albee wrote me a very kind note, which I had framed, telling me I made him happy to be a playwright, and when the critic Ben Brnatley apologized in print for underestimating me, for assuming that because I'd made the choice of playing Mrs. Robinson before, I wouldn't be capable of playing Martha now, I wept.

Oh, yes, this felt far better than winning a Tony ever could. Brantley saw exactly the points I wanted people to see, saw that I had been able to communicate with the audience exactly what I had intended. Even better, he really saw Martha.

At 50, this actress can look ravishing and ravaged, by turns. In the second act, she is as predatorily sexy as she was in the movie "Body Heat". But in the third and last act she looks old, bereft, stripped of all erotic flourish.

When she sits at the center of the stage quietly reciting a litany of the reasons she loves her dearly despised husband, you feel she has peeled back each layer of her skin to reveal what George describes as the marrow of a person. I was fortunate enough to have seen Uta Hagen, who created Martha, reprise the role in a staged reading in 1999, and I didn't think I would ever be able to see "Virginia Woolf" again without thinking of Ms. Hagen.

But watching Ms. Turner in that last act, fully clothed but more naked than she ever was in "The Graduate", I didn't see the specter of Ms. Hagen. All I saw was Ms. Turner. No, let's be fair. All I saw was Martha.

Aah, I thought to myself, well, now. People can say, "Maybe she was cute or sexy and she took her clothes off then," but they'd have to add, "Just look at what she can do now."


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November 5, 2008

The Books: "The Story Of My Life" (Ellen Terry)

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Next book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

The Story of My Life, by Ellen Terry

This is one of my favorite books in my entire collection, just in terms of it as an object. Second only to the first-edition Ulysses that my dad recently gave to me. The book I have is a second or third edition according to the copyright page (I can't quite tell which) - but either way, the book I own actually came out around the time that it was published. Boy, they knew how to make books back then! The pages are thick and shiny, and you can see the indent of the print on the page. There is a frontispiece of Ellen Terry, and a beautiful title page, with ceremonious curly-cue print. It's a big book, her life was long and full of many events - and scattered throughout are glossy old photographs, etchings, and paintings - of Ellen Terry in all of her great roles. I almost feel strange reading such a book because the book itself is a work of art.

But in terms of the book itself: What a book!!! What a life!!

She writes in simple prosey language, but with an emotionality that shines through. Her character sketches of the people she knew (Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Sarah Bernhardt - the woman knew EVERYONE) are riveting. It's a book that takes its time, too. She doesn't hop and skip over events, she delves in ... to rehearsal processes, and long conversations she had about art, and acting, and Shakespeare. She is interested, primarily, in the work, and the whole book is a long paean to the life of an artist. Anyone interested in acting should definitely read this book - but anyone interested in the entire history of that era should also check it out. The upheavals in art and criticism in England at that time, the pre-Raphaelites, the decadents, the aesthetes ... she was part of that group.

Lewis Carroll (or "Dodson" as she calls him affectionately) adored her and her sisters (not surprisingly) and took this photo of Ellen and her sister Kate.

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Ellen Terry was born into a theatrical family. She was third generation "show trash". Her parents were famous comic actors, and they had eleven children - most of whom went into show business as well. Gordon Craig, famous scenic designer, was Terry's illegitimate child. She did not believe in "pushing" her children - whatever they wanted they had to fight for on their own ... but obviously her successes and example rubbed off, as many of them went into the theatre as well. As a matter of fact, the legacy continues. John Gielgud was Ellen Terry's great-nephew. Extraordinary. I love Terry's anecdotes about her children coming to see her perform. Funny stuff:

My little daughter was a severe critic! I think if I had listened to her, I should have left the stage in despair. She saw me act for the first time as Mabel Vane, but no compliments were to be extracted from her.

"You did look long and thin in your gray dress."

"When you fainted I thought you was going to fall into the orchestra - you was so long."

Ellen Terry describes her own childhood and there are some really funny moments when my 21st century sensibility is gobsmacked by the childrearing practices of the day. Her parents, naturally, had to work at night at the theatre, so they would lock their children in their hotel room and go off to do the show. Some of the children were infants, others only 5 or 6, and in charge of taking care of the little ones. Nothing bad ever happened. Terry describes kneeling on a window seat, looking out into the night, waiting for her parents to return. She has a vivid memory, as most actors do, and she is able to bring that to life in her writing. It's truly wonderful stuff.

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Terry, naturally, went on to the stage, because there was really nothing else to do in such a family. She made her debut as a young child in 1856, playing with the great Charles Kean in The Winter's Tale. She traveled with her parents, performing with them at times - but it became clear very early on that light comedy would not be Ellen Terry's forte. She eventually became known as the premiere actress of Shakespeare in England, and that reputation exists to this day. She performed in stock theatre, regional gigs - she was playing major roles in Shakespeare by the time she was 15. As a young woman, she had huge hits - she played Portia in Merchant of Venice in 1875 and it was such a huge hit that it was what she became known for. She re-created the role of Portia many times in her career. Not only was she a star in the theatre world, but she served as muse for the literary types who hovered around her. London was a much smaller place back then (although I suppose the art world is small wherever you go) - and the circles of art intersected. Writers went to the theatre and came home and wrote sonnets to the performances they had just seen. Oscar Wilde, in 1890, wrote a sonnet after seeing Terry play Portia:

PORTIA
to Ellen Terry
I marvel not Bassanio was so bold
To peril all he had upon the lead,
Or that proud Aragon bent low his head,
Or that Morocco's fiery heart grew cold:
For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold
Which is more golden than the golden sun,
No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.
Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield
The sober-suited lawyer's gown you donned
And would not let the laws of Venice yield
Antonio's heart to that accursed Jew-
O Portia! take my heart; it is thy due:
I think I will not quarrel with bond.

He also wrote the following poem to her at the Lyceum Theatre:

As one who poring on a Grecian urn
Scans the fair shapes some Attic hand hath made,
God with slim goddess, goodly man with maid,
And for their beauty's sake is loath to turn
And face the obvious day, must I not yearn
For many a secret moon of indolent bliss,
When is the midmost shrine of Artemis
I see thee standing, antique-limbed, and stern?

And yet- methinks I'd rather see thee play
That serpent of old Nile, whose witchery
Made Emperors drunken,- come, great Egypt, shake
Our stage with all thy mimic pageants! Nay,
I am growing sick of unreal passions, make
The world thine Actium, me thine Anthony!

I'm reading Richard Ellmann's majestic biography of Oscar Wilde right now, and he was great friends with the actors of the day - he was trying to become a playwright, first of all, and needed more than anything for one of the star actresses to decide to do his new works (not an easy task) - and he was also always looking for evidence of artifice - not a bad word, in his lexicon - where the surface, the form, completely captured the inner life of beauty. Actors and actresses were perfect examples of this.

Ellen Terry married three times, and her first marriage was to the painter G.F. Watts. This is another example of the circles of art intersecting. Watts had seen all of the Terrys in their various productions - and did many paintings of all of them, the most famous being the ones of Ellen. You'll recognize them.


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That last one depicts her as Ophelia in Hamlet (although she had not yet played that role at the time Watts imagined her into it.)

Her performances drew raves, and she eventually crossed the ocean to tackle the American audience and had great triumphs there as well. In 1878, Terry became part of the great Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre company. She was basically co-producer with him, as well as his leading lady. They were partners for over 20 years, and played every Shakespeare play, multiple times - in London, and also in traveling shows. They were the dynamic duo of the time, an unbeatable team. She made her name (even more so) with some of the roles she performed with Irving. Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (one of the best parts for women in the entire Shakespeare canon) was one of her biggest successes. Here she is as Beatrice:

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Henry Irving was her dear partner, and friend - and a great inspiration to her. When he died, she found she could not work for a while, because all joy had gone out of the pursuit with him no longer around. She loved him dearly. Listen to this excerpt from her book about him. It makes me want to cry.


Henry Irving is the monument, the great mark set up to show the genius of will. For years he worked to overcome the dragging leg ... he toiled, and he overcame this defect, just as he overcame his difficulty with vowels, and the self-consciousness which in the early stages of his career used to hamper and incommode him.

Only a great actor finds the difficulties of the actor's art infinite. Even up to the last five years of his life, Henry Irving was striving, striving. He never rested on old triumphs, never found a part in which there was no more to do. Once when I was touring with him in America, at the time when he was at the highest point of his fame, I watched him one day in the train - always a delightful occupation, for his face provided many pictures a minute - and being struck by a curious look, half puzzled, half despairing, asked him what he was thinking about.

"I was thinking," he answered slowly, "how strange it is that I should have made the reputation I have as an actor, with nothing to help me - with no equipment. My legs, my voice, everything has been against me. For an actor who can't walk, can't talk, and has no face to speak of, I've done pretty well."

And I, looking at that splendid head, those wonderful hands, the whole strange beauty of him, thought, "Ah, you little know!"

Here she is with Irving:

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Her correspondence is rightly famous, and she carried on a lengthy one with George Bernard Shaw. After the partnership with Irving ended, Terry became artistic director of the old Imperial Theatre, and wanted to devote their seasons to the new playwrights, such as Ibsen and Shaw. Controversial stuff. The business was not a success - maybe Terry's first failure (besides her marriages) - but the resulting correspondence with Shaw is enough to make me look at it as a ringing success. I love one of the things he wrote to her about playing Shakespeare:

Play to the lines, through the lines, but never between the lines. There simply isn't time for it.

Brilliant. It reminds me of the great anecdote Anthony Hopkins tells about acting in Shakespeare with Laurence Olivier very early on in his career. Hopkins, a melancholic Welshman (is there any other kind) gravitated towards the American style of acting, the "Method" acting of Brando and Clift - and tried to bring all of that to his role in Shakespeare. He was trying to show the subtext, and make it real for himself, etc. etc. not realizing that Shakespeare has already done all of that work and unlike other playwrights - it is all in the language. Olivier coached Hopkins and told him, "The thought is in the line. The only time you pause is at the end of the line where there is punctuation - because that means the thought is over." Don't add more thinking to it. Because the thought is in the line. That is one of the greatest challenges for any actor playing Shakespeare and you can see actors (mainly American) mucking that up time and time again. But I love Shaw's dictum: :"There simply isn't time for it."

Here is Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth:

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Stunningly beautiful, isn't it?

Shaw said about Terry: "Every famous man of the 19th century- provided he were a playgoer- has been in love with Ellen Terry."

She was a great and beloved star. It's interesting - there was a time when Terry had considered giving up the stage, and I think she did stop working for about 1 or 2 years. Her parents were devastated. Hysterical. Other parents are devastated when their children go INTO show business, hers were devastated when she stopped.

From all I have read about her (and she shows up in any biography of that time - her life intersected with so many others) - she comes across as a lovely warm funny and quite formidable person. She was highly unconventional, modern in her attitudes - and yet also part of this ancient trashy enterprise that was the theatre. She was not a glorified prostitute as many of the leading ladies at that time were, with minimal talent, but great beauty to inspire men to lust and dirty thoughts in the midst of the Victorian properness. Ellen Terry was the real deal - an actress and entrepreneur who also had a canny business sense and, along with Henry Irving, helped bring well-produced and insightful productions all across England, ireland and America. She took risks. She had a low tolerance for being bored. And instead of whining about being bored, she would change her life at the first sign of it. When it was time to move on from something (be it an acting role or a marriage), she moved on. She had a "wild nature" (said one of her friends), and she was able to use that wild-ness beautifully in her 50-plus-year career. She did not self-destruct. She did not descend into infamy as so many other actresses of the day did (because theatre was seen as a barely respectable thing to do ... but Terry, being brought up in it, was saved from that attitude. To her, being an actress was the only logical thing she COULD do.)

Her reputation as a great actress remains intact, although no one alive today has seen her perform. She lived long enough to do a couple of silent films, but in general, her retirement was quiet. She lived to the age of 81. She bought a farm in Kent. She loved dogs. She slowly went blind, and eventually succumbed to dementia.

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But the love of the populace remained - she was not forgotten. Her fame was still near enough at that point that she was remembered. Her social life was always intense, she was not a recluse or a serious dramatic woman. She was "vivacious" (the word most often used to describe her) and had what can only be described as eternal curiosity about her fellow man and the planet on which she lived. She wasn't "over" anything. She was not a cynic. She did not succumb to sophistication or bored European jaded-ness. There was always something in her that was like a little child, that little child kneeling on the window seat, looking out into the night, and wondering at the beauty of it all.

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She must have been something else onstage. How I would love to have seen her.

The book is so PACKED with great anecdotes that I really struggled with which excerpt to pick. I thought I'd go with one where she talks about Irving playing Hamlet. It really gives a feel for the book.

She, of course, had heard of Henry Irving - and even seen him perform - but Hamlet was by far the most ambitious thing he had attempted. Just listen to how she analyzes it, and how she takes us through how great his Hamlet was, step by step. I especially love her observation about how Irving played Hamlet's famous speech to the players. Brilliant!!

She's a wonderful writer.

I had so much fun tracking down all the images for this post.


EXCERPT FROM The Story of My Life, by Ellen Terry

Hamlet was by far the greatest part that he had ever played, or was ever to play. If he had failed - but why pursue it? He could not fail.

Yet the success on the first night at the Lyceum in 1874 was not of that electric, almost hysterical splendor which has greeted the momentous achievements of some actors. The first two acts were received with indifference. The people could not see how packed they were with superb acting - perhaps because the new Hamlet was so simple, so quiet, so free from the exhibition of actors' artifices which used to bring down the house in "Louis XI" and "Richelieu," but which were really the easy things in acting, and in "Richelieu" (in my opinion) not especially well done. In "Hamlet" Henry Irving did not go to the audience. He made them come to him. Slowly but surely attention gave place to admiration, admiration to enthusiasm, enthusiasm to triumphant acclaim.

I have seen many Hamlets - Fechter, Charles Kean, Rossi, Frederick Haas, Forbes Robertson, and my own son, Gordon Craig, among them, but they were not in the same hemisphere! I refuse to go and see Hamlets now. I want to keep Henry Irving's fresh and clear in my memory until I die.

When he engaged me to play Ophelia in 1878 he asked me to go down to Birmingham to see the play, and that night I saw what I shall always consider the perfection of acting. It had been wonderful in 1874. In 1878 it was far more wonderful. It has been said that when he had the "advantage" of my Ophelia, his Hamlet "improved." I don't think so. He was always quite independent of the people with whom he acted.

The Birmingham night he knew I was there. He played - I say it without vanity - for me. We players are not above that weakness, if it be a weakness. If ever anything inspires us to do our best it is the present in the audience of some fellow-artist who must in the nature of things know more completely than any one what we intend, what we do, what we feel. The response from such a member of the audience flies across the footlights to us like a flame. I felt it once when I played Olivia before Eleonora Duse. I felt that she felt it once when she played Marguerite Gauthier for me.

When I read "Hamlet" now, everything that Henry did in it seems to me more absolutely right, even than I thought at the time. I would give much to be able to record it all in detail - but it may be my fault - writing is not the medium in which this can be done. Sometimes I can remember every tone of Henry's voice, every emphasis, every shade of meaning that he saw in the lines and made manifest to the discerning. Yes, I think I could give some pale idea of what his Hamlet was if I read the play.

"Words! words! words!" What is it to say, for instance, that the cardinal qualities of his Prince of Denmark were strength, delicacy, distinction? There was never a touch of commonness. Whatever he did or said, blood and breeding pervaded him.

His "make-up" was very pale, and this made his face beautiful when one was close to him, but at a distance it gave him a haggard look. Some said he looked twice his age.

He kept three things going at the same time - the antic madness, the sanity, the sense of the theatre. The last was to all that he imagined and thought, what charity is said by St. Paul to be to all other virtues.

He was never cross or moody - only melancholy. His melancholy was as simple as it was profound. It was touching, too, rather than defiant. You never thought that he was wantonly sad and enjoying his own misery.

He neglected no coup de theatre to assist him, but who notices the servants when the host is present?

For instance, his first entrance as Hamlet was, what we call in the theatre, very much "worked up". He was always a tremendous believer in processions, and rightly. It is through such means that Royalty keeps its hold on the feeling of the public, and makes its mark as a Figure and a Symbol. Henry Irving understood this. Therefore, to music so apt that it was not remarkable in itself, but merely a contribution to the general excited anticipation, the Prince of Denmark came on to the stage. I understood later on at the Lyceum what days of patient work had gone to the making of that procession.

At its tail, when the excitement was at fever heat, came the solitary figure of Hamlet, looking extraordinarily tall and thin. The lights were turned down - another stage trick - to help the effect that the figure was spirit rather than man.

He was weary - his cloak trailed on the ground. He did not wear the miniature of his father obtrusively round his neck! His attitude was one which I have seen in a common little illumination to the "Reciter", compiled by Dr. Pinches (Henry Irving's old schoolmaster). Yet how right to have taken it, to have been indifferent to its humble origin! Nothing could have been better when translated into life by Irving's genius.

The hair looked blue-black, like the plumage of a crow, the eyes burning - two fires veiled as yet by melancholy. But the appearance of the man was not single, straight or obvious, as it is when I describe it - any more than his passions throughout the play were. I only remember one moment when his intensity concentrated itself in a straight-forward, unmistakable emotion, without side-current or back-water. It was when he said:

"The play's the thing
With which to catch the conscience of the King."

and, as the curtain came down, was seen to be writing madly on his tablets against one of the pillars.

"Oh, God, that I were a writer!" I paraphrase Beatrice with all my heart. Surely a writer could not string words together about Henry Irving's Hamlet and say nothing, nothing.

"We must start this play a living thing," he used to say at rehearsals, and he worked until the skin grew tight over his face, until he became livid with fatigue, yet still beautiful, to get the opening lines said with individuality, suggestiveness, speed, and power.

Bernardo: Who's there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the King!
Francisco: Bernardo?
Bernardo: He.
Francisco: You come most carefully upon your hour.
Bernardo: 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco: For this relief much thanks; 'tis bitter cold ...

And all that he tried to make others do with these lines, he himself did with every line of his own part. Every word lived.

Some said: "Oh, Irving only makes Hamlet a love poem!" They said that, I suppose, because in the Nunnery scene with Ophelia he was the lover above the prince and the poet. With what passionate longing his hands hovered over Ophelia at her words:

"Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind."

His advice to the players was not advice. He did not speak it as an actor. Nearly all Hamlets in that scene give away the fact that they are actors, and not dilettanti of royal blood. Irving defined the way he would have the players speak as an order, an instruction of the merit of which he was regally sure. There was no patronizing flavor in his acting here, not a touch of "I'll teach you how to do it." He was swift - swift and simple - pausing for the right word now and again, as in the phrase "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." His slight pause and eloquent gesture was the all-embracing word "Nature" came in answer to his call, were exactly repeated unconsciously years later by the Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). She was telling us the story of a play that she had written. The words rushed out swiftly, but occasionally she would wait for the one that expressed her meaning most comprehensively and exactly, and as she got it, up went her hand in triumph over her head. "Like yours in 'Hamlet'," I told Henry at the time.

I knew this Hamlet both ways - as an actress from the stage, and as an actress putting away her profession for the time as one of the audience - and both ways it was superb to me. Tennyson, I know, said it was not a perfect Hamlet. I wonder, then, where he hoped to find perfection!

James Spedding, considered a fine critic in his day, said Irving was "simply hideous ... a monster!" Another of these fine critics declared that he never could believe in Irving's Hamlet after having seen "part (sic) of his performance as a murderer in a commonplace melodrama." Would one believe that any one could seriously write so stupidly as that about the earnest effort of an earnest actor, if it were not quoted by some of Irving's biographers?

Some criticism, however severe, however misguided, remains within the bounds of justice, but what is one to think of the QuarterlyReviewer who declared that "the enormous pains taken with the scenery had ensured Mr. Irving's success"? The scenery was of the simplest - no money was spent on it even when the play was revived at the Lyceum after Colonel Bateman's death. Henry's dress probably cost him about £2!

My Ophelia dress was made of material which could not have cost more than 2s. a yard, and not many yards were wanted, as I was at the time thin to vanishing point! I have the dress still, and, looking at it the other day, I wondered what leading lady now would consent to wear it.

At all its best points, Henry's Hamlet was susceptible of absurd imitation. Think of this well, young actors, who are content to play for safety, to avoid ridicule at all costs, to be "natural" - oh, word most vilely abused! What sort of naturalness is this of Hamlet's?

"O, villain, villain, smiling damned villain!"

Henry Irving's imitators could make people burst with laughter when they took off his delivery of that line. And, indeed, the original, too, was almost provocative of laughter - rightly so, for such emotional indignation has its funny as well as its terrible aspect. The mad, and all are mad who have, as Socrates put it, "a divine release from the common ways of men," may speak ludicrously, even when they speak the truth.

All great acting has a certain strain of extravagance which the imitators catch hold of and give us the eccentric body without the sublime soul.

From the first I saw this extravagance, this bizarrerie in Henry Irving's acting. I noticed, too, its infinite variety. In "Hamlet", during the first scene with Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo, he began by being very absent and distant. He exchanged greetings sweetly and gently, but he was the visionary. His feet might be on the ground, but his head was towards the stars "where the eternal are." Years later he said to me of another actor in "Hamlet": "He would never have seen the ghost." Well, there was never any doubt that Henry Irving saw it, and it was through his acting in the Horatio scene that he made us sure.

As a bad actor befogs Shakespeare's meaning, so a good actor illuminates it. Bit by bit as Horatio talks, Hamlet comes back into the world. He is still out of it when he says:

"My father! Methinks I see my father."

But the dreamer becomes attentive, sharp as a needle, with the words:

"For God's love, let me hear."

Irving's face, as he listened to Horatio's tale, blazed with intelligence. He cross-examined the men with keenness and authority. His mental deductions as they answered were clearly shown. With "I would I had been there" the cloud of unseen witnesses with whom he had before been communing again descended. For a second or two Horatio and the rest of the world did not exist for him ... So onward to the crowning couplet:

" ... foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them to men's eyes."

After having been very quiet and rapid, very discreet, he pronounced these lines in a loud, clear voice, dragged out every syllable as if there never could be an end to his horror and his rage.

I had been familiar with the scene from my childhood - I had studied it; I had heard from my father how Macready acted in it, and now I found that I had a fool of an idea of it! That's the advantage of study, good people, who go to see Shakespeare acted. It makes you know sometimes what is being done, and what you never dreamed would be done when you read the scene at home.

At one of the audiences I was much struck by Irving's treatment of interjections and exclamations in "Hamlet". He breathed the line: "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt," as one long yearning, and "O horrible, O horrible! most horrible!" as a groan. When we first went to America his address at Harvard touched on this very subject, and it may be interesting to know that what he preached in 1885 he had practiced as far back as 1874.

"On the question of pronunciation, there is something to be said which I think in ordinary teaching is not sufficiently considered. Pronunciation should be simple and unaffected, but not always fashioned rigidly according to a dictionary standard. No less an authority than Cicero points out that pronunciation must vary widely according to the emotions to be expressed; that it may be broken or cut with a varying or direct sound, and that it serves for the actor the purpose of color to the painter, from which to draw variations. Take the simplest illustration. The formal pronunciation of A-h is 'Ah', of O-h, 'Oh', but you cannot stereotype the expression of emotion like this. These exclamations are words of one syllable, but the speaker who is sounding the gamut of human feeling will not be restricted in his pronunciation by dictionary rule. It is said of Edmund Kean that he never spoke such ejaculations, but always sighed or groaned them. Fancy an actor saying:
'My Desdemona! Oh! oh! oh!'

"Words are intended to express feelings and ideas, not to bind them in rigid fetters; the accents of pleasure are different from the accents of pain, and if a feeling is more accurately expressed as in nature by a variation of sound not provided by the laws of pronunciation, then such imperfect laws must be disregarded and nature vindicated!"

It was of the address in which these words occur that a Boston hearer said that it was felt by every one present that "the truth had been spoken by a man who had learned it through living and not through theory."

I leave his Hamlet for the present with one further reflection. It was in courtesy and humor that it differed most widely from other Hamlets that I have seen and heard of. This Hamlet was never rude to Polonius. His attitude towards the old Bromide (I thank you, Mr. Gelett Burgess, for teaching me that word which so lightly and charmingly describes the child of darkness and of platitude) was that of one who should say: "You dear, funny old simpleton, whom I have had to bear with all my life - how terribly in the way you seem now." With what slightly amused and cynical playfulness this Hamlet said; "I had thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well; they imitated humanity so abominably.

Hamlet was by far his greatest triumph, although he would not admit it himself - preferring in some moods to declare that his finest work was done in Macbeth, which was almost universally disliked.

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November 4, 2008

The Books: "Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter" (Marguerite Courtney)

5181225b9da030f0e2234110._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter, by Marguerite Courtney

Laurette Taylor had a long (and rather checkered) stage career - Broadway and regional - starting in 1909 - a career where her really big hit, the thing she was known for was Peg o' my Heart in 1912. It had been a personal triumph. Peg o' my Heart was such a success she became the toast of New York. She was still a kid. Success came very early - and then faded almost just as quickly. But she kept going, she kept trying, kept trying to find the next Peg o' my Heart.

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They did a revival of that show, years later, and she was in it ... but she was only grasping at a long-ago glory. Nobody cared anymore.

There is a sadness in Laurette Taylor's face, a wistful longing for ... something ... not fame, not that exactly ... perhaps it was comfort, or respect, or finding a place in the theatre she could call home. She was a heartbreaking character, much beloved and revered ... with demons that took her over from time to time (she was a falling-down black-out drunk), and a certain amount of poetry and mischief that elevated her when she needed it. Or no, not when she needed it. There were decades in there where she could not access her own essence - the thing she needed to bring to the stage ... What she needed was a role. What she needed was THE role to help bring her back to life.

Enter young Tennessee Williams with this new play he had written called The Glass Menagerie.

At the time he entered her life, she was not in good shape. She was forgotten. A lush. A 60-year-old recluse drunk.

Her beloved second husband J. Hartley Manners (who had written Peg o' My Heart) died in 1928 - and she went on what was, for all intents and purposes, a 10-year bender. By the end of that decade, her entire fortune was gone, and everybody who had loved her, who had thought she was going to be the next biggest star, assumed that she must have died.

She was a wild-woman, and one of the most quotable of people. I love reading about her. She sounds like a hoot. I feel like I would have loved to know her.

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My favorite Laurette Taylor anecdote (or one of them) is this:

Taylor was in the midst of doing a play, a play which was not a success. Nobody was showing up and it was universally panned. After one of the performances, Taylor went to a party, where I am sure she began to imbibe. She struck up a conversation with a young man, also at the party. They talked for a bit, and then he left, to go mingle. Taylor immediately turned to the hostess and said, "That man walked out on me tonight at the theatre!!"

The hostess, disbelieving, said, "Are you sure? How do you know?"

Taylor snapped, "I sometimes forget a face, but I never forget a back!"

Taylor also described the 10-year drinking binge after the death of her husband as "the longest wake in history."

She was a tough cookie, this one. And yet people talked (and still talk, oh my GOD, do they still talk) about her gift on the stage.

However - after Peg o' My Heart, in 1912, she went on and on and on ... doing bit parts, living in hotel rooms, doing Merchant of Venice in Toledo ... blah blah. A bleak life. Everyone kept thinking she was "making a comeback" - but the expectations were too high. There were many disappointments. This was a woman with a ton of demons. And none of the parts she got really exploited that tormented side of her, that beautiful poetic tragedy she had.

If you see what she actually LOOKS like, you will understand why it might have been a challenge for her to find the role that would really let her shine. She was not beautiful or tall and slim. She was not a leading lady. She was dumpy, a bit plain - but with eyes that glimmered, huge tragic eyes. In her own way, she is stunning, but she was hard to cast. Her "hit" had capitalized on her lilting fresh humorous youth, and when that was gone, she was adrift. Laurette Taylor, a person of Irish descent, was also the one, very very early on, who bemoaned the stereotyping of Irish people on stage. But I'll get to that in a minute.

She has an impish babyish face, she looks like a grinning mischievous cherub. This look was perfect for when she was a young vaudevillian, tap dancing her way through shows, making people laugh ... but as she grew older, as she became middle-aged, as her soul became darker, her looks did not fit her psyche.

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Also - and this is just a theory of mine - American theatre had not yet caught up with her. Her gift was wayyyyyyyy ahead of its time. NOW there are so many venues for weird quirky actors - cable TV, independent film, whatever. But then - there was only Broadway and Hollywood. Laurette Taylor did not fit in. She did a couple of silent films, and footage of one of her screen tests does survive ... but again: she needed the role. This was not a generic actress. I mean, no actor is generic, at least no good actor - but she, more than most, needed a role to illuminate her genius. That role was a long time coming.

Throughout the 20s and 30s, Broadway was producing mainly drawing-room comedies, Philip Barry stuff - Kaufman & Hart stuff - all wonderful funny plays - but very very WASP-y, very upper-crust stuff. Laurette Taylor, with her blowsy curls, her blasted-open smile, her snarky wise-cracking mouth, did not fit in with the style of the times.

But all it took was one playwright.

One playwright to, first of all, usher in a new age in American theatre. But also - to write the role, THE role, that Laurette Taylor had been waiting for ... for almost FORTY YEARS.

It is one of the greatest theatrical comebacks of all time.

The script by the unknown playwright was sent to her, and she stayed up all night reading it, and the next morning called her assistant Eloise who had sent it to her, and Taylor was completely jubiliant: "I've found it, Eloise! I've found the play I've been waiting for!"

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That playwright was Tennessee Williams, and the role was Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie - in its inaugural production in 1946.

My acting teacher saw that original production and still talks about it. Nobody who saw it ever forgot it.

People changed the courses of their lives, after seeing Laurette Taylor playing Amanda Wingfield. Jose Quintero, a young kid, who eventually would become one of the most successful theatre directors of his day (and would direct many of Tennessee Williams' plays years later, although he was mainly known as the interpreter of Eugene O'Neill) - saw the first production, when it opened in Chicago, and it made him realize, finally, that he had to go into the theatre.

He says, "I walked all night long. I knew then something had made me feel whole."

God, how I wish I could have seen that performance. It is a watershed, a landmark. But I know that I don't even HAVE to have seen it to undertstand that I am affected by it, to know that it has, to some degree, created the entire landscape of the profession.

None of us stand alone, none of us re-discover the wheel.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And Laurette Taylor was one of the biggest giants the American theatre has ever had.

It must have been something else - to see her in that part.

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There is no record of what she did. But it's like descriptions from theatregoers centuries ago, telling about David Garrick's Hamlet or his Macbeth. I don't have to have actually seen him act, to know that he was extraordinary, and to love him. Laurette Taylor's work in The Glass Menagerie really means something to me - means something to a lot of people. Great actress.

Lyle Leverich wrote the first half of a biography of Tennessee Williams called Tom: The Unknown Tennesse Williams. Sadly for those of us who were waiting with baited breath for the second volume, Leverich died before completing it. But the first volume is enough to whet your whistle for all time. The book ends with The Glass Menagerie opening on Broadway, to stunning success, after its amazing trial run in Chicago. This was back when regional theatre really made a difference in this country. There are still regional theatres out there that are important - Steppenwolf, Trinity - but it is a completely different business now.

Here are some excerpts from Leverich's extraordinary book - about the rehearsal process, about Laurette Taylor in rehearsal. She had not worked in a long time. She was still remembered, by those people who remembered her success in Peg o' my Heart, but she had a bad reputation and everyone was nervous she would fall off the rails before the show opened. During rehearsals, she worried everybody for the first few weeks because she didn't seem to be DOING anything. She wasn't learning her lines - she held her script in her hands - she mumbled, fumbled, and seemed to not project anything, and she certainly wasn't up to par with the rest of the cast in terms of the performance-level. What was she doing? When would she START? They didn't understand her genius. She was percolating, that's all. She was letting the script work on her, rather than working on the script, imagining herself into the dreamspace in her head that was reserved for Amanda Wingfield. She wasn't obedient. Geniuses never are. She followed her own process. And while this is all well and good, it gave the cast and crew of the show some pretty bad moments, because how do you say to someone, "Could you please start ACTING?"

But let me back up a bit.

The cast gathers in New York, and travels together by train to Chicago - to begin rehearsals for Tennessee Williams (or Tom's) new play The Glass Menagerie.

Lyle Leverich writes:

On a cold Saturday, December 16, the company gathered at Pennsylvania Station. Tom and Donald came together. Jane Smith, who shortly before had returned to New York, picked up Margo at her hotel. Eddie Dowling was already at the station with Louis Singer...

On the following bitterly cold morning, the troupe disgorged from the train into Chicago's barnlike Union Station. The impression was hardly that of a winning team. With scarcely a nod at one another they scattered in all directions. Laurette's daughter described the occasion, saying Dowling and Singer went off arm in arm, ignoring their tiny star [Laurette Taylor], who stood hesitant and alone on the platform. "Julie, hatless and pinched-looking, flitted by as insubstantial as a puff of steam from any of the locomotives. Tony Ross, a six foot three protest against the cold and early hour, passed somnambulistically. The anxious author, who had forgotten something, dove back into the car and emerged again to feel the bleakness of the station like an unfriendly slap - a dismal portent of his play's reception. Desperately he longed for the sight of a familiar figure and at last saw one." Tennessee recalled the event: " 'Laurette!' I called her name and she turned and cried out mine. Then and there we joined forces." Together they went in search of a taxi. "It was Laurette who hailed it with an imperious wave of her ungloved hand, hesitation all gone as she sprang like a tiger out of her cloud of softness: such a light spring, but such an amazingly far one."

After this inauspicious beginning, rehearsals begin. From the start, they do not go well. Laurette Taylor, who I mentioned earlier, had not been in anything substantial for years. She was a serious drunk - who apparently WASN'T drinking at that moment - but everyone was terrified she would start. She wasn't interested in learning her lines, or trying to get scenes right, she barely had any interest (it seemed) in ACTING. People watched her rehearse, and suddenly everyone started getting very very scared.

Tom may have become aware of the hidden tiger in Laurette, but, like everyone else in the company, he was puzzled by her odd behavior at rehearsal. Using a large magnifying glass, she hovered over her script, peering at it and mumbling her lines - this, while the other actors had memorized their dialogue and were following Dowling's direction. At one point, Eddie was heard to mutter, "That woman is crucifying me," and the nervous Mr. Singer, looking in on one of the rehearsals, cried out, "Eddie! Eddie! You're ruining me!" Laurette's daughter wrote that her mother was simply "up to her old trick of watching the others, seemingly much more interested in them than her own part, neither learning her lines nor her business."

Tennessee remembered that Laurette appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in "a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic." He was even more disconcerted when she said she was modeling her accent after his! Tom wrote to Donald Windham, complaining that Laurette was ad-libbing many of her speeches and that the play was beginning to sound more like the Aunt Jemima Pancake hour.

To him, Laurette's "bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy, and so did the rapturous manner of dear Julie." He was witnessing a characteristic of many of the theatre's great actors who were quick studies but painfully deliberate in their approach to a role. As Laurette's daughter explained, "She seemed blandly unconscious of the discomfort of the others ... Amanda [the role] fascinated her. She could see whole facets of the woman's life before the action of the play and after it was over." This is what her husband had taught her was the test of a good part. "The outer aspect of this inner search concerned her not at all."

But Laurette did not explain herself, she did not say to Dowling the director or Tennessee, "Listen, this is just my process - it's how I work - don't worry, I'll get it, I'll get it." She was a genius and you cannot expect geniuses to behave rationally. Finally Tennessee blows up.

Tom told Donald that he finally lost his temper when Laurette made some trifling changes. He said he screamed, "My God, what corn!" She railed that he was a fool, that she had been a star for forty years and had made a living as a writer which in her opinion was more than he had done. After they had returned from lunch, she "suddenly began giving a real acting performance - so good that Julie and I, the sentimental element in the company, wept."

The rehearsals stumble to a close - many problems with the set design, integration of the music, etc. And Laurette starts to drink, after rehearsals, as the pressure grows. Everybody is grim, scared.

Paul Bowles, the composer, flew out to Chicago to view the dress rehearsal, which was, by all accounts, a complete disaster.

Integrating the scenery changes with Mielziner's light and Paul Bowles's music cues was difficult enough, but, as Bowles recalled, the dress rehearsal was a nightmare. "I flew out to Chicago [and] arrived in a terrible blizzard, I remember. It was horrible. A traumatic experience. And the auditorium was cold. Laurette Taylor was on the bottle, unfortunately. Back on it, really. She had got off it with the first part of the rehearsals but suddenly the dress rehearsal coming up was too much." Laurette was nowhere to be found. Finally she was discovered by the janitor, "unconscious, down behind the furnace in the basement. And there was gloom, I can tell you, all over the theatre because no one thought she would be able to go on the next night."

Tennesee's mother, Edwina, on whom Amanda was based, flies into Chicago for the opening night. Which was December 26, 1944.

Still - on December 26 - things were not set, people were running around like lunatics, a doom-laden atmosphere.

The following is one of my favorite Laurette Taylor stories. I do not know why it touches me so deeply, and brings tears to my eyes, but it does.

On opening night, December 26, Laurette had disappeared again. They were forty minutes from curtain. While Dowling checked with her hotel and restrained Singer from calling the police, Jo Mielziner [the lighting designer] decided to try the basement, as Paul Bowles had. He recalled:

"Far down a passage I saw a light and heard the sound of running water. There, in a sort of janitor's storage and washroom, was Laurette Taylor, dressed in a rather soiled old dressing-gown with the sleeves rolled up, bending over a washtub, wringing out the dress that she was to wear in the second act. Her hands and arms were dripping with lavendar dye. I said, 'Laurette, can't somebody do this for you? You should be resting in your room or getting made up.' Her great, tragic, beautiful eyes smiled at me and she said, 'No, it's all done.' The dress was an important costume, a much-talked-about party frock. Early in the production I had assumed that the management would have something specifically designed; but pennies were being pinched to such an extent that the dress had been 'bought off the pile.' At the dress parade the day before, Tennessee Williams had commented that it was far from right, and so Laurette Taylor, on her own, had bought some dye and was trying to remedy matters."

She thrust the soggy clump of costume into Randy Echols' [the production stage manager] hands with the command, "Here, dry this." He met the challenge. "The sweating Echols constructed a dryer of bits and pieces backstage, played lights on it, fanned it, blew on it, went quietly mad."

I love Randy Echols.

And so - curtain-time approaches.

Before the curtain's rise, a small storm-buffeted audience had made it to the theatre, including Chicago's two most formidable critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens. Edwina [Williams] recalled that "everything seemed against the play, even the weather. The streets were so ice-laden we could not find a taxi to take us to the Civic Theatre and had to walk. The gale blowing off Lake Michigan literally hurled us through the theatre door." Too nervous to sit and wait for the curtain, Tom went backstage, only to find the cast and crew even more gripped with fear than he was. Donald Windham arrived and sat next to Edwina...

Donald not only recognized Laurette Taylor's Southern accent as Tennessee's but he also felt that she had co-opted a good deal more and had modeled her performance on her careful observation of Tom. "Her sideways, suspicious glances at her children when she was displeased; her silences that spoke more than words; her bright obliviousness to the reality before her eyes when she was determined to show that she, at least, was agreeable, and her childish pleasure in the chance to charm and show off her best features..."

Edwina had not realized that Tom had written a play about HER, about his family, about his torment in regards to his sister who was mad, and eventually lobotomized. Laura is based on his sister Rose.

What Edwina was witnessing was in no real sense an autobiographical account of Tom's family life in St. Louis. It was a transmutation created by the artist who had taken refuge in the identity of Tennessee Williams - for it is true, as critic Frank Rich has said, that "anyone can write an autobiography, but only an artist knows how to remake his past so completely, by refracting it through a different aesthetic lens." For Edwina, the play was more dream than memory - a flux of disordered images of "loss, loss, loss." There could be no avoiding the similarities between Amanda Wingfield's travail and her own ... And there was the pain she had to feel in response to the reminders of Rose on that Christmas night, imprisoned in an asylum, with Laura's malformation acting as a metaphor for her daughter's enveloping madness. Then there was Tom's hope of escape - Tennessee's lifelong illusion - in pursuit of a father in love with long distances.

On one occasion, Tennessee said he could not remember his mother's reaction to the play; then on another he said that, as she sat listening to Laurette Taylor reciting her own utterances and aphorisms, "Mother began to sit up stiffer and stiffer. She looked like a horse eating briars. She was touching her throat and clasping her hands and quite unable to look at me." He thought that "what made it particularly hard for Mother to hear is that she is a tiny, delicate woman with great dignity and always managed to be extremely chic in dress, while Laurette Taylor invested the part with that blowzy, powerful quality of hers - and thank God she did, for it made the play."

That night, after the show, the cast and crew sat around waiting for the reviews to come in. Tennessee wanted to go to church, there was a midnight service down the street, but the weather was insane, freezing, a huge storm. And then - one by one, the reviews started coming in - "each more superlative than the last."

Claudia Cassidy said that the play "holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success" and she added "If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping, and you are caught in its spell." Ashton Stevens of the Herald-American called Menagerie "a lovely thing and an original thing. It has the courage of true poetry couched in colloquial prose. It is eerie and earthy in the same breath." He added that fifty years of first-nighting had provided him with few jolts so "miraculously electrical" as Laurette's portrayal and that he had not been so moved "since Eleanora Duse gave her last performance on this planet."

But still - the audience wasn't coming. The houses were small. Cassidy and Stevens began evangelists for the production.

...Claudia Cassidy ... returned for three successive performances ... Ashton Stevens virtually moved into the theatre. Everyone was faced with one of the most heartrending experiences in the theatre: helplessly watching a beautiful, highly praised production slowly expire because of the lack of public response.

This was about the time that theatre-people in New York started to make the trek out to Chicago to see what was going on.

Great playwright William Inge (who was unknown at this point, but a friend of Tennessee's) came out to see it. He describes his response:

"I sat in a half-filled theatre but I watched the most thrilling performance of the most beautiful American play I felt I had ever seen. I had the feeling at the time that what I was seeing would become an American classic...I was expecting a good play, yes, but I didn't know that I was going to encounter a work of genius ... The play itself was written so beautifully, like carved crystal and so it was a stunning experience for me and it shocked me alittle, too, to suddenly see this great work emerge from a person that I had come to know so casually."

Laurette Taylor's performance was being hailed as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting the world had ever seen. But, as is typical with all great actors, she had huge humility and felt she could not take complete credit.

Laurette Taylor never lost an opportunity to divert the praise that was being heaped upon her to that "nice little guy," Tennessee Williams. She was always quick to remind her admirers that it was he, not she, who had written the lines that gave The Glass Menagerie its special power and beauty. And she told Tennessee, "It's a beautiful - a wonderful - a great play!"

For his part, Tennessee Williams always said that, as much as he regarded Laurette Taylor a personal friend, he never ceased to be in awe of her. "She had such a creative mind," he once remarked. "Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural."

What was perhaps most extraordinary about The Glass Menagerie as a theatrical event was the meeting of these two great artists, one ending her career and the other beginning his. On that cold night of December 26, 1944, the convergence of two enormous theatre talents made theatre history. The performance itself became legendary, and the play became a classic in the literature of the American theatre.


The show continues its run in Chicago. Laurette Taylor has become the toast of the town. New York bigwigs fly in to see this new extraordinary show, and to see her performance, in particular. It is unclear at first, whether or not it will move on to New York. New York is the center of the universe. "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere..." Being a huge success in Chicago was wonderful and gratifying, for this sixty-year-old actress whom everyone had given up on for years. But she knew that ... Manhattan and the theatre audience and theatre critics in Manhattan were other animals altogether. Her anxiety grows.

As much as she was being lionized in Chicago and was enjoying it, Laurette knew the fawning for what it was: skittering leaves in the Windy City. Offstage now, she was becoming bored and edgy and more and more in need of a drink. Tom [Tennessee Williams] felt that what she actually needed was the seclusion of her own apartment and the protection of her young actress friend, Eloise. One who could understand Laurette's quicksilver disposition was Helen Hayes, then in Chicago playing in Harriet. She remembered Laurette saying over and over like an incantation, " 'I'm going to break this witch's curse.' "

Hayes said that Laurette was one of her idols and that they had been friends for a long time. "Harriet was closed on Sunday nights, and that was when I saw The Glass Menagerie. The play and Laurette were simply superb. Most nights after work, I would join her and Tennessee (they were very close) and Tony Ross, too, and we would go to their favorite bar. Laurette would order a double scotch, and when she saw my eyes widen, she reassured me that if she ordered a second drink, her deceased husband, Hartley, would come down and gently tap her on the shoulder. Being Irish, she believed that to be perfectly true."

Hayes remembered that Laurette's career had nose-dived and that hers was "a daring comeback attempt at age sixty ... One night the phone was ringing when I returned to my suite at the Ambassador. It was Laurette. 'I can't go on tomorrow,' she said in despair. 'My throat hurts, and I'm losing my voice. If I don't go on, everyone will think I'm drunk. If they say I'm drunk, I will get drunk and stay drunk till I die.' Her cry for help galvanized me." Hayes said that she always carried an electric steam kettle when she went on tour, to which she could add medicine. 'It had been helpful when I came down with bronchitis or laryngitis. I told Laurette I would come right away with the kettle ... I taxied downtown to the Sherman House. I stayed with her through most of the night, making sure she was breathing properly ... the next evening she gave a magnificent performance."

That image kills me. Helen Hayes steaming Laurette Taylor. Jesus.

The buzz around the show grew.

The word had spread to Broadway and Hollywood, and the wagers were on: Would she or would she not make it back? Everyone in the Chicago company was now, by mid-February, plainly nervous. The more Laurette was surrounded by flattery and the excitement of prominent visitors, the greater was the strain on her to keep from joining in the carouse around her. The marvelously witty and stylish actress Ina Claire was in the audience every night, and Tom wrote Audrey: "Everybody stops off here between Hollywood and New York, so our social life is terrific. We've had Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Katherine Helpburn, Terry Helburn, Maxwell Anderson, Mary Chase, Guthrie McClintic Lindsay and Crouse, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, Luther Adler and God knows what all! Everybody has been favorable except Maxwell Anderson. He didn't like it."...

Katherine Hepburn's enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie, on the other hand, was such that she went straightway to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Louis B. Mayer, saying that the studio should buy the play, assign George Cukor to direct, cast her as Laura and Spencer Tracy as the gentleman caller, and, above all, to capture on film Laurette's incomparable performance. She was to say later that Amanda Wingfield was Tennessee's "most tenderly observed, the most accessible woman he has ever created."

But the project never came about, and so we will never know what Taylor's performance actually looked like. We can only take the words of all of the people who saw it as truth.

The play finally moves to New York. They uproot from Chicago, the glorious snowy town which had put Tennessee Williams on the map, made him a star, the town that catapulted Laurette Taylor, now a 60 year old woman, back into the limelight, after 40 years.

The pressure on the company is enormous. The show is going to be done at the Playhouse Theatre.

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Laurette was well aware that both her disgrace in Alice and her comeback in Outward Bound had taken place on this same Playhouse stage. Across the street was the Cort Theatre, where her career had begun in the title role of Peg O' My Heart. She had much to look back upon, but the present confronting her was virtually unendurable. Back in her apartment, she found that her impulse was not to leave it and to seek escape in alcohol, but she also recognized this as an enemy that could bring upon her a terrible, final disagrace. In the hours before the curtain was to rise, she was under the watchful care of Eloise Sheldon, who had taken time off from her role in Harvey to be close to her.

The Glass Menagerie was scheduled to open on Saturday, March 31, Easter eve - a week after Tom's thirty-fourth birthday ... and the day before Laurette's sixty-first. Born a few weeks before Easter and reared in the symbolism of the Christian church, Tom saw this season as a special one, and he used the passage from crucifixion to resurrection as a constant theme in his work.

And so, opening night arrives. Everyone who is anyone showed up. It was a star-studded evening. Every powerhouse in town was in the audience.

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That afternoon, there had been a technical run-through and the usual chaotic dress rehearsal. Audrey wrote:

I don't remember where the author was that last afternoon but I shan't ever forget sitting in an unairconditioned Playhouse Theatre. There was a frenetic veiling over everything - and everybody. The actors paced nervously before the run-through began. The light technicians tinkered with never-ending light cues and most of them came out just a little bit wrong. Having played their roles for months in Chicago meant absolutely nothing. This was the day of the New York opening. This was it. I kept remembering Liebling's remark, "You're only as good as the night they catch you."

Audrey recalled that when Laurette began her opening scene, she seemed under control "but after a few words in recognizable anguish she said, 'I'm sorry, I have to leave the stage. I'm going to be sick.' And sick she was offstage and then returned to try once more, a little whiter." The illness continued all afternoon.

The star of the show throwing up in between scenes was not the only problem during the technical run-through. "Tech"s are long and monotonous, and notoriously very tense. They are 10 hour days. At the end of the day, you do what is known as a "cue to cue". Which is self-explanatory. You run the couple of lines before a music or a light cue, the light cue is then executed, either correctly or not correctly, and then you run it again. Or you move on, if there are no mistakes. There are always mistakes. The actors have had three weeks to perfect their performances. The tech team has to do it in one day.

So The Glass Menagerie, with its musical cues, its projections on a screen in the back, its delicate light cues, was what is known as a "tech-heavy" show. The play relies upon these cues being executed in a sensitive intuitive way - it's PART of the show. It's how Tennessee wrote it. David Mamet's plays, by contrast, are pretty much: 'Lights up. Play happens. Lights out." Very different sensibility. And easier "techs".

Back to the disastrous "tech" on Easter Eve, 1946.

Paul Bowles's sensitive incidental score roared out when it should have sounded
(another quote from Audrey Wood) like circus music, away off in the distance of memory. Julie Haydon was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but her concern for Miss Taylor was considerable. The two men, Eddie Dowling and Tony Ross, may have been scared to death, but they made a brave attempt at pretending they didn't care a damn what day it was.

The coproducer, Louis Singer, felt his way over to my side of the otherwise dark, empty auditorium where I was crouched down in my seat. Peering at me through the darkness, he said, 'Tell me - you are supposed to know a great deal about the theatre - is this or is it not the worst dress rehearsal you've ever seen in your life?' I nodded 'Yes.' I was too frightened to try and open my mouth.

During the rehearsal, Randy Echols had placed a bucket in the wings and, except for the two hours that Amanda was onstage, Laurette was leaning over it. Tony Ross later said, "It seemed incredible to us that by curtain time Laurette would have the strength left to give a performance. We went home for a few hours for supper, but Eloise told me Laurette could eat nothing."

In her dressing room, Laurette had placed in front of her a large framed photograph of her [long-deceased] husband, Harley Manners.

Now we are into the final stretch. Curtain time is moments away. The description of what followed is so moving to me that tears blur my eyes as I type it out.

Eloise had [Laurette] dressed by the time of Randy's summons, "Curtain, Miss Taylor!" Tony Ross said that Mary Jean Copeland and Julie had to hlep her to her place onstage. "As the lights dimmed on Dowling at the end of his opening narration and began going up on the dining-room table we could hear Laurette's voice, 'Honey, don't push with your fingers ... And chew -- chew!' It seemed thin and uncertain. Slowly the lights came up full, and as she continued to speak, her voice gained strength. The audience didn't recognize her at first, and by the time they did she was well into her speech, and kept on going right through the applause. They soon quieted down." The bucket stayed in the wings, and "the few minutes she had between scenes, she was leaning over it retching horribly. There was nothing left inside her, poor thing, but onstage - good God! - what a performance she gave!"

In the final tableau of the play, with Tom departed, Amanda hovers protectively over a broken, deeply disturbed Laura, symbolizing what Tennessee Williams saw in his own mother: "Now that we cannot hear the mother's speech, her silliness is gone and she has dignity and tragic beauty."

At the end, the audience roared its approval. There were twenty-four curtain calls. As Laurette took her bows, tears streaked down her cheeks and she smiled somewhat tentatively while she held out the pleated frills of her worn blue party dress and curtsied. Her daughter said that she had the look of "a great ruin of a child gazing timorously upon a world she found to be infinitely pleasing."

At length, there were shouts of "Author! Author!" Eddie Dowling came down to the edge of the stage and beckoned Tom to come forward and take his place with the company. The young man who rose from the fourth row, his hair in a crew cut, his suit button missing, looked more like a junior in college than an eminent playwright. Standing in the aisle, he turned toward the stage and made a deep bow to the actors, his posterior in full view of the audience.

From this moment on, there was no turning back for Tom Williams. His prayers and those of his mother had been answered. Now he could give Edwina [his mother] financial independence and freedom from the bondage of her unhappy marriage. To his father's dismay, the little boy who could not put his blocks back in the box exactly as he had found them had become the artist who would rearrange them in a lasting architecture. And now there was no escape save into himself, and no place in the world he could go where he would not be known.

He had become Tennessee Williams.

I think my favorite part of that anecdote is that, in the moment he became a celebrity, in the moment Tom left Tom behind, to become Tennessee, his first act - the first thing he did - was bow to the ACTORS. Not to the audience who had been cheering for him, but to the company of actors who had made this success possible.

Now that is a class act.

Amanda Wingfield would be Laurette Taylor's final role. The play ran from March 31, 1945 - August 3, 1946.

Laurette Taylor died on December 7, 1946.

David Mermelstein writes:

Though she earned stardom playing the title role in "Peg o' My Heart" (1912), Taylor earned immortality much later as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" (1945). To hear those who saw her tell it, and there are still many who can, Taylor was a supreme conjurer, a mistress of the art that concealed art. Her unaffected portrayal of a struggling matron deludedly soldiering on has been described with awe as something so seemingly ordinary as to defy belief. "It could have been your mother" or "It was as if some woman off the street had stumbled into the theater." Alas, no film or recording of her performance exists. Only the legend survives -- of an old trouper giving what many consider the greatest dramatic performance of the 20th century, just before vanishing.

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Martin Landau saw her in Glass Menagerie in New York and said that she "was almost like this woman had found her way into the theatre, through the stage door, and was sort of wandering around the kitchen." It was that real. (People say that about Marlon Brando's performance in Truckline Cafe - his debut. He came down the stairs in his first entrance, eating an apple, and Charles Durning, who saw the show, actually thought it was a stagehand who had wandered onstage, his behavior was so natural and real).

In the great documentary Broadway: The Golden Age (my post on it here) ranks and ranks of people talk about Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda. It was over 50 years ago now, almost 60 years, and the memory blazes bright and vivid. Nobody ever forgot it.

From a review of the documentary:

“Rise and shine! Rise and shine!”

I can hear it now, and in her voice, and so all his life could Tom Wingfield, also known as Thomas Lanier Williams, a/k/a Tennessee Williams, and so, as they talk to Rick McKay, can Gena Rowlands, Uta Hagen, Ben Gazzara, Fred Ebb, Charles Durning, and dozens of others.

Durning says it best: “I thought they’d pulled her in off the street.”

He is talking about, they are talking about, we are talking here about Laurette Taylor (1884-1946), whose performance as Amanda Wingfield. Tom’s mother, Laura’s mother, in the 1945 New York premiere of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Royale Theater on Broadway is and will always remain the American high-water mark of acting that goes beyond acting to be (that is, to seem) no acting at all.

“I saw her five times in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ” says the also great Uta Hagen whom we lost only some months ago, “and ten times in ‘Outward Bound.’ ”

“Cabaret” lyricist Fred Ebb saw “The Glass Menagerie” SEVEN times. In one instant that Ebb still carries in his gizzards, Laurette Taylor “turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been so affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”

“She could have been my mother,” says Ben Gazzara, speaking of the telephone scene in which a desperate Amanda Wingfield tries to get a female acquaintance to renew a magazine subscription at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. “It makes you laugh and cry in the same breath. How do you do that?” says Gazzara. “Only PEOPLE do that. I think we’ve all been striving to be her, one way or another.”

In 2005, Jesse Green wrote in the New York Times:

People, especially actors, who saw Laurette Taylor play Amanda Wingfield in the original production of "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945 typically say it was the best performance ever offered on the American stage. Tennessee Williams compared her radiance in the role (which he had based on his mother) to the "greatest lines of poetry" and mourned that her reputation would be limited to the "testimony and inspiration" of those who saw her. That's mostly true; Taylor appeared in only three films, all silent, and died shortly after leaving the road company of "Menagerie" in 1946. But something of what made her Amanda so memorable was captured by Eileen Darby (1916-2004), a photographer who worked Broadway from 1940 to 1964, producing some of the signal theatrical images of the period: Marlon Brando menacing a thrilled but terrified Jessica Tandy in "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Carol Channing, framed by a halo of hair and feathers, at the top of the Harmonia Gardens stairs in "Hello, Dolly!"

Some 250 of these images are featured in "Stars on Stage: Eileen Darby and Broadway's Golden Age," to be published by Bulfinch Press this month; many are included in an exhibition of Darby's work that opened Tuesday at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. None is more valuable and unexpected than this series of 12 frames of Taylor in "Menagerie" - a "key sheet" from which the show's press agent might choose a publicity shot. It records one of Amanda's efforts to earn extra money by selling renewal subscriptions to a "magazine for matrons" called The Home-maker's Companion. The action, caught at about one shot every five seconds, is so legibly written on Taylor's face that it can be matched nearly frame by frame to the Scene 3 monologue. Frame 2: "Ida Scott? ... We missed you at the D.A.R. last Monday!" Frame 4: "You're a Christian martyr, yes, that's what you are." Frame 7: "That wonderful new serial by Bessie Mae Hopper is getting off to such an exciting start." Frame 9: "Go take a look in the oven and I'll hold the wire!" Frame 11: "I think she's hung up!" And then, in Frame 12, a fleeting look of betrayal and confusion aimed at the telephone itself: a reminder that Amanda's runaway husband was a telephone man who "fell in love with long-distance."

After Taylor's own husband (her second) died in 1928, she went on a 10-year bender she later called "the longest wake in history." That's on her face, too, and one of the things Darby's photographs so memorably record is a time when Amanda could be played (indeed, could only be played) by a plain, 61-year-old warhorse whose suffering, far from being a disfigurement requiring erasure, was the essence of the gift she brought to the stage.

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Laurette Taylor, before she passed away, wrote an essay about acting that is precious to me. It's not often that an actor can actually talk about he or she does, without sounding precious or like they want to be congratulated for their cleverness. But in Taylor's essay, she comes close to actually expressing magic, and yet at the same time, this lady was Irish Catholic, okay? She couldn't be airy-fairy if she tried. I know of what I speak. James Joyce said, "In Ireland Catholicism is black magic." Laurette Taylor here sounds practical, yet full of black magic. It is that very interesting mix that seems to me very particular to the Irish sensibility - the Irish artistic sensibility is what I mean. Laurette Taylor, in her long career, experienced the ups and downs, lows and highs, at a more intense frequency than most. She was not a cynical woman. She didn't have a "well, that's the way life is" bone in her body. She was not a realist. Her fantasies and dreams and hopes are part and parcel of why she turned to the bottle. Reality was too much for her. Reality is too much for a lot of geniuses. But when she was able to harness all of that light and fire and hope and loss ... nobody could touch her. How many performances have you seen where you remember the blocking 60 years later? Not too many. That was what Laurette Taylor did in Glass Menagerie. The gestures revealed the subtext. So often gestures are belabored or planned-out by the actor. "If I take off my hat on this line, this will show what I am really feeling ..." That's good stage-craft, I don't mean to knock it ... but then there are the geniuses ... who cannot HELP but reveal the subtext. The subtext is not some intellectual bit of playwriting - it is IN them, they have embodied it, they have used the rehearsal time to step into that deep pool and LIVE there, so no matter what they do: pick up the phone, pour someone a drink, fix their makeup - it reveals the subtext. My acting teacher in college always used to talk to us actors about finding "the pulse of the playwright". We must always be close to that pulse when we act. Because the job of the actor is twofold: give a good performance and also reveal the play.

Without Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda, the actual play of Glass Menagerie might not have been revealed. She WAS Tennessee Williams up there. And she didn't plan on that, or tackle it intellectually ... it was just how she worked. She didn't know any other way.

Here is Laurette Taylor's essay about the art of acting:

The Quality Most Needed - by Laurette Taylor

I have been asked to discuss, for the benefit of those who may go on the stage, the qualities which are most important as elements of success. If merely the financial or popular success of a woman star is meant, I should say that beauty is more essential than magnetism. But if by success you mean all that is implied by the magical word Art - success in the sense of Bernhardt, Duse and Ellen Terry are successes - I should say most emphatically the reverse. And I should add that imagination is more important than either.

Mere beauty is unimportant; in many cases it proves a genuine handicap. Beautiful women seldom want to act. They are afraid of emotion and they do not try to extract anything from a character that they are portraying, because in expressing emotion they may encourage crow's feet and laughing wrinkles. They avoid anything that will disturb their placidity of countenance, for placidity of countenance insures a smooth skin.

Beauty is not all-important as an asset, even when the star is not anxious to achieve true greatness. Many of our most charming comediennes are not pretty women. Rather, they are women of great charm and personality. I cannot for the moment recall a single great actress who is a beauty. At least not in the popularly accepted idea of what constitutes beauty.

Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them.

Beauty as I understand it does not mean simple prettiness, but stands for something allusive and subtle. The obvious seldom charms after one has had to live close to it for any length of time. Being all on the surface, there is nothing left to exhilarate, once the surface has been explored. On the other hand, the beauty which emanates from within becomes more enchanting upon close acquaintance. It is constantly revealing itself in some new guise and becomes a continual source of joy to the fortunate persons who have the privilege of meeting it frequently.

That is beauty of the imagination, and that beauty all the really great actresses have.

The case of [Sarah] Bernhardt is as good an example as one would wish. In her youth, especially, she was the very apotheosis of ugliness; still, through the power of her rich imagination that glorified her every thought and act, she held her audiences in the hollow of her hand. It is the strength and richness of her wonderful creative mind tha tmakes it possible for her to present the amazing illusion of youth which she does even today.

It isn't beauty or personality or magnetism that makes a really great actress. It is imagination, though these other qualities are useful.

You see a queer little child sitting in the middle of a mud puddle. She attracts you and holds your interest. You even smile in sympathy. Why? Simply because that child is exercising her creative imagination. She is attributing to mud pies the delicious qualities of the pies which mother makes in the kitchen. You may not stop to realize that this is what is going on in the child's mind, but unconsciously it is communicated to you. It is the quality of imagination that has held your attention ...

We create in the imagination the character we wish to express. If it is real and vital to us in imagination we will be able to express it with freedom and surety. But we must conceive it as a whole before we begin to express it.

There will be those who will disagree with me and say that magnetism presupposes imagination. This is a mistake. Many magnetic actresses are wholly lacking in imagination, their hold upon the public resting chiefly upon personality and charm and beauty. Have you ever gone to a tea party where you met some very magnetic woman who radiated charm, who not only held your attention but exhilarated you until you became impatient to see this scintillating creature on the stage, where you might realize the fullness of her wonder? And have you not felt, when your opportunity came and you saw her on the stage at last, the disappointment of realizing a wooden lady with a beautiful mask for a face, speaking faultlessly articulated lines - an actress who rose desperately to the big moments of her part, and who never for a moment let you forget that it was she, that actress, whom you saw, not the character whom she was portraying? There may have been splendid acting but you were conscious of the fact that it was acting. There was no illusion. She was conscious at the big climax that she was acting this part and that she must reach this climax. She was acting as much to herself as to you.

That is not the art of the great actress.

The imaginative actress builds a picture, using all her heart and soul and brain. She builds this picture not alone for the people out in front but for herself. She believes in it and she makes the people across the footlights believe in it. Unless she has done this she has failed. She must stimulate the imagination of the audience. An actress should not only be able to play a part; she should be able to play with it. Above all, she should not allow anything to stand between her and the thing she is expressing.

How often does an actress play a part so as to leave you with the feeling that you have so intimate a knowledge of the character that you could imagine its conduct in any position, aside from the situations involved in the action of the play? Unless this happens, you feel that after all you have seen a limited portrayal of the character and you realize that though the acting was practically flawless there was something missing. And, in nine cases out of ten, that is because the woman playing the part did not use any imagination. She was entirely bound by the tradition of the theatre. She did everything just as it would have been done by anyone else on the stage. This is fatal.

You feel untouched by the play because it was not made real to you.

The artist looks for the unusual. She watches everyone, always searching for the unusual in clothes, in manner, in gesture. The imaginative actress will even remember that the French have characteristics other than the shrug!

Think of the number of times that there have been Irish plays, of the number of times that the Irish character has been used in the working out of a plot. Yet never, to my knowledge, has an Irishman been played on the stage. (This excepts, of course, Lady Gregory's players and Guy Standing's rendition of a current Irish-American role.) Real Irishmen have never been played. The Irish can be the most melancholy people on the face of the earth, yet the traditional stage Irish have been lilting colleens and joking Paddies.

The most interesting thing to me in acting is the working out of the character itself, the finding of what which is uncommon and the small, seemingly insignificant trait which will unconsciously make an appeal to the audience and establish the human appeal. Too much importance is laid on clothes. In the main, I think that all clothes hamper unless they express the character. Personally, I detest 'straight' parts for that reason. They necessitate the clothes that make me self-conscious - or, rather "clothes conscious".

I want to get right inside the character and act from the heart as well as from the head. That is impossible unless one is free from outside interference.

I think actresses pay too much attention to the tradition of acting. That is a great mistake. It cramps creative instinct. I received a good deal of criticism for my walk in The Bird of Paradise. Some of the critics said I should be taught how to walk across the stage. Of course I paid no attention to that. My walk was the walk of the barefoot Italians who carry loads on their heads, and I had learned it from them. It was certainly not the traditional stage walk, but we are living in a time when simplicity and truth are the watchwords of the theatre. The traditional stage walk would not have fitted the character I played.

The stage has come to a period of simplicity. A few years ago the direct attitude adopted by the younger actresses of today toward their roles would have been considered ridiculous. The changes have been positive but subtle, and the actress without concentration has been unable to discern them. They are the ones who are still sparring for time in their emotional scenes, using the traditional tricks to express grief, joy, surprise, chagrin; and they wonder why they are sitting at home without engagements. They cannot comprehend that the very little basket of tricks which made them the idols of a few years ago fails utterly to get results today ...

The time has come when we may as well realize that we can no longer give a filmy portrayal of emotion and pad it out wiht stereotyped pieces of "business". The younger actresses of today express the elemental emotions as the elemental person would express them in real life. There is no such thing as a compromise in the logical development of a character in order to make a theatrical effect ...

Too few actresses follow their instinct. I think instinct is the direct connection with truth.

It is not enough to know just what you are to do yourself in the action of a piece; you must know also the exact relation you must bear to every other character in the play.

For instance, take the business of dying. You must in your imagination realize not only the fact that you are dying but the effect which your death will have on every character related to your part. You know that you are not dying and the audience knows it, but in your imagination you must really believe you are. The business of dying becomes actual to you; also, you compel the audience to believe in you by the very sincerity of your attitude.

This trait is really remarkable in Maude Adams. Recall her work in Chantecler. Without her tremendous imagination to gild her impersonation, this frail little woman would have been hopeless in the part. Yet through her marvelous richness of imagination she produced the illusion of bigness that many women better fitted physically could not have done.

One would never say that Maude Adams is beautiful, in the sense that she is pretty or has a beautiful physique; but she has charm, magnetism and imagination. These three make a beauty that transcends mere beauty.

Beauty, personality, and magnetism are not important in the equipment of a star, when compared to the creative faculty of imagination. The first three qualities are valuable adjuncts, and no one should sneeze at them. But you might get along without the slightest beauty and little or no personal magnetism if you were generously endowed with the imaginative mind.

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I haven't even talked about the book! Her daughter Marguerite Courtney wrote this life of her mother, and I consider it to be essential reading. Not only does it detail Laurette Taylor's journey (with honesty, freshness, and specificity) - but it gives a snapshot of an American theatre scene that no longer exists. Courtney obviously loves her mother, but this is not the ravings of a fangirl. She tells it like it is. Wonderful book. Since my post has been all about Glass Menagerie, I will choose an excerpt from when she was playing in Peg o' My Heart and had become a star. The great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was her idol - and this excerpt has to do with the two of them meeting.

I find Bernhardt's first-impression assessment of Laurette Taylor fascinating and quite prophetic. She saw in Taylor, who was, at that time, playing in a comedy - known for how funny she was - a "tragique actress". She saw. She saw the sadness - and basically saw Amanda Wingfield in her, although Amanda would not come into Taylor's life for another 40 years. Fascinating. Very intuitive of Bernhardt. And her prophecy that Taylor would be "the foremost actress" of America was right on - only her timeline was off by 35 years. Amazing.

Great book.



EXCERPT FROM Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter, by Marguerite Courtney

By November, 1913, Laurette had broken the record for continuous performances. Maude Adams was the previous title-holder with three hundred performances as Lady Babbie in "The Little Minister" in 1897. Laurette was growing restive. Peg was "all right for a starter" she said but she hadn't worked all these years for success to have it imprison her forever in one role. She was, as Burns Mantle put it, "threatened with the curse of popularity".

She would as soon have joined the waxwork figures of Eden Musee as let her fame rest with "Peg". Her admiration was for the innovators, like Alla Nazimova who introduced Ibsen's plays to New York. "There was courage," said Laurette, "courage of one who was willing and able to tread unknown paths." Sarah Bernhardt was her idol. Playing a young man in "L'Aiglon" at the age of fifty-five with astounding success, triumphing in a dozen roles of every variety. "I studied Bernhardt," said Lauette; "no, not studied her, I drank her in."

There was no question in Laurette's mind which course she was going to pursue in the theatre.

Laurette's first meeting with the great French tragedienne was unpropitious. Bernhardt was playing scenes from her successes at the Palace Theatre in the spring of 1913. As a publicity stunt a high-powered press agent sought three prominent Broadway actresses to walk on with her in a scene from "Phedre". Only Laurette and Marguerite Clark, then starring in "Prunella" accepted. A stenographer in the agent's office was recruited at the last minute as the third "prominent actress". The three women were pinned into ill-fitting robes over once-pink tights; wreathes of enormous pink roses were placed on their heads, and on their feet shapeless gilt sandals. Then they were taken to the great one's dressing room. The ailing Bernhardt apparently had not even bothered to inquire as to the identity of the two young actresses or what they were playing in New York, but on meeting Laurette a spark of interest lit for a moment behind the curiously slanted, catlike eyes.

"Tragic actress?" she asked in English.

"No, madame. Comedienne."

Bernhardt looked puzzled, muttered something in French, then swept her hand across Laurette's eyes. "Non - non!" she said emphatically. "Tragique actress!"

The brief appearance of Phedre's handmaidens was as near farcical as the costumes, but Laurette remembered only the matchless thrill of "walking on" with Bernhardt, the weight of those "divine bones" leaning on her arm as the procession slowly made its way to Phedre's throne.

A week later Bernhardt sent word to the Cort that she would like to see Laurette's play. Because of Madame's daily matinees a special performance of "Peg" was arranged for eleven o'clock in the morning. A souvenir program was printed in French, an armchair placed in the aisle. At the sight of the chair Bernhardt had a tantrum, insisting on sitting in an aisle seat; there, bright-eyed and eager as a child she waited for the curtain to rise. Thus, for the immortal Sarah, Laurette played her immortal "Peg".

At Bernhardt's specific request not a line of publicity was given to the event. Over her signature had been issued a bewildering number of statements on everything from the health value of lemon juice before breakfast to the plight of the immigrant. Witnessing Laurette's Peg the French actress seemed to touch bedrock in publicity quicksands. She wrote in an article syndicated all over the country:

One young artist in New York has not allowed herself to be blinded. She has worked hard and is still working, although she is already a very agreeable comedienne, possessing humor, emotion, and a rare thing for her age - power. I speak of Laurette Taylor who will become within five years the foremost actress of this country ... All aspirants for the stage should take this young actress as their model.

Three years later, on another farewell tour, Bernhardt again asked to see Laurette play. This time she was grievously ill and, because of the ailing leg, forced to use a wheel chair. To permit her to retire backstage between acts, the two sets of "The Harp of Life" were moved from the Globe to the Empire where she was playing. The performance was given at one p.m. This time there was no embargo on press or public and the audience came by special invitation. It was one of the most brilliant professional assemblages in New York theatre history.

Due to difficulties in getting Madame's wheel chair in and out of the box, prolonged retirements backstage to sip hot milk and rest, the second act was not finished until almost six o'clock. Bernhardt stayed in her place until the audience had left, then asked the company to play the last act. But there wasn't time. She thanked the cast, patted Laurette's cheek, and was wheeled off to prepare for her evening performance.

Asked what it was like to play for Bernhardt, Laurette said, "It was like playing to royalty and a little child."

Bernhardt was Laurette's lodestar, the great inspiration of her acting life. "But I could never be a Bernhardt," she once said. "There just isn't enough of me."


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The Books: "Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter" (Marguerite Courtney)

5181225b9da030f0e2234110._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter, by Marguerite Courtney

Laurette Taylor had a long (and rather checkered) stage career - Broadway and regional - starting in 1909 - a career where her really big hit, the thing she was known for was Peg o' my Heart in 1912. It had been a personal triumph. Peg o' my Heart was such a success she became the toast of New York. She was still a kid. Success came very early - and then faded almost just as quickly. But she kept going, she kept trying, kept trying to find the next Peg o' my Heart.

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They did a revival of that show, years later, and she was in it ... but she was only grasping at a long-ago glory. Nobody cared anymore.

There is a sadness in Laurette Taylor's face, a wistful longing for ... something ... not fame, not that exactly ... perhaps it was comfort, or respect, or finding a place in the theatre she could call home. She was a heartbreaking character, much beloved and revered ... with demons that took her over from time to time (she was a falling-down black-out drunk), and a certain amount of poetry and mischief that elevated her when she needed it. Or no, not when she needed it. There were decades in there where she could not access her own essence - the thing she needed to bring to the stage ... What she needed was a role. What she needed was THE role to help bring her back to life.

Enter young Tennessee Williams with this new play he had written called The Glass Menagerie.

At the time he entered her life, she was not in good shape. She was forgotten. A lush. A 60-year-old recluse drunk.

Her beloved second husband J. Hartley Manners (who had written Peg o' My Heart) died in 1928 - and she went on what was, for all intents and purposes, a 10-year bender. By the end of that decade, her entire fortune was gone, and everybody who had loved her, who had thought she was going to be the next biggest star, assumed that she must have died.

She was a wild-woman, and one of the most quotable of people. I love reading about her. She sounds like a hoot. I feel like I would have loved to know her.

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My favorite Laurette Taylor anecdote (or one of them) is this:

Taylor was in the midst of doing a play, a play which was not a success. Nobody was showing up and it was universally panned. After one of the performances, Taylor went to a party, where I am sure she began to imbibe. She struck up a conversation with a young man, also at the party. They talked for a bit, and then he left, to go mingle. Taylor immediately turned to the hostess and said, "That man walked out on me tonight at the theatre!!"

The hostess, disbelieving, said, "Are you sure? How do you know?"

Taylor snapped, "I sometimes forget a face, but I never forget a back!"

Taylor also described the 10-year drinking binge after the death of her husband as "the longest wake in history."

She was a tough cookie, this one. And yet people talked (and still talk, oh my GOD, do they still talk) about her gift on the stage.

However - after Peg o' My Heart, in 1912, she went on and on and on ... doing bit parts, living in hotel rooms, doing Merchant of Venice in Toledo ... blah blah. A bleak life. Everyone kept thinking she was "making a comeback" - but the expectations were too high. There were many disappointments. This was a woman with a ton of demons. And none of the parts she got really exploited that tormented side of her, that beautiful poetic tragedy she had.

If you see what she actually LOOKS like, you will understand why it might have been a challenge for her to find the role that would really let her shine. She was not beautiful or tall and slim. She was not a leading lady. She was dumpy, a bit plain - but with eyes that glimmered, huge tragic eyes. In her own way, she is stunning, but she was hard to cast. Her "hit" had capitalized on her lilting fresh humorous youth, and when that was gone, she was adrift. Laurette Taylor, a person of Irish descent, was also the one, very very early on, who bemoaned the stereotyping of Irish people on stage. But I'll get to that in a minute.

She has an impish babyish face, she looks like a grinning mischievous cherub. This look was perfect for when she was a young vaudevillian, tap dancing her way through shows, making people laugh ... but as she grew older, as she became middle-aged, as her soul became darker, her looks did not fit her psyche.

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Also - and this is just a theory of mine - American theatre had not yet caught up with her. Her gift was wayyyyyyyy ahead of its time. NOW there are so many venues for weird quirky actors - cable TV, independent film, whatever. But then - there was only Broadway and Hollywood. Laurette Taylor did not fit in. She did a couple of silent films, and footage of one of her screen tests does survive ... but again: she needed the role. This was not a generic actress. I mean, no actor is generic, at least no good actor - but she, more than most, needed a role to illuminate her genius. That role was a long time coming.

Throughout the 20s and 30s, Broadway was producing mainly drawing-room comedies, Philip Barry stuff - Kaufman & Hart stuff - all wonderful funny plays - but very very WASP-y, very upper-crust stuff. Laurette Taylor, with her blowsy curls, her blasted-open smile, her snarky wise-cracking mouth, did not fit in with the style of the times.

But all it took was one playwright.

One playwright to, first of all, usher in a new age in American theatre. But also - to write the role, THE role, that Laurette Taylor had been waiting for ... for almost FORTY YEARS.

It is one of the greatest theatrical comebacks of all time.

The script by the unknown playwright was sent to her, and she stayed up all night reading it, and the next morning called her assistant Eloise who had sent it to her, and Taylor was completely jubiliant: "I've found it, Eloise! I've found the play I've been waiting for!"

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That playwright was Tennessee Williams, and the role was Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie - in its inaugural production in 1946.

My acting teacher saw that original production and still talks about it. Nobody who saw it ever forgot it.

People changed the courses of their lives, after seeing Laurette Taylor playing Amanda Wingfield. Jose Quintero, a young kid, who eventually would become one of the most successful theatre directors of his day (and would direct many of Tennessee Williams' plays years later, although he was mainly known as the interpreter of Eugene O'Neill) - saw the first production, when it opened in Chicago, and it made him realize, finally, that he had to go into the theatre.

He says, "I walked all night long. I knew then something had made me feel whole."

God, how I wish I could have seen that performance. It is a watershed, a landmark. But I know that I don't even HAVE to have seen it to undertstand that I am affected by it, to know that it has, to some degree, created the entire landscape of the profession.

None of us stand alone, none of us re-discover the wheel.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And Laurette Taylor was one of the biggest giants the American theatre has ever had.

It must have been something else - to see her in that part.

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There is no record of what she did. But it's like descriptions from theatregoers centuries ago, telling about David Garrick's Hamlet or his Macbeth. I don't have to have actually seen him act, to know that he was extraordinary, and to love him. Laurette Taylor's work in The Glass Menagerie really means something to me - means something to a lot of people. Great actress.

Lyle Leverich wrote the first half of a biography of Tennessee Williams called Tom: The Unknown Tennesse Williams. Sadly for those of us who were waiting with baited breath for the second volume, Leverich died before completing it. But the first volume is enough to whet your whistle for all time. The book ends with The Glass Menagerie opening on Broadway, to stunning success, after its amazing trial run in Chicago. This was back when regional theatre really made a difference in this country. There are still regional theatres out there that are important - Steppenwolf, Trinity - but it is a completely different business now.

Here are some excerpts from Leverich's extraordinary book - about the rehearsal process, about Laurette Taylor in rehearsal. She had not worked in a long time. She was still remembered, by those people who remembered her success in Peg o' my Heart, but she had a bad reputation and everyone was nervous she would fall off the rails before the show opened. During rehearsals, she worried everybody for the first few weeks because she didn't seem to be DOING anything. She wasn't learning her lines - she held her script in her hands - she mumbled, fumbled, and seemed to not project anything, and she certainly wasn't up to par with the rest of the cast in terms of the performance-level. What was she doing? When would she START? They didn't understand her genius. She was percolating, that's all. She was letting the script work on her, rather than working on the script, imagining herself into the dreamspace in her head that was reserved for Amanda Wingfield. She wasn't obedient. Geniuses never are. She followed her own process. And while this is all well and good, it gave the cast and crew of the show some pretty bad moments, because how do you say to someone, "Could you please start ACTING?"

But let me back up a bit.

The cast gathers in New York, and travels together by train to Chicago - to begin rehearsals for Tennessee Williams (or Tom's) new play The Glass Menagerie.

Lyle Leverich writes:

On a cold Saturday, December 16, the company gathered at Pennsylvania Station. Tom and Donald came together. Jane Smith, who shortly before had returned to New York, picked up Margo at her hotel. Eddie Dowling was already at the station with Louis Singer...

On the following bitterly cold morning, the troupe disgorged from the train into Chicago's barnlike Union Station. The impression was hardly that of a winning team. With scarcely a nod at one another they scattered in all directions. Laurette's daughter described the occasion, saying Dowling and Singer went off arm in arm, ignoring their tiny star [Laurette Taylor], who stood hesitant and alone on the platform. "Julie, hatless and pinched-looking, flitted by as insubstantial as a puff of steam from any of the locomotives. Tony Ross, a six foot three protest against the cold and early hour, passed somnambulistically. The anxious author, who had forgotten something, dove back into the car and emerged again to feel the bleakness of the station like an unfriendly slap - a dismal portent of his play's reception. Desperately he longed for the sight of a familiar figure and at last saw one." Tennessee recalled the event: " 'Laurette!' I called her name and she turned and cried out mine. Then and there we joined forces." Together they went in search of a taxi. "It was Laurette who hailed it with an imperious wave of her ungloved hand, hesitation all gone as she sprang like a tiger out of her cloud of softness: such a light spring, but such an amazingly far one."

After this inauspicious beginning, rehearsals begin. From the start, they do not go well. Laurette Taylor, who I mentioned earlier, had not been in anything substantial for years. She was a serious drunk - who apparently WASN'T drinking at that moment - but everyone was terrified she would start. She wasn't interested in learning her lines, or trying to get scenes right, she barely had any interest (it seemed) in ACTING. People watched her rehearse, and suddenly everyone started getting very very scared.

Tom may have become aware of the hidden tiger in Laurette, but, like everyone else in the company, he was puzzled by her odd behavior at rehearsal. Using a large magnifying glass, she hovered over her script, peering at it and mumbling her lines - this, while the other actors had memorized their dialogue and were following Dowling's direction. At one point, Eddie was heard to mutter, "That woman is crucifying me," and the nervous Mr. Singer, looking in on one of the rehearsals, cried out, "Eddie! Eddie! You're ruining me!" Laurette's daughter wrote that her mother was simply "up to her old trick of watching the others, seemingly much more interested in them than her own part, neither learning her lines nor her business."

Tennessee remembered that Laurette appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in "a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic." He was even more disconcerted when she said she was modeling her accent after his! Tom wrote to Donald Windham, complaining that Laurette was ad-libbing many of her speeches and that the play was beginning to sound more like the Aunt Jemima Pancake hour.

To him, Laurette's "bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy, and so did the rapturous manner of dear Julie." He was witnessing a characteristic of many of the theatre's great actors who were quick studies but painfully deliberate in their approach to a role. As Laurette's daughter explained, "She seemed blandly unconscious of the discomfort of the others ... Amanda [the role] fascinated her. She could see whole facets of the woman's life before the action of the play and after it was over." This is what her husband had taught her was the test of a good part. "The outer aspect of this inner search concerned her not at all."

But Laurette did not explain herself, she did not say to Dowling the director or Tennessee, "Listen, this is just my process - it's how I work - don't worry, I'll get it, I'll get it." She was a genius and you cannot expect geniuses to behave rationally. Finally Tennessee blows up.

Tom told Donald that he finally lost his temper when Laurette made some trifling changes. He said he screamed, "My God, what corn!" She railed that he was a fool, that she had been a star for forty years and had made a living as a writer which in her opinion was more than he had done. After they had returned from lunch, she "suddenly began giving a real acting performance - so good that Julie and I, the sentimental element in the company, wept."

The rehearsals stumble to a close - many problems with the set design, integration of the music, etc. And Laurette starts to drink, after rehearsals, as the pressure grows. Everybody is grim, scared.

Paul Bowles, the composer, flew out to Chicago to view the dress rehearsal, which was, by all accounts, a complete disaster.

Integrating the scenery changes with Mielziner's light and Paul Bowles's music cues was difficult enough, but, as Bowles recalled, the dress rehearsal was a nightmare. "I flew out to Chicago [and] arrived in a terrible blizzard, I remember. It was horrible. A traumatic experience. And the auditorium was cold. Laurette Taylor was on the bottle, unfortunately. Back on it, really. She had got off it with the first part of the rehearsals but suddenly the dress rehearsal coming up was too much." Laurette was nowhere to be found. Finally she was discovered by the janitor, "unconscious, down behind the furnace in the basement. And there was gloom, I can tell you, all over the theatre because no one thought she would be able to go on the next night."

Tennesee's mother, Edwina, on whom Amanda was based, flies into Chicago for the opening night. Which was December 26, 1944.

Still - on December 26 - things were not set, people were running around like lunatics, a doom-laden atmosphere.

The following is one of my favorite Laurette Taylor stories. I do not know why it touches me so deeply, and brings tears to my eyes, but it does.

On opening night, December 26, Laurette had disappeared again. They were forty minutes from curtain. While Dowling checked with her hotel and restrained Singer from calling the police, Jo Mielziner [the lighting designer] decided to try the basement, as Paul Bowles had. He recalled:

"Far down a passage I saw a light and heard the sound of running water. There, in a sort of janitor's storage and washroom, was Laurette Taylor, dressed in a rather soiled old dressing-gown with the sleeves rolled up, bending over a washtub, wringing out the dress that she was to wear in the second act. Her hands and arms were dripping with lavendar dye. I said, 'Laurette, can't somebody do this for you? You should be resting in your room or getting made up.' Her great, tragic, beautiful eyes smiled at me and she said, 'No, it's all done.' The dress was an important costume, a much-talked-about party frock. Early in the production I had assumed that the management would have something specifically designed; but pennies were being pinched to such an extent that the dress had been 'bought off the pile.' At the dress parade the day before, Tennessee Williams had commented that it was far from right, and so Laurette Taylor, on her own, had bought some dye and was trying to remedy matters."

She thrust the soggy clump of costume into Randy Echols' [the production stage manager] hands with the command, "Here, dry this." He met the challenge. "The sweating Echols constructed a dryer of bits and pieces backstage, played lights on it, fanned it, blew on it, went quietly mad."

I love Randy Echols.

And so - curtain-time approaches.

Before the curtain's rise, a small storm-buffeted audience had made it to the theatre, including Chicago's two most formidable critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens. Edwina [Williams] recalled that "everything seemed against the play, even the weather. The streets were so ice-laden we could not find a taxi to take us to the Civic Theatre and had to walk. The gale blowing off Lake Michigan literally hurled us through the theatre door." Too nervous to sit and wait for the curtain, Tom went backstage, only to find the cast and crew even more gripped with fear than he was. Donald Windham arrived and sat next to Edwina...

Donald not only recognized Laurette Taylor's Southern accent as Tennessee's but he also felt that she had co-opted a good deal more and had modeled her performance on her careful observation of Tom. "Her sideways, suspicious glances at her children when she was displeased; her silences that spoke more than words; her bright obliviousness to the reality before her eyes when she was determined to show that she, at least, was agreeable, and her childish pleasure in the chance to charm and show off her best features..."

Edwina had not realized that Tom had written a play about HER, about his family, about his torment in regards to his sister who was mad, and eventually lobotomized. Laura is based on his sister Rose.

What Edwina was witnessing was in no real sense an autobiographical account of Tom's family life in St. Louis. It was a transmutation created by the artist who had taken refuge in the identity of Tennessee Williams - for it is true, as critic Frank Rich has said, that "anyone can write an autobiography, but only an artist knows how to remake his past so completely, by refracting it through a different aesthetic lens." For Edwina, the play was more dream than memory - a flux of disordered images of "loss, loss, loss." There could be no avoiding the similarities between Amanda Wingfield's travail and her own ... And there was the pain she had to feel in response to the reminders of Rose on that Christmas night, imprisoned in an asylum, with Laura's malformation acting as a metaphor for her daughter's enveloping madness. Then there was Tom's hope of escape - Tennessee's lifelong illusion - in pursuit of a father in love with long distances.

On one occasion, Tennessee said he could not remember his mother's reaction to the play; then on another he said that, as she sat listening to Laurette Taylor reciting her own utterances and aphorisms, "Mother began to sit up stiffer and stiffer. She looked like a horse eating briars. She was touching her throat and clasping her hands and quite unable to look at me." He thought that "what made it particularly hard for Mother to hear is that she is a tiny, delicate woman with great dignity and always managed to be extremely chic in dress, while Laurette Taylor invested the part with that blowzy, powerful quality of hers - and thank God she did, for it made the play."

That night, after the show, the cast and crew sat around waiting for the reviews to come in. Tennessee wanted to go to church, there was a midnight service down the street, but the weather was insane, freezing, a huge storm. And then - one by one, the reviews started coming in - "each more superlative than the last."

Claudia Cassidy said that the play "holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success" and she added "If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping, and you are caught in its spell." Ashton Stevens of the Herald-American called Menagerie "a lovely thing and an original thing. It has the courage of true poetry couched in colloquial prose. It is eerie and earthy in the same breath." He added that fifty years of first-nighting had provided him with few jolts so "miraculously electrical" as Laurette's portrayal and that he had not been so moved "since Eleanora Duse gave her last performance on this planet."

But still - the audience wasn't coming. The houses were small. Cassidy and Stevens began evangelists for the production.

...Claudia Cassidy ... returned for three successive performances ... Ashton Stevens virtually moved into the theatre. Everyone was faced with one of the most heartrending experiences in the theatre: helplessly watching a beautiful, highly praised production slowly expire because of the lack of public response.

This was about the time that theatre-people in New York started to make the trek out to Chicago to see what was going on.

Great playwright William Inge (who was unknown at this point, but a friend of Tennessee's) came out to see it. He describes his response:

"I sat in a half-filled theatre but I watched the most thrilling performance of the most beautiful American play I felt I had ever seen. I had the feeling at the time that what I was seeing would become an American classic...I was expecting a good play, yes, but I didn't know that I was going to encounter a work of genius ... The play itself was written so beautifully, like carved crystal and so it was a stunning experience for me and it shocked me alittle, too, to suddenly see this great work emerge from a person that I had come to know so casually."

Laurette Taylor's performance was being hailed as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting the world had ever seen. But, as is typical with all great actors, she had huge humility and felt she could not take complete credit.

Laurette Taylor never lost an opportunity to divert the praise that was being heaped upon her to that "nice little guy," Tennessee Williams. She was always quick to remind her admirers that it was he, not she, who had written the lines that gave The Glass Menagerie its special power and beauty. And she told Tennessee, "It's a beautiful - a wonderful - a great play!"

For his part, Tennessee Williams always said that, as much as he regarded Laurette Taylor a personal friend, he never ceased to be in awe of her. "She had such a creative mind," he once remarked. "Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural."

What was perhaps most extraordinary about The Glass Menagerie as a theatrical event was the meeting of these two great artists, one ending her career and the other beginning his. On that cold night of December 26, 1944, the convergence of two enormous theatre talents made theatre history. The performance itself became legendary, and the play became a classic in the literature of the American theatre.


The show continues its run in Chicago. Laurette Taylor has become the toast of the town. New York bigwigs fly in to see this new extraordinary show, and to see her performance, in particular. It is unclear at first, whether or not it will move on to New York. New York is the center of the universe. "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere..." Being a huge success in Chicago was wonderful and gratifying, for this sixty-year-old actress whom everyone had given up on for years. But she knew that ... Manhattan and the theatre audience and theatre critics in Manhattan were other animals altogether. Her anxiety grows.

As much as she was being lionized in Chicago and was enjoying it, Laurette knew the fawning for what it was: skittering leaves in the Windy City. Offstage now, she was becoming bored and edgy and more and more in need of a drink. Tom [Tennessee Williams] felt that what she actually needed was the seclusion of her own apartment and the protection of her young actress friend, Eloise. One who could understand Laurette's quicksilver disposition was Helen Hayes, then in Chicago playing in Harriet. She remembered Laurette saying over and over like an incantation, " 'I'm going to break this witch's curse.' "

Hayes said that Laurette was one of her idols and that they had been friends for a long time. "Harriet was closed on Sunday nights, and that was when I saw The Glass Menagerie. The play and Laurette were simply superb. Most nights after work, I would join her and Tennessee (they were very close) and Tony Ross, too, and we would go to their favorite bar. Laurette would order a double scotch, and when she saw my eyes widen, she reassured me that if she ordered a second drink, her deceased husband, Hartley, would come down and gently tap her on the shoulder. Being Irish, she believed that to be perfectly true."

Hayes remembered that Laurette's career had nose-dived and that hers was "a daring comeback attempt at age sixty ... One night the phone was ringing when I returned to my suite at the Ambassador. It was Laurette. 'I can't go on tomorrow,' she said in despair. 'My throat hurts, and I'm losing my voice. If I don't go on, everyone will think I'm drunk. If they say I'm drunk, I will get drunk and stay drunk till I die.' Her cry for help galvanized me." Hayes said that she always carried an electric steam kettle when she went on tour, to which she could add medicine. 'It had been helpful when I came down with bronchitis or laryngitis. I told Laurette I would come right away with the kettle ... I taxied downtown to the Sherman House. I stayed with her through most of the night, making sure she was breathing properly ... the next evening she gave a magnificent performance."

That image kills me. Helen Hayes steaming Laurette Taylor. Jesus.

The buzz around the show grew.

The word had spread to Broadway and Hollywood, and the wagers were on: Would she or would she not make it back? Everyone in the Chicago company was now, by mid-February, plainly nervous. The more Laurette was surrounded by flattery and the excitement of prominent visitors, the greater was the strain on her to keep from joining in the carouse around her. The marvelously witty and stylish actress Ina Claire was in the audience every night, and Tom wrote Audrey: "Everybody stops off here between Hollywood and New York, so our social life is terrific. We've had Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Katherine Helpburn, Terry Helburn, Maxwell Anderson, Mary Chase, Guthrie McClintic Lindsay and Crouse, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, Luther Adler and God knows what all! Everybody has been favorable except Maxwell Anderson. He didn't like it."...

Katherine Hepburn's enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie, on the other hand, was such that she went straightway to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Louis B. Mayer, saying that the studio should buy the play, assign George Cukor to direct, cast her as Laura and Spencer Tracy as the gentleman caller, and, above all, to capture on film Laurette's incomparable performance. She was to say later that Amanda Wingfield was Tennessee's "most tenderly observed, the most accessible woman he has ever created."

But the project never came about, and so we will never know what Taylor's performance actually looked like. We can only take the words of all of the people who saw it as truth.

The play finally moves to New York. They uproot from Chicago, the glorious snowy town which had put Tennessee Williams on the map, made him a star, the town that catapulted Laurette Taylor, now a 60 year old woman, back into the limelight, after 40 years.

The pressure on the company is enormous. The show is going to be done at the Playhouse Theatre.

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Laurette was well aware that both her disgrace in Alice and her comeback in Outward Bound had taken place on this same Playhouse stage. Across the street was the Cort Theatre, where her career had begun in the title role of Peg O' My Heart. She had much to look back upon, but the present confronting her was virtually unendurable. Back in her apartment, she found that her impulse was not to leave it and to seek escape in alcohol, but she also recognized this as an enemy that could bring upon her a terrible, final disagrace. In the hours before the curtain was to rise, she was under the watchful care of Eloise Sheldon, who had taken time off from her role in Harvey to be close to her.

The Glass Menagerie was scheduled to open on Saturday, March 31, Easter eve - a week after Tom's thirty-fourth birthday ... and the day before Laurette's sixty-first. Born a few weeks before Easter and reared in the symbolism of the Christian church, Tom saw this season as a special one, and he used the passage from crucifixion to resurrection as a constant theme in his work.

And so, opening night arrives. Everyone who is anyone showed up. It was a star-studded evening. Every powerhouse in town was in the audience.

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That afternoon, there had been a technical run-through and the usual chaotic dress rehearsal. Audrey wrote:

I don't remember where the author was that last afternoon but I shan't ever forget sitting in an unairconditioned Playhouse Theatre. There was a frenetic veiling over everything - and everybody. The actors paced nervously before the run-through began. The light technicians tinkered with never-ending light cues and most of them came out just a little bit wrong. Having played their roles for months in Chicago meant absolutely nothing. This was the day of the New York opening. This was it. I kept remembering Liebling's remark, "You're only as good as the night they catch you."

Audrey recalled that when Laurette began her opening scene, she seemed under control "but after a few words in recognizable anguish she said, 'I'm sorry, I have to leave the stage. I'm going to be sick.' And sick she was offstage and then returned to try once more, a little whiter." The illness continued all afternoon.

The star of the show throwing up in between scenes was not the only problem during the technical run-through. "Tech"s are long and monotonous, and notoriously very tense. They are 10 hour days. At the end of the day, you do what is known as a "cue to cue". Which is self-explanatory. You run the couple of lines before a music or a light cue, the light cue is then executed, either correctly or not correctly, and then you run it again. Or you move on, if there are no mistakes. There are always mistakes. The actors have had three weeks to perfect their performances. The tech team has to do it in one day.

So The Glass Menagerie, with its musical cues, its projections on a screen in the back, its delicate light cues, was what is known as a "tech-heavy" show. The play relies upon these cues being executed in a sensitive intuitive way - it's PART of the show. It's how Tennessee wrote it. David Mamet's plays, by contrast, are pretty much: 'Lights up. Play happens. Lights out." Very different sensibility. And easier "techs".

Back to the disastrous "tech" on Easter Eve, 1946.

Paul Bowles's sensitive incidental score roared out when it should have sounded
(another quote from Audrey Wood) like circus music, away off in the distance of memory. Julie Haydon was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but her concern for Miss Taylor was considerable. The two men, Eddie Dowling and Tony Ross, may have been scared to death, but they made a brave attempt at pretending they didn't care a damn what day it was.

The coproducer, Louis Singer, felt his way over to my side of the otherwise dark, empty auditorium where I was crouched down in my seat. Peering at me through the darkness, he said, 'Tell me - you are supposed to know a great deal about the theatre - is this or is it not the worst dress rehearsal you've ever seen in your life?' I nodded 'Yes.' I was too frightened to try and open my mouth.

During the rehearsal, Randy Echols had placed a bucket in the wings and, except for the two hours that Amanda was onstage, Laurette was leaning over it. Tony Ross later said, "It seemed incredible to us that by curtain time Laurette would have the strength left to give a performance. We went home for a few hours for supper, but Eloise told me Laurette could eat nothing."

In her dressing room, Laurette had placed in front of her a large framed photograph of her [long-deceased] husband, Harley Manners.

Now we are into the final stretch. Curtain time is moments away. The description of what followed is so moving to me that tears blur my eyes as I type it out.

Eloise had [Laurette] dressed by the time of Randy's summons, "Curtain, Miss Taylor!" Tony Ross said that Mary Jean Copeland and Julie had to hlep her to her place onstage. "As the lights dimmed on Dowling at the end of his opening narration and began going up on the dining-room table we could hear Laurette's voice, 'Honey, don't push with your fingers ... And chew -- chew!' It seemed thin and uncertain. Slowly the lights came up full, and as she continued to speak, her voice gained strength. The audience didn't recognize her at first, and by the time they did she was well into her speech, and kept on going right through the applause. They soon quieted down." The bucket stayed in the wings, and "the few minutes she had between scenes, she was leaning over it retching horribly. There was nothing left inside her, poor thing, but onstage - good God! - what a performance she gave!"

In the final tableau of the play, with Tom departed, Amanda hovers protectively over a broken, deeply disturbed Laura, symbolizing what Tennessee Williams saw in his own mother: "Now that we cannot hear the mother's speech, her silliness is gone and she has dignity and tragic beauty."

At the end, the audience roared its approval. There were twenty-four curtain calls. As Laurette took her bows, tears streaked down her cheeks and she smiled somewhat tentatively while she held out the pleated frills of her worn blue party dress and curtsied. Her daughter said that she had the look of "a great ruin of a child gazing timorously upon a world she found to be infinitely pleasing."

At length, there were shouts of "Author! Author!" Eddie Dowling came down to the edge of the stage and beckoned Tom to come forward and take his place with the company. The young man who rose from the fourth row, his hair in a crew cut, his suit button missing, looked more like a junior in college than an eminent playwright. Standing in the aisle, he turned toward the stage and made a deep bow to the actors, his posterior in full view of the audience.

From this moment on, there was no turning back for Tom Williams. His prayers and those of his mother had been answered. Now he could give Edwina [his mother] financial independence and freedom from the bondage of her unhappy marriage. To his father's dismay, the little boy who could not put his blocks back in the box exactly as he had found them had become the artist who would rearrange them in a lasting architecture. And now there was no escape save into himself, and no place in the world he could go where he would not be known.

He had become Tennessee Williams.

I think my favorite part of that anecdote is that, in the moment he became a celebrity, in the moment Tom left Tom behind, to become Tennessee, his first act - the first thing he did - was bow to the ACTORS. Not to the audience who had been cheering for him, but to the company of actors who had made this success possible.

Now that is a class act.

Amanda Wingfield would be Laurette Taylor's final role. The play ran from March 31, 1945 - August 3, 1946.

Laurette Taylor died on December 7, 1946.

David Mermelstein writes:

Though she earned stardom playing the title role in "Peg o' My Heart" (1912), Taylor earned immortality much later as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" (1945). To hear those who saw her tell it, and there are still many who can, Taylor was a supreme conjurer, a mistress of the art that concealed art. Her unaffected portrayal of a struggling matron deludedly soldiering on has been described with awe as something so seemingly ordinary as to defy belief. "It could have been your mother" or "It was as if some woman off the street had stumbled into the theater." Alas, no film or recording of her performance exists. Only the legend survives -- of an old trouper giving what many consider the greatest dramatic performance of the 20th century, just before vanishing.

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Martin Landau saw her in Glass Menagerie in New York and said that she "was almost like this woman had found her way into the theatre, through the stage door, and was sort of wandering around the kitchen." It was that real. (People say that about Marlon Brando's performance in Truckline Cafe - his debut. He came down the stairs in his first entrance, eating an apple, and Charles Durning, who saw the show, actually thought it was a stagehand who had wandered onstage, his behavior was so natural and real).

In the great documentary Broadway: The Golden Age (my post on it here) ranks and ranks of people talk about Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda. It was over 50 years ago now, almost 60 years, and the memory blazes bright and vivid. Nobody ever forgot it.

From a review of the documentary:

“Rise and shine! Rise and shine!”

I can hear it now, and in her voice, and so all his life could Tom Wingfield, also known as Thomas Lanier Williams, a/k/a Tennessee Williams, and so, as they talk to Rick McKay, can Gena Rowlands, Uta Hagen, Ben Gazzara, Fred Ebb, Charles Durning, and dozens of others.

Durning says it best: “I thought they’d pulled her in off the street.”

He is talking about, they are talking about, we are talking here about Laurette Taylor (1884-1946), whose performance as Amanda Wingfield. Tom’s mother, Laura’s mother, in the 1945 New York premiere of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Royale Theater on Broadway is and will always remain the American high-water mark of acting that goes beyond acting to be (that is, to seem) no acting at all.

“I saw her five times in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ” says the also great Uta Hagen whom we lost only some months ago, “and ten times in ‘Outward Bound.’ ”

“Cabaret” lyricist Fred Ebb saw “The Glass Menagerie” SEVEN times. In one instant that Ebb still carries in his gizzards, Laurette Taylor “turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been so affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”

“She could have been my mother,” says Ben Gazzara, speaking of the telephone scene in which a desperate Amanda Wingfield tries to get a female acquaintance to renew a magazine subscription at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. “It makes you laugh and cry in the same breath. How do you do that?” says Gazzara. “Only PEOPLE do that. I think we’ve all been striving to be her, one way or another.”

In 2005, Jesse Green wrote in the New York Times:

People, especially actors, who saw Laurette Taylor play Amanda Wingfield in the original production of "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945 typically say it was the best performance ever offered on the American stage. Tennessee Williams compared her radiance in the role (which he had based on his mother) to the "greatest lines of poetry" and mourned that her reputation would be limited to the "testimony and inspiration" of those who saw her. That's mostly true; Taylor appeared in only three films, all silent, and died shortly after leaving the road company of "Menagerie" in 1946. But something of what made her Amanda so memorable was captured by Eileen Darby (1916-2004), a photographer who worked Broadway from 1940 to 1964, producing some of the signal theatrical images of the period: Marlon Brando menacing a thrilled but terrified Jessica Tandy in "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Carol Channing, framed by a halo of hair and feathers, at the top of the Harmonia Gardens stairs in "Hello, Dolly!"

Some 250 of these images are featured in "Stars on Stage: Eileen Darby and Broadway's Golden Age," to be published by Bulfinch Press this month; many are included in an exhibition of Darby's work that opened Tuesday at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. None is more valuable and unexpected than this series of 12 frames of Taylor in "Menagerie" - a "key sheet" from which the show's press agent might choose a publicity shot. It records one of Amanda's efforts to earn extra money by selling renewal subscriptions to a "magazine for matrons" called The Home-maker's Companion. The action, caught at about one shot every five seconds, is so legibly written on Taylor's face that it can be matched nearly frame by frame to the Scene 3 monologue. Frame 2: "Ida Scott? ... We missed you at the D.A.R. last Monday!" Frame 4: "You're a Christian martyr, yes, that's what you are." Frame 7: "That wonderful new serial by Bessie Mae Hopper is getting off to such an exciting start." Frame 9: "Go take a look in the oven and I'll hold the wire!" Frame 11: "I think she's hung up!" And then, in Frame 12, a fleeting look of betrayal and confusion aimed at the telephone itself: a reminder that Amanda's runaway husband was a telephone man who "fell in love with long-distance."

After Taylor's own husband (her second) died in 1928, she went on a 10-year bender she later called "the longest wake in history." That's on her face, too, and one of the things Darby's photographs so memorably record is a time when Amanda could be played (indeed, could only be played) by a plain, 61-year-old warhorse whose suffering, far from being a disfigurement requiring erasure, was the essence of the gift she brought to the stage.

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Laurette Taylor, before she passed away, wrote an essay about acting that is precious to me. It's not often that an actor can actually talk about he or she does, without sounding precious or like they want to be congratulated for their cleverness. But in Taylor's essay, she comes close to actually expressing magic, and yet at the same time, this lady was Irish Catholic, okay? She couldn't be airy-fairy if she tried. I know of what I speak. James Joyce said, "In Ireland Catholicism is black magic." Laurette Taylor here sounds practical, yet full of black magic. It is that very interesting mix that seems to me very particular to the Irish sensibility - the Irish artistic sensibility is what I mean. Laurette Taylor, in her long career, experienced the ups and downs, lows and highs, at a more intense frequency than most. She was not a cynical woman. She didn't have a "well, that's the way life is" bone in her body. She was not a realist. Her fantasies and dreams and hopes are part and parcel of why she turned to the bottle. Reality was too much for her. Reality is too much for a lot of geniuses. But when she was able to harness all of that light and fire and hope and loss ... nobody could touch her. How many performances have you seen where you remember the blocking 60 years later? Not too many. That was what Laurette Taylor did in Glass Menagerie. The gestures revealed the subtext. So often gestures are belabored or planned-out by the actor. "If I take off my hat on this line, this will show what I am really feeling ..." That's good stage-craft, I don't mean to knock it ... but then there are the geniuses ... who cannot HELP but reveal the subtext. The subtext is not some intellectual bit of playwriting - it is IN them, they have embodied it, they have used the rehearsal time to step into that deep pool and LIVE there, so no matter what they do: pick up the phone, pour someone a drink, fix their makeup - it reveals the subtext. My acting teacher in college always used to talk to us actors about finding "the pulse of the playwright". We must always be close to that pulse when we act. Because the job of the actor is twofold: give a good performance and also reveal the play.

Without Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda, the actual play of Glass Menagerie might not have been revealed. She WAS Tennessee Williams up there. And she didn't plan on that, or tackle it intellectually ... it was just how she worked. She didn't know any other way.

Here is Laurette Taylor's essay about the art of acting:

The Quality Most Needed - by Laurette Taylor

I have been asked to discuss, for the benefit of those who may go on the stage, the qualities which are most important as elements of success. If merely the financial or popular success of a woman star is meant, I should say that beauty is more essential than magnetism. But if by success you mean all that is implied by the magical word Art - success in the sense of Bernhardt, Duse and Ellen Terry are successes - I should say most emphatically the reverse. And I should add that imagination is more important than either.

Mere beauty is unimportant; in many cases it proves a genuine handicap. Beautiful women seldom want to act. They are afraid of emotion and they do not try to extract anything from a character that they are portraying, because in expressing emotion they may encourage crow's feet and laughing wrinkles. They avoid anything that will disturb their placidity of countenance, for placidity of countenance insures a smooth skin.

Beauty is not all-important as an asset, even when the star is not anxious to achieve true greatness. Many of our most charming comediennes are not pretty women. Rather, they are women of great charm and personality. I cannot for the moment recall a single great actress who is a beauty. At least not in the popularly accepted idea of what constitutes beauty.

Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them.

Beauty as I understand it does not mean simple prettiness, but stands for something allusive and subtle. The obvious seldom charms after one has had to live close to it for any length of time. Being all on the surface, there is nothing left to exhilarate, once the surface has been explored. On the other hand, the beauty which emanates from within becomes more enchanting upon close acquaintance. It is constantly revealing itself in some new guise and becomes a continual source of joy to the fortunate persons who have the privilege of meeting it frequently.

That is beauty of the imagination, and that beauty all the really great actresses have.

The case of [Sarah] Bernhardt is as good an example as one would wish. In her youth, especially, she was the very apotheosis of ugliness; still, through the power of her rich imagination that glorified her every thought and act, she held her audiences in the hollow of her hand. It is the strength and richness of her wonderful creative mind tha tmakes it possible for her to present the amazing illusion of youth which she does even today.

It isn't beauty or personality or magnetism that makes a really great actress. It is imagination, though these other qualities are useful.

You see a queer little child sitting in the middle of a mud puddle. She attracts you and holds your interest. You even smile in sympathy. Why? Simply because that child is exercising her creative imagination. She is attributing to mud pies the delicious qualities of the pies which mother makes in the kitchen. You may not stop to realize that this is what is going on in the child's mind, but unconsciously it is communicated to you. It is the quality of imagination that has held your attention ...

We create in the imagination the character we wish to express. If it is real and vital to us in imagination we will be able to express it with freedom and surety. But we must conceive it as a whole before we begin to express it.

There will be those who will disagree with me and say that magnetism presupposes imagination. This is a mistake. Many magnetic actresses are wholly lacking in imagination, their hold upon the public resting chiefly upon personality and charm and beauty. Have you ever gone to a tea party where you met some very magnetic woman who radiated charm, who not only held your attention but exhilarated you until you became impatient to see this scintillating creature on the stage, where you might realize the fullness of her wonder? And have you not felt, when your opportunity came and you saw her on the stage at last, the disappointment of realizing a wooden lady with a beautiful mask for a face, speaking faultlessly articulated lines - an actress who rose desperately to the big moments of her part, and who never for a moment let you forget that it was she, that actress, whom you saw, not the character whom she was portraying? There may have been splendid acting but you were conscious of the fact that it was acting. There was no illusion. She was conscious at the big climax that she was acting this part and that she must reach this climax. She was acting as much to herself as to you.

That is not the art of the great actress.

The imaginative actress builds a picture, using all her heart and soul and brain. She builds this picture not alone for the people out in front but for herself. She believes in it and she makes the people across the footlights believe in it. Unless she has done this she has failed. She must stimulate the imagination of the audience. An actress should not only be able to play a part; she should be able to play with it. Above all, she should not allow anything to stand between her and the thing she is expressing.

How often does an actress play a part so as to leave you with the feeling that you have so intimate a knowledge of the character that you could imagine its conduct in any position, aside from the situations involved in the action of the play? Unless this happens, you feel that after all you have seen a limited portrayal of the character and you realize that though the acting was practically flawless there was something missing. And, in nine cases out of ten, that is because the woman playing the part did not use any imagination. She was entirely bound by the tradition of the theatre. She did everything just as it would have been done by anyone else on the stage. This is fatal.

You feel untouched by the play because it was not made real to you.

The artist looks for the unusual. She watches everyone, always searching for the unusual in clothes, in manner, in gesture. The imaginative actress will even remember that the French have characteristics other than the shrug!

Think of the number of times that there have been Irish plays, of the number of times that the Irish character has been used in the working out of a plot. Yet never, to my knowledge, has an Irishman been played on the stage. (This excepts, of course, Lady Gregory's players and Guy Standing's rendition of a current Irish-American role.) Real Irishmen have never been played. The Irish can be the most melancholy people on the face of the earth, yet the traditional stage Irish have been lilting colleens and joking Paddies.

The most interesting thing to me in acting is the working out of the character itself, the finding of what which is uncommon and the small, seemingly insignificant trait which will unconsciously make an appeal to the audience and establish the human appeal. Too much importance is laid on clothes. In the main, I think that all clothes hamper unless they express the character. Personally, I detest 'straight' parts for that reason. They necessitate the clothes that make me self-conscious - or, rather "clothes conscious".

I want to get right inside the character and act from the heart as well as from the head. That is impossible unless one is free from outside interference.

I think actresses pay too much attention to the tradition of acting. That is a great mistake. It cramps creative instinct. I received a good deal of criticism for my walk in The Bird of Paradise. Some of the critics said I should be taught how to walk across the stage. Of course I paid no attention to that. My walk was the walk of the barefoot Italians who carry loads on their heads, and I had learned it from them. It was certainly not the traditional stage walk, but we are living in a time when simplicity and truth are the watchwords of the theatre. The traditional stage walk would not have fitted the character I played.

The stage has come to a period of simplicity. A few years ago the direct attitude adopted by the younger actresses of today toward their roles would have been considered ridiculous. The changes have been positive but subtle, and the actress without concentration has been unable to discern them. They are the ones who are still sparring for time in their emotional scenes, using the traditional tricks to express grief, joy, surprise, chagrin; and they wonder why they are sitting at home without engagements. They cannot comprehend that the very little basket of tricks which made them the idols of a few years ago fails utterly to get results today ...

The time has come when we may as well realize that we can no longer give a filmy portrayal of emotion and pad it out wiht stereotyped pieces of "business". The younger actresses of today express the elemental emotions as the elemental person would express them in real life. There is no such thing as a compromise in the logical development of a character in order to make a theatrical effect ...

Too few actresses follow their instinct. I think instinct is the direct connection with truth.

It is not enough to know just what you are to do yourself in the action of a piece; you must know also the exact relation you must bear to every other character in the play.

For instance, take the business of dying. You must in your imagination realize not only the fact that you are dying but the effect which your death will have on every character related to your part. You know that you are not dying and the audience knows it, but in your imagination you must really believe you are. The business of dying becomes actual to you; also, you compel the audience to believe in you by the very sincerity of your attitude.

This trait is really remarkable in Maude Adams. Recall her work in Chantecler. Without her tremendous imagination to gild her impersonation, this frail little woman would have been hopeless in the part. Yet through her marvelous richness of imagination she produced the illusion of bigness that many women better fitted physically could not have done.

One would never say that Maude Adams is beautiful, in the sense that she is pretty or has a beautiful physique; but she has charm, magnetism and imagination. These three make a beauty that transcends mere beauty.

Beauty, personality, and magnetism are not important in the equipment of a star, when compared to the creative faculty of imagination. The first three qualities are valuable adjuncts, and no one should sneeze at them. But you might get along without the slightest beauty and little or no personal magnetism if you were generously endowed with the imaginative mind.

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I haven't even talked about the book! Her daughter Marguerite Courtney wrote this life of her mother, and I consider it to be essential reading. Not only does it detail Laurette Taylor's journey (with honesty, freshness, and specificity) - but it gives a snapshot of an American theatre scene that no longer exists. Courtney obviously loves her mother, but this is not the ravings of a fangirl. She tells it like it is. Wonderful book. Since my post has been all about Glass Menagerie, I will choose an excerpt from when she was playing in Peg o' My Heart and had become a star. The great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was her idol - and this excerpt has to do with the two of them meeting.

I find Bernhardt's first-impression assessment of Laurette Taylor fascinating and quite prophetic. She saw in Taylor, who was, at that time, playing in a comedy - known for how funny she was - a "tragique actress". She saw. She saw the sadness - and basically saw Amanda Wingfield in her, although Amanda would not come into Taylor's life for another 40 years. Fascinating. Very intuitive of Bernhardt. And her prophecy that Taylor would be "the foremost actress" of America was right on - only her timeline was off by 35 years. Amazing.

Great book.



EXCERPT FROM Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter, by Marguerite Courtney

By November, 1913, Laurette had broken the record for continuous performances. Maude Adams was the previous title-holder with three hundred performances as Lady Babbie in "The Little Minister" in 1897. Laurette was growing restive. Peg was "all right for a starter" she said but she hadn't worked all these years for success to have it imprison her forever in one role. She was, as Burns Mantle put it, "threatened with the curse of popularity".

She would as soon have joined the waxwork figures of Eden Musee as let her fame rest with "Peg". Her admiration was for the innovators, like Alla Nazimova who introduced Ibsen's plays to New York. "There was courage," said Laurette, "courage of one who was willing and able to tread unknown paths." Sarah Bernhardt was her idol. Playing a young man in "L'Aiglon" at the age of fifty-five with astounding success, triumphing in a dozen roles of every variety. "I studied Bernhardt," said Lauette; "no, not studied her, I drank her in."

There was no question in Laurette's mind which course she was going to pursue in the theatre.

Laurette's first meeting with the great French tragedienne was unpropitious. Bernhardt was playing scenes from her successes at the Palace Theatre in the spring of 1913. As a publicity stunt a high-powered press agent sought three prominent Broadway actresses to walk on with her in a scene from "Phedre". Only Laurette and Marguerite Clark, then starring in "Prunella" accepted. A stenographer in the agent's office was recruited at the last minute as the third "prominent actress". The three women were pinned into ill-fitting robes over once-pink tights; wreathes of enormous pink roses were placed on their heads, and on their feet shapeless gilt sandals. Then they were taken to the great one's dressing room. The ailing Bernhardt apparently had not even bothered to inquire as to the identity of the two young actresses or what they were playing in New York, but on meeting Laurette a spark of interest lit for a moment behind the curiously slanted, catlike eyes.

"Tragic actress?" she asked in English.

"No, madame. Comedienne."

Bernhardt looked puzzled, muttered something in French, then swept her hand across Laurette's eyes. "Non - non!" she said emphatically. "Tragique actress!"

The brief appearance of Phedre's handmaidens was as near farcical as the costumes, but Laurette remembered only the matchless thrill of "walking on" with Bernhardt, the weight of those "divine bones" leaning on her arm as the procession slowly made its way to Phedre's throne.

A week later Bernhardt sent word to the Cort that she would like to see Laurette's play. Because of Madame's daily matinees a special performance of "Peg" was arranged for eleven o'clock in the morning. A souvenir program was printed in French, an armchair placed in the aisle. At the sight of the chair Bernhardt had a tantrum, insisting on sitting in an aisle seat; there, bright-eyed and eager as a child she waited for the curtain to rise. Thus, for the immortal Sarah, Laurette played her immortal "Peg".

At Bernhardt's specific request not a line of publicity was given to the event. Over her signature had been issued a bewildering number of statements on everything from the health value of lemon juice before breakfast to the plight of the immigrant. Witnessing Laurette's Peg the French actress seemed to touch bedrock in publicity quicksands. She wrote in an article syndicated all over the country:

One young artist in New York has not allowed herself to be blinded. She has worked hard and is still working, although she is already a very agreeable comedienne, possessing humor, emotion, and a rare thing for her age - power. I speak of Laurette Taylor who will become within five years the foremost actress of this country ... All aspirants for the stage should take this young actress as their model.

Three years later, on another farewell tour, Bernhardt again asked to see Laurette play. This time she was grievously ill and, because of the ailing leg, forced to use a wheel chair. To permit her to retire backstage between acts, the two sets of "The Harp of Life" were moved from the Globe to the Empire where she was playing. The performance was given at one p.m. This time there was no embargo on press or public and the audience came by special invitation. It was one of the most brilliant professional assemblages in New York theatre history.

Due to difficulties in getting Madame's wheel chair in and out of the box, prolonged retirements backstage to sip hot milk and rest, the second act was not finished until almost six o'clock. Bernhardt stayed in her place until the audience had left, then asked the company to play the last act. But there wasn't time. She thanked the cast, patted Laurette's cheek, and was wheeled off to prepare for her evening performance.

Asked what it was like to play for Bernhardt, Laurette said, "It was like playing to royalty and a little child."

Bernhardt was Laurette's lodestar, the great inspiration of her acting life. "But I could never be a Bernhardt," she once said. "There just isn't enough of me."


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November 3, 2008

The Books: "Elizabeth" (J. Randy Taraborrelli)

0446532541.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

When I was a kid, I saw National Velvet multiple times - probably at my cousins' house. That's where I remember watching most of the old movies that I remember from childhood. All the Shirley Temple movies, Frankenstein, the Buster Keaton movies, The Secret Garden (starring my main man Dean Stockwell), and other classics. Channel 56 out of Boston always ran such movies in the afternoon (at least that's how I remember it), and so we'd be hanging out in their den downstairs, and watch these old movies. I guess when you only have a couple of channels to choose from - and not a constant bombardment of kids' shows on one network devoted to children - you watch whatever happens to be on. So that's how I was exposed to those movies. I'm not sure if TCM had been around at the time, we would have CHOSEN that channel, as kids. Not when there were so many more contemporary choices. But as it was, there were afternoon movies, in black and white, and we would watch those. You know how some of the things you saw as a kid stay in brain with far more vividness than a show you watched last week? I remember Secret Garden perfectly - it's almost like the whole movie has stayed encapsulated in my brain, preserved. Same with National Velvet. I have always loved the 'sports movie' formula - even as a little kid. The underdog, the training montage, the triumph over adversity ... and National Velvet just works on all of those levels. The wonderful and haunting Black Stallion came out when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I remember my mother driving me and my brother to see it in East Greenwich. Could that be real? I don't know - I just remember it. We did not go see the movie in our hometown. We had to TRAVEL. And of course you know that for Rhode Islanders, any drive longer than 5 minutes requires you to pack a lunch and some reading material for the long long drive. It was a big deal. I loved Black Stallion (I still do!) and I remember my mom telling me that the old guy playing the trainer was also the young guy in National Velvet. Obviously, Rooney was chosen, in part, as a tribute to that old horse-race movie ... and I remember being gobsmacked that that was the same person!


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When I saw National Velvet, I had no sense of who Elizabeth Taylor was in the grand scheme of things. I didn't think that way, as a child. I just enjoyed the movie, and related to her character. It would be years before I saw Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. My first encounters with most of those old movie stars was through their WORK, not their reputation. Katharine Hepburn in Little Women. I had no idea who she was, or how important she was - but Little Women was a movie I loved so much that I wanted it to be played on a constant loop every weekend so that I could keep experiencing it.

Elizabeth Taylor was a child star. She had a dominating mother, and Elizabeth's career basically supported the whole family. She was a workhorse. Similar to what Dean Stockwell experienced (they were in the same studio school), except that when Stockwell said to his mother, at age 16, "I don't want to do this anymore, I don't want to renew my contract," she was like, "Sure, no problem, do what you have to do." Taylor was not granted such leniency, although she may have never said what she wanted in no uncertain terms like Stockwell did. Taylor did what she was told to do (and her extended adolescence probably has a lot to do with how dominated she was as a kid, how hard she had to work). She was a precocious beauty - even her baby pictures look like little glam shots, and she's just sitting there in her diapers and a white dress. But the face. The face is startling. Lots of cute babies don't grow up to be gorgeous adults. But Taylor wasn't just "cute". She was startlingly beautiful, black hair, white skin, violet eyes, and eyelashes a foot long.

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Taraborrelli has written a lot of celebrity biographies. He is not a good writer. But he writes bestsellers. With someone like Taylor, her personal life necessarily takes the focus, because ... seriously ... there is so much to focus on there! I'm interested in it because it makes her interesting - but as always I'm more interested in the acting side of things. Who was she as an actress? Yes, she obviously had great beauty at a very early age (always a good thing if you're in show business), and she also had a natural gift. If you see her in National Velvet now, her acting would fit in into any children's movie today. It's fresh, spontaneous, endearing, and kids relate to her. She's wonderful. It's a natural ability - much like Stockwell's. You see the movies Stockwell made as a little kid - even his debut (Anchors Aweigh) - and you feel like you are looking at a real child - not a precocious actor-child who has spent his entire free time in tap class and elocution workshops. In general, I don't like child actors - but when one comes along that seems fresh and real, it can be remarkable. Taylor had that.

Taraborrelli skips over the acting stuff and everything - EVERYTHING - has to do with her personal life. I yawned my way through the book, eager for any anecdote that showed her as an actress, someone who knew what she was doing, or who struggled - whatever the case may be ... And there are some anecdotes like that, but they are few and far between. The focus is on her many marriages, basically - and by the end of the book, the focus switches to her great and tireless charity work. Books like this sell like hotcakes, but they aren't really my cup of tea. I like things a bit more serious. I suppose it's hard, sometimes, to be serious about Elizabeth Taylor - although I believe she will get her due someday. She played some great roles. But that's neither here nor there. Like I said earlier, Elizabeth Taylor's personal life was always more notorious than her acting ... you just can't help but focus on it. It took center stage. She was a tabloid queen. She married multiple times. She was widowed as a young woman. She stole Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fisher right out from under Reynolds' nose. (Taylor and Reynolds are friends now. They did a TV movie together in 2001 called These Old Broads, and Reynolds has said that all they would do, between takes, was sit and dish on Eddie Fisher, laughing about him. Ouch!! Old broads indeed.) Taylor married and divorced Richard Burton twice. He was the love of her life. She was condemned personally by the Vatican for her shenanigans during filming Cleopatra in Rome. Her life was tabloid fodder. She nearly died during the filming of Cleopatra and only an emergency tracheotomy saved her life. She had children. She was best friends and soulmates with Montgomery Clift, and it broke her heart to see what happened to him over his life. They had nicknames for each other, and she always felt that if Clift hadn't been gay, the two of them would have married. There was an affinity there.

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Kevin McCarthy describes (and it's horrifying) the car accident that crushed Montgomery Clift's face. He was driving away from a party at Elizabeth's house and smashed into a tree. Elizabeth Taylor saved his life:

Suddenly I looked in my rearview mirror and I saw that Monty's car was coming much too close to my car. I got the idea he was going to play one of his practical jokes - he was going to give my car a little nudge. He never did bump my car, but I had the feeling he might, so I put my foot on the gas and went a little faster. Monty's car seemed to be almost on top of me. I wondered if he was having a blackout. I got frightened and spurted ahead so he wouldn't bump me. We both made the first turn but the next one was treacherous. We were careening now, swerving, and screeching through the darkness. Behind me I saw Monty's carlights weave from one side of the road to the other and then I heard a terrible crash. A cloud of dust appeared in my rearview mirror. I stopped and ran back. Monty's car was crumpled like an accordion against a telephone pole. The motor was running like hell. I could smell gas. I managed to reach in the window and turn off the ignition, but it was so dark I couldn't see inside the car. I didn't know where Monty was. He seemed to have disappeared.

I ran and drove my car back and shone the headlights into Monty's car. Then I saw him curled under the dahsboard. He'd been pushed there by the force of the crash. His face was torn away - a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead.

I drove back to Elizabeth's shaking like a leaf and pounded on the door. "There's been a terrible accident!" I yelled, "I don't know whether Monty's dead or alive - get an ambulance quick!" Mike Wilding and I both tried to keep Elizabeth from coming down to the car with us but she fought us off like a tiger. "No! No! I'm going to Monty!" she screamed, and she raced down the hill.

She was like Mother Courage. Monty's car was so crushed you couldn't open the front door, so Liz got through the back door and crawled over the seat. Then she crouched down and cradled Monty's head in her lap. He gave a little moan. Then he started to choke. He pantomimed weakly to his neck. Some of his teeth had been knocked out and his two front teeth were lodged in his throat. I'll never forget what Liz did. She stuck her fingers down his throat and she pulled those teeth. Otherwise he would have choked to death.

None of her behavior there surprises me. Yes, she was gorgeous, pampered, spoiled, and willful. But she was also loyal, earthy, fearless, with a huge heart. It's not either/or.

And now she is the grande dame of charity work, beloved by many - in fact, just recently (I can't remember where) I read a story about Taylor - who rarely leaves her home now. She is wheelchair bound. But on occasion, she will have her driver take her down to a local gay bar near her house - where they love her (of course) - and her pictures are on the wall, and she knows everyone - and she'll wheel her way into the joint and have an apple martini, as the gay boys hover around her, adoring her. I love that image.

She was one of those people who burned really bright while it was "her turn", and never really flamed out - but the years showed on her in a more unforgiving way than on other actresses. Her weight was ridiculed, her hair was ridiculed, she was lampooned for getting fat ... the jokes about her over the years have been very cruel. I suppose that's the price you pay for being such a giant icon, and having your image emblazoned in our heads for all time - as a young slender woman, more beautiful than it is possible to even imagine.

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She does seem to have a very good sense of humor about herself. Member when she was on General Hospital for a bit? I remember watching one of those Bloopers shows, and there was a series of clips from General Hospital, of her big serious melodramatic entrance - and how she could barely get through it without busting up laughing. She'd make it halfway across the room and then start howling (have you heard her really laugh? It's voracious, loud, spontaneous ... it's a great laugh. The laugh of a woman who loves sex - a generous laugh). Or she'd make it through 1 or 2 lines and you could FEEL her losing it, struggling to sit on the laughter - and at one point, she broke out of character and said, "I'm sorry, can we start again? I never knew how to act" and the whole place just erupted into laughter. I like her for not taking herself too seriously.

She campaigned hard to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and one of the great alternative-history fantasies I have is imagining Richard Burton as Henry Higgins and Liz as Eliza Doolittle. It certainly wouldn't have been the play that Shaw wrote originally - but I think it would have been amazing to watch!! Taylor felt intimidated by Burton's smarts. She always thought he wanted her to be better-read, more well-versed in the cultural touchstones that he knew so well. I mean, the man had entire Shakespeare plays in his head at all times. I just think that dynamic would have been so interesting in the Henry Higgins/Liza Doolittle roles.

Taraborrelli obviously loves Elizabeth Taylor, but I think he loves her too much. He protects her, in his writing, and his fanboy tendencies come out in his asides. Obviously if you are going to write a biography of someone, you have to have some interest in that person - you have to want to spend time with that person, and want to illuminate their character and their journey for the masses. But it's a fine line. The best biographies do not "weigh in" on their subject. Good or bad. Peter Manso's giant tome on Brando is basically a smear book, and Taraborrelli's book on Taylor is pro-Taylor propaganda. These books obviously sell, they just don't interest ME all that much.

Louis Bayard reviewed the book for The Washington Post and he writes:

The only way a movie-star bio can attain lasting value (and virtually none of them do) is to document the actor's intersection with some lasting work of art, as Lee Server accomplished in his take on Robert Mitchum. For Taraborrelli, self-appointed chronicler of the Kennedy women and Princess Grace, the movies are just coffee breaks in the full-time disinterring of ancient gossip: Nicky-Mikey-Eddie-Dickie. We learn that Taylor's most lauded performance, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," was fueled by alcoholic marital rages with Richard Burton, but we learn next to nothing about her best work, which, in my opinion, came 15 years earlier, before Burton ever infected her with the desire to be an ektress.

Check her out sometime as the wealthy love interest in "A Place in the Sun," George Stevens's film transcription of the Theodore Dreiser classic An American Tragedy. You'll find a pitch-perfect study of an entitled young woman undone by desire. Her love scenes with Montgomery Clift are almost painful in their eroticism, and a biographer who was curious about such things might wonder why Taylor could generate more on-screen heat with a gay man than she ever did with Burton. There's something to be said here about artifice yielding truth and truth yielding artifice and the drowning of a small talent in the shoals of high culture and the pitfalls of having double eyelashes. There is, yes, a book to be written about Elizabeth Taylor and the cultural phenomenon she represented. It's just not the book that J. Randy Taraborrelli has written. Or had any intention of writing.

I love that. I do believe that what he says is true. There is a book to be written about Taylor. Not just the tabloid stuff, because, come on, that's been done to death. We all know all of that. But what she represented ... and what her journey says about the Hollywood studio system, and also the roles that she got ... Taraborrelli only focuses on the biography. He knows no other way. When he writes about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where Taylor gives a fearless insane performance as Martha, he is out of his element - all he can talk about is the backstage stuff - that's all that interests him and when it comes time to talk about the movie itself, he falls back on, "Film critics generally agree it is her best work ..." He can't just say it himself, he doesn't have the confidence (or the interest). Whatever, it might be her best work, but let's get back to the divorces and marriages and divorces!!

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I did find a really nice anecdote in the book - something I had not been aware of (staged readings she did in New York with Burton) ... and so that's the excerpt I chose.

EXCERPT FROM Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

In the summer of 1964, Elizabeth Taylor found herself working in a very different venue for her, the theater. Philip Barton had asked if she would participate with Richard in a literary evening at the Lunt-Fontaine to raise funds for his American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York. The program, titled "World Enough and Time", involved the Burtons reading excerpts from the works of D.H. Lawrence, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edwin Markham, and, oddly but maybe also appropriately, John Lennon of the Beatles. Elizabeth rehearsed for two weeks; she had a tough time with it. Some of the Burtons' friends felt that there was an ulterior motive to Elizabeth's work on the stage at this time. She was always very aware of the kind of education she had at MGM, and it never bothered her much ... until she was with Burton. She then found herself in some ways feeling intellectually inferior. "I never mind being wrong with Richard because I learn from him and he never treats me like an idiot," she would later write. "He makes me feel an intellectual equal of his, which, of course, I am not."

"He was Higgins and she was Eliza," said Richard's good friend Joe Sirola. "In other words, here's a woman not terribly educated, not a great actress, didn't know the classics, any of that. And here she meets a guy, this theater star, who understood all the classics, could recite them back to you, this great actor. I always sensed that she didn't feel she was his match, intellectually. And the poetry and all of that was sort of trying to compensate, at least that's how I viewed it at the time."

It's also true that Elizabeth was often afraid of boring Richard. She and a tutor of the children's were walking on a beach in Puerto Vallarta once, and she was talking about her marriage to Richard and how much she loved him. She said, "But I'm afraid I'm going to lose him. I think I bore him. I don't think I'm smart enough." It was a stunning admission.

"It had to be tough on her," says Sirola. "I mean, to the world she was this great star. Privately, she had these insecurities about her value to Richard."

On the big night, she walked onto the stage swathed in pleated white silk, with emerald-and-diamond earrings and a delicate spray of white buds in her hair. It was a star-studded audience that included Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, and Beatrice Lilly. Elizabeth had barely started when she flubbed her lines. "Oh, I'll have to begin again," she said apologetically. "I screwed it all up." Richard quipped, "This is funnier than Hamlet" - which probably did little to assist her. Still, from then on, the audience was with Elizabeth as the underdog in the production. Her reviews the next day were generally positive.

Also at this time, Elizabeth was writing the second of her four books, Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir. (The first had been the children's book Nibbles and Me). "Even our fights are fun - nothing placidly bovine about us," she wrote of Burton. "Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It's beautiful to watch. Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off - sparks fly, walls shake, floors vibrate." When writing about the possibility of his cheating on her, she noted, "I would love him enough to love the hurt he might give me and be patient. I have learned that pride is very bad, the kind of pride that makes you say, 'I won't tolerate that.'"

At the end of the year, the Burtons filmed another movie together, their third, The Sandpiper. Elizabeth hadn't been in front of a camera in two years, having decided to devote her time to her husband and his career. Also, she would later explain, she could not obtain insurance from a studio due to her many health issues. "I didn't think I could get a job," she said, "so I grabbed The Sandpiper and let them pay their million dollars." She also noted that she never thought the film would be "an artistic masterpiece". Work of art or not, once Elizabeth was back in front of the cameras on a soundstage, she couldn't have been happier. The movie began in Big Sur, and ended in Paris. All of Elizabeth's children were there with her, including Maria (who had undergone a remarkable rehabilitation by this time, and who also had her own governess and nurse).

After a day of filming, Elizabeth and Richard would customarily have drinks together at the bar of the Lancaster Hotel. One evening, as the Burtons relaxed, three people rushed into the bar, two women and a man. The man began taking photographs and, before Elizabeth and Richard knew what was happening, rushed off. One of the women then began speaking in German, her words tumbling out quickly as she frantically motioned toward her friend. Suddenly, it hit Elizabeth: The woman's friend was Maria's birth mother. "Is this [she said the woman's name]?" Elizabeth asked. "Yes, this is her," admitted her friend. "I'm going to interpret for her." Elizabeth and Richard then realized that Maria's mother had been brought to them for a tabloid photo opportunity. Taylor was enraged. "You're no friend of hers," she screamed at the woman. "You're a journalist. And I'm going to kill you if you don't get out of here, now!"

"No. I am a friend of hers," the woman protested.

"Leave!" Richard bellowed. The woman ran from the room, leaving Maria's distressed natural mother with the Burtons. Elizabeth took her by the arm and urged her to sit.

Luckily, the Burtons' trusted attorney and good friend, Aaron Frosch - who spoke German - happened to be coming by the hotel to meet with them. Slowly the story unfolded. Apparently the editor of a gossip magazine in France had contacted Maria's natural mother in Germany and told her that the Taylors wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with her. She believed them, and that's why she was in France. Actually, it was all a ruse so that the publication could obtain photographs of Maria's poor natural mother in the same room with her rich adopted mother for a sensational story.

"Elizabeth felt awful about it," said Marie Bentkover. "She realized that these people's lives were forever changed by having an association with her. Elizabeth and Richard bought the woman a plane ticket so that she could return to Germany."

The next morning found the Burtons back on the set of The Sandpiper. Elizabeth had chosen Vincente Minnelli, who had guided her when she was still in her teens in two of her most successful early films, Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend, to direct the film, in which Elizabeth portrays an artist who has a complicated affair with an Episcopal minister, played by Richard. Elizabeth had wanted Sammy Davis Jr., whom she had recently befriended in New York, to essay the role of the man she leaves for the Burton character, but producer Martin Ransohoff felt the idea was "too ahead of its time, though it surely would have caused quite a sensation having Taylor and Davis involved in a romance on the screen in the 1960s." Future action star Charles Bronson ended up with the role.

When The Sandpiper was finally released in 1965, fans stormed Radio City Music Hall in New York for the premiere, to see Elizabeth on the screen for the first time in two years. The movie's theme, "The Shadow of Your Smile" became a hit record for Tony Bennett and remains a popular standard even today. The film was a box-office smash, bringing in more than $10 million. If nothing else, it validated the commerciality of its stars because, in truth, the movie suffered from a weak story that an even weaker script could not overcome. Despite brisk ticket sales, the Burtons knew they had made what Elizabeth referred to as "a real turkey". When she received one lone good review for her performance in it, she quipped, "How dare that writer! I'm suing for libel."


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The Books: "Elizabeth" (J. Randy Taraborrelli)

0446532541.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

When I was a kid, I saw National Velvet multiple times - probably at my cousins' house. That's where I remember watching most of the old movies that I remember from childhood. All the Shirley Temple movies, Frankenstein, the Buster Keaton movies, The Secret Garden (starring my main man Dean Stockwell), and other classics. Channel 56 out of Boston always ran such movies in the afternoon (at least that's how I remember it), and so we'd be hanging out in their den downstairs, and watch these old movies. I guess when you only have a couple of channels to choose from - and not a constant bombardment of kids' shows on one network devoted to children - you watch whatever happens to be on. So that's how I was exposed to those movies. I'm not sure if TCM had been around at the time, we would have CHOSEN that channel, as kids. Not when there were so many more contemporary choices. But as it was, there were afternoon movies, in black and white, and we would watch those. You know how some of the things you saw as a kid stay in brain with far more vividness than a show you watched last week? I remember Secret Garden perfectly - it's almost like the whole movie has stayed encapsulated in my brain, preserved. Same with National Velvet. I have always loved the 'sports movie' formula - even as a little kid. The underdog, the training montage, the triumph over adversity ... and National Velvet just works on all of those levels. The wonderful and haunting Black Stallion came out when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I remember my mother driving me and my brother to see it in East Greenwich. Could that be real? I don't know - I just remember it. We did not go see the movie in our hometown. We had to TRAVEL. And of course you know that for Rhode Islanders, any drive longer than 5 minutes requires you to pack a lunch and some reading material for the long long drive. It was a big deal. I loved Black Stallion (I still do!) and I remember my mom telling me that the old guy playing the trainer was also the young guy in National Velvet. Obviously, Rooney was chosen, in part, as a tribute to that old horse-race movie ... and I remember being gobsmacked that that was the same person!


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When I saw National Velvet, I had no sense of who Elizabeth Taylor was in the grand scheme of things. I didn't think that way, as a child. I just enjoyed the movie, and related to her character. It would be years before I saw Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. My first encounters with most of those old movie stars was through their WORK, not their reputation. Katharine Hepburn in Little Women. I had no idea who she was, or how important she was - but Little Women was a movie I loved so much that I wanted it to be played on a constant loop every weekend so that I could keep experiencing it.

Elizabeth Taylor was a child star. She had a dominating mother, and Elizabeth's career basically supported the whole family. She was a workhorse. Similar to what Dean Stockwell experienced (they were in the same studio school), except that when Stockwell said to his mother, at age 16, "I don't want to do this anymore, I don't want to renew my contract," she was like, "Sure, no problem, do what you have to do." Taylor was not granted such leniency, although she may have never said what she wanted in no uncertain terms like Stockwell did. Taylor did what she was told to do (and her extended adolescence probably has a lot to do with how dominated she was as a kid, how hard she had to work). She was a precocious beauty - even her baby pictures look like little glam shots, and she's just sitting there in her diapers and a white dress. But the face. The face is startling. Lots of cute babies don't grow up to be gorgeous adults. But Taylor wasn't just "cute". She was startlingly beautiful, black hair, white skin, violet eyes, and eyelashes a foot long.

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Taraborrelli has written a lot of celebrity biographies. He is not a good writer. But he writes bestsellers. With someone like Taylor, her personal life necessarily takes the focus, because ... seriously ... there is so much to focus on there! I'm interested in it because it makes her interesting - but as always I'm more interested in the acting side of things. Who was she as an actress? Yes, she obviously had great beauty at a very early age (always a good thing if you're in show business), and she also had a natural gift. If you see her in National Velvet now, her acting would fit in into any children's movie today. It's fresh, spontaneous, endearing, and kids relate to her. She's wonderful. It's a natural ability - much like Stockwell's. You see the movies Stockwell made as a little kid - even his debut (Anchors Aweigh) - and you feel like you are looking at a real child - not a precocious actor-child who has spent his entire free time in tap class and elocution workshops. In general, I don't like child actors - but when one comes along that seems fresh and real, it can be remarkable. Taylor had that.

Taraborrelli skips over the acting stuff and everything - EVERYTHING - has to do with her personal life. I yawned my way through the book, eager for any anecdote that showed her as an actress, someone who knew what she was doing, or who struggled - whatever the case may be ... And there are some anecdotes like that, but they are few and far between. The focus is on her many marriages, basically - and by the end of the book, the focus switches to her great and tireless charity work. Books like this sell like hotcakes, but they aren't really my cup of tea. I like things a bit more serious. I suppose it's hard, sometimes, to be serious about Elizabeth Taylor - although I believe she will get her due someday. She played some great roles. But that's neither here nor there. Like I said earlier, Elizabeth Taylor's personal life was always more notorious than her acting ... you just can't help but focus on it. It took center stage. She was a tabloid queen. She married multiple times. She was widowed as a young woman. She stole Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fisher right out from under Reynolds' nose. (Taylor and Reynolds are friends now. They did a TV movie together in 2001 called These Old Broads, and Reynolds has said that all they would do, between takes, was sit and dish on Eddie Fisher, laughing about him. Ouch!! Old broads indeed.) Taylor married and divorced Richard Burton twice. He was the love of her life. She was condemned personally by the Vatican for her shenanigans during filming Cleopatra in Rome. Her life was tabloid fodder. She nearly died during the filming of Cleopatra and only an emergency tracheotomy saved her life. She had children. She was best friends and soulmates with Montgomery Clift, and it broke her heart to see what happened to him over his life. They had nicknames for each other, and she always felt that if Clift hadn't been gay, the two of them would have married. There was an affinity there.

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Kevin McCarthy describes (and it's horrifying) the car accident that crushed Montgomery Clift's face. He was driving away from a party at Elizabeth's house and smashed into a tree. Elizabeth Taylor saved his life:

Suddenly I looked in my rearview mirror and I saw that Monty's car was coming much too close to my car. I got the idea he was going to play one of his practical jokes - he was going to give my car a little nudge. He never did bump my car, but I had the feeling he might, so I put my foot on the gas and went a little faster. Monty's car seemed to be almost on top of me. I wondered if he was having a blackout. I got frightened and spurted ahead so he wouldn't bump me. We both made the first turn but the next one was treacherous. We were careening now, swerving, and screeching through the darkness. Behind me I saw Monty's carlights weave from one side of the road to the other and then I heard a terrible crash. A cloud of dust appeared in my rearview mirror. I stopped and ran back. Monty's car was crumpled like an accordion against a telephone pole. The motor was running like hell. I could smell gas. I managed to reach in the window and turn off the ignition, but it was so dark I couldn't see inside the car. I didn't know where Monty was. He seemed to have disappeared.

I ran and drove my car back and shone the headlights into Monty's car. Then I saw him curled under the dahsboard. He'd been pushed there by the force of the crash. His face was torn away - a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead.

I drove back to Elizabeth's shaking like a leaf and pounded on the door. "There's been a terrible accident!" I yelled, "I don't know whether Monty's dead or alive - get an ambulance quick!" Mike Wilding and I both tried to keep Elizabeth from coming down to the car with us but she fought us off like a tiger. "No! No! I'm going to Monty!" she screamed, and she raced down the hill.

She was like Mother Courage. Monty's car was so crushed you couldn't open the front door, so Liz got through the back door and crawled over the seat. Then she crouched down and cradled Monty's head in her lap. He gave a little moan. Then he started to choke. He pantomimed weakly to his neck. Some of his teeth had been knocked out and his two front teeth were lodged in his throat. I'll never forget what Liz did. She stuck her fingers down his throat and she pulled those teeth. Otherwise he would have choked to death.

None of her behavior there surprises me. Yes, she was gorgeous, pampered, spoiled, and willful. But she was also loyal, earthy, fearless, with a huge heart. It's not either/or.

And now she is the grande dame of charity work, beloved by many - in fact, just recently (I can't remember where) I read a story about Taylor - who rarely leaves her home now. She is wheelchair bound. But on occasion, she will have her driver take her down to a local gay bar near her house - where they love her (of course) - and her pictures are on the wall, and she knows everyone - and she'll wheel her way into the joint and have an apple martini, as the gay boys hover around her, adoring her. I love that image.

She was one of those people who burned really bright while it was "her turn", and never really flamed out - but the years showed on her in a more unforgiving way than on other actresses. Her weight was ridiculed, her hair was ridiculed, she was lampooned for getting fat ... the jokes about her over the years have been very cruel. I suppose that's the price you pay for being such a giant icon, and having your image emblazoned in our heads for all time - as a young slender woman, more beautiful than it is possible to even imagine.

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She does seem to have a very good sense of humor about herself. Member when she was on General Hospital for a bit? I remember watching one of those Bloopers shows, and there was a series of clips from General Hospital, of her big serious melodramatic entrance - and how she could barely get through it without busting up laughing. She'd make it halfway across the room and then start howling (have you heard her really laugh? It's voracious, loud, spontaneous ... it's a great laugh. The laugh of a woman who loves sex - a generous laugh). Or she'd make it through 1 or 2 lines and you could FEEL her losing it, struggling to sit on the laughter - and at one point, she broke out of character and said, "I'm sorry, can we start again? I never knew how to act" and the whole place just erupted into laughter. I like her for not taking herself too seriously.

She campaigned hard to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and one of the great alternative-history fantasies I have is imagining Richard Burton as Henry Higgins and Liz as Eliza Doolittle. It certainly wouldn't have been the play that Shaw wrote originally - but I think it would have been amazing to watch!! Taylor felt intimidated by Burton's smarts. She always thought he wanted her to be better-read, more well-versed in the cultural touchstones that he knew so well. I mean, the man had entire Shakespeare plays in his head at all times. I just think that dynamic would have been so interesting in the Henry Higgins/Liza Doolittle roles.

Taraborrelli obviously loves Elizabeth Taylor, but I think he loves her too much. He protects her, in his writing, and his fanboy tendencies come out in his asides. Obviously if you are going to write a biography of someone, you have to have some interest in that person - you have to want to spend time with that person, and want to illuminate their character and their journey for the masses. But it's a fine line. The best biographies do not "weigh in" on their subject. Good or bad. Peter Manso's giant tome on Brando is basically a smear book, and Taraborrelli's book on Taylor is pro-Taylor propaganda. These books obviously sell, they just don't interest ME all that much.

Louis Bayard reviewed the book for The Washington Post and he writes:

The only way a movie-star bio can attain lasting value (and virtually none of them do) is to document the actor's intersection with some lasting work of art, as Lee Server accomplished in his take on Robert Mitchum. For Taraborrelli, self-appointed chronicler of the Kennedy women and Princess Grace, the movies are just coffee breaks in the full-time disinterring of ancient gossip: Nicky-Mikey-Eddie-Dickie. We learn that Taylor's most lauded performance, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," was fueled by alcoholic marital rages with Richard Burton, but we learn next to nothing about her best work, which, in my opinion, came 15 years earlier, before Burton ever infected her with the desire to be an ektress.

Check her out sometime as the wealthy love interest in "A Place in the Sun," George Stevens's film transcription of the Theodore Dreiser classic An American Tragedy. You'll find a pitch-perfect study of an entitled young woman undone by desire. Her love scenes with Montgomery Clift are almost painful in their eroticism, and a biographer who was curious about such things might wonder why Taylor could generate more on-screen heat with a gay man than she ever did with Burton. There's something to be said here about artifice yielding truth and truth yielding artifice and the drowning of a small talent in the shoals of high culture and the pitfalls of having double eyelashes. There is, yes, a book to be written about Elizabeth Taylor and the cultural phenomenon she represented. It's just not the book that J. Randy Taraborrelli has written. Or had any intention of writing.

I love that. I do believe that what he says is true. There is a book to be written about Taylor. Not just the tabloid stuff, because, come on, that's been done to death. We all know all of that. But what she represented ... and what her journey says about the Hollywood studio system, and also the roles that she got ... Taraborrelli only focuses on the biography. He knows no other way. When he writes about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where Taylor gives a fearless insane performance as Martha, he is out of his element - all he can talk about is the backstage stuff - that's all that interests him and when it comes time to talk about the movie itself, he falls back on, "Film critics generally agree it is her best work ..." He can't just say it himself, he doesn't have the confidence (or the interest). Whatever, it might be her best work, but let's get back to the divorces and marriages and divorces!!

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I did find a really nice anecdote in the book - something I had not been aware of (staged readings she did in New York with Burton) ... and so that's the excerpt I chose.

EXCERPT FROM Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

In the summer of 1964, Elizabeth Taylor found herself working in a very different venue for her, the theater. Philip Barton had asked if she would participate with Richard in a literary evening at the Lunt-Fontaine to raise funds for his American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York. The program, titled "World Enough and Time", involved the Burtons reading excerpts from the works of D.H. Lawrence, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edwin Markham, and, oddly but maybe also appropriately, John Lennon of the Beatles. Elizabeth rehearsed for two weeks; she had a tough time with it. Some of the Burtons' friends felt that there was an ulterior motive to Elizabeth's work on the stage at this time. She was always very aware of the kind of education she had at MGM, and it never bothered her much ... until she was with Burton. She then found herself in some ways feeling intellectually inferior. "I never mind being wrong with Richard because I learn from him and he never treats me like an idiot," she would later write. "He makes me feel an intellectual equal of his, which, of course, I am not."

"He was Higgins and she was Eliza," said Richard's good friend Joe Sirola. "In other words, here's a woman not terribly educated, not a great actress, didn't know the classics, any of that. And here she meets a guy, this theater star, who understood all the classics, could recite them back to you, this great actor. I always sensed that she didn't feel she was his match, intellectually. And the poetry and all of that was sort of trying to compensate, at least that's how I viewed it at the time."

It's also true that Elizabeth was often afraid of boring Richard. She and a tutor of the children's were walking on a beach in Puerto Vallarta once, and she was talking about her marriage to Richard and how much she loved him. She said, "But I'm afraid I'm going to lose him. I think I bore him. I don't think I'm smart enough." It was a stunning admission.

"It had to be tough on her," says Sirola. "I mean, to the world she was this great star. Privately, she had these insecurities about her value to Richard."

On the big night, she walked onto the stage swathed in pleated white silk, with emerald-and-diamond earrings and a delicate spray of white buds in her hair. It was a star-studded audience that included Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, and Beatrice Lilly. Elizabeth had barely started when she flubbed her lines. "Oh, I'll have to begin again," she said apologetically. "I screwed it all up." Richard quipped, "This is funnier than Hamlet" - which probably did little to assist her. Still, from then on, the audience was with Elizabeth as the underdog in the production. Her reviews the next day were generally positive.

Also at this time, Elizabeth was writing the second of her four books, Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir. (The first had been the children's book Nibbles and Me). "Even our fights are fun - nothing placidly bovine about us," she wrote of Burton. "Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It's beautiful to watch. Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off - sparks fly, walls shake, floors vibrate." When writing about the possibility of his cheating on her, she noted, "I would love him enough to love the hurt he might give me and be patient. I have learned that pride is very bad, the kind of pride that makes you say, 'I won't tolerate that.'"

At the end of the year, the Burtons filmed another movie together, their third, The Sandpiper. Elizabeth hadn't been in front of a camera in two years, having decided to devote her time to her husband and his career. Also, she would later explain, she could not obtain insurance from a studio due to her many health issues. "I didn't think I could get a job," she said, "so I grabbed The Sandpiper and let them pay their million dollars." She also noted that she never thought the film would be "an artistic masterpiece". Work of art or not, once Elizabeth was back in front of the cameras on a soundstage, she couldn't have been happier. The movie began in Big Sur, and ended in Paris. All of Elizabeth's children were there with her, including Maria (who had undergone a remarkable rehabilitation by this time, and who also had her own governess and nurse).

After a day of filming, Elizabeth and Richard would customarily have drinks together at the bar of the Lancaster Hotel. One evening, as the Burtons relaxed, three people rushed into the bar, two women and a man. The man began taking photographs and, before Elizabeth and Richard knew what was happening, rushed off. One of the women then began speaking in German, her words tumbling out quickly as she frantically motioned toward her friend. Suddenly, it hit Elizabeth: The woman's friend was Maria's birth mother. "Is this [she said the woman's name]?" Elizabeth asked. "Yes, this is her," admitted her friend. "I'm going to interpret for her." Elizabeth and Richard then realized that Maria's mother had been brought to them for a tabloid photo opportunity. Taylor was enraged. "You're no friend of hers," she screamed at the woman. "You're a journalist. And I'm going to kill you if you don't get out of here, now!"

"No. I am a friend of hers," the woman protested.

"Leave!" Richard bellowed. The woman ran from the room, leaving Maria's distressed natural mother with the Burtons. Elizabeth took her by the arm and urged her to sit.

Luckily, the Burtons' trusted attorney and good friend, Aaron Frosch - who spoke German - happened to be coming by the hotel to meet with them. Slowly the story unfolded. Apparently the editor of a gossip magazine in France had contacted Maria's natural mother in Germany and told her that the Taylors wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with her. She believed them, and that's why she was in France. Actually, it was all a ruse so that the publication could obtain photographs of Maria's poor natural mother in the same room with her rich adopted mother for a sensational story.

"Elizabeth felt awful about it," said Marie Bentkover. "She realized that these people's lives were forever changed by having an association with her. Elizabeth and Richard bought the woman a plane ticket so that she could return to Germany."

The next morning found the Burtons back on the set of The Sandpiper. Elizabeth had chosen Vincente Minnelli, who had guided her when she was still in her teens in two of her most successful early films, Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend, to direct the film, in which Elizabeth portrays an artist who has a complicated affair with an Episcopal minister, played by Richard. Elizabeth had wanted Sammy Davis Jr., whom she had recently befriended in New York, to essay the role of the man she leaves for the Burton character, but producer Martin Ransohoff felt the idea was "too ahead of its time, though it surely would have caused quite a sensation having Taylor and Davis involved in a romance on the screen in the 1960s." Future action star Charles Bronson ended up with the role.

When The Sandpiper was finally released in 1965, fans stormed Radio City Music Hall in New York for the premiere, to see Elizabeth on the screen for the first time in two years. The movie's theme, "The Shadow of Your Smile" became a hit record for Tony Bennett and remains a popular standard even today. The film was a box-office smash, bringing in more than $10 million. If nothing else, it validated the commerciality of its stars because, in truth, the movie suffered from a weak story that an even weaker script could not overcome. Despite brisk ticket sales, the Burtons knew they had made what Elizabeth referred to as "a real turkey". When she received one lone good review for her performance in it, she quipped, "How dare that writer! I'm suing for libel."


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October 29, 2008

The Books: "Life Is a Banquet" (Rosalind Russell)

18f381b0c8a09346e6fc9110._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Life Is A Banquet, by Rosalind Russell (and Chris Chase)

Marvelous book. Laugh-out-loud funny, touching inspiring, serious - with awesome character sketches (her sister Duchess will live on in my memory FOREVER) and just a real joie-de-vivre feeling. You like her SO much. She seems like a great dame. Made good friends, kept them for life, had a great relationship with her husband, had a rocky road of a career (she was one of those actresses "hard to place") - but had the great good fortune to NAIL it in one or two crucial roles in films that will live on forever. She made her mark, man. Imagine a world without His Girl Friday, or imagine that film with any other actress in it. Noooo!!

Her autobiography was published after she had finally succumbed to cancer. She had lost both of her breasts, she was weakened to the point of needing oxygen, a wheelchair ... and yet still: every day, she would dress up, in a lovely suit, and have lunch (with martinis) with her husband. Her husband of 35 years or something like that - Freddie Brisson. They were set up by Cary Grant, who was the best man at their wedding in 1941.

Freddie wrote a prologue to her book. He writes:

After she died I found a petition she had tucked away in her prayer book. It said in part, "Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by."


Freddie writes of their courtship. Rosalind gave him a HELL of a hard time. He would call to ask her out, and her maid would answer the phone, and he would hear Rosalind bellowing in the background: "Tell him I'm out!!" hahahaha But he was persistent. The two of them went to the races, they went out dancing until 2 o'clock in the morning ... but still. She held him off. She was Hollywood's "Bachelor Girl", after all. She had a great career, and a great life. It would have to be a prrreeeety damn good offer for her to give that up ... and she knew that. She put Brisson through his paces.

Listen to his story of his proposal:

The first time I proposed, she didn't accept. I persisted. "I'm going to write your mother and ask for your hand." And I did. "There's no way I'm going to get rid of you, is there?" Rosalind finally said, laughing. But when she gave up, she gave up on her own terms. "I don't like any of these proposals after you've had an evening out. I'm not interested in that nonsense. If you want to propose, then come around at seven o'clock in the morning, and put a white handkerchief on the ground and kneel down and ask for my hand."

At seven o'clock the next morning Roz at last accepted.


The two of them were faithfully married from 1941 to 1976, when she passed away.

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Rosalind Russell, in her book, comes off as a person who had her head on straight. Much of that could probably be attributed to her family, and the values they instilled in her. It was a humorous eccentric family, full of siblings ... all powerhouses ... full of accomplishment and lunacy. They were a family who loved to laugh. You can see that in her face. Her face is made for laughter. She comes off as a loyal person. If she was your friend, she was your friend for life. She was quite a clotheshorse and was also responsible for launching the careers of a couple of up-and-coming designers. James Galanos was one of them. He was her dressmaker and stylist for decades.

Her husband, Freddie Brisson, writes in the introduction a story that brings tears to my eyes:

In 1960, after she had the first mastectomy, Rosalind went to [James] Galanos. He says it was the only time he ever saw her break down. She had come to his office, very crisp, very businesslike. "I'm going to tell you something nobody in the world knows except Freddie and my doctor. I've had my breast removed, and I want to keep it quiet. So long as I can be active, I don't want to be thought a freak, I don't want people looking at me in person or on the screen and wondering about my sex life." (You have to consider the era. Women had not yet begun to go public about their mastectomies.)

"I want you to start thinking in terms of how I can now be dressed," Rosalind said to Jimmy, and then she began to take her clothes off. She started to cry, and he saw that she could hardly lift her left arm, it was so swollen, and he broke down too. From that day forward, he specially designed every piece of her clothing, and neither he nor his fitter ever told a soul.

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She was an actress, not a glamour girl or a starlet. She could never play an ingenue. She was too much of a wisecracker. Her face was too angular to be considered naive or youthful or even, in certain angles, beautiful. Even as a toddler, she looks like she's about to bark out some snarky comment. She had to grow into herself before Hollywood really knew where to place her. I love journeys like hers. It gives hope to all of the odd ones out there, the misfits, the ones who don't conform - not because they don't WANT to, but because they flat out CAN'T. She was one of those.

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The book sparkles with life. For example, often in autobiographies like these - the childhood sections come off as schmaltzy or cliched in some way. It's hard to write believably about childhood. You have to be specific. Get rid of the golden mist of nostalgia before you try to do it.

But listen to one of Russell's stories:

We children would be up on the third floor -- we had a billiard room there; my father played billiards, not pool, and to this day I can shoot so well, people think I must have earned my living at it -- playing games and racketing around over my mother's head, while she sat downstairs doing those name tapes. We had turned an alcove on the third floor into a bowling alley, and we also had a pool table.

My poor father, he never made a bet in his life, he didn't approve of betting, and he brought up a bunch of gamblers. After he died those of us who were still in school used to come home at different hours -- sometimes just for weekends -- and there was always a crap game going in my father's library. My mother permitted it, and stayed to supervise. The dice were going all the time, and I remember arriving late one Friday night and having a chum of one of my brothers, a young man who didn't know I was a member of the family, warn me against the Russells. "Do you know those people?" he whispered. "Be careful, they're all sharp shooters."

And in the background my relatives were yelling, "Get your money up, get your money up, it;s all cash here ..."

Now I don't know about YOU, but I want to hang out at the Russell house.

"Do you know these people?" hahahahahaha


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A terrific book all-around. Read it, that's all.

Here's an excerpt that has to do with His Girl Friday. Listen to how smart she is about acting, process, directing. She is totally in charge. Just let her GO. Prepare the space for her, and let her GO.

Clip from His Girl Friday below.


EXCERPT FROM Life Is A Banquet, by Rosalind Russell (and Chris Chase)

The next morning, going into New York on the train with my brother-in-law, Chet La Roche, and most of the people who had been at dinner the night before, everyone had his own copy of the New York Times, and we were all reading, and it said in the New York Times that Rosalind Russell was to play this part in a picture called His Girl Friday. Then it said the names of all the women who'd turned the part down. Howard Hawks, who would be directing, had tried to get Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur; he'd asked every leading woman in town before Harry Cohn had stuck him with me. (I was told later that Cohn had asked Hawks to go up to Grauman's Chinese Theatre and take a look at The Women, but I don't think he ever went.)

Anyway, coming down from Fairfield, I didn't dare look up from the paper. I kept thinking about all these people saying, "Oh, how marvelous."

I arrived back in California in a bad mood, and California was in the middle of a heat wave. I'd built my first swimming pool, a salt-water pool (you just dumped salt in, but you had to have special pipes), and it was about a hundred and seven degrees outside, and I was supposed to go down and see Hawks, but I kept brooding about being humiliated in the New York Times, and before I went to Columbia, I jumped in the pool, got my dress and hair all wet, and then went and sat in Hawks' outer office.

I was always so sassy, it seems to me, so unattractive, now that I think about it.

Hawks came out, did a triple take, and ushered me inside.

"You didn't want me for this, did you?" I said. (Besides being sassy, I was forever assaulting some guy -- Bill Powell, Howard Hawks -- with the news that he really hadn't wanted me.)

"It'll be all right," Hawks said. "You'll be fine. Nonw go to Wardrobe and tell them I'd like you in a suit with stripes, rather flashy-looking."

"Okay, Mr. Hawks, goodbye," I said. "I'll see you later."

His Girl Friday was to be a remake of The Front Page, a story about the newspaper business. Columbia had bought the property from Howard Hughes, who'd already made it once with Pat O'Brien and Lee Tracy as the reporter and editor. It had been Hawks's idea to change the Hildy Johnson character into a woman.

We'd been shooting two days when I began to wonder if his instructing me that my suit should be kind of hard-boiled-looking was the only advice I was going to get from Mr. Hawks.

He sprawled in a chair, way down on the end of his spine, and his eyes were like two blue cubes of ice, and he just looked at me.

After the second day I went to Cary Grant. "What is it with this guy? Am I doing what he wants?"

"Oh, sure, Ross," Cary said. (All the English call me Ross.) "If he didn't like it, he'd tell you."

"I can't work that way," I said. I went over to where Hawks was sitting. "Mr. Hawks," I said, "I have to know whether this is all right. Do you want it faster? Slower? What would you like?"

Unwinding himself like a snake, he rose from his chair. "You just keep pushin' him around the way you're doin'," he said. I could hardly hear him but I could see those cubes of eyes beginning to twinkle.

He'd been watching Cary and me for two days, and I'd thrown a handbag at Cary, which was my own idea, and missed hitting him, and Cary had said, "You used to be better than that," and Hawks left it all in. It's a good director who sees what an actor can do, studies his cast, learns about them personally, knows how to get the best out of them. You play the fiddle and he conducts. I think filming the scene is the easiest thing. It's preparing for it, rehearsing with it, trying to get at the guts of it, trying to give it meaning and freshness so that the other actor will relate to you and think of you as his mother or his wife or his sister, rather than just reciting lines, that's the actor's real work. A good director knows how to help you with it.

A good director also knows when not to direct. Nobody ever tried to direct Gable. They let Gable be Gable. I don't mean that he wouldn't take direction, but when he walked in with the gun and the uniform, and he'd just been over the top, what more could anybody do about that? Gable was the same sitting on the sidelines as he was when he got up and played the scene, and nobody wanted him to be anything else. People like Gable, Wayne, they're personalities, and a personality is an asset, you don't destroy it or mess with it.

Grant was different; he wasn't just a personality, he could immediately go off into a spin and become any character that was called for. He was terrific to work with because he's a true comic, in the sense that comedy is in the mind, the brain, the cortex. (Every actor you play with helps you or hurts you, there's no in between. It' s like tennis, you can't play alone or with a dead ball; and a lot of pictures fail right on the set, not in the script, where they say it starts. A group of actors and a director can wreck a good script; I've seen it happen.)

Cary loved to ad lib. He'd be standing there, leaning over, practically parallel to the ground, eyes flashing, extemporizing as he went, but he was in with another ad-libber. I enjoyed working that way too. So in His Girl Friday we went wild, overlapped our dialogue, waited for no man. And Hawks got a big kick out of it.

Then I started worrying that all this noisiness and newsroom high spirits might seem too chaotic to a watcher, and one night after we were finished I again went to Hawks. "I'm afraid," I said, "that audiences won't follow us."

"You're forgetting the scene you're gonna play with the criminal," Hawks said. "It's gonna be so quiet, so silent. You'll just whisper to him, you'll whisper, 'Did you kill that guy?' and your whispering will change the rhythm. But when we're with Grant, we don't change it. You just rivet in on him all the time."

Everybody in the world talks to me about that picture, though it happened in 1940 and they couldn't get another actress to do it. I've had so many indifferent directors, the kind who didn't prepare, didn't do their homework, faked their way through (and the actor is really the victim of the director), but I've been good with good directors, and for me to get Cukor and Hawks in rapid succession was terrific.

(That an actor needs not only decent direction, but decent material goes without saying. You're home free if you get material that holds you up. George Burns, who won the Academy Award for his part in The Sunshine Boys, told me it didn't even feel like work, playing that Neil Simon script - "The stuff is so funny, the words he uses, the way he puts it together." Being given good material is like being assigned to bake a cake - I might as well add baking to the other similes, tennis, violin playing, I've hauled in here - and having the batter made for you. It's all there, you only have to pour it in the pan, get the oven going at 350 degrees, and you're home free, everybody says you're a master cook.)

Hawks was a terrific director; he encouraged us and let us go. Once he told Cary, "Next time give her a bigger shove onto the couch," and Cary said, "Well, I don't want to kill the woman," and Hawks thought about that for a second. Then he said, "Try killin' 'er."

And once Cary looked straight out of a scene and said to Hawks (about something I was trying), "Is she going to do that?" and Hawks left the moment in the picture -- Cary's right there on film, asking an unseen director about my plans.

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The Books: "Life Is a Banquet" (Rosalind Russell)

18f381b0c8a09346e6fc9110._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Life Is A Banquet, by Rosalind Russell (and Chris Chase)

Marvelous book. Laugh-out-loud funny, touching inspiring, serious - with awesome character sketches (her sister Duchess will live on in my memory FOREVER) and just a real joie-de-vivre feeling. You like her SO much. She seems like a great dame. Made good friends, kept them for life, had a great relationship with her husband, had a rocky road of a career (she was one of those actresses "hard to place") - but had the great good fortune to NAIL it in one or two crucial roles in films that will live on forever. She made her mark, man. Imagine a world without His Girl Friday, or imagine that film with any other actress in it. Noooo!!

Her autobiography was published after she had finally succumbed to cancer. She had lost both of her breasts, she was weakened to the point of needing oxygen, a wheelchair ... and yet still: every day, she would dress up, in a lovely suit, and have lunch (with martinis) with her husband. Her husband of 35 years or something like that - Freddie Brisson. They were set up by Cary Grant, who was the best man at their wedding in 1941.

Freddie wrote a prologue to her book. He writes:

After she died I found a petition she had tucked away in her prayer book. It said in part, "Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by."


Freddie writes of their courtship. Rosalind gave him a HELL of a hard time. He would call to ask her out, and her maid would answer the phone, and he would hear Rosalind bellowing in the background: "Tell him I'm out!!" hahahaha But he was persistent. The two of them went to the races, they went out dancing until 2 o'clock in the morning ... but still. She held him off. She was Hollywood's "Bachelor Girl", after all. She had a great career, and a great life. It would have to be a prrreeeety damn good offer for her to give that up ... and she knew that. She put Brisson through his paces.

Listen to his story of his proposal:

The first time I proposed, she didn't accept. I persisted. "I'm going to write your mother and ask for your hand." And I did. "There's no way I'm going to get rid of you, is there?" Rosalind finally said, laughing. But when she gave up, she gave up on her own terms. "I don't like any of these proposals after you've had an evening out. I'm not interested in that nonsense. If you want to propose, then come around at seven o'clock in the morning, and put a white handkerchief on the ground and kneel down and ask for my hand."

At seven o'clock the next morning Roz at last accepted.


The two of them were faithfully married from 1941 to 1976, when she passed away.

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Rosalind Russell, in her book, comes off as a person who had her head on straight. Much of that could probably be attributed to her family, and the values they instilled in her. It was a humorous eccentric family, full of siblings ... all powerhouses ... full of accomplishment and lunacy. They were a family who loved to laugh. You can see that in her face. Her face is made for laughter. She comes off as a loyal person. If she was your friend, she was your friend for life. She was quite a clotheshorse and was also responsible for launching the careers of a couple of up-and-coming designers. James Galanos was one of them. He was her dressmaker and stylist for decades.

Her husband, Freddie Brisson, writes in the introduction a story that brings tears to my eyes:

In 1960, after she had the first mastectomy, Rosalind went to [James] Galanos. He says it was the only time he ever saw her break down. She had come to his office, very crisp, very businesslike. "I'm going to tell you something nobody in the world knows except Freddie and my doctor. I've had my breast removed, and I want to keep it quiet. So long as I can be active, I don't want to be thought a freak, I don't want people looking at me in person or on the screen and wondering about my sex life." (You have to consider the era. Women had not yet begun to go public about their mastectomies.)

"I want you to start thinking in terms of how I can now be dressed," Rosalind said to Jimmy, and then she began to take her clothes off. She started to cry, and he saw that she could hardly lift her left arm, it was so swollen, and he broke down too. From that day forward, he specially designed every piece of her clothing, and neither he nor his fitter ever told a soul.

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She was an actress, not a glamour girl or a starlet. She could never play an ingenue. She was too much of a wisecracker. Her face was too angular to be considered naive or youthful or even, in certain angles, beautiful. Even as a toddler, she looks like she's about to bark out some snarky comment. She had to grow into herself before Hollywood really knew where to place her. I love journeys like hers. It gives hope to all of the odd ones out there, the misfits, the ones who don't conform - not because they don't WANT to, but because they flat out CAN'T. She was one of those.

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The book sparkles with life. For example, often in autobiographies like these - the childhood sections come off as schmaltzy or cliched in some way. It's hard to write believably about childhood. You have to be specific. Get rid of the golden mist of nostalgia before you try to do it.

But listen to one of Russell's stories:

We children would be up on the third floor -- we had a billiard room there; my father played billiards, not pool, and to this day I can shoot so well, people think I must have earned my living at it -- playing games and racketing around over my mother's head, while she sat downstairs doing those name tapes. We had turned an alcove on the third floor into a bowling alley, and we also had a pool table.

My poor father, he never made a bet in his life, he didn't approve of betting, and he brought up a bunch of gamblers. After he died those of us who were still in school used to come home at different hours -- sometimes just for weekends -- and there was always a crap game going in my father's library. My mother permitted it, and stayed to supervise. The dice were going all the time, and I remember arriving late one Friday night and having a chum of one of my brothers, a young man who didn't know I was a member of the family, warn me against the Russells. "Do you know those people?" he whispered. "Be careful, they're all sharp shooters."

And in the background my relatives were yelling, "Get your money up, get your money up, it;s all cash here ..."

Now I don't know about YOU, but I want to hang out at the Russell house.

"Do you know these people?" hahahahahaha


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A terrific book all-around. Read it, that's all.

Here's an excerpt that has to do with His Girl Friday. Listen to how smart she is about acting, process, directing. She is totally in charge. Just let her GO. Prepare the space for her, and let her GO.

Clip from His Girl Friday below.


EXCERPT FROM Life Is A Banquet, by Rosalind Russell (and Chris Chase)

The next morning, going into New York on the train with my brother-in-law, Chet La Roche, and most of the people who had been at dinner the night before, everyone had his own copy of the New York Times, and we were all reading, and it said in the New York Times that Rosalind Russell was to play this part in a picture called His Girl Friday. Then it said the names of all the women who'd turned the part down. Howard Hawks, who would be directing, had tried to get Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur; he'd asked every leading woman in town before Harry Cohn had stuck him with me. (I was told later that Cohn had asked Hawks to go up to Grauman's Chinese Theatre and take a look at The Women, but I don't think he ever went.)

Anyway, coming down from Fairfield, I didn't dare look up from the paper. I kept thinking about all these people saying, "Oh, how marvelous."

I arrived back in California in a bad mood, and California was in the middle of a heat wave. I'd built my first swimming pool, a salt-water pool (you just dumped salt in, but you had to have special pipes), and it was about a hundred and seven degrees outside, and I was supposed to go down and see Hawks, but I kept brooding about being humiliated in the New York Times, and before I went to Columbia, I jumped in the pool, got my dress and hair all wet, and then went and sat in Hawks' outer office.

I was always so sassy, it seems to me, so unattractive, now that I think about it.

Hawks came out, did a triple take, and ushered me inside.

"You didn't want me for this, did you?" I said. (Besides being sassy, I was forever assaulting some guy -- Bill Powell, Howard Hawks -- with the news that he really hadn't wanted me.)

"It'll be all right," Hawks said. "You'll be fine. Nonw go to Wardrobe and tell them I'd like you in a suit with stripes, rather flashy-looking."

"Okay, Mr. Hawks, goodbye," I said. "I'll see you later."

His Girl Friday was to be a remake of The Front Page, a story about the newspaper business. Columbia had bought the property from Howard Hughes, who'd already made it once with Pat O'Brien and Lee Tracy as the reporter and editor. It had been Hawks's idea to change the Hildy Johnson character into a woman.

We'd been shooting two days when I began to wonder if his instructing me that my suit should be kind of hard-boiled-looking was the only advice I was going to get from Mr. Hawks.

He sprawled in a chair, way down on the end of his spine, and his eyes were like two blue cubes of ice, and he just looked at me.

After the second day I went to Cary Grant. "What is it with this guy? Am I doing what he wants?"

"Oh, sure, Ross," Cary said. (All the English call me Ross.) "If he didn't like it, he'd tell you."

"I can't work that way," I said. I went over to where Hawks was sitting. "Mr. Hawks," I said, "I have to know whether this is all right. Do you want it faster? Slower? What would you like?"

Unwinding himself like a snake, he rose from his chair. "You just keep pushin' him around the way you're doin'," he said. I could hardly hear him but I could see those cubes of eyes beginning to twinkle.

He'd been watching Cary and me for two days, and I'd thrown a handbag at Cary, which was my own idea, and missed hitting him, and Cary had said, "You used to be better than that," and Hawks left it all in. It's a good director who sees what an actor can do, studies his cast, learns about them personally, knows how to get the best out of them. You play the fiddle and he conducts. I think filming the scene is the easiest thing. It's preparing for it, rehearsing with it, trying to get at the guts of it, trying to give it meaning and freshness so that the other actor will relate to you and think of you as his mother or his wife or his sister, rather than just reciting lines, that's the actor's real work. A good director knows how to help you with it.

A good director also knows when not to direct. Nobody ever tried to direct Gable. They let Gable be Gable. I don't mean that he wouldn't take direction, but when he walked in with the gun and the uniform, and he'd just been over the top, what more could anybody do about that? Gable was the same sitting on the sidelines as he was when he got up and played the scene, and nobody wanted him to be anything else. People like Gable, Wayne, they're personalities, and a personality is an asset, you don't destroy it or mess with it.

Grant was different; he wasn't just a personality, he could immediately go off into a spin and become any character that was called for. He was terrific to work with because he's a true comic, in the sense that comedy is in the mind, the brain, the cortex. (Every actor you play with helps you or hurts you, there's no in between. It' s like tennis, you can't play alone or with a dead ball; and a lot of pictures fail right on the set, not in the script, where they say it starts. A group of actors and a director can wreck a good script; I've seen it happen.)

Cary loved to ad lib. He'd be standing there, leaning over, practically parallel to the ground, eyes flashing, extemporizing as he went, but he was in with another ad-libber. I enjoyed working that way too. So in His Girl Friday we went wild, overlapped our dialogue, waited for no man. And Hawks got a big kick out of it.

Then I started worrying that all this noisiness and newsroom high spirits might seem too chaotic to a watcher, and one night after we were finished I again went to Hawks. "I'm afraid," I said, "that audiences won't follow us."

"You're forgetting the scene you're gonna play with the criminal," Hawks said. "It's gonna be so quiet, so silent. You'll just whisper to him, you'll whisper, 'Did you kill that guy?' and your whispering will change the rhythm. But when we're with Grant, we don't change it. You just rivet in on him all the time."

Everybody in the world talks to me about that picture, though it happened in 1940 and they couldn't get another actress to do it. I've had so many indifferent directors, the kind who didn't prepare, didn't do their homework, faked their way through (and the actor is really the victim of the director), but I've been good with good directors, and for me to get Cukor and Hawks in rapid succession was terrific.

(That an actor needs not only decent direction, but decent material goes without saying. You're home free if you get material that holds you up. George Burns, who won the Academy Award for his part in The Sunshine Boys, told me it didn't even feel like work, playing that Neil Simon script - "The stuff is so funny, the words he uses, the way he puts it together." Being given good material is like being assigned to bake a cake - I might as well add baking to the other similes, tennis, violin playing, I've hauled in here - and having the batter made for you. It's all there, you only have to pour it in the pan, get the oven going at 350 degrees, and you're home free, everybody says you're a master cook.)

Hawks was a terrific director; he encouraged us and let us go. Once he told Cary, "Next time give her a bigger shove onto the couch," and Cary said, "Well, I don't want to kill the woman," and Hawks thought about that for a second. Then he said, "Try killin' 'er."

And once Cary looked straight out of a scene and said to Hawks (about something I was trying), "Is she going to do that?" and Hawks left the moment in the picture -- Cary's right there on film, asking an unseen director about my plans.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 28, 2008

The Books: "Ginger: My Story" (Ginger Rogers)

13259119-0-s.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers


This is my kind of celebrity memoir. It is juicy, gossipy, defensive, and full of sentences like, "I need to set the record straight". In her Introduction, she uses the words "pernicious rumors". She wants to tell her story from HER side, and she just babbles (entertainingly) on and on for almost 400 pages, and you just can't put it down. There is an invisible audience of critics in her mind, reading it, and she writes to them. "Yes, I had a lot of marriages. So what? I loved being married." You know, when you live in the public eye for your whole life, you probably get used to having people (that you know and don't know) weigh in on your behavior - be it professional or personal - and she's internalized that. She can't help herself.

A lot of the book has a "I know what you're going to say, but let me explain" tone. I happen to despise that kind of writing when it's done by bloggers - I've written about it before. I despise it because I fell into that trap in my early days as a blogger, when I suddenly had a lot of readers, many of whom found my love of movies to be irritating. (Don't ask. These people are now long gone - well, one or two hangers-on). But anyway, I found my writing to be going in that defensive direction - starting paragraphs with, "Now, I know what you're going to say ..." Everything needed to be qualified, adjusted. I was constantly acknowledging the people who found me irritating. Terrible writing!! It drove me crazy. And Beth emailed me at one point, mentioning that tendency of mine, and telling me it weakened my writing. She basically was like, "Just say what you want to say!" My first feeling when I read her email was defensive ... but in the next moment, I realized: She is 100% right. I don't like writing this way, anyway. So I consciously got rid of that tendency. Having been through that, I notice it in others, I suppose ... and to me, at least with bloggers, it makes the blogger seem WAY too self-important. As though they have THRONGS of people weighing in at all times ... and although that FEELS true, it really isn't, come on, let's be honest. (Reminds me of the funny cartoon Larry just posted on his site.) Just write your opinion, let people criticize - answer in the comments if you want - but don't muddy up your writing with "Now I know that some of you out there feel ..." caveats.

HOWEVER. When it comes to giants of the film industry - that kind of thing is just a joy to behold. I know it's biased. That's the whole point to reading memoirs of famous movie stars. I WANT bias. I WANT them to stick up for themselves, and tell their side, and set the record straight ... That's why I think Lana Turner's autobiography is seriously one of the best out there. Try to put that book down. TRY. And if anyone had the "public" weighing in on her behavior - it was that one!!

So Ginger sets forth to dispel the "pernicious rumors", to talk back to her critics, to tell it like it REALLY was - and all of that makes for a beautifully entertaining, sometimes funny read. She's likable. I read this book years ago, when it first came out, and there was much about Ginger Rogers that I did not know. My bad!

I grew up poring over the pages of TV Guide for any sign that a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie was playing. I ADORED them. It seemed to be from a different world. Still in the same century I was living in, but boy, nothing was recognizable to me. Where were those big nightclubs with shiny floors and flowing curtains? Even their voices sounded different. Nobody talked like Fred Astaire in MY world. They seemed ancient - not to mention in black and white - but also so exciting, and beautiful, and I never ever got sick of seeing those movies (it's been almost 40 years now, and I'm STILL not sick of seeing them.)

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When I was 11 years old, my drama teacher (Jan Grant, let's give the props) had us all write a report on someone who inspired us from movies or theatre. I wrote my report on Fred Astaire. I remember how hard I worked on that thing. I must have taken books out of the library. I set about to write down Fred's entire journey - with his sister Adele, etc. - and I remember my dad saying to me, gently, "I think what Jan is looking for is not the biography, Sheila - but what he means to you." I have tears in my eyes. He was trying to help me focus. I don't think I took it that way at the time, because I was really proud of my essay - with its "Fred Astaire was born on a cold dark day" details ... but I did take his advice, and spent the last 10 pages of the thing talking about why he was so great, and which movies of his I loved, and why, etc. etc. Thank you, Dad.

My first experience of Ginger Rogers was those movies, and for years I had no idea - ZERO - NONE - NADA - that she was such a heavy-hitting actress as well. One of the big female stars of RKO. It was Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne - there's a documentary about those three and their competition included in the special features of my Bringing Up Baby DVD. It's fascinating. They each had a niche, they dominated the industry, but they were also pitted against one another.

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Rogers got her start in vaudeville as a teenager, did a couple of movies, and then appeared on Broadway in a musical called Girl Crazy. Fred Astaire didn't do the choreography but he was hired to help out. This was how they met. Girl Crazy made Ginger Rogers a Broadway star. With the power of that success behind her, she signed a contract with Paramount, but then got out of it (I love all the contractual stuff - I've mentioned that before. I love to hear the business side of things) - and signed with RKO. It was under the auspices of RKO that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their many many films together. They were the biggest stars in the world. Those movies came at a time when America really needed them. And also - they were unlike the other musicals at the time ... those two completely revolutionized that tired genre (it was already tired!) and made it something new and fresh. Not to mention the cinematography ... If you watch the filming of those dance scenes, you can see that the camera glides and flows WITH the couple, at the same time that we always see both of them in the screen at the same time. I wish I wish I wish that musicals today would stop it with the jumpcuts and Flashdance-inspired fragmented filmmaking - and just let us see the dancing, dammit. Astaire said about Rogers: "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

The thing I guess I didn't know about Ginger was that she was primarily an actress. After a decade of musicals, she made the unpopular decision to stop for a while and do straight drama. It paid off. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle. If you've seen the film (or any of her other straight dramas), you know how good she was. (And I'm sure De could speak to all of this far better than I could. She's probably the biggest Ginger Rogers fan that I know!)

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Ginger Rogers was one of those people who was known, primarily, for one thing. She was extremely fortunate - and also had a magic about her that came out when dancing with Astaire that still is money in the bank. Like, you can cash in that check for centuries. Actresses dream of "hitting" something like that - not just being successful - but tapping into something "magic" ... and she did.

But my favorite stories in her chatty defensive funny book are about her struggles to either be taken seriously, or her lobbying for parts that nobody was thinking of her for, because of her reputation for being an actress for musicals.

Garson Kanin, in his chatty awesome book Hollywood tells the story of Ginger Rogers campaigning HARD to play Queen Elizabeth in John Ford's Mary of Scotland ... and it just really moves me, because she knew, in her heart, how good she would be, but she also knew she had to prove it. She was a gigantic star. Didn't matter. Not everybody can play everything. You have to PROVE it to the powers-that-be and proving it takes a lot of guts. Because, more often than not, you are facing a group of people who basically don't see you for the part, don't want you for the part ... it is an unwelcoming atmosphere from the get-go. I talked about this a bit when I mentioned Camryn Manheim's journey as an actress and how she had to SHOW the client that she could be a mechanic, even though they had it in their heads that they wanted a man for the part. Guts. It is my belief that those who become most successful are not necessarily the most talented - but those who do not CAVE in moments such as that. Those who do not CHOKE but "show up", 100%.

So although Ginger Rogers' book is chock-full of great stuff, I chose the excerpt that had to do with her trying to get the part of Queen Elizabeth, because THAT is why Ginger Rogers' career spanned 50 years, I am convinced. She didn't even GET the part. Doesn't matter in the slightest. It's the attitude I am talking about.

30 years later, Ginger Rogers said to Garson Kanin, "They should have given me that part. I would have been sensational."

I agree.

I've also included a clip below from Top Hat.


EXCERPT FROM Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers

At a dinner party one evening, I cornered Pan Berman. "Pan," I said, "I know you're producing Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland and that Kate Hepburn is starring. I've also heard that John Ford is directing. Now, Pan, you have tested everybody under the sun but Shirley Temple or me for the role of Queen Elizabeth. Why not let me test for the role?"

"You?" interrupted Mr. Berman. "Why would you want to play the role of such an embittered woman?"

"Oh, come on, Pan, you know I want to get out of those soft chiffon dresses and play something that has some starch in it."

"Dear Ginger," he said, patiently patting me on the shoulder. "You should be glad you do what you do so well. Why don't you just stick to your high-heeled slippers and be happy?"

With that, he gently brushed me off with a smile.

With that, I determined to devise a plan.

I called Leland Hayward. "You're my agent, why don't you talk to Berman about my playing the role of Elizabeth? He won't listen to me."

"Why don't you corner John Ford?" suggested Leland. "Catch him at the commissary during lunch."

I rarely went into the commissary while filming - unless I had to be there for a conference; I preferred to have lunch in my dressing room. Since I wasn't filming, I decided to follow Leland's suggestion. I found out the day and time that the tests were to be made and I went into the commissary. As Ford and some of his camera crew were leaving, I went up to him and told him what I wanted. I knew if I showed up as Ginger Rogers, I wouldn't get to first base. However, if I appeared under a false name, all made up as Elizabeth, the test I made would be judged only on the basis of my performance. John Ford loved a practical joke, and the idea of fooling Pan Berman tickled his funny bone. "Sounds terrific. Call me at home and we'll figure it out."

I called Leland with the good news and told him I thought I should pretend to be British so I'd even have the right accent. Leland loved the idea, and we decided I would become "Lady Ainsley." Listen, if I was going to be British, I might as well go all the way and be an aristocrat! Leland called Pan and told him he had a visiting British actress who might be talked into taking the role.

I got in touch with Mel Berns in makeup and Edward Stevenson in wardrobe. They were both sworn to secrecy. A lot of painstaking detail went into this charade; among other things, I had to get a studio pass under my pseudonym, Lady Ainsley.

The day of the test, I wore clothes different from any I had been seen in before, donned a brunette wig, and put a turban around my head. At the studio, I didn't go through the automobile gate but headed for the Gower Street door. The Gower Street entrance was the first test of my disguise. Studio pass in hand and my British accent at the ready, it worked like a dream. I galloped to Mel Berns's chair and he went to work. First, a plastic skull cap was put over my head. It reached down to my eyebrows, and created the appearance of a very high forehead. Later, a faithfully designed eighteenth-century wig was put over the skull cap. The period makeup for Elizabethan times was a ghostly white, for men as well as women. You can't imagine how this white stuff changed my features. Mel gave my eyes a beady look by creating a narrowness around them and painted a slit-like mouth over my full lips. Eddie Stevenson found a period costume with the full regalia of queenly dress, including a huge stiff ruffle around my neck. If clothes make the woman, then I felt like the real Queen of England! As far as knowing that the queen was Ginger, I didn't think even Lelee would have recognized me.

Leland played his part well, too; he phoned John Ford and gave him the lowdown on my character. Lady Ainsley had been playing Shakespearean roles for the past five years on the London stage where her name was well known. While her husband, Lord Ainsley, was on safari in Africa hunting lions, Lady Ainsley had accepted an invitation from Mary Pickford to stay at Pickfair for a fortnight. Though she was uninterested in making an American movie, Lady Ainsley was persuaded to do the test as a lark. She was a great admirer of John Ford's films, and would enjoy meeting Katharine Hepburn.

John Ford ate it up. Leland then advised John to call Pan Berman and give him the story. "If he doesn't buy it, tell him to call me, and I'll convince him."

When the time came for me to test, I casually strolled onto the stage in this fantastic regalia and felt ten feet tall! Hiding behind character makeup was a new experience for me. Three other women in courtly costumes stood on the set waiting for the camera test. One of them was Anita Colby, a very good friend of my mother's and mine. Each of the ladies-in-waiting curtsied as the assistant director introduced them to "Lady Ainsley". Even Anita bowed; I could hardly wait to tell Lela. I moved off to the test stage and made a grand entrance. No one recognized me. The entire crew stepped aside deferentially, giving me a wide berth. The rumor was that Lady Ainsley was doing this test as a favor to John Ford. I had a ball fooling all the folks I'd worked with month after month. There's nothing Hollywood loves more than a bona fide title, and Lady Ainsley had one ... or so they believed.

John Ford came onto the set and went right to me. He played it straight but I could see the twinkle in his eye.

"Lady Ainsley, we have never met. However, I have seen you perform. I was in London eighteen months ago."

"Perhaps you saw me with Maurice Evans in As You Like It," I answered in my high-toned British accent.

"Yes, that must be it. My, that's wonderful makeup you're wearing. No one could possibly recognize you," he said audibly, and then, lowering his voice so only I could hear, whispered, "I had to tell Hepburn who you are. She'd kill me if she found out later, and I've got to make this film with her."

Katharine Hepburn came onto the stage dressed in her Mary costume. "Miss Hepburn, this is Lady Ainsley," announced the director. Kate looked at me as one does at an adversary.

"Hello," she managed. Kate looked at me again with an indescribably expression.

John placed us for the test and gave the signal, "All right. Camera, action. Don't just sit there. Talk to each other."

We were seated in high-backed oak chairs and a large mahogany table stood in front of us. I turned to Kate, and in my best British accent I said, "I've enjoyed watching your performances very much, Miss Hepburn."

Although everything looked normal above the table, below decks Kate swung her leg back and kicked me in the shins. Her expression was unchanged as she muttered in a stage whisper, "You 0#%&*$!! Who do you think you're fooling?"

I was surprised by her outburst and looked to see if the sound boom was in place. If her remarks had been recorded, that would spoil the whole deal. Luckily, it was a silent test. I bit my tongue to keep from answering back. My composure was slipping, but somehow I managed to offer another weak-tea type compliment. Her look was that of the cat ready to pounce on the canary, and I was the canary. History was reversing itself. "Mary" was going to behead "Elizabeth"!

Ford broke the spell. "Look to the left, then turn to the right. Just keep talking to each other." I moved my mouth as though speaking, as Kate continued to glare at me.

"Thank you, Lady Ainsley," said Ford. "As soon as the other tests are over, I'll come into your dressing room."

I got up slowly from my chair, and turned to Kate. "Thank you, Miss Hepburn," I said through clenched teeth. "Thank you very much."

As I headed for the portable dressing room, I ran smack into my old buddy Eddie Rubin. Eddie wasn't in on this ruse as he hadn't been around when this idea was hatched. He looked right at me as if I was a stranger and let me pass. I waited for the bomb to explode over my disguise. But nothing happened until John Ford burst into the room and said in a loud voice, "Lady Ainsley, thank you so much for your time and trouble. I knew we interrupted your holiday, but in a day or two, we'll get back to you. Leland Hayward is representing you - correct?"

"Yes, that's right, Mr. Ford."

"Good. I will speak with Leland after we see the test. Your Shakespearean ability is known to us, but we needed to see how you photographed opposite Miss Hepburn. Mr. Berman and I will be seeing this footage sometime late tomorrow afternoon. Thank you again." And he disappeared.

I returned to my dressing room, got out of the Renaissance clothing, and then went over to Mel Burns to get the makeup removed. I slipped out of the studio without being detected, and when I reached home, I called Leland to describe the events. He roared at hearing how Kate had kicked me.

A couple of days later Leland called and told me Pan had seen the tests and liked them. Now he wanted them reshot in sound. My ruse was really snowballing!

Alas, someone leaked the story, and the next day Louella Parsons's column was devoted to the Lady Ainsley incident. Lolly sharply criticized me for spending the company's money on a practical joke. Louella loved to give me the "raspberry" whenever she could. Hedda Hopper, on the other hand, seemed to like me, and I liked her. I think this was because she secretly thanked Lelee for not accepting a job offer with the Los Angeles Times. They then offered it to Hedda - and the rest is history. But Louella was another story. Unfortunately, I was not Carole Lombard, who could get away with anything. Louella called it a "practical joke", but in my heart, it was serious. I wanted that part so much I could taste it. And I had no other way of getting a test for the role.

I raced to the telephone to call Berman's house, and spoke with his wife, Vi. She told me Pan had not seen the morning paper because he had gone to the races at Santa Anita early that morning. Shortly thereafter, a friend called and asked me to the races ... at Santa Anita. To go or not to go, that was my dilemma. What if I ran into Berman? I decided to take the risk of bumping into him. With twelve thousand people at the races, that wasn't very likely.

So far, so good! I was standing near the betting window with my friend when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "You little devil! You know, young lady, you really had me going." I turned to face Pan Berman. "That was the best trick ever pulled on me. I had no idea that you were that 'lady' I saw on the screen. I never would have guessed it was you!"

I laughed and suggested that I do a second test. To his great credit, Pan Berman wasn't the least bit angry. His sense of humor about this was far better than anyone could have expected. But I didn't get the second test and I didn't get the part. The role of Elizabeth was given to Florence Eldridge. Maybe it was just as well, because the film wasn't favorably reviewed by the public. And if I had played the role of Elizabeth, both the studio and the public would probably have laid their complaints at my door!


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The Books: "Ginger: My Story" (Ginger Rogers)

13259119-0-s.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers


This is my kind of celebrity memoir. It is juicy, gossipy, defensive, and full of sentences like, "I need to set the record straight". In her Introduction, she uses the words "pernicious rumors". She wants to tell her story from HER side, and she just babbles (entertainingly) on and on for almost 400 pages, and you just can't put it down. There is an invisible audience of critics in her mind, reading it, and she writes to them. "Yes, I had a lot of marriages. So what? I loved being married." You know, when you live in the public eye for your whole life, you probably get used to having people (that you know and don't know) weigh in on your behavior - be it professional or personal - and she's internalized that. She can't help herself.

A lot of the book has a "I know what you're going to say, but let me explain" tone. I happen to despise that kind of writing when it's done by bloggers - I've written about it before. I despise it because I fell into that trap in my early days as a blogger, when I suddenly had a lot of readers, many of whom found my love of movies to be irritating. (Don't ask. These people are now long gone - well, one or two hangers-on). But anyway, I found my writing to be going in that defensive direction - starting paragraphs with, "Now, I know what you're going to say ..." Everything needed to be qualified, adjusted. I was constantly acknowledging the people who found me irritating. Terrible writing!! It drove me crazy. And Beth emailed me at one point, mentioning that tendency of mine, and telling me it weakened my writing. She basically was like, "Just say what you want to say!" My first feeling when I read her email was defensive ... but in the next moment, I realized: She is 100% right. I don't like writing this way, anyway. So I consciously got rid of that tendency. Having been through that, I notice it in others, I suppose ... and to me, at least with bloggers, it makes the blogger seem WAY too self-important. As though they have THRONGS of people weighing in at all times ... and although that FEELS true, it really isn't, come on, let's be honest. (Reminds me of the funny cartoon Larry just posted on his site.) Just write your opinion, let people criticize - answer in the comments if you want - but don't muddy up your writing with "Now I know that some of you out there feel ..." caveats.

HOWEVER. When it comes to giants of the film industry - that kind of thing is just a joy to behold. I know it's biased. That's the whole point to reading memoirs of famous movie stars. I WANT bias. I WANT them to stick up for themselves, and tell their side, and set the record straight ... That's why I think Lana Turner's autobiography is seriously one of the best out there. Try to put that book down. TRY. And if anyone had the "public" weighing in on her behavior - it was that one!!

So Ginger sets forth to dispel the "pernicious rumors", to talk back to her critics, to tell it like it REALLY was - and all of that makes for a beautifully entertaining, sometimes funny read. She's likable. I read this book years ago, when it first came out, and there was much about Ginger Rogers that I did not know. My bad!

I grew up poring over the pages of TV Guide for any sign that a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie was playing. I ADORED them. It seemed to be from a different world. Still in the same century I was living in, but boy, nothing was recognizable to me. Where were those big nightclubs with shiny floors and flowing curtains? Even their voices sounded different. Nobody talked like Fred Astaire in MY world. They seemed ancient - not to mention in black and white - but also so exciting, and beautiful, and I never ever got sick of seeing those movies (it's been almost 40 years now, and I'm STILL not sick of seeing them.)

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When I was 11 years old, my drama teacher (Jan Grant, let's give the props) had us all write a report on someone who inspired us from movies or theatre. I wrote my report on Fred Astaire. I remember how hard I worked on that thing. I must have taken books out of the library. I set about to write down Fred's entire journey - with his sister Adele, etc. - and I remember my dad saying to me, gently, "I think what Jan is looking for is not the biography, Sheila - but what he means to you." I have tears in my eyes. He was trying to help me focus. I don't think I took it that way at the time, because I was really proud of my essay - with its "Fred Astaire was born on a cold dark day" details ... but I did take his advice, and spent the last 10 pages of the thing talking about why he was so great, and which movies of his I loved, and why, etc. etc. Thank you, Dad.

My first experience of Ginger Rogers was those movies, and for years I had no idea - ZERO - NONE - NADA - that she was such a heavy-hitting actress as well. One of the big female stars of RKO. It was Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne - there's a documentary about those three and their competition included in the special features of my Bringing Up Baby DVD. It's fascinating. They each had a niche, they dominated the industry, but they were also pitted against one another.

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Rogers got her start in vaudeville as a teenager, did a couple of movies, and then appeared on Broadway in a musical called Girl Crazy. Fred Astaire didn't do the choreography but he was hired to help out. This was how they met. Girl Crazy made Ginger Rogers a Broadway star. With the power of that success behind her, she signed a contract with Paramount, but then got out of it (I love all the contractual stuff - I've mentioned that before. I love to hear the business side of things) - and signed with RKO. It was under the auspices of RKO that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their many many films together. They were the biggest stars in the world. Those movies came at a time when America really needed them. And also - they were unlike the other musicals at the time ... those two completely revolutionized that tired genre (it was already tired!) and made it something new and fresh. Not to mention the cinematography ... If you watch the filming of those dance scenes, you can see that the camera glides and flows WITH the couple, at the same time that we always see both of them in the screen at the same time. I wish I wish I wish that musicals today would stop it with the jumpcuts and Flashdance-inspired fragmented filmmaking - and just let us see the dancing, dammit. Astaire said about Rogers: "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

The thing I guess I didn't know about Ginger was that she was primarily an actress. After a decade of musicals, she made the unpopular decision to stop for a while and do straight drama. It paid off. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle. If you've seen the film (or any of her other straight dramas), you know how good she was. (And I'm sure De could speak to all of this far better than I could. She's probably the biggest Ginger Rogers fan that I know!)

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Ginger Rogers was one of those people who was known, primarily, for one thing. She was extremely fortunate - and also had a magic about her that came out when dancing with Astaire that still is money in the bank. Like, you can cash in that check for centuries. Actresses dream of "hitting" something like that - not just being successful - but tapping into something "magic" ... and she did.

But my favorite stories in her chatty defensive funny book are about her struggles to either be taken seriously, or her lobbying for parts that nobody was thinking of her for, because of her reputation for being an actress for musicals.

Garson Kanin, in his chatty awesome book Hollywood tells the story of Ginger Rogers campaigning HARD to play Queen Elizabeth in John Ford's Mary of Scotland ... and it just really moves me, because she knew, in her heart, how good she would be, but she also knew she had to prove it. She was a gigantic star. Didn't matter. Not everybody can play everything. You have to PROVE it to the powers-that-be and proving it takes a lot of guts. Because, more often than not, you are facing a group of people who basically don't see you for the part, don't want you for the part ... it is an unwelcoming atmosphere from the get-go. I talked about this a bit when I mentioned Camryn Manheim's journey as an actress and how she had to SHOW the client that she could be a mechanic, even though they had it in their heads that they wanted a man for the part. Guts. It is my belief that those who become most successful are not necessarily the most talented - but those who do not CAVE in moments such as that. Those who do not CHOKE but "show up", 100%.

So although Ginger Rogers' book is chock-full of great stuff, I chose the excerpt that had to do with her trying to get the part of Queen Elizabeth, because THAT is why Ginger Rogers' career spanned 50 years, I am convinced. She didn't even GET the part. Doesn't matter in the slightest. It's the attitude I am talking about.

30 years later, Ginger Rogers said to Garson Kanin, "They should have given me that part. I would have been sensational."

I agree.

I've also included a clip below from Top Hat.


EXCERPT FROM Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers

At a dinner party one evening, I cornered Pan Berman. "Pan," I said, "I know you're producing Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland and that Kate Hepburn is starring. I've also heard that John Ford is directing. Now, Pan, you have tested everybody under the sun but Shirley Temple or me for the role of Queen Elizabeth. Why not let me test for the role?"

"You?" interrupted Mr. Berman. "Why would you want to play the role of such an embittered woman?"

"Oh, come on, Pan, you know I want to get out of those soft chiffon dresses and play something that has some starch in it."

"Dear Ginger," he said, patiently patting me on the shoulder. "You should be glad you do what you do so well. Why don't you just stick to your high-heeled slippers and be happy?"

With that, he gently brushed me off with a smile.

With that, I determined to devise a plan.

I called Leland Hayward. "You're my agent, why don't you talk to Berman about my playing the role of Elizabeth? He won't listen to me."

"Why don't you corner John Ford?" suggested Leland. "Catch him at the commissary during lunch."

I rarely went into the commissary while filming - unless I had to be there for a conference; I preferred to have lunch in my dressing room. Since I wasn't filming, I decided to follow Leland's suggestion. I found out the day and time that the tests were to be made and I went into the commissary. As Ford and some of his camera crew were leaving, I went up to him and told him what I wanted. I knew if I showed up as Ginger Rogers, I wouldn't get to first base. However, if I appeared under a false name, all made up as Elizabeth, the test I made would be judged only on the basis of my performance. John Ford loved a practical joke, and the idea of fooling Pan Berman tickled his funny bone. "Sounds terrific. Call me at home and we'll figure it out."

I called Leland with the good news and told him I thought I should pretend to be British so I'd even have the right accent. Leland loved the idea, and we decided I would become "Lady Ainsley." Listen, if I was going to be British, I might as well go all the way and be an aristocrat! Leland called Pan and told him he had a visiting British actress who might be talked into taking the role.

I got in touch with Mel Berns in makeup and Edward Stevenson in wardrobe. They were both sworn to secrecy. A lot of painstaking detail went into this charade; among other things, I had to get a studio pass under my pseudonym, Lady Ainsley.

The day of the test, I wore clothes different from any I had been seen in before, donned a brunette wig, and put a turban around my head. At the studio, I didn't go through the automobile gate but headed for the Gower Street door. The Gower Street entrance was the first test of my disguise. Studio pass in hand and my British accent at the ready, it worked like a dream. I galloped to Mel Berns's chair and he went to work. First, a plastic skull cap was put over my head. It reached down to my eyebrows, and created the appearance of a very high forehead. Later, a faithfully designed eighteenth-century wig was put over the skull cap. The period makeup for Elizabethan times was a ghostly white, for men as well as women. You can't imagine how this white stuff changed my features. Mel gave my eyes a beady look by creating a narrowness around them and painted a slit-like mouth over my full lips. Eddie Stevenson found a period costume with the full regalia of queenly dress, including a huge stiff ruffle around my neck. If clothes make the woman, then I felt like the real Queen of England! As far as knowing that the queen was Ginger, I didn't think even Lelee would have recognized me.

Leland played his part well, too; he phoned John Ford and gave him the lowdown on my character. Lady Ainsley had been playing Shakespearean roles for the past five years on the London stage where her name was well known. While her husband, Lord Ainsley, was on safari in Africa hunting lions, Lady Ainsley had accepted an invitation from Mary Pickford to stay at Pickfair for a fortnight. Though she was uninterested in making an American movie, Lady Ainsley was persuaded to do the test as a lark. She was a great admirer of John Ford's films, and would enjoy meeting Katharine Hepburn.

John Ford ate it up. Leland then advised John to call Pan Berman and give him the story. "If he doesn't buy it, tell him to call me, and I'll convince him."

When the time came for me to test, I casually strolled onto the stage in this fantastic regalia and felt ten feet tall! Hiding behind character makeup was a new experience for me. Three other women in courtly costumes stood on the set waiting for the camera test. One of them was Anita Colby, a very good friend of my mother's and mine. Each of the ladies-in-waiting curtsied as the assistant director introduced them to "Lady Ainsley". Even Anita bowed; I could hardly wait to tell Lela. I moved off to the test stage and made a grand entrance. No one recognized me. The entire crew stepped aside deferentially, giving me a wide berth. The rumor was that Lady Ainsley was doing this test as a favor to John Ford. I had a ball fooling all the folks I'd worked with month after month. There's nothing Hollywood loves more than a bona fide title, and Lady Ainsley had one ... or so they believed.

John Ford came onto the set and went right to me. He played it straight but I could see the twinkle in his eye.

"Lady Ainsley, we have never met. However, I have seen you perform. I was in London eighteen months ago."

"Perhaps you saw me with Maurice Evans in As You Like It," I answered in my high-toned British accent.

"Yes, that must be it. My, that's wonderful makeup you're wearing. No one could possibly recognize you," he said audibly, and then, lowering his voice so only I could hear, whispered, "I had to tell Hepburn who you are. She'd kill me if she found out later, and I've got to make this film with her."

Katharine Hepburn came onto the stage dressed in her Mary costume. "Miss Hepburn, this is Lady Ainsley," announced the director. Kate looked at me as one does at an adversary.

"Hello," she managed. Kate looked at me again with an indescribably expression.

John placed us for the test and gave the signal, "All right. Camera, action. Don't just sit there. Talk to each other."

We were seated in high-backed oak chairs and a large mahogany table stood in front of us. I turned to Kate, and in my best British accent I said, "I've enjoyed watching your performances very much, Miss Hepburn."

Although everything looked normal above the table, below decks Kate swung her leg back and kicked me in the shins. Her expression was unchanged as she muttered in a stage whisper, "You 0#%&*$!! Who do you think you're fooling?"

I was surprised by her outburst and looked to see if the sound boom was in place. If her remarks had been recorded, that would spoil the whole deal. Luckily, it was a silent test. I bit my tongue to keep from answering back. My composure was slipping, but somehow I managed to offer another weak-tea type compliment. Her look was that of the cat ready to pounce on the canary, and I was the canary. History was reversing itself. "Mary" was going to behead "Elizabeth"!

Ford broke the spell. "Look to the left, then turn to the right. Just keep talking to each other." I moved my mouth as though speaking, as Kate continued to glare at me.

"Thank you, Lady Ainsley," said Ford. "As soon as the other tests are over, I'll come into your dressing room."

I got up slowly from my chair, and turned to Kate. "Thank you, Miss Hepburn," I said through clenched teeth. "Thank you very much."

As I headed for the portable dressing room, I ran smack into my old buddy Eddie Rubin. Eddie wasn't in on this ruse as he hadn't been around when this idea was hatched. He looked right at me as if I was a stranger and let me pass. I waited for the bomb to explode over my disguise. But nothing happened until John Ford burst into the room and said in a loud voice, "Lady Ainsley, thank you so much for your time and trouble. I knew we interrupted your holiday, but in a day or two, we'll get back to you. Leland Hayward is representing you - correct?"

"Yes, that's right, Mr. Ford."

"Good. I will speak with Leland after we see the test. Your Shakespearean ability is known to us, but we needed to see how you photographed opposite Miss Hepburn. Mr. Berman and I will be seeing this footage sometime late tomorrow afternoon. Thank you again." And he disappeared.

I returned to my dressing room, got out of the Renaissance clothing, and then went over to Mel Burns to get the makeup removed. I slipped out of the studio without being detected, and when I reached home, I called Leland to describe the events. He roared at hearing how Kate had kicked me.

A couple of days later Leland called and told me Pan had seen the tests and liked them. Now he wanted them reshot in sound. My ruse was really snowballing!

Alas, someone leaked the story, and the next day Louella Parsons's column was devoted to the Lady Ainsley incident. Lolly sharply criticized me for spending the company's money on a practical joke. Louella loved to give me the "raspberry" whenever she could. Hedda Hopper, on the other hand, seemed to like me, and I liked her. I think this was because she secretly thanked Lelee for not accepting a job offer with the Los Angeles Times. They then offered it to Hedda - and the rest is history. But Louella was another story. Unfortunately, I was not Carole Lombard, who could get away with anything. Louella called it a "practical joke", but in my heart, it was serious. I wanted that part so much I could taste it. And I had no other way of getting a test for the role.

I raced to the telephone to call Berman's house, and spoke with his wife, Vi. She told me Pan had not seen the morning paper because he had gone to the races at Santa Anita early that morning. Shortly thereafter, a friend called and asked me to the races ... at Santa Anita. To go or not to go, that was my dilemma. What if I ran into Berman? I decided to take the risk of bumping into him. With twelve thousand people at the races, that wasn't very likely.

So far, so good! I was standing near the betting window with my friend when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "You little devil! You know, young lady, you really had me going." I turned to face Pan Berman. "That was the best trick ever pulled on me. I had no idea that you were that 'lady' I saw on the screen. I never would have guessed it was you!"

I laughed and suggested that I do a second test. To his great credit, Pan Berman wasn't the least bit angry. His sense of humor about this was far better than anyone could have expected. But I didn't get the second test and I didn't get the part. The role of Elizabeth was given to Florence Eldridge. Maybe it was just as well, because the film wasn't favorably reviewed by the public. And if I had played the role of Elizabeth, both the studio and the public would probably have laid their complaints at my door!


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October 23, 2008

The Books: "'Tis Herself: A Memoir" (Maureen O'Hara)

Tis%20Herself%2C%20by%20Maureen%20O%20Hara.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

'Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O'Hara (with John Nicoletti)

Maureen O'Hara was one of those "old" movie stars that I grew up knowing about because of the yearly showing of Miracle on 34th Street on television, as well as my absolute obsession with Parent Trap. God, how I loved that movie. I wanted to be in it, I wanted to live it, I wanted to go to that camp, I wanted a British accent, and I wanted to wear little yellow sunsuits. Maureen O'Hara, with her flaming red hair and SLAMMING body (so soft and voluptuous in the early 50s - in Parent Trap transformed into a veritable zigzag of curves accentuated by bullet bras that would put your eye out), was so much fun in that movie, and I, as a little kid watching it on TV, thought: "Oh, it is so OBVIOUS that she still loves her husband!!" I liked her temper tantrums, her sort of self-righteous attitude - because it was so obvious that underneath it she was as soft and vulnerable as anyone. That was, unbeknownst to me at the time, the major element of O'Hara's appeal (well, that and the red hair, green eyes, and slamming body): the temper-y hothead, untameable, a shrew, a wild lion ... but what all of that is hiding is a soft womanly heart. If you could tap into it, and access it, you'd be the luckiest man alive. The other reason she was an actress who was familiar to me was because of, of course, The Quiet Man. Beloved by many, but beloved in particular by Irish Americans (as evidenced by my conversation with Eamonn at the Ice Bar in Dublin). When I saw ET, I felt like the smartest person in the world because I recognized that clip of the kiss in the wind from Quiet Man: that wasn't just some old movie, it was a movie I knew by heart! I loved one of my father's comments about Quiet Man, and he said this, oh, 20 years ago, but for some reason I remember the jist of it perfectly: "It has the best fight scene I've ever seen, and when I first saw it I really thought it was about 20 minutes long. It involves the whole town and goes over the fields ... and when every time I see it, it feels like the fight scene gets shorter and shorter. But I still remember the first time I saw it and I couldn't believe how long that fight scene was!" I am sure you all know the fight scene I mean. It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

In the years to come, I would watch many more of Maureen O'Hara's pictures - filling in all of the many blanks (she made 5 films with John Ford - and a bunch with John Wayne - she has said, "He [Wayne] was my best friend for 40 years.") - and had her struggles with Hollywood, like most successful actresses did. She felt she was not considered for really dramatic parts, and that they were trying to pigeonhole her. Of course that was true - and her role in The Quiet Man is the ultimate pigeonhole - fiery untamed Irish lassie - but she found a way to work the system, and be okay with it. She really was a "fiery" woman. I love the stories about her battles with John Ford - who, obviously, felt very strongly about his own Irish-ness.

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O'Hara would sashay onto the set, and they'd basically do "Irish schtick" together, for the crew - and it was Ford's way of asserting, "I'M IRISH, I'M IRISH, LOOK HOW IRISH I AM, I CAN GO TOE TO TOE WITH MAUREEN" - and O'Hara knew that that was what he was doing, and that was what was expected of her - but at the same time, when he pissed her off she would let him have it. A fascinating relationship.

But she was one of those people who fought to hold her ground, who did contractual battles, and battles with studio execs - she wasn't a cringing violet, who felt lucky to just be working. For example, when she signed on to do Parent Trap, it was in her contract that she would have top billing. She was the leading lady of the picture and a huge star. When she eventually saw the poster, it said:

WALT DISNEY presents
Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills
in
THE PARENT TRAP
Starring MAUREEN O'HARA and BRIAN KEITH

O'Hara went ballistic. She knew that Walt Disney had decided to ignore her contract and promote Hayley in the double role (basically calling attention to the revolutionary split-screen filming that they had done to make her appear as twins). O'Hara complained - and it started moving up the chain of command - 'take it to this person', 'take it to SAG' ... and to actually take on Disney was not (then or now) a pleasing prospect. Is this the hill you want to die on? O'Hara never worked for Disney again. Which is a shame, because I think she was the perfect Disney leading lady. But that was who she was. Do NOT take advantage of her, and more than that: don't betray her. That ad campaign for Parent Trap put Disney in breach of Maureen's contract - but they obviously knew that they held all the cards and whatever fight she wanted, she would not win.

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Her autobiography is full of great anecdotes like that. She was a canny businesswoman - protective of herself and her interests ... and eager to show all that she could do, even if Hollywood wanted to pin her down. Her stories of battling the studios (and hell, I love crap like that - I love the stories of Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe - and all of those people who really stood up for themselves in that environment) are fasciating - a real glimpse into a world that no longer exists, but with much relevance to young actresses today.

Maureen O'Hara was born into an eccentric arts-loving family who lived in Ranelagh, a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. (My last trip to Dublin I stayed in Ranelagh.) Her mother also was a crazy redhead, and O'Hara grew up surrounded by jokes, laughter - an Irish cliche, basically. But she remembers it all as warm, beautiful, and joyous - a wonderful beginning for life. Her parents were into opera, football, fashion (her mother was, apparently, a clotheshorse - and brought the young Maureen shopping with her) - her mother was also an actress and a singer. Maureen knew quite early that acting was what she wanted to do - and she got some jobs on the radio, and what amounts to summer stock - she was only 13, 14 years old ... but finally, she got serious enough to begin studying for real. At 14, she auditioned for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was accepted - it was there that she really began to learn how to be an actress. Things were on fast-forward for her, when you read about it. Everything seems to proceed in a logical fashion. Of course she would be approrached to do a screen test. Of course she would resist at first - what about being a stage actress? Then of course she would come to her senses and go to London for the screen test. And of course Charles Laughton would see the screentest and be struck dumb by her eyes, he was so struck by her that he put her under his own personal contract. And the rest is history. Maureen O'Hara was one of the most successful stage actresses in Ireland (winning prizes left and right) by the time she was 15 years old, and when she went to Hollywood, under the wing of Charles Laughton, started off playing leads. Pretty incredible. No working her way up the ladder. Her book details that journey in humorous prose. You really like her. She seems very personable, with a temper you admire, and a seriousness about the work that is undeniable. Her desire to be a good actress is supreme.

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She was an actress MADE for the invention of Technicolor. She's a gorgeous woman, even in black and white ... but what sets her apart from other gorgeous women? Her coloring. The red hair, pale skin, and green eyes ... It's almost like Technicolor was developed FOR her. That first glimpse of her in Quiet Man depends on the colors.

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Maureen O'Hara retired from acting in the70s and in many way her post-acting career has almost been more interesting. She married a pilot - Charles Blair- who was killed in a plane crash in 1978. He had a long history with Pan Am, and in his wake, she managed his company - Antilles Airboats, traveling the world, promoting the excitement and possibilities of aviation. She eventually became President and CEO of the company (the first female CEO of an airline) - and lives, to this day, down in the Virgin Islands. She is one of those go-to gals for aviation fanatics around the world, because of the history she has seen in that industry. She supports and promotes aviation museums, the restoration of air boats and other classic aircraft, and the keeping of that history. She donated her husband's Sikorsky VS-44A plane (nicknamed "Queen of the Skies") to the New England Air Museum - and a friend of mine who is a freak about all things aviation gave me a postcard of the plane which is on my bulletin board. A Spruce Goose, indeed. She's done a couple of films in the 90s - coming out of retirement - and she is a very old woman now. Almost 90. She maintains her connections with all the different worlds she inhabited - Irish, filmmaking, aviation ... a truly interesting woman.

Oh, and let's not forget the groundbreaking moment when O'Hara became an American citizen (while maintaining her Irish citizenship) in 1946 and she put up a stink about being referred to as a "British subject":

There must have been a thousand questions on their standard questionnaire. After I completed it, I went and took the exam. I must have passed because I was then sent before a woman, ann officer of the court, who instructed me to raise my right hand and forswear my allegiance to Great Britian. FULL STOP!

Forswear my allegiance to Britain? I didn't know what she was talking about. I told her, "Miss, I'm very sorry, but I cannot forswear an allegiance that I do not have. I am Irish and my allegiance is to Ireland." She looked at me with consternation for a moment and then said, "Well, then you better read these papers." She handed me back the stack of papers I had filled out before my exam. I perused them and was stunned to see that on every page where I had written "Irish" as my former nationality, they had crossed it out with a pen and written "English".

I told the woman, "I'm terribly sorry, but I can't accept this. It's impossible for me to do. I am Irish. I was born in Ireland and will only do this if I am referred to as an Irish citizen." She seemed perturbed that I would break the routine of the allegiance ceremony, and said, "I can't do that. You'll have to go to court to obtain the order for me to do it."

"Fine," I said. "When shall I go back to court?" I didn't have to come back. I did it right then and was taken straight to the courtroom. No attorneys were allowed in the courtroom with me, only my two witnesses. I stood in front of the judge, whose name I can't remember, and listened as the clerk explained why I was there before the court. Then I told the judge, "I am Irish. I will not forswear allegiance to Great Britain because I owe no allegiance to Great Britain. I was born in Dublin, Ireland."

The judge and I then went into a very long discussion of all of Irish history. He challenged my assertions. We kept going over it and over it, back and forth, but I wouldn't give an inch. I couldn't. Finally he said, "We're going to have to find out what Washington thinks." He instructed the clerk, "Check Washington and see what they consider a person like Miss O'Hara." The clerk left the courtroom and returned shortly after that. He told the judge, "Washington says she is a British subject." I was furious and told the judge, "I am not responsible for your antiquated records in Washington, D.C." He promptly ruled against me.

I had no choice but to thank him and tell the court, "Under those circumstances, I cannot accept nor do I want to become an American citizen." I turned to walk out of that courtroom, but having the kind of personality that I do, thought I couldn't give up without taking one last crack at him. I was halfway out of the courtroom when I turned back to him and said, "Your Honor, have you thought for one moment about what you are trying to force upon and take away from my child and my unborn children and my unborn grandchildren?" He sat back and listened intently as I went on, "You are trying to take away from them their right to boast and brag about their wonderful and famous Irish mother and grandmother. I just can't accept that."

He'd had enough. The judge threw his hands up and explained, "Get this woman out of here! Give her anything on her papers that she wants, but get her out of here!" The clerk moved in my direction and I simply said, "Thank you, Your Honor."

I didn't know at that time that my certificate of naturalization had already been created, and that they had listed my former nationality as English. Sometime between that date and the date when I was called to be sworn in as an American citizen, they changed my certificate in accordance with the order of the court. Where my former nationality was printed, they had erased "English" and typed over it "Irish". On the back of this document it states that "the erasure made on this certificate as to Former Nationality 'Irish' was made before issuance, to conform to petition. Name changed by order of the court." It is signed by the U.S. District Court.

This was the first time in the history of the United States of America that the American government recognized an Irish person as being Irish. It was one hell of a victory for me because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.

A scandal arose in the wake of this, when incorrect reports came out that she had challenged the court during the ceremony in which the oath of allegiance was taken. Judges across the land wrote terrible things about Miss O'Hara, and the federal judge who had presided over that particular allegiance ceremony said that Miss O'Hara was a liar, and that the incident never happened.

He was correct that the event did not happen in his courtroom, but very wrong that it didn't happen at all.

The implications of the decision to list Maureen O'Hara as "Irish" were widespread - and crossed the Atlantic. O'Hara writes:

Apparently, the Irish government was unaware that its citizens were being classified as subjects of Great Britain. On January 29, Prime Minister Eamon De Valera issued the following statement:

We are today an independent republic. We acknowledge no sovereignty except that of our own people. A fact that our attitude during the recent war should have amply demonstrated. Miss O'Hara was right when she asserted she owed no allegiance to Britain and therefore had none which she could renounce.

The prime minister then dispatched his envoys to Washington, D.C., where the Republic of Ireland formally requested that this policy be changed. The policy was changed, and my stand had paved the way for every Irish immigrant to the United States, including my own brothers and sisters, to be legally recognized as Irish from that day forward.

Pretty amazing.

Her autobiography (written with a little bit of help) is lovely. It came out in 2004, which is exciting - because what a long life she has lived! What scope - so you can really get a sense of it in her book. You can hear her voice. There are times when it seems she is leaning towards you, the reader, to whisper a secret. It is not a distant voice, or a cold voice. It's chatty and argumentative (still - I love that - she's like, "I know that everyone SAID I had an affair with John Ford, but I am here to tell you I did not, and all of you boys are barking up the wrong tree." You tell 'em, Maureen!) - charming, passionate, logical, and funny.

I highly recommend it. I recommend it for aviation fans, too. Some good anecdotes here about Howard Hughes, not to mention her later years when she devoted her life to aviation.

The excerpt I chose today just HAD to be about The Quiet Man because you know what? I can't resist.

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Watch her smarts as an actress here, in the following excerpt. Not just smart about acting, but smart about script analysis: how she knew what the most important scene in the picture was, and if she nailed THAT, the rest of the picture would flow. That's important - an important mark of a good actress - to not just be worried about her closeups, and her crying scenes - but about the STORY being told. Watch how she goes back to the source material, to look for clues on how to play that scene. Love that.

I also love her version of the famous "whisper" at the end of Quiet Man - what did she whisper? (I wrote about that moment here). In the last shot, the two of them stand together, waving out at the road, laughing, beautiful - and she leans over and whispers something to him. Watch Wayne's reaction. Ha!!! The whisper obviously gets a rise (literally) out of Wayne because in response he chases her back to the house, and, presumably, to bed at the end of the picture. What did she say??


EXCERPT FROM 'Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O'Hara (with John Nicoletti)

The single day that it did rai was just when Mr. Ford needed it. Right after the scene where Duke and I kiss in the windy cottage and I hit him, there is the sequence in which I run from the cottage, cross a stream, and then fall as the rain and wind storm about me. That was real rain in the scene. The rest of the rain in the picture came from rain machines. The wind actually blew me down in that scene, but I kept going because Mr. Ford always made it clear to his actors that "You do not stop acting no matter what happens in a scene until I say cut. I am the director,"

I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her. She was a terrific dame, tough, and didn't let herself get walked on. As I readied to begin playing her, I believed that my most important scene in the picture, the one that I had to get just right, was when Mary Kate is in the field herding the sheep and Sean Thornton sees her for the very first time. There is no dialogue between them. It's a moment captured in time, and it's love at first sight. I felt very strongly that if the audience believed it was love at first sight, then we would have lightning in a bottle. But if they didn't, we would have just another lovely romantic comedy on our hands. It had to be perfect, and the script provided me with a little inspiration, but not enough. Sean's line to Michaeleen - "Hey, is that real? She couldn't be" - didn't quite give me what I needed. I found a passage in Walsh's story that hit the mark, and I used it as motivation for how I would play the scene:

And there leaning on a wall was the woman. No ghost woman. Flesh and blood or I have no eyes to see. The sun shining o nher red hair and her scarf green as grass on her shoulders. She was not looking at me. She was looking over my head on the far side of the pool. I only saw her over my shoulder but she was fit to sit with the Mona Lisa amongst the rocks. More beautiful by fire and no less wicked. A woman I never saw before, yet a woman strangely familiar.

The scene comes off so beautifully. Mr. Ford brilliantly kept the camera stationary and had me walk slowly down and out of the frame instead of following me as I walked away. It's one of my favorite shots in the movie, and, if you have never noticed it before, it's worth watching the movie again just to see it.

Of course, the scene that everyone always asks me about is the scene with Duke and me in the cemetery. Most of the Quiet Maniacs, those who keep the film in its cult-classic status, tell me that this is their favorite scene. It's the sequence on the bicycle when Sean and Mary Kate escape Michaeleen's watchful eye. We run into the cemetery and it begins to rain. As thunder chases me under the arch, Duke takes his coat off and wraps it around me to keep me dry and warm. The rain drenches us and his white shirt clings to his body and becomes translucent. In that moment, we are truly together in each other's arms, and we kiss. It is sensual, passionate, and more than any other scene we ever did together displays the on-screen eroticism of the Wayne and O'Hara combination.

There were two parts to that scene. The first part we had to get in one take or Mr. Ford would have strung us up by our toes. It's everything that happens right up to the embrace and kiss. We had to get it in one take because our clothes were sopping wet when we finished. If we missed it, then our costumes would have to be cleaned, dried, and ironed. Our hair would have to be washed, dried, and reset. Makeup would have to be reapplied. These things take hours and hours and cost thousands and thousands of dollars for each take. We got it in one.

Once we were drenched and part one was in the can, we could focus on the kiss. But Mr. Ford rarely allowed more than a couple of takes, and I think we got that one in two. Why is the scene so erotic? Why were Duke and I so electric in our love scenes together? I was the only leading lady big enough and tough enough for John Wayne. Duke's presence was so strong that when audiences saw him finally meet a woman of equal hell and fire, it was exciting and thrilling. Other actresses looked as though they would cower and break if Duke raised a hand or even hollered. Not me. I always gave as good as I got, and it was believable. So during those moments of tenderness, when the lovemaking was about to begin, audiences saw for a half second that he had finally tamed me - but only for that half second.

Mr. Ford did not make Duke perform the kiss over and over, as I've read. The suggestion has been that Mr. Ford was living, through Duke, the experience of kissing me. Not in this scene, although I do believe John Ford longed to be every hero he ever brought to the screen. He would have loved to live every role John Wayne ever played. He would have loved to be Sean Thornton. His vivid stories - of riding with Pancho Villa or his longing to be a great naval hero or an Irish rebel - were all fantasies of being men John Ford could never be in life, yet desperately wanted and needed to be. He was a real-life Walter Mitty, years before Thurber gave Mitty literary life.

Visually, there are so many magnificent sequences in the film, like the windy kiss in White O'Morn when Mary Kate is caught cleaning the cottage. That scene was shot in Hollywood, and Mr. Ford used two large wind machines to blow our clothes and my hair for the effect. These were two large airplane propellers on a stand that Mr. Ford controlled by sending hand signals to an operator. Once again, it was a scene tailor-made for Duke and me. He pulls me away from the door and kisses me as I struggle to break free. He tames me for that half second, and I kiss him back, but then follow up with a hard blow across the face for the offense.

Now let me tell you what really happened with that slap. That day on the set, I was mad as hell at Duke and Mr. Ford for something they had done earlier in the day. My plan was to sock Duke in the jaw and rally let him have it. But Duke was no fool, and he saw it coming, he saw it in my face. So he put his hand up to shield his chin, and my hand hit the top of his fingers and snapped back. My plan backfired and my hand hurt like hell. I knew I had really hurt it and tried to hide it in the red petticoat I was wearing. Duke came over and said, "Let me see that hand. You nearly broke my jaw." He lifted it out of hiding; each one of my fingers had blown up like a sausage. I was taken off the set and sent to the local hospital where it was X-rayed. I had a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my wrist, but in the end got no sympathy. I was taken back to the set and put to work.

While one is working on a motion picture, it's natural to get mad at the others from time to time. I almost found myself in John Ford's barrel while we were shooting the Innisfree horse-race sequence down on the beach. The scene again required the use of wind machines during one of my close-ups. But instead of the wind machine blowing my hair away from my face, Mr. Ford put the machine behind me and blew my hair forward. Well, at that time I had hair like wire. It snapped and snapped against my face. The wind was blowing my hair forward and the hair was lashing my eyeballs. It hurt, and I kept blinking. Mr. Ford started yelling at me and insulting me under his breath: "Keep your goddamn eyes open. Why can't you get it right?"

He kept yelling at me and I was getting madder and madder. I finally blew my lid. I put my two hands down the side of the cart and yelled, "What would a baldheaded old son of a bitch like you know about hair lashing across your eyeballs?"

The words had no sooner left my mouth than I was nearly knocked off my feet by the sound of a collective gasp on the set. No one spoke to John Ford that way. There was absolute silence. No one dared move, speak, or even breathe. I don't know why I did it. He made me mad and I just blew my stack. Immediately, I thought, Oh my God. Why didn't I keep my bloody mouth shut? He's going to throw me off the picture. After years of waiting to make The Quiet Man, I was sure I was about to be tossed off the set. I waited for the explosion. I waited without moving a muscle and watched as Mr. Ford cased the entire set with his eyes. He looked at every person - every actor, every crew member, every stuntman - and he did it fast as lightning. I could see the wheels in his head turning. The old man was deciding whether he was going to kill me or laugh and let me off the hook. I didn't know which way it would go until the very moment that he broke into laughter. Everyone on the set collapsed with relief and finally exhaled. They followed Mr. Ford's lead and laughed for ten minutes - out of sheer relief that I was safe. Then we went on and shot the scene.

But in the end the old man got the last laugh. He and Duke agreed to play a joke on me. To do it, they chose the sequence where Duke drags me across town and through the fields. I bet you didn't know that sheep dung has the worst odor you have ever smelled in your life. Well, it does. Mr. Ford and Duke kicked all of the sheep dung they could find onto the hill where I was to be dragged, facedown, on my stomach. Of course, I saw them doing it, and so when they kicked the dung onto the field, Faye, Jimmy, and I kicked it right back off. They'd kick it in, and we'd kick it out. It went on and on, and finally, right before the scene was shot, they won, getting in the last kick. There was no way to kick it out. The camera began to roll and Duke had the time of his life dragging me through it. It was bloody awful. After the scene was over, Mr. Ford had given instructions that I was not to be brought a bucket of water or a towel. He made me keep it on for the rest of the day. I was mad as hell, but I had to laugh too. Isn't showbiz glamorous?

And the sequence itself is perfect for Duke and me. I fight him the entire way, but he won't have it. I swing at him, so he kicks me in the rear. In the end, he tosses me at the feet of Red Will and wins my dowry, and I concede. But the audience knows that he only thinks he has tamed me for good.

One thing I have always loved about John Ford pictures is that they are full of music. Whether it's the Sons of the Pioneers or the Welsh Singers, you know that eventually someone is going to sing in the movie. I was thrilled on The Quiet Man because it was finally my turn. I sang "Young May Moon" in the scene with Barry Fitzgerald, and, of course, "The Isle of Innisfree". I first heard that melody when played by Victor Young at John Ford's home in 1950, and I thought it was beautiful. When we returned from Ireland, John Ford, Charlie Fitz, and I wrote the words that I sang in the movie.


We finished filming in Ireland in early July, and returned to Hollywood to complete the interiors. Half the picture was shot there. Naturally, some of the "Irish Players" had to come back with us, and I was blessed that Charlie and JImmy were among them. I now had my two brothers living with me in America. The interiors were completed at the end of August, and Mr. Ford went right to work editing his movie. When I went in to see the film at Argosy, Duke was there, having just seen it. I walked into the office and he ran over to me, picked me up, and spun me around. He said, "It's wonderful, and you're wonderful." But Herbert Yates of Republic had a different reaction. He wanted The Quiet Man to be no more than a certain length. Ford's version was more than a few minutes over that, and Yates told him to cut the picture further.

But Ford was far too smart for him. When The Quiet Man was previewed to distributors and theater operators at Republic, Mr. Ford instructed the projection operator to stop the projector at the precise length that Yates had requested. Of course, Ford hadn't cut the film at all, and so the screen went black right in the middle of the fight-sequence finale. The audience went wild and demanded that the projector be turned back on. Mr. Ford cued the operator and the fight sequence continued. The audience rose to their feet and cheered when it was over. Old Man Yates wasn't about to touch it after that, and Mr. Ford was allowed to keep his extra ominutes.

There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that's with a whisper. No matter what part of the world I'm in, the question I am always asked is: "What did you whisper into John Wayne's ear at the end of The Quiet Man?" It was John Ford's idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, "No. I can't. I can't ay that to Duke." But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, "I'm telling you, you are to say it." I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: "I'll say it on one condition - that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone." So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don't and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave - so did Duke - and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you'll understand as I answer:

I'll never tell.


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The Books: "'Tis Herself: A Memoir" (Maureen O'Hara)

Tis%20Herself%2C%20by%20Maureen%20O%20Hara.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

'Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O'Hara (with John Nicoletti)

Maureen O'Hara was one of those "old" movie stars that I grew up knowing about because of the yearly showing of Miracle on 34th Street on television, as well as my absolute obsession with Parent Trap. God, how I loved that movie. I wanted to be in it, I wanted to live it, I wanted to go to that camp, I wanted a British accent, and I wanted to wear little yellow sunsuits. Maureen O'Hara, with her flaming red hair and SLAMMING body (so soft and voluptuous in the early 50s - in Parent Trap transformed into a veritable zigzag of curves accentuated by bullet bras that would put your eye out), was so much fun in that movie, and I, as a little kid watching it on TV, thought: "Oh, it is so OBVIOUS that she still loves her husband!!" I liked her temper tantrums, her sort of self-righteous attitude - because it was so obvious that underneath it she was as soft and vulnerable as anyone. That was, unbeknownst to me at the time, the major element of O'Hara's appeal (well, that and the red hair, green eyes, and slamming body): the temper-y hothead, untameable, a shrew, a wild lion ... but what all of that is hiding is a soft womanly heart. If you could tap into it, and access it, you'd be the luckiest man alive. The other reason she was an actress who was familiar to me was because of, of course, The Quiet Man. Beloved by many, but beloved in particular by Irish Americans (as evidenced by my conversation with Eamonn at the Ice Bar in Dublin). When I saw ET, I felt like the smartest person in the world because I recognized that clip of the kiss in the wind from Quiet Man: that wasn't just some old movie, it was a movie I knew by heart! I loved one of my father's comments about Quiet Man, and he said this, oh, 20 years ago, but for some reason I remember the jist of it perfectly: "It has the best fight scene I've ever seen, and when I first saw it I really thought it was about 20 minutes long. It involves the whole town and goes over the fields ... and when every time I see it, it feels like the fight scene gets shorter and shorter. But I still remember the first time I saw it and I couldn't believe how long that fight scene was!" I am sure you all know the fight scene I mean. It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

In the years to come, I would watch many more of Maureen O'Hara's pictures - filling in all of the many blanks (she made 5 films with John Ford - and a bunch with John Wayne - she has said, "He [Wayne] was my best friend for 40 years.") - and had her struggles with Hollywood, like most successful actresses did. She felt she was not considered for really dramatic parts, and that they were trying to pigeonhole her. Of course that was true - and her role in The Quiet Man is the ultimate pigeonhole - fiery untamed Irish lassie - but she found a way to work the system, and be okay with it. She really was a "fiery" woman. I love the stories about her battles with John Ford - who, obviously, felt very strongly about his own Irish-ness.

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O'Hara would sashay onto the set, and they'd basically do "Irish schtick" together, for the crew - and it was Ford's way of asserting, "I'M IRISH, I'M IRISH, LOOK HOW IRISH I AM, I CAN GO TOE TO TOE WITH MAUREEN" - and O'Hara knew that that was what he was doing, and that was what was expected of her - but at the same time, when he pissed her off she would let him have it. A fascinating relationship.

But she was one of those people who fought to hold her ground, who did contractual battles, and battles with studio execs - she wasn't a cringing violet, who felt lucky to just be working. For example, when she signed on to do Parent Trap, it was in her contract that she would have top billing. She was the leading lady of the picture and a huge star. When she eventually saw the poster, it said:

WALT DISNEY presents
Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills
in
THE PARENT TRAP
Starring MAUREEN O'HARA and BRIAN KEITH

O'Hara went ballistic. She knew that Walt Disney had decided to ignore her contract and promote Hayley in the double role (basically calling attention to the revolutionary split-screen filming that they had done to make her appear as twins). O'Hara complained - and it started moving up the chain of command - 'take it to this person', 'take it to SAG' ... and to actually take on Disney was not (then or now) a pleasing prospect. Is this the hill you want to die on? O'Hara never worked for Disney again. Which is a shame, because I think she was the perfect Disney leading lady. But that was who she was. Do NOT take advantage of her, and more than that: don't betray her. That ad campaign for Parent Trap put Disney in breach of Maureen's contract - but they obviously knew that they held all the cards and whatever fight she wanted, she would not win.

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Her autobiography is full of great anecdotes like that. She was a canny businesswoman - protective of herself and her interests ... and eager to show all that she could do, even if Hollywood wanted to pin her down. Her stories of battling the studios (and hell, I love crap like that - I love the stories of Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe - and all of those people who really stood up for themselves in that environment) are fasciating - a real glimpse into a world that no longer exists, but with much relevance to young actresses today.

Maureen O'Hara was born into an eccentric arts-loving family who lived in Ranelagh, a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. (My last trip to Dublin I stayed in Ranelagh.) Her mother also was a crazy redhead, and O'Hara grew up surrounded by jokes, laughter - an Irish cliche, basically. But she remembers it all as warm, beautiful, and joyous - a wonderful beginning for life. Her parents were into opera, football, fashion (her mother was, apparently, a clotheshorse - and brought the young Maureen shopping with her) - her mother was also an actress and a singer. Maureen knew quite early that acting was what she wanted to do - and she got some jobs on the radio, and what amounts to summer stock - she was only 13, 14 years old ... but finally, she got serious enough to begin studying for real. At 14, she auditioned for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was accepted - it was there that she really began to learn how to be an actress. Things were on fast-forward for her, when you read about it. Everything seems to proceed in a logical fashion. Of course she would be approrached to do a screen test. Of course she would resist at first - what about being a stage actress? Then of course she would come to her senses and go to London for the screen test. And of course Charles Laughton would see the screentest and be struck dumb by her eyes, he was so struck by her that he put her under his own personal contract. And the rest is history. Maureen O'Hara was one of the most successful stage actresses in Ireland (winning prizes left and right) by the time she was 15 years old, and when she went to Hollywood, under the wing of Charles Laughton, started off playing leads. Pretty incredible. No working her way up the ladder. Her book details that journey in humorous prose. You really like her. She seems very personable, with a temper you admire, and a seriousness about the work that is undeniable. Her desire to be a good actress is supreme.

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She was an actress MADE for the invention of Technicolor. She's a gorgeous woman, even in black and white ... but what sets her apart from other gorgeous women? Her coloring. The red hair, pale skin, and green eyes ... It's almost like Technicolor was developed FOR her. That first glimpse of her in Quiet Man depends on the colors.

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Maureen O'Hara retired from acting in the70s and in many way her post-acting career has almost been more interesting. She married a pilot - Charles Blair- who was killed in a plane crash in 1978. He had a long history with Pan Am, and in his wake, she managed his company - Antilles Airboats, traveling the world, promoting the excitement and possibilities of aviation. She eventually became President and CEO of the company (the first female CEO of an airline) - and lives, to this day, down in the Virgin Islands. She is one of those go-to gals for aviation fanatics around the world, because of the history she has seen in that industry. She supports and promotes aviation museums, the restoration of air boats and other classic aircraft, and the keeping of that history. She donated her husband's Sikorsky VS-44A plane (nicknamed "Queen of the Skies") to the New England Air Museum - and a friend of mine who is a freak about all things aviation gave me a postcard of the plane which is on my bulletin board. A Spruce Goose, indeed. She's done a couple of films in the 90s - coming out of retirement - and she is a very old woman now. Almost 90. She maintains her connections with all the different worlds she inhabited - Irish, filmmaking, aviation ... a truly interesting woman.

Oh, and let's not forget the groundbreaking moment when O'Hara became an American citizen (while maintaining her Irish citizenship) in 1946 and she put up a stink about being referred to as a "British subject":

There must have been a thousand questions on their standard questionnaire. After I completed it, I went and took the exam. I must have passed because I was then sent before a woman, ann officer of the court, who instructed me to raise my right hand and forswear my allegiance to Great Britian. FULL STOP!

Forswear my allegiance to Britain? I didn't know what she was talking about. I told her, "Miss, I'm very sorry, but I cannot forswear an allegiance that I do not have. I am Irish and my allegiance is to Ireland." She looked at me with consternation for a moment and then said, "Well, then you better read these papers." She handed me back the stack of papers I had filled out before my exam. I perused them and was stunned to see that on every page where I had written "Irish" as my former nationality, they had crossed it out with a pen and written "English".

I told the woman, "I'm terribly sorry, but I can't accept this. It's impossible for me to do. I am Irish. I was born in Ireland and will only do this if I am referred to as an Irish citizen." She seemed perturbed that I would break the routine of the allegiance ceremony, and said, "I can't do that. You'll have to go to court to obtain the order for me to do it."

"Fine," I said. "When shall I go back to court?" I didn't have to come back. I did it right then and was taken straight to the courtroom. No attorneys were allowed in the courtroom with me, only my two witnesses. I stood in front of the judge, whose name I can't remember, and listened as the clerk explained why I was there before the court. Then I told the judge, "I am Irish. I will not forswear allegiance to Great Britain because I owe no allegiance to Great Britain. I was born in Dublin, Ireland."

The judge and I then went into a very long discussion of all of Irish history. He challenged my assertions. We kept going over it and over it, back and forth, but I wouldn't give an inch. I couldn't. Finally he said, "We're going to have to find out what Washington thinks." He instructed the clerk, "Check Washington and see what they consider a person like Miss O'Hara." The clerk left the courtroom and returned shortly after that. He told the judge, "Washington says she is a British subject." I was furious and told the judge, "I am not responsible for your antiquated records in Washington, D.C." He promptly ruled against me.

I had no choice but to thank him and tell the court, "Under those circumstances, I cannot accept nor do I want to become an American citizen." I turned to walk out of that courtroom, but having the kind of personality that I do, thought I couldn't give up without taking one last crack at him. I was halfway out of the courtroom when I turned back to him and said, "Your Honor, have you thought for one moment about what you are trying to force upon and take away from my child and my unborn children and my unborn grandchildren?" He sat back and listened intently as I went on, "You are trying to take away from them their right to boast and brag about their wonderful and famous Irish mother and grandmother. I just can't accept that."

He'd had enough. The judge threw his hands up and explained, "Get this woman out of here! Give her anything on her papers that she wants, but get her out of here!" The clerk moved in my direction and I simply said, "Thank you, Your Honor."

I didn't know at that time that my certificate of naturalization had already been created, and that they had listed my former nationality as English. Sometime between that date and the date when I was called to be sworn in as an American citizen, they changed my certificate in accordance with the order of the court. Where my former nationality was printed, they had erased "English" and typed over it "Irish". On the back of this document it states that "the erasure made on this certificate as to Former Nationality 'Irish' was made before issuance, to conform to petition. Name changed by order of the court." It is signed by the U.S. District Court.

This was the first time in the history of the United States of America that the American government recognized an Irish person as being Irish. It was one hell of a victory for me because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.

A scandal arose in the wake of this, when incorrect reports came out that she had challenged the court during the ceremony in which the oath of allegiance was taken. Judges across the land wrote terrible things about Miss O'Hara, and the federal judge who had presided over that particular allegiance ceremony said that Miss O'Hara was a liar, and that the incident never happened.

He was correct that the event did not happen in his courtroom, but very wrong that it didn't happen at all.

The implications of the decision to list Maureen O'Hara as "Irish" were widespread - and crossed the Atlantic. O'Hara writes:

Apparently, the Irish government was unaware that its citizens were being classified as subjects of Great Britain. On January 29, Prime Minister Eamon De Valera issued the following statement:

We are today an independent republic. We acknowledge no sovereignty except that of our own people. A fact that our attitude during the recent war should have amply demonstrated. Miss O'Hara was right when she asserted she owed no allegiance to Britain and therefore had none which she could renounce.

The prime minister then dispatched his envoys to Washington, D.C., where the Republic of Ireland formally requested that this policy be changed. The policy was changed, and my stand had paved the way for every Irish immigrant to the United States, including my own brothers and sisters, to be legally recognized as Irish from that day forward.

Pretty amazing.

Her autobiography (written with a little bit of help) is lovely. It came out in 2004, which is exciting - because what a long life she has lived! What scope - so you can really get a sense of it in her book. You can hear her voice. There are times when it seems she is leaning towards you, the reader, to whisper a secret. It is not a distant voice, or a cold voice. It's chatty and argumentative (still - I love that - she's like, "I know that everyone SAID I had an affair with John Ford, but I am here to tell you I did not, and all of you boys are barking up the wrong tree." You tell 'em, Maureen!) - charming, passionate, logical, and funny.

I highly recommend it. I recommend it for aviation fans, too. Some good anecdotes here about Howard Hughes, not to mention her later years when she devoted her life to aviation.

The excerpt I chose today just HAD to be about The Quiet Man because you know what? I can't resist.

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Watch her smarts as an actress here, in the following excerpt. Not just smart about acting, but smart about script analysis: how she knew what the most important scene in the picture was, and if she nailed THAT, the rest of the picture would flow. That's important - an important mark of a good actress - to not just be worried about her closeups, and her crying scenes - but about the STORY being told. Watch how she goes back to the source material, to look for clues on how to play that scene. Love that.

I also love her version of the famous "whisper" at the end of Quiet Man - what did she whisper? (I wrote about that moment here). In the last shot, the two of them stand together, waving out at the road, laughing, beautiful - and she leans over and whispers something to him. Watch Wayne's reaction. Ha!!! The whisper obviously gets a rise (literally) out of Wayne because in response he chases her back to the house, and, presumably, to bed at the end of the picture. What did she say??


EXCERPT FROM 'Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O'Hara (with John Nicoletti)

The single day that it did rai was just when Mr. Ford needed it. Right after the scene where Duke and I kiss in the windy cottage and I hit him, there is the sequence in which I run from the cottage, cross a stream, and then fall as the rain and wind storm about me. That was real rain in the scene. The rest of the rain in the picture came from rain machines. The wind actually blew me down in that scene, but I kept going because Mr. Ford always made it clear to his actors that "You do not stop acting no matter what happens in a scene until I say cut. I am the director,"

I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her. She was a terrific dame, tough, and didn't let herself get walked on. As I readied to begin playing her, I believed that my most important scene in the picture, the one that I had to get just right, was when Mary Kate is in the field herding the sheep and Sean Thornton sees her for the very first time. There is no dialogue between them. It's a moment captured in time, and it's love at first sight. I felt very strongly that if the audience believed it was love at first sight, then we would have lightning in a bottle. But if they didn't, we would have just another lovely romantic comedy on our hands. It had to be perfect, and the script provided me with a little inspiration, but not enough. Sean's line to Michaeleen - "Hey, is that real? She couldn't be" - didn't quite give me what I needed. I found a passage in Walsh's story that hit the mark, and I used it as motivation for how I would play the scene:

And there leaning on a wall was the woman. No ghost woman. Flesh and blood or I have no eyes to see. The sun shining o nher red hair and her scarf green as grass on her shoulders. She was not looking at me. She was looking over my head on the far side of the pool. I only saw her over my shoulder but she was fit to sit with the Mona Lisa amongst the rocks. More beautiful by fire and no less wicked. A woman I never saw before, yet a woman strangely familiar.

The scene comes off so beautifully. Mr. Ford brilliantly kept the camera stationary and had me walk slowly down and out of the frame instead of following me as I walked away. It's one of my favorite shots in the movie, and, if you have never noticed it before, it's worth watching the movie again just to see it.

Of course, the scene that everyone always asks me about is the scene with Duke and me in the cemetery. Most of the Quiet Maniacs, those who keep the film in its cult-classic status, tell me that this is their favorite scene. It's the sequence on the bicycle when Sean and Mary Kate escape Michaeleen's watchful eye. We run into the cemetery and it begins to rain. As thunder chases me under the arch, Duke takes his coat off and wraps it around me to keep me dry and warm. The rain drenches us and his white shirt clings to his body and becomes translucent. In that moment, we are truly together in each other's arms, and we kiss. It is sensual, passionate, and more than any other scene we ever did together displays the on-screen eroticism of the Wayne and O'Hara combination.

There were two parts to that scene. The first part we had to get in one take or Mr. Ford would have strung us up by our toes. It's everything that happens right up to the embrace and kiss. We had to get it in one take because our clothes were sopping wet when we finished. If we missed it, then our costumes would have to be cleaned, dried, and ironed. Our hair would have to be washed, dried, and reset. Makeup would have to be reapplied. These things take hours and hours and cost thousands and thousands of dollars for each take. We got it in one.

Once we were drenched and part one was in the can, we could focus on the kiss. But Mr. Ford rarely allowed more than a couple of takes, and I think we got that one in two. Why is the scene so erotic? Why were Duke and I so electric in our love scenes together? I was the only leading lady big enough and tough enough for John Wayne. Duke's presence was so strong that when audiences saw him finally meet a woman of equal hell and fire, it was exciting and thrilling. Other actresses looked as though they would cower and break if Duke raised a hand or even hollered. Not me. I always gave as good as I got, and it was believable. So during those moments of tenderness, when the lovemaking was about to begin, audiences saw for a half second that he had finally tamed me - but only for that half second.

Mr. Ford did not make Duke perform the kiss over and over, as I've read. The suggestion has been that Mr. Ford was living, through Duke, the experience of kissing me. Not in this scene, although I do believe John Ford longed to be every hero he ever brought to the screen. He would have loved to live every role John Wayne ever played. He would have loved to be Sean Thornton. His vivid stories - of riding with Pancho Villa or his longing to be a great naval hero or an Irish rebel - were all fantasies of being men John Ford could never be in life, yet desperately wanted and needed to be. He was a real-life Walter Mitty, years before Thurber gave Mitty literary life.

Visually, there are so many magnificent sequences in the film, like the windy kiss in White O'Morn when Mary Kate is caught cleaning the cottage. That scene was shot in Hollywood, and Mr. Ford used two large wind machines to blow our clothes and my hair for the effect. These were two large airplane propellers on a stand that Mr. Ford controlled by sending hand signals to an operator. Once again, it was a scene tailor-made for Duke and me. He pulls me away from the door and kisses me as I struggle to break free. He tames me for that half second, and I kiss him back, but then follow up with a hard blow across the face for the offense.

Now let me tell you what really happened with that slap. That day on the set, I was mad as hell at Duke and Mr. Ford for something they had done earlier in the day. My plan was to sock Duke in the jaw and rally let him have it. But Duke was no fool, and he saw it coming, he saw it in my face. So he put his hand up to shield his chin, and my hand hit the top of his fingers and snapped back. My plan backfired and my hand hurt like hell. I knew I had really hurt it and tried to hide it in the red petticoat I was wearing. Duke came over and said, "Let me see that hand. You nearly broke my jaw." He lifted it out of hiding; each one of my fingers had blown up like a sausage. I was taken off the set and sent to the local hospital where it was X-rayed. I had a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my wrist, but in the end got no sympathy. I was taken back to the set and put to work.

While one is working on a motion picture, it's natural to get mad at the others from time to time. I almost found myself in John Ford's barrel while we were shooting the Innisfree horse-race sequence down on the beach. The scene again required the use of wind machines during one of my close-ups. But instead of the wind machine blowing my hair away from my face, Mr. Ford put the machine behind me and blew my hair forward. Well, at that time I had hair like wire. It snapped and snapped against my face. The wind was blowing my hair forward and the hair was lashing my eyeballs. It hurt, and I kept blinking. Mr. Ford started yelling at me and insulting me under his breath: "Keep your goddamn eyes open. Why can't you get it right?"

He kept yelling at me and I was getting madder and madder. I finally blew my lid. I put my two hands down the side of the cart and yelled, "What would a baldheaded old son of a bitch like you know about hair lashing across your eyeballs?"

The words had no sooner left my mouth than I was nearly knocked off my feet by the sound of a collective gasp on the set. No one spoke to John Ford that way. There was absolute silence. No one dared move, speak, or even breathe. I don't know why I did it. He made me mad and I just blew my stack. Immediately, I thought, Oh my God. Why didn't I keep my bloody mouth shut? He's going to throw me off the picture. After years of waiting to make The Quiet Man, I was sure I was about to be tossed off the set. I waited for the explosion. I waited without moving a muscle and watched as Mr. Ford cased the entire set with his eyes. He looked at every person - every actor, every crew member, every stuntman - and he did it fast as lightning. I could see the wheels in his head turning. The old man was deciding whether he was going to kill me or laugh and let me off the hook. I didn't know which way it would go until the very moment that he broke into laughter. Everyone on the set collapsed with relief and finally exhaled. They followed Mr. Ford's lead and laughed for ten minutes - out of sheer relief that I was safe. Then we went on and shot the scene.

But in the end the old man got the last laugh. He and Duke agreed to play a joke on me. To do it, they chose the sequence where Duke drags me across town and through the fields. I bet you didn't know that sheep dung has the worst odor you have ever smelled in your life. Well, it does. Mr. Ford and Duke kicked all of the sheep dung they could find onto the hill where I was to be dragged, facedown, on my stomach. Of course, I saw them doing it, and so when they kicked the dung onto the field, Faye, Jimmy, and I kicked it right back off. They'd kick it in, and we'd kick it out. It went on and on, and finally, right before the scene was shot, they won, getting in the last kick. There was no way to kick it out. The camera began to roll and Duke had the time of his life dragging me through it. It was bloody awful. After the scene was over, Mr. Ford had given instructions that I was not to be brought a bucket of water or a towel. He made me keep it on for the rest of the day. I was mad as hell, but I had to laugh too. Isn't showbiz glamorous?

And the sequence itself is perfect for Duke and me. I fight him the entire way, but he won't have it. I swing at him, so he kicks me in the rear. In the end, he tosses me at the feet of Red Will and wins my dowry, and I concede. But the audience knows that he only thinks he has tamed me for good.

One thing I have always loved about John Ford pictures is that they are full of music. Whether it's the Sons of the Pioneers or the Welsh Singers, you know that eventually someone is going to sing in the movie. I was thrilled on The Quiet Man because it was finally my turn. I sang "Young May Moon" in the scene with Barry Fitzgerald, and, of course, "The Isle of Innisfree". I first heard that melody when played by Victor Young at John Ford's home in 1950, and I thought it was beautiful. When we returned from Ireland, John Ford, Charlie Fitz, and I wrote the words that I sang in the movie.


We finished filming in Ireland in early July, and returned to Hollywood to complete the interiors. Half the picture was shot there. Naturally, some of the "Irish Players" had to come back with us, and I was blessed that Charlie and JImmy were among them. I now had my two brothers living with me in America. The interiors were completed at the end of August, and Mr. Ford went right to work editing his movie. When I went in to see the film at Argosy, Duke was there, having just seen it. I walked into the office and he ran over to me, picked me up, and spun me around. He said, "It's wonderful, and you're wonderful." But Herbert Yates of Republic had a different reaction. He wanted The Quiet Man to be no more than a certain length. Ford's version was more than a few minutes over that, and Yates told him to cut the picture further.

But Ford was far too smart for him. When The Quiet Man was previewed to distributors and theater operators at Republic, Mr. Ford instructed the projection operator to stop the projector at the precise length that Yates had requested. Of course, Ford hadn't cut the film at all, and so the screen went black right in the middle of the fight-sequence finale. The audience went wild and demanded that the projector be turned back on. Mr. Ford cued the operator and the fight sequence continued. The audience rose to their feet and cheered when it was over. Old Man Yates wasn't about to touch it after that, and Mr. Ford was allowed to keep his extra ominutes.

There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that's with a whisper. No matter what part of the world I'm in, the question I am always asked is: "What did you whisper into John Wayne's ear at the end of The Quiet Man?" It was John Ford's idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, "No. I can't. I can't ay that to Duke." But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, "I'm telling you, you are to say it." I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: "I'll say it on one condition - that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone." So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don't and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave - so did Duke - and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you'll understand as I answer:

I'll never tell.


Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 22, 2008

The Books: "The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journals of Clifford Odets"

ripeodets.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets


Clifford Odets (playwright in the 30s and 40s - inspiration to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, a generation of playwrights - and he inspires still (although some of his plays have dated badly) kept a journal throughout his tumultuous life. His plays mean the world to me. I was in a production of Golden Boy in Chicago, and his language, of all the great playwrights, is one of the funnest to chew on. It's meaty, poetic, streetsmart, idealistic, tough, hard-boiled, soft underbelly - it's evocative so much of a time and place (you can usually FEEL the Great Depression in his work ... that world is IN the language) - and it's not easy for modern actors to get that language right. It's not NOW. It's not strictly THEN either. But if you have a line like (one of my favorites of his): "Don't give me ice when your heart's on fire!" - you cannot - you MUST not - say it with a wink at the audience, you must NOT add any sense of irony to it ... you must find it within yourself to really feel and mean "Don't give me ice when your heart's on fire" - or you will just sound like a big fat phony up onstage. And worse than that, a condescending phony. Clifford Odets, as a playwright, really reveals falsity in actors ... You can't hide, or do any tricks when you're in an Odets play. You have to be comfortable with that language, make it your own, and you have to fill up the inner life with whatever needs to be there - so that that language feels organic. Nobody SINKS an actor like Clifford Odets. We've got lines in his plays like:

We got the blues, Babe -- the 1935 blues. I'm talkin' this way 'cause I love you. If I didn't, I wouldn't care ...

Or

You won't forget me to your dyin' day -- I was the first guy. Part of your insides. You won't forget. I wrote my name on you -- indelible ink!

Or this, from the same scene = I love this line:

So I made a mistake. For Chris' sake, don't act like the Queen of Romania!

Or

Yes, yes, the whole thing funnels up in me like a fever. My head'll bust a vein!

Or

A sleeping clam at the bottom of the ocean, but I'll wake you up. I'm through with the little wars: no more hacking, making a pound in a good day. Like old man Pike says, every man for himself nowadays, and when you're in a jungle you look out for the wild life. I put on my Chinese good luck ring and I'm out to get mine. You're the first stop!

Or this famous exchange from Golden Boy:

JOE. What did he ever do for you?

LORNA. [with sudden verve] Would you like to know? He loved me in a world of enemies, of stags and bulls! ... And I loved him for that. He picked me up in Friskin's hotel on 39th Street. I was nine weeks behind in rent. I hadn't hit the gutter yet, but I was near. He washed my face and combed my hair. He stiffened the space between my shoulder blades. Misery reached out to misery --

JOE. And now you're dead.

LORNA. [lashing out] I don't know what the hell you're talking about!

JOE. Yes, you do ...

This is tough stuff. It requires 100% authenticity. It's easy to make it a cliche - the hard-boiled mugs of the 1930s - but if you miss out on what is underneath - these people's real fire and dreams - you got nothin'. Sylvester Stallone has credited Clifford Odets as a major influence on his own writing, and you can hear echoes of it in Rocky and even more so in Paradise Alley - a movie I adore (that will be next up in my Under-rated Movies series) - which takes place in the early years of the 20th century, and the SCRIPT. That's one of the few movies where I thought: "I need to get my hands on that script. I want to see that language on the page." It's fantastic!

Clifford Odets was catapulted into fame in the early 30s with his play Waiting for Lefty (excerpt here. He became a resident playwright with the influential Group Theatre (although they didn't believe in him at all at first - but the success of Waiting for Lefty changed things). It hadn't even been, strictly, a Group Theatre production - it was put together for a benefit night to support a Communist magazine - it was one piece in a long night of agitprop. But it hit to such a degree that it was one of THOSE moments in American theatre - a watershed moment ... God, for a time machine to have seen that play in its first incarnation in 1935! Wendy Smith in her comprehensive book about the Group Theatre Real Life Drama describes what happened on that night, and what it meant:

To Kazan, seated in the auditorium waiting for his cue, the response was "like a roar from sixteen-inchers broadside, audience to players, a way of shouting, 'More! More! More! Go on! Go on! Go on!'" Swept up by the passion they had aroused, the actors were no longer acting. "They were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I have never witnessed in the theatre before," wrote [Harold] Clurman. The twenty-eight-year-old playwright was awed by the emotional conflagration he'd ignited. "You saw theatre in its truest essence," Odets remembered years later. "Suddenly the proscenium arch of the theatre vanished and the audience and actors were at one with each other."

As the play mounted to its climax, the intensity of feeling on and offstage became almost unbearable. When Bobby Lewis dashed in with the news that Lefty has been murdered, no one needed to take an exercise to find the appropriate anger - the actors exploded with it, the audience seethed with it. They exulted as Joe Bromberg, playing the union rebel Agate Keller, tore himself loose from the hired gunmen and declared their independence: "HELLO AMERICA! HELLO. WE'RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS ... And when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world!"

"Well, what's the answer?" Bromberg demanded. In the audience, as planned, Odets, Herbie Ratner, and Lewis Leverett began shouting "Strike!" "LOUDER!" Bromberg yelled - and, one by one, from all over the auditorium, individual voices called out, "Strike!" Suddenly the entire audience, some 1,400 people, rose and roared, "Strike! Strike!" The actors froze, stunned by the spontaneous demonstration. The militant cries gave way to cheers and applause so thunderous the cast was kept onstage for forty-five minutes to receive the crowd's inflamed tribute. "When they couldn't applaud anymore, they stomped their feet," said Ruth Nelson. "All I could think was, 'My God, they're going to break the balcony down!' It was terrible, it was so beautiful." The actors were all weeping. When Clurman persuaded Odets to take a bow, the audience stormed the stage and embraced the man who had voiced their hopes and fears and deepest aspirations. "That was the dram all of us in the Group Theatre had," said Kazan, "to be embraced that way by a theatreful of people."

"The audience wouldn't leave," said Cheryl Crawford. "I was afraid they were going to tear the seats out and throw them on the stage." When the astounded stage manager finally rang down the curtain, they remained out front, talking and arguing about the events in a play taht seemed as real to them as their own lives. Actors and playwright were overwhelmed and a little frightened by the near-religious communion they had just shared. Odets retreated to a backstage bathroom; his excitement was so intense he threw up, then burst into tears. The dressing room was hushed as the actors removed their makeup. They emerged onto 14th Street to find clusters of people still gathered outside, laughing, crying, hugging each other, clapping their hands. "There was almost a sense of pure madness about it," Morris Carnovsky felt.

No one wanted to go home. Sleep was out of the question. Most of the Group went to an all-night restaurant - no one can remember now which one - and tried to eat. Odets sat alone: pale, withdrawn, not talking at all. Everyone was too dazed to have much to say. It was dawn before they could bring themselves to separate, to admit that the miracle was over.

There had never been a night like it in the American theatre. The Group became a vessel into which were poured the rage, frustration, desperation, and finally exultation, not just of an angry young man named Clifford Odets, but of every single person at the Civic Rep who longed for an end to personal and political depression, who needed someone to tell them they could stand up and change their lives. The Group had experienced the "unity of background, of feeling, of thought, of need" Clurman had said was the basis for a true theatre: during his inspiring talks at Brookfield, at the thrilling final run-through of Connelly, in some of the best performances of Success Story. Never before had they shared it with an entire theatre full of people, never before had it seemed as though the lines they spoke hadn't been written but rather emerged from a collective heart and soul. Theatre and life merged, as Clurman had promised they could.

Waiting for Lefty changed people's ideas of what theatre was. More than an evening's entertainment, more even than a serious examination of the contemporary scene by a thoughtful writer, theatre at its best could be a living embodiment of communal values and aspirations. Theatre mattered, art had meaning, culture wasn't the property of an affluent, educated few but an expression of the joys and sorrows of the human condition as they could be understood and shared by everyone.

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Waiting for Lefty made Clifford Odets a star in New York, and in the circles of the American Left - and while the Group Theatre had been devoted to developing new work, and fostering playwrights who could speak to the NOW, they had missed out on the genius in their midst. They ended up putting on many of his plays - which are now considered classics of the American theatre: Awake and Sing (excerpt here), Paradise Lost (excerpt here), Golden Boy (excerpt here) - just to name a few. He was the voice of the Great Depression, of the angry radical, the Jewish New Yorker, the downtrodden, the hopeful. Odets was a Zeitgeist kind of guy. It's one of the reasons why he found his later career so strenuous and difficult ... when you tap into a Zeitgeist of a certain time and place (and not just tap into it - but give voice to it) it can be nigh on impossible to translate that into another time/place. That's what happened to him. Also, how do you compete with such blazing early success? I love all of Odets' plays - not just his famous 1930s plays - I love Big Knife (excerpt here), I love Country Girl (excerpt here), I love The Flowering Peach (excerpt here)... but his time, his PLACE, was the mid-1930s. And that's IT. Without context, Odets' work does not translate. HIs writing does ... but these are, necessarily, "period" pieces, although at the time of their first productions they were the most relevant new thing anyone had ever seen. There's a similarity here to William Inge, although his themes and style are quite different. He was the biggest playwright of the 1950s. He was a Neil Simon, a Tony Kushner - in terms of the HITS that he had. But outside of the stifled conventional atmosphere of the 50s - where young people bucked up against the social and sexual conventions of the older generation - his work doesn't travel. You can't REALLY update William Inge. You have to place those plays in the 50s. They don't travel.

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Without understanding that context of Odets, his plays may seem ... trite, or small, or naive. His theme is how the individual man can maintain his dignity, his human worth, in the middle of a capitalist society. He has written lines like, "Is life written on dollar bills?" WORTH has nothing to do with money ... but when you have no money, it sure as shit is difficult to remember that. His plays in the 30s insist upon human dignity, but also (like in Golden Boy) insist on the fact that there is compromise, and tragedy. This is where he can seem, to modern eyes, a bit naive - but it is essential to place him in his context.

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But what remains (for me anyway) is not so much the thematic elements, the snapshot of urban life in the 30s - but the language. Odets' language!! It's raw, it's poetic, and it's not realistic. I like to read his plays out loud, just to myself - that language is fun fun fun to say.

Harold Clurman wrote about Odets:

Odets wrote some of the finest love scenes to be found in American drama. An all-enveloping warmth, love in its broadest sense, is a constant in all Odets' writing, the very root of his talent. IT is there in tumultuous harangues, in his denunciations and his murmurs. It is by turns hot and tender. Sometimes it sounds in whimpers. It is present as much in the scenes between grandfather and grandson in Awake as in those of Joe and Lorna in Golden Boy. It is touchingly wry in Rocket. This explains why these scenes are chosen by so many actors for auditions and classwork.

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The Group Theatre lasted for only a decade. By the end of it, much of the original mission had been smoothed over - and they were hiring "outside" people for roles, as opposed to relying on the ensemble, and there were many other issues. People wanted out. And the world was changing, too - the Group had some really rough times at the end, where they couldn't seem to "hit it" as they had earlier in the decade. Had they just run their course?

Clifford Odets wrote a play called Night Music, and it is, I think, one of his best. It has Saroyan elements - a sort of magical middle-of-the-night quality - and there is much of it that I feel Lanford Wilson was inspired by, later in the 60s - even though his characters in Balm in Gilead are the dregs of society. But Odets - by having his play full of people - there has to be 40, 50 characters in that play - similar to Wilson - and these denizens of the night streets, the people who only come out at 2 a.m. ... the floating snippets of conversation, fragments heard, all operating in order to highlight the lonely journey of the two leads towards each other - really reminds me of Wilson. Night Music is an ambitious play and I would love to see it done more. It's funny, it's touching, it has great characters - and it's one of those plays that take place in only one night - a crazy night when nobody gets any sleep, and everyone appears to be homeless, looking for something in the crazy 3 a.m. hour. This would be the last play put on by the Group Theatre. It was 1940. Elia Kazan was the male lead. I believe Harold Clurman directed. It was a production and a half - a giant stage, tons of characters ... and for many different reasons, the play was a huge flop. It was the end of the Group Theatre. They had really needed a hit, and had hoped Night Music would be it. I somehow think that Night Music COULD have been a hit. It is not a dreary play, there are not awkward plot elements like some of Odets' earlier stuff - he keeps it light and funny and romantic. Seems like a sure thing to me. But for whatever reaon (and Clifford had many opinions about it) - the play failed to find an audience.

It was over. The grand experiment in American theatre was over. The ensemble members would scatter to the four winds. Some would find their way to movie stardom (like John Garfield, Elia Kazan) - others would eventually become the premiere acting teachers in this country (Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Bobby Lewis). Many of them were impacted by the Hollywood blacklist, due to their Communist associations in the past - and also just guilt by association. Odets went to Hollywood and started writing screenplays. His journey is told in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink. Odets never found his stride in Hollywood - he had a similar sensibility to F. Scott Fitzgerald - he was an artist and he couldn't seem to protect himself properly from the mercenary demands, and ... he was always left with the feeling of: "Is this all there is?"

Not a happy man.

In 1940, during the rehearsal and failed production of Night Music, Clifford Odets kept a journal. That journal has been published and it is now certainly a classic of its kind, essential reading for anyone who is an artist, for struggling actors, playwrights - whatever - When I was in grad school, I didn't know one person who hadn't read it. It's AMAZING and it makes you want to ... oh ... I don't know ... run out and be an artist! Have every part of your life reflect your commitment to your art! LIVE TO THE FULLEST. Etc. Odets was obviously not having the best year in 1940 - so he was not at the top of the world ... Much of the diary describes late nights at jazz clubs, troubled rehearsals during the day, and evenings when he would lose himself in his beloved Beethoven (boy, is he eloquent on Beethoven) - to try to regroup. It's a rather wandering type of journal - as any journal would be ... and on every single page there is something to "take away". Almost none of it has to do with to-do lists or what he did that day. He is trying to work out his own artistic problems in the pages of his journal - his issues with "form" and character and subtext ... at times he's like a dog with a bone - an entire week he devotes to talking about "form", and what that means for him as a playwright, and how Beethoven teaches him about form.

It's a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I pick it up all the time - it's one of my constant books, something I dip into, just open it up and whatever page it falls on there will be some gem, something that helps me to go deeper, to contemplate, to struggle, to strive.

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He is about to go into his long decline - which is sad, because he has such fire and energy here. In 1944, he made his directorial debut with None but the Lonely Heart - starring Cary Grant. This was the second part Grant was nominated for an Oscar for - mainly because of the big crying scene at the end. (The fact that Grant would not be nominated - then or now - for his performance in His Girl Friday - is just indicative of how silly those awards can be!!)

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Odets and Grant were friends until the very end - and Odets had a particularly sad end. The guy had a long way to fall, and boy, did he fall. Grant would lend him money, or go and sit with him and talk and laugh and try to help his friend. None but the Lonely Heart is obviously Odets-ian - the themes, the compromises (it's always about choosing money or love, choosing money or humanity) - but what's really interesting about it is how great it LOOKS. The MOOD of the movie is really the reason to see it. It has an almost Fritz Lang-ish feel to it, eerie, melancholy, big empty urban streets, the alienation of urban life made manifest in the dark cobblestones - it's a great looking movie.

But The Time is Ripe gives us just a glimpse - a glimpse of a working man of the theatre in 1940 - working on one particular play - and, as Stanley Kauffman has said in response to the book - Odets comes off as "bursting, struggling, impatient, agonizing, egocentric, limited ... generous ... eager to understand his society, even more eager to be the best dramatist that his times and his talents would allow."

I consider The Time is Ripe to be required reading. Not only is it interesting about Odets himself - but it is interesting about America, and cultural issues, and Marxism, and Stalin, and the big thought of Russia - and all of those elements of the Left at that time - here they are, on paper. As always, Odets was a man of his time. He embodied it. Thank God he could write. He might have been just another propagandist, but you cannot argue with the power of those early plays. Yes, he has a point of view. What good artist doesn't? But as I mentioned before: what really remains, what he has left us, is those WORDS.

Here's an excerpt.


EXCERPT FROM The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets

Thursday, February 22, 1940

This is the time for opening the play. Harold gave the cast a brief line run-through, but I stayed at home, sleeping, resting, lounging it out against my slowly constricting nerves. Restless, finally, I jumped into the roadster and rode out to Sunnyside to take Bill and Lee to dinner. I chattered away, quite calm, really, to that peculiar point of indifference which comes from having done all that one can do in a situation. We rode into New York and had dinner across the street from the theatre, at Sardi's. A lot of the people who are going across the show were eating dinner there - it was like running the gauntlet. Stella Adler was there with a party, smoke-eyed and neurotic - usually when you are dying she is more dramatic about the event than you are! Finally I pushed my way through a lot of well-wishing people and went over to the theatre. The cast was in fine shape, quietly making up in their own rooms; no noise, no excitement backstage, things routine and orderly.

The audience was no better or worse than the usual opening night crowd. If anything they were an edge more respectful. Harold I had met outside the theatre for a moment - he was white and tired and was going to see a musical comedy, true to his habit of never attending an opening. I, on the other hand, get a kind of perverse spiteful pleasure from attending an opening. I saw none of the critics but shook hands with several friends.

The performance of the play was tip-top - the cast had never been better. The play suffered from what had always been wrong with it because of a certain lack in the direction - a lack of clear outlining of situations, a lack of building up scenes, a certain missing in places of dramatic intensity. But none of these things was enough to do vital harm to a beautiful show, smooth, powerful and yet tender, fresh, moving, and touching, with real quality in all the parts. But I could see during the first act that the audience was taking it more seriously than it deserved; and I knew that the old thing was here again - the critics had come expecting King Lear, not a small delicate play. It all made me very tired, but at the end I thought to myself that it didn't matter, for the show was more or less what I intended; it was lovely and fresh, no matter what the critics said. And I knew, too, that if another and unknown writer's name had been on the script, there would have been critical raves the next day.

People surged backstage after the curtain - they all seemed to have had a good time. There were the usual foolish remarks from many of them - "Enjoyable, but I don't know why," etc., etc. Also, a good deal of insincere gushing from a lot of people who would like nothing better than to stick a knife in your ribs. God knows why!

I invited some people down to the house for a drink. Along came the Eislers, Kozlenkos, Bette, Julie [John] Garfield, Boris Aronson, old Harry Carey and his wife, Morris and Phoebe later, Harold, Aaron Copland and Victor [Kraft[, Bobby Lewis and his Mexican woman, etc. etc. We drank champagne, Scotch when the wine ran out, smoked, filthied up the house, listened to some music. Then they went and I dropped into bed, dog-tired, unhappy, drunk, knowing what the reviews would be like in the morning. In and out I slept, in and out of a fever - all of modern twentieth-century life in one day and a night.

Friday, February 23, 1940

The biggest shock I have experienced since the auto crash in Mexico a year ago was the reviews of the play today. Perhaps it was the serious lack of sleep which kept me so calm and quiet. I wanted to send the Times man a wire telling him I thought his notice stupid and insulting, but I gave up that idea after a while. Equally distressing to me was the attitude at the office, an ugly passivity. They are quite inured there to the humdrum commercial aspect of doing a play this way - close if the notices are bad.

My feelings were and are very simple. I feel as if a lovely delicate child, tender and humorous, had been knocked down by a truck and lay dying. For this show has all the freshness of a child. It was Boris A. who called the turn. He said, "This show is very moving to me, a real artwork, but I don't think they will get its quality - it is not commercial."

In the morning I cashed fifteen thousand dollars worth of the baby bonds I hold. I thought to spend it on advertising, to keep the show open, etc., but by the time I finished at the office in the afternoon it was easy to see the foolishness of that; the show costs almost ten thousand a week to run.

So, friend, this is the American theatre, before, now, and in the future. This is where you live and this is what it is - this is the nature of the beast. Here is how the work and delight and pain of many months ends up in one single night. This is murder, to be exact, the murder of loveliness, of talent, of aspiration, of sincerity, the brutal imperception and indifference to one of the few projects which promise to keep the theatre alive. And it is murder in the first degree - with forethought (perhaps not malice, perhaps!), not second or third degree. Something will have to be done about these "critics", these lean dry men who know little or nothing about the theatre despite their praise of the actors and production. How can it happen that this small handful of men can do such murderous mischief in a few hours? How can it be that we must all depend on them for our progress and growth, they who maybe drank a cocktail too much, quarreled with a wife, had indigestion or a painful toe before they came to see the play - they who are not critics, who are insensitive, who understand only the most literal realism, they who should be dealing in children's ABC blocks? How can the audience be reached directly, without the middleman intervention of these fools?

I think now to write very inexpensive plays in the future, few actors, one set; perhaps hire a cheap theatre and play there. Good or bad, these "critics" must never be quoted, they must not opportunistically be used. A way must be found to beat them if people like myself are to stay in the theatre with any health and love. Only bitterness results this way, with no will or impulse for fresh work. The values must be sorted out and I must see my way clearly ahead, for I mean to work in the American theatre for many years to come.

I have such a strong feeling - a lovely child was murdered yesterday. Its life will drag on for another week or ten days, but the child is already stilled. A few friends will remember, that's all.

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October 20, 2008

The Books: "As I Am: An Autobiography" (Patricia Neal)

ed37b2c008a01a1c2fe06010._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

As I Am: An Autobiography, by Patricia Neal

This is one of those rare books where my response to it was, "Dear God, it's me, Sheila. Could you please give Patricia Neal a break? Hasn't she had enough??" The bare bones of her life story are enough to make my blood run cold - because so much of what happened to her was random, the luck of the draw. It's a great fear of mine - to be incapacitated by something like a stroke - something where my mind has gone, and I have to rebuild it ... where I am still in there, but my body won't behave. It's terrifying. Not to mention being (like Patricia Neal was) pregnant! But there's so much more to this fantastic book than just the story of her stroke and her incredible recovery (which had as much to do with pure grit and willpower than anything else). It's beautifully written - emotional and in-the-moment ... The things that hurt her once still seem to hurt her, the experiences she had as a young woman still seem real to her ... Patricia Neal is not "over" it, she doesn't come across as distanced in any way - and yet at the same time, I don't get that ikky sense that I get from some biographies that she has an axe to grind. No, what I get is that Neal - as a wonderful actress - is able to do the same thing in her writing that she can do as an actress: imagine herself into another world, this time her past - and re-experience it. You FEEL what she feels. You can't believe what this woman has gone through.

And what an actress.

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Life is unfair. That's one of the things I get from this book (although I have plenty of evidence before my own eyes to realize that) ... and much of what life is has to do with how you RESPOND to the SHIT that happens to you.

I think Neal's book is fantastic. It's fantastic about acting, and her career - moments where she had breakthroughs, troubled moments with directors, whatever ... and it's also fantastic about the real-life aspects: love affairs, life, motherhood, grief, religion, career ... It's quite a book, and I love the title. You really feel, by the end of the book, that you have been through the wringer with her - and that she has truly earned the right to say the words, "As I Am." It was hard-won, that peace with herself, hard hard won ... She had to scrape and claw for so much, she had to climb herself back to health, she had to insist to herself that life, after all, was worth living. The story of her recovery from her stroke brings tears to my eyes. It's terrible. She describes lying in bed, being unable to think of the words for things ... saying things like "coliseum" when she means "cigarette" ... and also stuff like shitting the bed, but being unable to move, and weeping, as the nurses come to clean her up, humiliated, devastated.

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Roald Dahl, her husband, was not a warm man. There was something off about him. He told Patricia Neal he loved her twice in their whole marriage. But his response to her stroke - what we would call now as "tough love" - is much of why she recovered. Well, that and the neurosurgery team at the hospital. But when Neal came home, she was on her own. Dahl refused to baby her. If it took her 45 minutes to button her blouse, then it took her 45 minutes. He would not help. They would have enormous battles, and she would be screaming at him - only she still couldn't remember the words for things (horrifying - it just gives me chills) - so she'd be shouting gibberish, trying, trying, to remember the word for, oh, "son of a bitch" or "I hate you".

Prior to marrying Roald Dahl, Neal - early in her career - had been cast in The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper.

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Gary Cooper was a married man, but he was also a famous philanderer. He had great respect for his wife, Rocky, and always stopped his affairs before they went too far. Rocky knew all about them, and I have no idea what it was like for her - but the two of them seemed good companions. Cooper needed to be married, having a homelife was very important to him - and Rocky loved her position in society as his wife. It was a tradeoff. Cooper and Neal had an affair. Neal was not a floozy, not really, and she fell so in love with Gary Cooper that she counts him as the great love of her life. Really the only man she ever loved. Her entire book ends with her going out to lunch with Rocky, and the two of them talking about Gary, and Rocky seeming to understand what it was that Neal had lost (after all, she loved him too) - and it felt good for the two of them to sit there and reminisce about him. Rather extraordinary, huh? Neal writes:

This was the one man I loved passionately, the one I had fought to get. But the bond of his marriage was stronger than our passion. And I was forced to submit to that. I am now grateful that I did. If I had not married Roald Dahl, I would have been denied my children, even my life, because he truly saved me and I will be forever grateful to him for that.

Complicated. Life is not simple.

In 1963, Patricia Neal played Alma, the earthy humorous housekeeper in Hud. How I love that performance. Her scenes with Paul Newman should be studied by anyone who is interested in acting. THAT is how it's done, peeps. Obstacle, objective, decisions being made on the fly, impulses followed or ignored, subtext stronger than text ... So so good. Neal won the Oscar for Best Actress.

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The year before, her 7-year-old daughter Olivia had died, unexpectedly, from measles encephalitis. Neal was still struggling, at the time of filming Hud, with an almost baffled sense of grief, how do you incorporate such an event into your life, how on earth do you go on?? Watching her as Alma is a true testament to the power of art as some kind of healing force. She is not "playing" her own biography here. Alma is a tough Texas woman, with some miles on her, a divorce in her past, and yet a philisophical attitude which allows her to hang out with tough men and be one of them. Despite her housekeeper status. It's a marvelous portrayal - three-dimensional in its scope and a constant surprise. Her grief about her daughter was somehow mysteriously channeled into that performance ... It was like Neal needed to lose herself in her work, and boy, did she ever.

In 1965 she had a debilitating stroke. Actually, she had three strokes - which left her in a coma. It was thought she would never come out of it. She was 39 years old. A long road to recovery followed, and she credits much of it to Roald Dahl, who shouted at her until she could do nothing else but fight back. He would not let her be weak. Whatever issues they had in their marriage (and who knows, maybe Dahl sensed all along that he was her second choice) it did not stop Dahl from insisting that she get strong. If she had to hate him in the process, then maybe that would be good for her, motivational.

Neal describes sitting and watching the Academy Awards in 1965 - post-stroke - where, if she hadn't been incapacitated, she would have been there to present the award to the Best Actor - it was her spot, because she had won the award the year before. Audrey Hepburn gave out the award in her place, and Neal - still sick, still unable to form or remember words - had the expectation that Hepburn would at least acknowledge her - would say something nice about her, to remind the audience, "This should have been Patricia Neal presenting ..." but Hepburn didn't say a word. Just gave out the award. Neal flipped out. She and Dahl were sitting on the couch at home, and Neal started shouting at the television, expressing her anger at being so forgotten and ignored. It hurt her. But because of the stroke, what came out was gibberish - she couldn't remember any words for anything - but the sentiment was clear.

Dahl took that as a wonderful sign. That Neal had a memory of something outside of her own sickness, and was invested enough in it to be pissed off ... He thought that was great. A sign of health. Being able to say, "Goddammit, that is so UNFAIR" is a sign of mental health (I've often thought so ... when we stop having the ability to rail at the unfair-ness of things, we lose a lot of our fire ...). I think Dahl was on to something - and perhaps he didn't really love her (sure doesn't sound like it) - but perhaps it was that very DISTANCE from her, the fact that he could remain separate from her, and see her clearly, that he didn't feel the need to hover over his poor darling, cooing over how sick she was ... that made him such a great and enormous help in her recovery.

She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (amazing to contemplate, huh?) - but she turned it down, feeling that it was still too close to her stroke. Neal rebuilt her life. She worked with a speech therapist, she worked with neurologists ... and she came back. When she returned to work, in The Subject Was Roses, she was again nominated for an Academy Award.

As I Am is one of my favorites in this particular genre: entertainment autobiography ... It palpitates with real feeling, and is very specific. She remembers people - Kazan, Cooper ... and she also, frankly, comes off as someone I would love to know. A real person. Whose life has been a true journey. Who had shit thrown at her - time and time again - and she survived it. Not without a lot of fighting and a lot of grief - and one nervous breakdown - but she survived.

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Her memories of Gary Cooper are so tender that it makes my heart crack ... and I often wonder, in my own life, what is left in me to give someone else ... after my great and failed love. My guy said to me, in a song he wrote for me, "You'll always be my great lost love." Thanks for nothing, pal. No, just kidding. But it really resonated with me, her journey. And how she tells it like it is. She does not spare Dahl in many respects. He had an affair with her best friend - which was what finally ended their 30-year marriage. He laughed in her face when she told him her heart was broken. I don't think he ever really recovered from his daughter dying ... it made him twisted and mean. So Neal just tells it like it is. BUT she does not throw out ye olde baby with ye olde bathwater. Dahl MADE her get well, MADE her recover, on her own, from the strokes that should have killed her. And so, like she says, she owes him her LIFE. Pretty amazing.

I chose an excerpt today that really moves me. In 1959 Patricia Neal was cast in the play Miracle Worker, being directed by Arthur Penn. She was a big enough star at that point that she was hurt that she was not offered the role of Annie. She played Helen's mother. BUT: Neal took the role, knowing that she needed to work - rather than not work - and yes, her ego took a blow ... but I love her grace here, and also her honesty. It was not easy to back off and not be the star. But she did.


EXCERPT FROM As I Am: An Autobiography, by Patricia Neal

It was April in 1959 when I heard from Arthur Penn, the director. He was casting William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller. Everyone knew it was bound to be one of the biggest hits of the season and the vehicle of a lifetime for the actress who played Annie Sullivan, Helen's teacher.

The only problem was, Arthur was not offering me that part. He thought I would be wonderful as Helen's mother. It was not a starring role, but I hadn't done a play in the United States in four years or a film in three. I was in no position to command the star spot and I knew it. I could fantasize all I wanted, but if I was to keep working I would have to go with what was offered.

The star of Miracle Worker was Anne Bancroft. Like me, Anne had left Hollywood and returned to New York to make a new start. I first saw her at The Studio and admired her as an actress. Later I got to know her socially at the Strasberg parties. She was great fun and I liked her very much. Our paths were destined to cross many times.

We were in rehearsal only a few days when Anne and Arthur invited me for a drink. Arthur asked me quite candidly if I resented not playing the star role. I was equally candid. I admitted that I did, indeed, find it tough to step down, but I was trying my damndest to do it graciously. They breathed sighs of relief. Both of them thanked me for being honest and assured me they knew how difficult it was. I can truthfully say that the fact that I adored Anne and Arthur helped. I felt better than I had in days for having gotten it out. It was one of the happiest companies I ever worked with. It also afforded me a reunion with Phyllis Adams, of my pavement-pounding days. Phyllis was now married to George Jenkins, our set designer.

Near the end of rehearsals I saw Fred Cox, our producer, in the auditorium with a man and a woman. I couldn't see their faces from the stage, but the man kept waving at me. Finally I walked down the aisle to see who he was.

"Do you recognize me?" he asked with a tinge of wickedness. "We met in Chicago."

I searched the familiar face for a name.

"I'm the fellow you told not to go into show business."

"Oh yes," I said, nodding. "Michael ..."

Fred helped me out. "Nichols."

The woman with him, of course, was Elaine May.


I had gone six weeks without my family and we were just beginning out-of-town previews in Boston when Roald arrived with the girls. I could not wait to see my babies, and as they got off the elevator, I bellowed my welcome. Olvia looked at me with fright and Tessa let out a terrified wail. They obviously had no idea they were coming to see me and, in fact, did not seem to know why I had been absent from their lives for so long. I was annoyed with Roald for this oversight, but later, when all was well and we laughed it off, I scolded myself for making too much of it.

Eventually Roald came to the show. Following the performance, Arthur appeared at my dressing room. He was shaking with anger. "He's quite a fellow, that husband of yours. He doesn't think we have much of a play. Of course, he gave us his recommendations. We'd appreciate it if you'd see that he doesn't come again."

I was humiliated. And so angry that when Roald came backstage, I seethed. "This has nothing to do with you. Will you keep your fucking nose out of my business and let me make my own enemies!" We did not speak again about the progress of the play.

The Miracle Worker opened on October 19, 1959. Our reviews were as great as everyone hoped. Especially for Anne and little Patty Duke, who played Helen.

I got pregnant on opening night. Obviously Roald did not hold grudges.

Patty was older than the six-and-a-half-year-old Helen she portrayed on stage. I used to take her home with me and she was the perfect guest, completely charming and gracious. She loved to read stories to the girls, who adored her. Her visits spurred Olivia's pestering to come and see Mummy act for the first time. I arranged for Sonia to take her to a matinee but asked that she kept in the lobby during my first scene, fearing my frantic screams for my stage child might set up a howl from my own. After the performance, she looked at me very seriously and said, "I loved you, Mummy. You were jolly good." At that moment I didn't mind that Anne had gotten all the reviews. I had just gotten the most important notice of my life.

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The Books: "As I Am: An Autobiography" (Patricia Neal)

ed37b2c008a01a1c2fe06010._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

As I Am: An Autobiography, by Patricia Neal

This is one of those rare books where my response to it was, "Dear God, it's me, Sheila. Could you please give Patricia Neal a break? Hasn't she had enough??" The bare bones of her life story are enough to make my blood run cold - because so much of what happened to her was random, the luck of the draw. It's a great fear of mine - to be incapacitated by something like a stroke - something where my mind has gone, and I have to rebuild it ... where I am still in there, but my body won't behave. It's terrifying. Not to mention being (like Patricia Neal was) pregnant! But there's so much more to this fantastic book than just the story of her stroke and her incredible recovery (which had as much to do with pure grit and willpower than anything else). It's beautifully written - emotional and in-the-moment ... The things that hurt her once still seem to hurt her, the experiences she had as a young woman still seem real to her ... Patricia Neal is not "over" it, she doesn't come across as distanced in any way - and yet at the same time, I don't get that ikky sense that I get from some biographies that she has an axe to grind. No, what I get is that Neal - as a wonderful actress - is able to do the same thing in her writing that she can do as an actress: imagine herself into another world, this time her past - and re-experience it. You FEEL what she feels. You can't believe what this woman has gone through.

And what an actress.

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Life is unfair. That's one of the things I get from this book (although I have plenty of evidence before my own eyes to realize that) ... and much of what life is has to do with how you RESPOND to the SHIT that happens to you.

I think Neal's book is fantastic. It's fantastic about acting, and her career - moments where she had breakthroughs, troubled moments with directors, whatever ... and it's also fantastic about the real-life aspects: love affairs, life, motherhood, grief, religion, career ... It's quite a book, and I love the title. You really feel, by the end of the book, that you have been through the wringer with her - and that she has truly earned the right to say the words, "As I Am." It was hard-won, that peace with herself, hard hard won ... She had to scrape and claw for so much, she had to climb herself back to health, she had to insist to herself that life, after all, was worth living. The story of her recovery from her stroke brings tears to my eyes. It's terrible. She describes lying in bed, being unable to think of the words for things ... saying things like "coliseum" when she means "cigarette" ... and also stuff like shitting the bed, but being unable to move, and weeping, as the nurses come to clean her up, humiliated, devastated.

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Roald Dahl, her husband, was not a warm man. There was something off about him. He told Patricia Neal he loved her twice in their whole marriage. But his response to her stroke - what we would call now as "tough love" - is much of why she recovered. Well, that and the neurosurgery team at the hospital. But when Neal came home, she was on her own. Dahl refused to baby her. If it took her 45 minutes to button her blouse, then it took her 45 minutes. He would not help. They would have enormous battles, and she would be screaming at him - only she still couldn't remember the words for things (horrifying - it just gives me chills) - so she'd be shouting gibberish, trying, trying, to remember the word for, oh, "son of a bitch" or "I hate you".

Prior to marrying Roald Dahl, Neal - early in her career - had been cast in The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper.

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Gary Cooper was a married man, but he was also a famous philanderer. He had great respect for his wife, Rocky, and always stopped his affairs before they went too far. Rocky knew all about them, and I have no idea what it was like for her - but the two of them seemed good companions. Cooper needed to be married, having a homelife was very important to him - and Rocky loved her position in society as his wife. It was a tradeoff. Cooper and Neal had an affair. Neal was not a floozy, not really, and she fell so in love with Gary Cooper that she counts him as the great love of her life. Really the only man she ever loved. Her entire book ends with her going out to lunch with Rocky, and the two of them talking about Gary, and Rocky seeming to understand what it was that Neal had lost (after all, she loved him too) - and it felt good for the two of them to sit there and reminisce about him. Rather extraordinary, huh? Neal writes:

This was the one man I loved passionately, the one I had fought to get. But the bond of his marriage was stronger than our passion. And I was forced to submit to that. I am now grateful that I did. If I had not married Roald Dahl, I would have been denied my children, even my life, because he truly saved me and I will be forever grateful to him for that.

Complicated. Life is not simple.

In 1963, Patricia Neal played Alma, the earthy humorous housekeeper in Hud. How I love that performance. Her scenes with Paul Newman should be studied by anyone who is interested in acting. THAT is how it's done, peeps. Obstacle, objective, decisions being made on the fly, impulses followed or ignored, subtext stronger than text ... So so good. Neal won the Oscar for Best Actress.

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The year before, her 7-year-old daughter Olivia had died, unexpectedly, from measles encephalitis. Neal was still struggling, at the time of filming Hud, with an almost baffled sense of grief, how do you incorporate such an event into your life, how on earth do you go on?? Watching her as Alma is a true testament to the power of art as some kind of healing force. She is not "playing" her own biography here. Alma is a tough Texas woman, with some miles on her, a divorce in her past, and yet a philisophical attitude which allows her to hang out with tough men and be one of them. Despite her housekeeper status. It's a marvelous portrayal - three-dimensional in its scope and a constant surprise. Her grief about her daughter was somehow mysteriously channeled into that performance ... It was like Neal needed to lose herself in her work, and boy, did she ever.

In 1965 she had a debilitating stroke. Actually, she had three strokes - which left her in a coma. It was thought she would never come out of it. She was 39 years old. A long road to recovery followed, and she credits much of it to Roald Dahl, who shouted at her until she could do nothing else but fight back. He would not let her be weak. Whatever issues they had in their marriage (and who knows, maybe Dahl sensed all along that he was her second choice) it did not stop Dahl from insisting that she get strong. If she had to hate him in the process, then maybe that would be good for her, motivational.

Neal describes sitting and watching the Academy Awards in 1965 - post-stroke - where, if she hadn't been incapacitated, she would have been there to present the award to the Best Actor - it was her spot, because she had won the award the year before. Audrey Hepburn gave out the award in her place, and Neal - still sick, still unable to form or remember words - had the expectation that Hepburn would at least acknowledge her - would say something nice about her, to remind the audience, "This should have been Patricia Neal presenting ..." but Hepburn didn't say a word. Just gave out the award. Neal flipped out. She and Dahl were sitting on the couch at home, and Neal started shouting at the television, expressing her anger at being so forgotten and ignored. It hurt her. But because of the stroke, what came out was gibberish - she couldn't remember any words for anything - but the sentiment was clear.

Dahl took that as a wonderful sign. That Neal had a memory of something outside of her own sickness, and was invested enough in it to be pissed off ... He thought that was great. A sign of health. Being able to say, "Goddammit, that is so UNFAIR" is a sign of mental health (I've often thought so ... when we stop having the ability to rail at the unfair-ness of things, we lose a lot of our fire ...). I think Dahl was on to something - and perhaps he didn't really love her (sure doesn't sound like it) - but perhaps it was that very DISTANCE from her, the fact that he could remain separate from her, and see her clearly, that he didn't feel the need to hover over his poor darling, cooing over how sick she was ... that made him such a great and enormous help in her recovery.

She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (amazing to contemplate, huh?) - but she turned it down, feeling that it was still too close to her stroke. Neal rebuilt her life. She worked with a speech therapist, she worked with neurologists ... and she came back. When she returned to work, in The Subject Was Roses, she was again nominated for an Academy Award.

As I Am is one of my favorites in this particular genre: entertainment autobiography ... It palpitates with real feeling, and is very specific. She remembers people - Kazan, Cooper ... and she also, frankly, comes off as someone I would love to know. A real person. Whose life has been a true journey. Who had shit thrown at her - time and time again - and she survived it. Not without a lot of fighting and a lot of grief - and one nervous breakdown - but she survived.

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Her memories of Gary Cooper are so tender that it makes my heart crack ... and I often wonder, in my own life, what is left in me to give someone else ... after my great and failed love. My guy said to me, in a song he wrote for me, "You'll always be my great lost love." Thanks for nothing, pal. No, just kidding. But it really resonated with me, her journey. And how she tells it like it is. She does not spare Dahl in many respects. He had an affair with her best friend - which was what finally ended their 30-year marriage. He laughed in her face when she told him her heart was broken. I don't think he ever really recovered from his daughter dying ... it made him twisted and mean. So Neal just tells it like it is. BUT she does not throw out ye olde baby with ye olde bathwater. Dahl MADE her get well, MADE her recover, on her own, from the strokes that should have killed her. And so, like she says, she owes him her LIFE. Pretty amazing.

I chose an excerpt today that really moves me. In 1959 Patricia Neal was cast in the play Miracle Worker, being directed by Arthur Penn. She was a big enough star at that point that she was hurt that she was not offered the role of Annie. She played Helen's mother. BUT: Neal took the role, knowing that she needed to work - rather than not work - and yes, her ego took a blow ... but I love her grace here, and also her honesty. It was not easy to back off and not be the star. But she did.


EXCERPT FROM As I Am: An Autobiography, by Patricia Neal

It was April in 1959 when I heard from Arthur Penn, the director. He was casting William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller. Everyone knew it was bound to be one of the biggest hits of the season and the vehicle of a lifetime for the actress who played Annie Sullivan, Helen's teacher.

The only problem was, Arthur was not offering me that part. He thought I would be wonderful as Helen's mother. It was not a starring role, but I hadn't done a play in the United States in four years or a film in three. I was in no position to command the star spot and I knew it. I could fantasize all I wanted, but if I was to keep working I would have to go with what was offered.

The star of Miracle Worker was Anne Bancroft. Like me, Anne had left Hollywood and returned to New York to make a new start. I first saw her at The Studio and admired her as an actress. Later I got to know her socially at the Strasberg parties. She was great fun and I liked her very much. Our paths were destined to cross many times.

We were in rehearsal only a few days when Anne and Arthur invited me for a drink. Arthur asked me quite candidly if I resented not playing the star role. I was equally candid. I admitted that I did, indeed, find it tough to step down, but I was trying my damndest to do it graciously. They breathed sighs of relief. Both of them thanked me for being honest and assured me they knew how difficult it was. I can truthfully say that the fact that I adored Anne and Arthur helped. I felt better than I had in days for having gotten it out. It was one of the happiest companies I ever worked with. It also afforded me a reunion with Phyllis Adams, of my pavement-pounding days. Phyllis was now married to George Jenkins, our set designer.

Near the end of rehearsals I saw Fred Cox, our producer, in the auditorium with a man and a woman. I couldn't see their faces from the stage, but the man kept waving at me. Finally I walked down the aisle to see who he was.

"Do you recognize me?" he asked with a tinge of wickedness. "We met in Chicago."

I searched the familiar face for a name.

"I'm the fellow you told not to go into show business."

"Oh yes," I said, nodding. "Michael ..."

Fred helped me out. "Nichols."

The woman with him, of course, was Elaine May.


I had gone six weeks without my family and we were just beginning out-of-town previews in Boston when Roald arrived with the girls. I could not wait to see my babies, and as they got off the elevator, I bellowed my welcome. Olvia looked at me with fright and Tessa let out a terrified wail. They obviously had no idea they were coming to see me and, in fact, did not seem to know why I had been absent from their lives for so long. I was annoyed with Roald for this oversight, but later, when all was well and we laughed it off, I scolded myself for making too much of it.

Eventually Roald came to the show. Following the performance, Arthur appeared at my dressing room. He was shaking with anger. "He's quite a fellow, that husband of yours. He doesn't think we have much of a play. Of course, he gave us his recommendations. We'd appreciate it if you'd see that he doesn't come again."

I was humiliated. And so angry that when Roald came backstage, I seethed. "This has nothing to do with you. Will you keep your fucking nose out of my business and let me make my own enemies!" We did not speak again about the progress of the play.

The Miracle Worker opened on October 19, 1959. Our reviews were as great as everyone hoped. Especially for Anne and little Patty Duke, who played Helen.

I got pregnant on opening night. Obviously Roald did not hold grudges.

Patty was older than the six-and-a-half-year-old Helen she portrayed on stage. I used to take her home with me and she was the perfect guest, completely charming and gracious. She loved to read stories to the girls, who adored her. Her visits spurred Olivia's pestering to come and see Mummy act for the first time. I arranged for Sonia to take her to a matinee but asked that she kept in the lobby during my first scene, fearing my frantic screams for my stage child might set up a howl from my own. After the performance, she looked at me very seriously and said, "I loved you, Mummy. You were jolly good." At that moment I didn't mind that Anne had gotten all the reviews. I had just gotten the most important notice of my life.

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October 19, 2008

The Books: "Marilyn and Me" (Susan Strasberg)

5e6ac060ada0da44167ab110._AA240_.L.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Marilyn and Me, by Susan Strasberg

There is much to say here, about the smothering psychodrama of the Strasberg family - and the introduction of Lee Strasberg's most famous student - Marilyn Monroe - as practically an adopted daughter into the family.

Lee Strasberg had been one of the founding members of the Group Theatre in the 30s. It soon became clear that his gift was not in acting or in directing - but in teaching, and theorizing. People came to him for help with scenes - he was a close student of the Stanislavksy "system" (known, in its American version, as "the Method") - and he put his own spin on it very early on, by introducing what is known as "affective memory" [corrected!] into the pot.

"Sense memory" is when you, the actor, concentrate on creating, say, a coffee cup full of coffee. You work at it with your hands, you try to feel the weight of the cup, you try to feel the heat emanating, you try to create for yourself the smell of coffee. These exercises are meant to unleash the actor's creativity and imagination. The point of acting is to come alive under imaginary circumstances and for some actors that takes practice. Strasberg was always fascinated by those who did it anyway, who did it easily - who did it naturally, with no training. What was it in, say, Eleanora Duse - or Paul Muni - that was so authentic? Duse is famous for blushing on stage when a blush was called for (it was George Bernard Shaw who first noticed it and commented on it, how it seemed to him to be the purest example of imagination and creativity he had ever seen). Her sense of reality and being in-the-moment was so intense, so unshakeable, that she would blush. On cue. No one alive today has seen "Duse's blush" - any audience member from her time is now long dead - and yet the impression it made has remained famous, and you will still hear people reference "Duse's blush".

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Strasberg wondered if such authenticity (which came natural to the geniuses of the world - the Duse's, the Brando's) could be taught. Could an actor train his concentration so that the world of the play would be so real that all kinds of involuntary things (like a blush) could be possible? The "affective memory" exercise that Strasberg developed is the most controversial aspect of the Method, and I have pretty mixed feelings about it (mainly because it didn't work for me). You go back in time (in your mind) to re-create a memory, something from your past ... trying to not just think about it, or remember it intellectually - but re-live it. This is not meant to be a general experience, a re-hashing of an old familiar narrative from your life - that would do you no good as an actor. The point is to use that concentration you have been training - on creating coffee cups and taking a shower and a hot humid day - in the services of resurrecting that old memory - but you do not do it by focusing on the emotions of the old memory, you do it by focusing on the sensory details. For example, one day when you were 6 years old, a phone call came, and your mother answered, and the news arrived that your beloved grandmother had died - and it was your first moment of grief, loss, fear, whatever ... It was an important moment. For "affective memory", you don't go straight for the jugular, and think about your grandmother dying. No. You focus on how the light looked on the kitchen tile that day, and the smell of breakfast on the stove ... the shoes your mother was wearing, the sound of the telephone ring ... and through focusing on those sensory details, you can get closer to the actual source of the memory. Because, of course, our bodies remember sensoral details better than it remembers actual information. You touch a hot stove once, you never do it again, to use an obvious example. Much of this is at a primitive level, an animal level ... but we, as complex intellectual creatures, tend to distance ourselves, or we forget ... But to quote Metallica: "the memory remains" - not in the brain, but in the sensoral apparatus at our disposal. I have been in classes where everyone is doing an "affective memory" at the same time and it is literally like sitting in the main room of a psych ward. People babble, weep, moan, talk out loud - some people freak out so badly they have to stop the exercise. Just because it never worked for me is not to say that it is not a useful exercise, or that some people were really set free by it. Actors are not cookie-cutters. We are all different.

For me, I certainly could do the exercise. It wasn't that I was blocked or anything like that. I could re-create anything. I live in a fantasy world half the time, anyway, this shit is old hat to me. The problem (for me) came when I had to "use" it in my acting. As an exercise it was fine, but I never seemed to use it when I was actually onstage acting. Now, much of the purpose of sense memory and effective memory IS just for training. It helps you hone your skills, it's a craft, you have to practice - it's like practicing giving yourself permission to enter an imaginary world. Sense memory helps you do that, and it also helps you to be specific, as opposed to general. Actors who are good are good because of all kinds of reasons - but actors who are bad all have one thing in common: They are GENERAL. Generality is death to good acting. But people working on sense memory DURING a scene had a tendency to look like they were in a fog, they were unable to connect with their scene partner, they were so busy creating the damn sound of rain on the windows. It had a tendency to look belabored. I would rather be an actor who is not, perhaps, transported to another dimension by a sense memory exericse - but is able to listen and talk in a believable manner onstage. However: it doesn't have to be either/or. It actually shouldn't be either/or. I ended up basically just using sense memory as strictly a training exercise - like practicing meditation ... which can be difficult. It was a way to leave the workaday everyday world, and surrender to the moment. It was about giving myself permission to be a little kid again. Again: this is not to say my experience is right. It was just my experience. Judging other people's acting processes is, to me, a little bit like judging how other people have sex. There cannot be a more pointless and idiotic way to spend your mental energy. If it works for someone, who are you to say it shouldn't? What kind of an arrogant insecure son-of-a-bitch are you anyway? But you see that a lot. Young actors, perhaps not as knowledgeable as they should be, try to assert their own process as THE way to do things. I have noticed this, too, with my friends who have become mothers. Other mothers can't just be like, "I do things THIS way with my baby - maybe that would work for you ..." They have to be like, "I do things THIS way with my baby, and if you DON'T do it that way, then you are abusive and selfish." It's retarded. So because Spencer Tracy didn't consciously sit around using sense memory, that means he's somehow lesser? How fucking condescending. You use it if you NEED it. But there can be a rigidity in acting training - because it's such an uncertain pursuit - there are no guarantees - and so actors (some actors) want to believe that there is only one way to do things, and if they could just "do it right", then all the glory in the world will follow.

There are also teachers out there who are charlatans - of the New Age Deepak Chopra variety - who insist that THEIR way is the only way, if you follow THEM you will succeed ... It's almost like a cult. Like, if you decide to switch teachers, or stop taking class altogether, it's seen as you leaving the fold, going beyond the pale. Acting careers, like any other, have pressures, and people are looking for the magic bullet, the golden goose, whatever it is.

My process usually involves music (I always have a "mix tape" for whatever show I'm in ... stuff that gets me into the world of the play) - and then just practical concerns - like learning my lines, and doing what the character does, whatever that may be. I like things like costumes ... they help set me free and launch me into another person's psyche as opposed to my own. Things like shoes are very important. How you walk, and how your feet feel ... it's something palpable, tangible. And then, I'm a huge fan of what I call the "Bang Bang You're Dead" school of acting. I go into that a bit here, in my piece on William Holden. Meaning: when a little kid is playing cops and robbers and shouts at his friend, "BANG BANG YOU'RE DEAD", the other little kid will launch into a swandive of death more convincing than any seasoned actor could ever hope to accomplish. There is no gap between impulse and action, there is no questioning of "how" to do it ... You know that you have to die, and you have been shot, and so you throw your body into the void. Much of acting is remembering what it was like to be a child playing make-believe (at least it is for me) - when you are unselfconsciously in the world you have created ... and so much of my process involves doing whatever I have to do to get into that state. This (for me) never involved sense memory. Or, maybe I'm stating it too strongly. There were moments, yes, when it came in useful. Working on Summer and Smoke, and doing a scene that happens on a hot humid night, where the air sits there like soup, making you sluggish and tired. I would use sense memory for that ... to create the sensation of humidity, and still thick air. Often, though, it seemed to me that it came easier if I would just give myself the cue, the "Bang Bang Youre Dead" cue - only this time it was, "Hot Humid Night - GO" ... and, because I'm a human being, aware, and open, my senses would jump into action. I remember humidity. I didn't need to turn myself inside out to get there. However, that could just be a matter of practice and talent ... You don't always need to turn yourself inside out (and I very much disliked teachers who were suspicious of ease. Those people have a vested interest in you, the student, being in their thrall, of needing them ... so they keep you weak. They don't like ANYTHING to come easy.)

All of this is to say that Lee Strasberg was THE teacher of "The Method" for 20, 30 years - and even with the controversies, having ringing endorsements from people like Al Pacino did much to maintain his mystique (and the mystique of the Actors Studio- with which Strasberg was forever linked - as though they were one and the same).

Lee Strasberg remains a controversial figure (and his third and last wife Anna Strasberg even more so_, a very important man in American theatrical history, but there is no "official" version of him. Some people hated him, some loved him, some felt liberated by his teaching (Ellen Burstyn), some felt stifled. There is no right answer here.

But when we get into the Marilyn Monroe connection, things get even more murky. I have read both of Susan Strasberg's books (Marilyn and Me and Bittersweet) - and I have to say: they make me feel stifled. Susan Strasberg, daughter of Lee and Paula Strasberg, was an actress. Because of who her parents were (and Paula had been an actress in the Group Theatre - she became Lee Strasberg's second wife - they had two children) - it was expected that she would go into the theatre, but it was also expected that she would study with her father, join the Actors Studio, take that route. They were unbelievably pushy parents. Or, Paula was pushy ... a very ambitious woman, bloated with her own thwarted dreams ... Paula was an acting coach herself (and she ended up having a very close relationship with Monroe - which caused all sorts of problems on movie sets - with Monroe deferring to PAULA'S judgment as opposed to the director's) ... and she wanted her daughter to thrive. However, I can't help but get the sense that she wanted her daughter to thrive on HER terms. She didn't REALLY want Susan to be free and independent. Whatever Susan had as an actress (and she had a pretty fine run!) would be OWNED by her parents. Just the thought of that makes me a little sick to my stomach.

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Lee Strasberg was, famously, a very remote man. He was cut off, somewhere deep inside, and while he obviously had a gift of insight into acting - and into other people's processes - he wasn't as good with his own family. The house was always full of actors, all toadying up to Lee, and Susan grew up in that heady atmosphere, a little dark-haired girl on the sidelines, watching movie stars suck up to her father. Would there be room in that for HER? The thought of breaking free of her parents was unthinkable. They were too powerful. However, Susan started studying at the Actors Studio. Of course that meant that she was studying with her father - which, naturally, would make her freeze up ... If he treated her like he treated the other students (pushing at them, shouting at them, slicing through their defenses) ... how would she take that home with her? How would that affect their relationship? But even with these struggles, Strasberg started working. Very early. She got the role of Anne Frank in the Broadway production - she was just a teenager - and it was a giant smash hit. She was the toast of Broadway. Here's a picture of Susan from that time - and you can see, smiling above her - the mouth of Marilyn Monroe - one of the oddest things to see - because Marilyn Monroe is always the focus of any photo she is in. But here - in this case - she is not. It's Susan Strasberg's night.

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She went on to minor success - playing Millie Owens in Picnic (a part with which I have many fond memories myself) and other roles.

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Meanwhile, though, Marilyn Monroe had latched on to Lee Strasberg (and the feeling was mutual). Marilyn Monroe had moved to New York at the height of her career with two goals in mind: 1. To nab Arthur Miller and 2. To study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Monroe and Shelley Winters were great friends, and Winters had suggested that the Studio would be a good no-pressure place (ha!) for Monroe to go to work on her acting. She could take classes, have private sessions with Lee. Monroe would probably never get the chance to work on Nora in Doll's House (although I think she would have been wonderful in the part) - but there at the Studio she could.

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Monroe dedicated herself to her classes at the Studio, and Strasberg very early on had some kind of connection to her. Perhaps he was enamored at the thought that this glamorous movie star had chosen him. Perhaps he was a little bit in love with her. Perhaps he had a Svengali complex. I think there was all of that going on. His devotion to Marilyn Monroe became paramount. He was more devoted to her than he was to his own children (at least that is how Susan and Johnny - the Strasberg's son - felt). Both of them had artistic ambition and dreams ... why couldn't their famous father stay focused on THEM?

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Marilyn Monroe became ensconced in the Strasberg household. She and Lee would have hours-long sessions in his study, and she would emerge, unsteady on her feet, drained from weeping, and ready for a drink. Boundaries were blurred. Monroe slept over (as a matter of fact, she slept in the same room as Johnny - who was a 16 year old boy at the time - can you imagine the sexual confusion of that situation for him?) John, though, years later, would remember very movingly his first impressions of her, the biggest movie star in the world:

The first time I met her I remember she came out of the living room and Pop said, "This is my son," and my first impression of her was that she was different from most of the people who came to the house. I'd watch all these people trading their most human qualities, betraying themselves for success at all costs, to become rich and famous, and afterward, when it was too late, they'd realize they had lost the best part of themselves along the way, but she, she was like me. When I looked into her eyes, it was like looking into my own, they were like a child's eyes. I was still a child. You know how children just look at you. My feeling was she had less ego or was less narcissistic than most of the actors who never really bothered with me. She was just another person to me, another one from that world I felt cut off, excluded, from. She was nicer, real simple, no makeup, and she really looked at me as if she saw me. It wasn't that I wanted people to look at me, but I knew the difference when she did. I knew everyone said she was the sexiest, most sensual woman in the world. Not to me. I thought there was something wrong with me for not feeling that from her. I'd felt it from other women who came to the house. I was pretty sexually frustrated then. She was so open, so loose, and her sensuality as such was so totally innocent, nothing dirty in it at all, and the first time it was just like talking to an ordinary person, only realer than most who came into the house in those days. She was quiet, too, I remember, like an animal is quiet, and I was like that too, survival tactics. She seemed smart, but not in an educated way, instinctively smart, nobody's fool.

They had a special bond. She had a special bond with Susan as well, they were practically like sisters. They would sleep in in the mornings, lying in Susan's bed, talking about boys and makeup and life. As Susan Strasberg started getting important parts in plays that were truly relevant, Monroe was proud and happy for her - but jealous as well - since she had never been given the chance to do anything that would be "important". Monroe, like most brilliant comediennes and sex bombs, yearned to be taken seriously. Her relationship with the Strasbergs was deep, complex, disturbing to read about, and, frankly, a mess. Everyone was just trying to get their needs met. But her presence in the family messed up an already strained dynamic.

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Monroe looked to Strasberg as a father figure, and if there were any sexual shenanigans (who knows, just speculating) Paula looked the other way. Paula insinuated herself into Monroe's life, becoming a constant companion. She, in lieu of Lee, would travel with Marilyn, going on her shoots with her, to work on the part privately, and have private sessions. Directors HATED her. They HATED her. She would stand behind them as they shot the scene, and the director would call "Cut" and Marilyn would not look at the director to see if it was good, she would glance over the director's shoulder to Paula. An insufferable situation. Paula Strasberg was banned from many sets. She was seen as interference. She got in the way of Marilyn doing good work - as opposed to the other way around. It was almost like (and this is my interpretation from all the reading I've done) that Paula's presence made Marilyn doubt herself. Marilyn was a huge talent. Yeah, she had problems memorizing lines (she probably was dyslexic) and had other issues ... but dammit, she knew how to be a movie star. Come on. She created that all on her own without the help of Paula Strasberg. In a cynical sense, I can see that Lee and Paula saw Marilyn as a possible gravy train (and the debacle with Marilyn's estate - a controversy to this day - is indicative of what perhaps they had hoped to happen). Lee Strasberg made his living through acting teaching. He was not a director, he was not an actor. So he wasn't a wealthy man. Marilyn Monroe was loaded, and willing to pay.

But I think, too, there was something in Marilyn that was, perhaps, weaker than other actresses - who also need to be coddled and told they are wonderful, etc. Marilyn Monroe yearned to be seen as a real actress, and Lee Strasberg, unlike most of the folks in Hollywood, saw it in her. He saw potential unlike anything he had ever seen before. I do think that part of it was genuine for him. He made her work on Anna Christie and Shakespeare. He made her work on Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Ulysses. He saw that Marilyn Monroe had a natural ability - rare indeed - to project herself, her personality, her soul - out into the open. Most actors need to be taught to do what she did naturally.

Regardless: the Strasberg involvement in Monroe's life was intense. It makes me stifled to read it. By the end of Marilyn's life, she was trying to cut the cords. It was not easy. It is never easy to change a dance step. To say to someone who is convinced that you need them: "Yeah, thanks, I got it now. I can do it on my own." Especially when there is a financial element to the relationship. They depended on Marilyn financially.

Anyway, books have been written about all of this. You could obviously look at it through many different lenses. Arthur Miller was furious at the Strasbergs for taking advantage of Marilyn, as he saw it. John Huston was like, "If I ever see that black bat [meaning Paula Strasberg] on my set ..."

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The book Marilyn and Me is Susan's story - of trying to survive in that environment and carve out her own place. Even though her work was good and she was getting great reviews ... it didn't seem to win her parents' approval. They would drop everything if Marilyn called. And Marilyn - never a woman with rock-hard boundaries - seemed to not realize how much damage she did ... she couldn't help herself. She also loved the Strasbergs (all 4 of them, not just Paula and Lee). She loved them as the family she never had.

But boy. What a mess.

You can't wait for Susan and Johnny to move out and get on with their OWN lives. Interestingly enough, Marilyn seemed to sense that as well. She had a big sister role to the two younger Strasbergs, and sometimes (with her sensitivity) could see what the situation was clearer than any insider could. John Strasberg (who has gone on to be an amazing director and teacher - I took a workshop with him and he blew me away) tells a beautiful story about Marilyn, one of my favorites:

I think I was talking about cars to Mother and Father. You know how I loved cars. I'd just come home and it was going to be my eighteenth birthday. I'd wanted to come for that.

Mother and Father hadn't wanted me to come. "Why don't you wait till the end of the year?" Well, i'd already been kicked out of college. They didn't know yet.

When I'd gone off at the airport, I'd turned to Mother and said, "For two cents, I won't go." Nobody gave me the two cents, but I'd meant it. What I'd wanted to do was work. I'd wanted to work from the time I was fifteen, and they were always against any effort on my part to be strong or independent. I remember how much I resented it. "You don't have to work, we'll take care of everything," undermining me.

So I was talking about cars, no one was listening, and Marilyn was there and out of the blue said, "Why don't you take my car, Johnny?"

I thought I hadn't heard her right, and I said, "What?" She had remembered the summer before, in California, I'd had that Chevy I'd rented. God, I loved that car, a '57 Bel Air silver Chevy, and she had the Thunderbird.

She continued, "I've got the Ford Mustang the corporation gave me, and Arthur and I have a car. That one's just sitting in the garage, we don't use it."

I was stunned. I couldn't believe she meant it.

Mother and Father were horrified; they didn't like it at all. I don't know if it felt like too much to give me or if they were worried about my driving in my state of mind, but they objected strenuously. "He's too young. Maybe later, Marilyn. You don't have to. It's impossible, he can't afford it, it could be dangerous."

Marilyn just said, "Well, don't worry about any of that, it's in the corporation's name, so I'll take care of the insurance."

I'll never forget that ... There were so few, so very few people who were generous like that. Especially to me, who couldn't do anything for her.

I think that car saved my life.

It was a family, what can you say. A makeshift one, with all kinds of weirdness - described by Susan. When Susan was in Anne Frank on Broadway she was 16, 17 ... and she started an affair with the married Richard Burton, who was also on Broadway at the time. It was her first love. Paula Strasberg was Susan's mother. Instead of being either scared for her daughter, or judgmental - she was thrilled. What a great opportunity for her daughter - to lose her virginity to one of the biggest stars of the stage! I mean, I'm coarsening it - but Paula was so excited - had Burton over to the house, let him sleep in Susan's bed, and made sure that Susan was well-versed in all things birth control. Paula was a woman who, in the 30s, had been a blonde buxom fraulein-type girl, a committed Socialist, and a good actress. Years would destroy her. She was obese by the 50s, and dressed only in black, with a black scarf draped over her head like a bubushka. She had had dreams, of course, she had been at the forefront of the American theatre for a brief decade and life seemed to pass her by. She had married the ultimate acting coach ... and who knows ... I think there were a lot of issues there. If you read books about the Group Theatre, you meet Paula as one kind of person ... then you read the books about Marilyn Monroe, and another person entirely emerges. She was despised by those who loved and cared about Monroe. She was like a leech, a bloodsucker ... and she restricted access to Monroe, isolating Monroe from the world. You had to go through her. So who knows - I don't feel qualified to weigh in on who Paula actually was - I can only guess.

But Susan Strasberg experienced her mother as bossy, intrusive, strangely passive around her husband, and a woman who was full of mystical thoughts about signs, messages, portents ... She had a sense of destiny. Marilyn Monroe came along, and it was the most exciting thing that had happened to the family.

Susan loved Marilyn Monroe. She considered her to be her best friend.

Here are the two of them, sitting in one of Lee Strasberg's classes.


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But it must have seemed kind of like a dream - those years of the 50s into the 60s ... those years when Marilyn Monroe came to stay with us ... She was such a big star. Such a troubled woman. I happen to think she was a wonderful actress - but there was something in the Strasbergs that, yes, made her go deeper into her work - but also stymied her, made her stuck. I don't take the condescending snotty view that Marilyn Monroe working on Shakespeare is silly because why would she ever be cast in such plays? That's the whole point of training. That's the whole point of the Actors Studio, actually: a place where you can work on things outside of commercial considerations. But like I mentioned: all the boundaries got blurred, and Monroe started being nervous about making a choice in her acting, ANY choice, without running it by the Strasbergs first.

Must have been quite an ego trip for them, but that may be a cynical interpretation.

Marilyn and Me is not well-written. It is the definition of conventional prose, which makes me believe that Susan wrote every word. If it was better written, I might suspect she had some outside help. The text is interspersed with long bits where people who knew Marilyn tell what they remembered - Susan Strasberg had obviously gone around getting people on tape for the purposes of the book. The anecdotes are fascinating. Actually, the whole book is fascinating. The picture that emerges of Marilyn Monroe is absolutely 100% three-dimensional. She was not an evil witch-woman who stole Strasberg's parents. It was like Monroe went back to her years in the foster care system, and joined the family for a time. She was clearly a grownup but she was a good friend to the two young ones, too. She was a movie star, completely in control of her persona, absolutely in love with her own fame ... but she was also a woman who still woke up from nightmares of her time in the orphanage ... and who dreamt, wistfully, of being in a play like The Diary of Anne Frank - of having the critics and the public ACCEPT her as a serious actress.

Monroe said to Susan Strasberg once:

“Being a most serious actress is not something God has removed from my destiny as He chooses to destroy my chances of being a mother. It’s therefore my perogative to make the dream of creative fulfillment come true for me. That is what I believe God is saying to me and is the answer to my prayers.”


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This has been an unearthly long entry, but I obviously have a lot of thoughts about the Strasbergs. I have been studying them, as a family, since I was 12 years old and decided that the Actors Studio was where I needed to be. My main response to the book (besides the revelatory anecdotes about Marilyn) is: Sheesh. Thank God I wasn't in that family.

Here's an anecdote from when Marilyn first started taking classes with Lee.


EXCERPT FROM Marilyn and Me, by Susan Strasberg

Pop and Marilyn decided that she would observe at the studio, work with him at home, sit in on the private classes and eventually do the exercise work and scenes with the other students. Observer privileges at the studio were a courtesy that was extended to foreign or already established actors. Some came once, like Laurence Olivier; others came often.

My father had gone out of his way for both known and unknown artists before, if they were needy, financially or emotionally, and if they were talented. He said that often the depth of the emotional problem was correspondent to the degree of talent. He was fascinated with the transmutation of antisocial behavior into creative work. Because of this, he was accused of doing therapy. One student and friend remarked, "Lee, you should have been a therapist."

He shook his head. "Why, darling? I have more freedom in my work."

He sent numerous actors to psychiatrists, and many doctors sent their patients to class because they felt his work helped theirs in analysis.

He felt Marilyn had to go into therapy before he could work with her. She'd seen doctors before only on a hit-and-run basis, emergency room therapy with no continuity. Now she agreed to commit on a long-term basis.

After a day of teaching, my dad was usually too exhausted to talk, and even when he wasn't exhausted, he wasn't exactly a magpie. Now, three times a week after work he and Marilyn disappeared into the living room. Soon I'd hear laughing or weeping, sometimes an outburst of anger, a diatribe against her studio or someone who'd betrayed her trust. She was very unforgiving during these bouts, it was all ablack and white for her. People were either for her or against her, there was no middle ground. If she even suspected they were against her, and she could be very suspicious, she'd go wild. I don't know if "those bastards ... sons of bitches ..." and so on were ever told off in person, but if they were, I doubt they would have ever forgotten it. And she didn't stutter once.

Her scatological language fascinated me. My parents rarely cursed in private. You didn't say certain words in public, it just wasn't done. Others could do it, but we didn't except my brother, who refused to obey the unspoken rules. "Hypocrites!" he'd yell at my parents. "Goddamned hypocrites!"

Marilyn's vocabulary included words I'd never ever heard of, and she wielded them like a sailor, with no embarrassment. She had quite a temper when she lost control. It didn't faze my father, perhaps because he was always battling his own prodigious rage, which more than matched hers. He seemed to have a calming effect on her. Her tirade would evaporate and, as if nothing had occurred, they'd be speaking quietly about very personal matters - men, her mother, her feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness. It was such a stark contrast to the way she behaved with me. I could hardly believe it was the same woman.

When I overheard snatches of these sessions I'd get excited with a sense of being part of something forbidden. As if I were a sieve, I'd feel her emotions run through me. If she cried, tears came to my eyes.

On the other hand, I was ambivalent about the tenderness I heard in my dad's voice as he consoled her. When I'd gone to my father to talk about something personal in my life - my fights with Mother, my need for more freedom, a young man I'd been dating who never called me any more - he closed up. "Darling, I'm not concerned with that except as it relates to the work." It was true, mine weren't life-or-death problems, but they felt that way to me, and he acted as if they were so trivial he couldn't be bothered. I wanted to cry out to him, "I don't care about the work. I'm young, I want to have a good time. I don't want to suffer or be in pain, I want you to help me. I want you to hold me." The words lodged in my throat, and I couldn't say anything.

Another thing confused me - given that my middle name was confusion. It confused me to observe the attention and time my father devoted to Marilyn. It began to dawn on me that there was some connection between them that went beyond the work. She was so different from the classic actresses he spoke of with glowing admiration, the actresses he admired - Rachel, the great French tragedienne, whom I looked like; Eleonora Duse, whom he'd seen and whom he believed was the greatest actress that had ever lived. He advocated willpower and structure and discipline. Marilyn seemed such an unlikely disciple. Her work and life seemed the antithesis of everything he stood for to me. Was he in love with her? I didn't think so. But he was practically a stranger to me. In some ways our entire family were intimate strangers. I wondered if my mother was jeaous of the time he gave to Marilyn.

"She's not your father's type, you know," Mom confided.

"My type is Jennifer Jones, that dark-haired, fair-skinned beauty," Pop affirmed.

"It's her talent he loves," Mother assured herself. "She's so incredibly talented." Then she wondered whether I should darken my hair and eyebrows for a more glamorous look. Eventually I did and, when I saw the photos of myself, dark and dramatic, I realized with a shock that I resembled a young Jennifer Jones.

Someone who'd known Pop from the Group Theatre days was reminiscing to me: "There were two things we knew about Lee. He loved baseball and Alice Faye." Alice Faye was a blonde like Marilyn, like my mother. Maybe my father didn't have a type.

Even when Marilyn wasn't physically present, she often monopolized the conversation. My father was unaccustomedly verbal about her. After dinner one night he told us, "She has this phenomenal sensitivity, her instrument is incredibly responsive. Despite the bad mannerisms and habits she may have acquired in Hollywood, and with all the abuse she was subjected to, they haven't touched what is underneath. It's difficult because you have to look past what she looks like to see what's hidden. She had to hide it or she'd have been too vulnerable to survive, and she's so eager and willing, as if she's a flower that's been waiting all this time for someone to water her."

There was this strange constriction in my throat as he continued. Was it boredom, or was it resentment? He never talked about me with that look in his eyes. He wasn't finished either; he went on to say, "After Marlon, she has the greatest talent, raw talent, that I've ever come across, except in her it's just not at all developed. But she has the desire. And if she has the discipline, the will, she can do it."

Early one evening Marilyn had finished a particularly grueling session wtih Pop. We were waiting for dinner, which we ate around six-thirty, and she'd borrowed some of my makeup to fix up her face because she'd been crying. She was unusually relaxed and pleased about whatever they'd done. We were in my bedroom and I sprawled on my bed, watching her apply my rouge and mascara, the only makeup I used.

As she began to talk to me, she seemed to be talking to herself, too. Her voice was hushed but clear. "I thought your father would be so forbidding, I was terrified the first time I was alone with him in there. But he wasn't scary at all. Gadge [Elia Kazan, the director], a lot of people told me he was scary, but I think they just didn't want me to see him. Susie, the best thing that ever happened to me was when your father took me seriously. I've always wanted for people to see me, not the actress, the real person. Your daddy does. He treats me like I'm a human being. I was so sick of being treated like a poster babe or a broad out there. Everybody laughed when I said I wanted to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, like I was a dummy. They were the dummies. If they'd bothered to read the book, they'd know she was this sensual girl, a barmaid. I could really have played her."

She turned to look at me. "You know why I make fun of myself? So I'll do it before they do. That way it's not so bad, doesn't hurt so much. It's either commit suicide or laugh." She had this pensive look on her face, as if she were figuring something out.

Daylight was fading fast, and she switched on the lamp near the mirror. "And you know, since your daddy's given me his stamp of approval, other people are suddenly changing their tune. Only I'm not sure they believe it like he does."

Inside I was dying. I'd been one of those people who'd looked down at her aspirations. Thank God she couldn't read my mind.

In a stream of consciousness her voice flowed on. "I worked with this woman in California for years. She taught me, educated me, like your father, gave me books to read, but even she thought I was a dummy. He doesn't, and the most important thing is, with your father for the first time I feel it's OK to be me, the whole kit and caboodle, you know, the whole mess.

"I never dared to even think about it before - who's got time to think when you gotta survive? But now I want to be an artist, pardon the expression, a real actress. I don't care about the money and the fame, although I'm not knocking it, but like the man says, 'Life's not written on dollar bills,' right? Since I came here to New York, I feel I'm accepted, not as a freak, but as myself, whoever the hell that is. I'm kind of just finding out."

She was so open, her face flowing with fervor and longing. I felt glad for her, and I wondered if this was what my father was drawn to - this longing of hers.

She turned off the makeup light, and then, almost as if she'd made a discovery, she continued, "You know, for the first time in a long time I feel that something good is going to come out of my life ... and I'm beginning to think that the something good is me. I know your father's really going to help me. You don't know how lucky you are." I assumed she meant to have a father like that, and I was a little embarrassed on general principles and just nodded agreement.

It was dark in the room now, and we sat, unable to see each other's faces, lost in our own thoughts. Faint notes of some lyrical strains of flute music drifted in the air. The sweet-sour aroma of red cabbage and brisket made my mouth water.

Listening to her had reminded me of this story about an agent who sold a producer on this actress, saying she'd stop the show if he cast her. On opening night she did stop the show and got a standing ovation. The agent turned to the producer triumphantly. "You see, I told you she was great, and now I believe it."

Marilyn seemed like the agent before the ovation, hoping for the best yet not convinced.

It amazed me that she was so much older, had achieved so much, yet she was just as insecure as, maybe even more insecure than, me. She had won my complete admiration for one thing: she wasn't scared of my father, not even a little bit. I determined I'd watch her closely so I could learn her secret.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (31)

October 18, 2008

The Books: "Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words : Marilyn Monroe's Revealing Last Words and Photographs" (George Barris)

120jz.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words : Marilyn Monroe's Revealing Last Words and Photographs, by George Barris

George Barris claims that these were the last photographs of Mariliyn Monroe before she died. Bert Stern claims that his photos (the ones of Marilyn lying naked in bed, drinking champagne) are the last photos of Marilyn Monroe. Neither are correct. There was actually another photo shoot that was her last. The competition to be the "last" with Marilyn is intense ... her last moments, the phone calls, the meetings, have been narrowed down to the second ... as though something in the banal could reveal her state of mind, or her intention. The 'myth' of Marilyn can obscure her. I have always loved Marilyn Monroe, and while, of course, the "myth" affects me - it's like osmosis - you can't really help it ... I have always been interested in getting beyond the myth. Not so much in terms of knowing her biographical details (which will always be murky with Monroe) - that doesn't interest me as much - but in understanding her as an actress: her struggles, her commitment, what she was good at, what she knew she had to work at - her fights with the studio, her negotiating power and how she used it - her work at the Actors Studio and what that was all about for her ...

Since I first saw Marilyn Monroe on television in Some Like It Hot, I've thought: "Who the hell is that luscious woman and why is she so damn FUNNY??" Her funniness can often be skated over, as can her dramatic ability - just because of her looks, and the va-va-voom nature of her persona. I mean, I know it's understood that she was a marvelous comedienne, but still: I think the "myth" tends to override everything else, until it is hard to believe that this was, you know, a real woman, an actress, a person like any other. The myth had already begun when she was alive. She was the biggest female star in the world. An international phenomenon.

The pressure began very early to have her appear in certain kinds of parts ... and the studio often punished her by putting her in projects unworthy of her - not only unworthy of her talent, but unworthy of her stature as a giant star. There were those in power who thought she was a whore who just got lucky. Now, not everyone felt this way. She had powerful friends. She knew how to shmooze and get what she needed. And once you were a trusted ally of Monroe, you were a trusted ally forever. There were agents and directors who went to bat for her, who tried to protect her ... but, once you look at the whole of her life - and the decisions she made - you begin to realize that the myth of Marilyn - as one of the greatest victims of all time - was actually nothing of the sort. Sure, she had some bad things happen to her (again, I'm talking career-wise), some hard knocks - but once you delve into the details, you really can see her as a businesswoman, her own career manager - playing hardball with the big boys. She was no victim. I've always been a bit annoyed by that characterization of her.

At the height of her career, she refused to do a couple of pictures, because she didn't like the material. She was put on suspension, as though she were a recalcitrant child. She didn't care. She moved to New York City at that time, and started taking acting classes at the Actors Studio. I am trying to imagine one of our most giant stars behaving in that way today. How refreshing it would be! She knew she needed to grow as an actress, and there was no way she could do so if she relied on the studio to put her in challenging projects. So she took charge. In the mid-50s, the Studio was THE place to be - having turned out stars such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and others. Monroe put herself on the line, her reputation, knowing that there were those in the Studio who sneered at her ("big movie star trying to be a serious actress ...") - and began to study, taking acting classes, doing scenes, working on Eugene O'Neill and others. At the same time, she formed her own production company - another thing relatively unheard of at that time. An actress trying to have control over her own destiny? Who does she think she is? She should be grateful that we let her act at all! Make no mistake: that vibe was present in the studio, and it was reflected in her low-balled salary and the projects they put her in.

She gave a press conference in New York, announcing her move to New York and the creation of her new production company. The joint was mobbed, photographers and journalists clamoring to the microphones to shout questions at her. She was quite open about how unhappy she was in Hollywood, and had no hesitation in saying so. She said she didn't like the projects that had been coming her way - she wanted people to know she was more than just her body and her glamorous image - she wanted people to know that she was a real actress. She announced that she wanted to develop The Brothers Karamazov for the screen. One of the reporters called out, "Do you even know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?" Look at that. Look at that open contempt. This was something Marilyn faced every day. So she must have been used to it because she replied calmly, "Have you read the book? There's a character in it named Grushenka - she's a real seductress - and I think it would be a great part for me." Marilyn, you've got more class in your pinky toe than any of those folks looking down on you, and her calm (yet pointed) response to the reporter is one I really admire. "Have you read the book?" That's really all you need to say to some bigot who tries to put you down.

Unfortunately, her "Grushenka" never came to fruition - but I share that anecdote because it shows Marilyn's business smarts. She always had it. She was one of those rare rare stars who is chosen by the public to be famous. I've written my theories about such people before - the Julia Roberts-es, the Tom Cruise-es, There is something indestructible about the fame of these people (well, until one of them leapt on a certain couch and made history). But let me get back to my point: You can feel when the industry is trying to MAKE a star. The best example I can think of is when Vanity Fair put Gretchen Mol on their cover 10-odd years ago.

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Mol obviously had powerful people behind her, and everyone wants to be the one to take credit for finding "the next hot thing". But the backlash from that cover ("who does she think she is?" "Who the hell is Gretchen Mol and why are her hardened nipples staring at me from the magazine rack??") was acute. Her WORK had not yet even been seen in a wide way, and so the cover was perceived (by many in the industry as well as by the public) as pushy, too-much-too-soon (even Mol has said that about the cover - her career was delicate, she had done a couple of indie movies, and the level of scrutiny the cover brought her was WAY too much) - She hadn't even done any movies yet that had any real kind of buzz (out in the larger world, I mean, outside the boundaries of Hollywood) ... and so trying to CREATE the buzz backfired. (Sometimes that ploy will work, but Mol, a lovely actress, is really representative of how it can NOT go over well). The question on the Vanity Fair cover was a mistake, in my opinion: "Is she Hollywood's next 'It' girl?" The answer came back - from Hollywood and the public (who had never heard of Mol, and many of her movies weren't even playing in most cineplexes in America - it was strictly an "insider's" cover) - a resounding "No."

But with someone like Julia Roberts: her fame took even her own agent by surprise. Yes, she was being groomed for good stuff ... she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Steel Magnolias (Julia now says that she sees that as one of those polite "welcome to the business" nominations - as opposed to anything with more fire behind it) - and she was already playing leads. But she was on location for Sleeping With the Enemy when Pretty Woman opened - she hadn't even done publicity for the film!! It wasn't thought that it would be necessary. Can you imagine?? Pretty Woman had its opening weekend, and Roberts, on location in South Carolina, had no idea the BROU HAHA that had broken loose. This is pre-Internet days, pre-blackberry days ... If you were out of town, you were most decidedly out of town. Her agent called her and said, "Do you have any idea what is happening right now?" When Roberts came back to Hollywood after her shoot, she was the biggest box-office star in the world. It was a true Cinderella story. And it was the PUBLIC who did that, the PUBLIC who screamed, "WE WANT MORE OF HER." It took the industry by surprise. Best kind of fame.

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I want to make it clear that I am not really talking about "talent" here. There are plenty of fantastic actresses out there who are doing work superior to Julia Roberts. What I'm talking about is fame. And whether or not you like Julia Roberts is irrelevant to what actually happened to her back in the early 90s. It was one of those rare rare things: a public-driven phenomenon. It's not that Gretchen Mol is less of an actress. It's that the industry was trying to create something with her before it was time, before she had "the role", before she had even "hit". Julia Roberts "hit" all on her own. The amount of good will that that generated towards Julia Roberts is still in evidence today. That's what I mean when I say there is something "indestructible" about that kind of fame. If you play it right, you can ride that wave for a long long time.

If you look at some of the choices Roberts made in the wake of her stardom - it's incredible. She, like Monroe, was unhappy with all of the Pretty Woman II scripts she was being offered. So she didn't make a movie FOR TWO YEARS. I mean, the balls!! She had made Dying Young and Sleeping with the Enemy - but these were both filmed before the firestorm of the opening of Pretty Woman. Both films opened on the heels of Pretty Woman, which gave the illusion that they were now "Julia Roberts Pictures" - but they weren't - not yet. The Julia Roberts acting in those films was unaware that the genie in the bottle was about to be released. In 1991, the year after Pretty Woman came out, she was Tinkerbell in Hook which amounted to maybe a week of work - but other than that, she stopped working immediately following her giant breakthrough. This is unheard of. But I think Roberts was smart. Probably at the time it felt crazy to her, and I know that her agent was pulling her hair out, begging Roberts to get back to work - to do something - ANYTHING - to remind the public of why they had loved her so much in Pretty Woman. But Roberts remained firm. I'm convinced that that is one of the reasons she is still such an enormous star. She's her own person. She would not be manipulated. From very early on, she refused to do nude scenes. Even in Pretty Woman, where you would think it would be par for the course, she refused. Contract negotiations were stalled because Roberts refused to take her top off. No, no, no, she would not do it. Garry Marshall obviously wanted her badly enough that he caved. They compromised - she did one scene in her panties, so there is the impression that she is nude, but she actually is not. To this day, Roberts has never done a nude scene. But the important thing about this whole story is that before she was famous she knew her limits, and she wasn't afraid to say "no". In such a soulless world as Hollywood, where people are willing to do anything, anything, to be famous - even if it means contradicting their own ideals for themselves - this is rare. And I think that, too, goes a long way towards explaining the Julia Roberts phenomenon. People GET that about her. To be clear (yet again): I don't think doing nude scenes is a bad thing, and I don't judge anyone who makes that choice. I was nude onstage once. Whatever, it was important to the part. I didn't have to spout lines that told the audience I was a manipulative trashy person with ZERO boundaries. The nudity did it all for me. It was great. Embarrassing at first, but eventually no big deal. I like Shelley Winters' quote about nudity: "I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive religious experience." hahahaha But Roberts didn't feel right about it, and she stuck to her guns.

I happen to love Julia Roberts, and I know she has her detractors. My point in all of this, though, is to demonstrate the power and strength of a star who is chosen by the public, as opposed to by the industry. There's just something untouchable about that kind of fame.

This is what happened to Marilyn Monroe, who started out as a starlet in a line of starlets, indistinguishable from any of the rest. Of course what WAS distinguishable was her drive, her desire to be not only famous but GOOD, to be a "real actress". Her performance in Don't Bother to KNock (my review here) is proof that Marilyn was not just whistling into the wind with her ambition, there was real talent there, and a real capability for true dramatic expression. But that was not what was wanted of her. What "hit" with the public was her giggly bubbly sex goddess, the kind-hearted innocent woman who also had the body of a pin-up. Powerful directors pulled her out of obscurity and gave her small things to do ... Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve ... and somewhere along the line the publicity department at the studio decided to put their power behind this new blonde starlet, and they went into overdrive, putting her in photo shoots that appeared in Life magazine - and the fan mail started pouring in. People loved her. Who knows what they sensed ... but they wanted more. When the nude photos she had done earlier in her life came to light, a shitstorm erupted. It was scandalous, horrible - and many of those in charge at the studios wanted her to apologize, to be contrite. Marilyn refused. She made a statement acknowledging that yes, that was her in the photos, and no, she wasn't sorry, because her rent had been due and she had no money, and she was desperate. This was not at all what the studio bigwigs wanted her to say - but imagine their surprise - the public overwhelmingly supported her. The publicity department was bombarded with sacks and sacks of mail from all over the world - women AND men (that was another key element of her appeal: women loved her and wanted to be like her, men desired her and wanted to protect her - if you have that kind of cross-gender appeal, then it is your OWN fault if you don't capitalize on it - because it is rare rare rare - Julia Roberts has the same thing) - and the letters all said the same thing: "We love this girl!" Her honesty shone through. People respect honesty. What Monroe's detractors had hoped would be her downfall (you know, the ones who had the sneering, "She's just a whore who got lucky" attitude) ended up being one of her biggest triumphs. THAT'S the power of a public-driven stardom. The industry was ready to cut her loose. As far as they concerned, she was a dime a dozen. But she wasn't. In Marilyn Monroe's case, the public ALWAYS knew better than the industry.

George Barris, the author of this book, interviewed Marilyn extensively and took the famous photos of Marilyn playing in the surf in Santa Monica, drinking champagne, cavorting on the beach in an orange bathing suit. Monroe had only a month or so left to live. She had already been fired from Something's Got to Give, and was eloquent about what she thought had happened. She comes off, here, as lucid, sweet, and determined. I feel like any book about Marilyn Monroe has to be taken with a grain of salt - there is soooo much to gain by saying, "Hey, I spoke with Marilyn Monroe and here is what she said" - that I am suspect of mostly everything. But this is a beautiful volume, glossy, Marilyn's words on various topics interspersed with Barris' photographs. I love the Barris photographs because many of them feel candid. It seems like he just turned his camera on her and "caught" her, behaving. She's wearing a little bit of eye makeup, but nothing much else. She jumps and laughs and seems to be talking right at the camera, at times ... They have a wonderful vibe, and capture, to me, what I feel is Monroe's essence. Yes, she was damaged, and insecure, and frightened, and (ironically) sexually frigid. All of that is true. But she was also a nature-loving beach girl, a woman who was funny, and who loved funny people. Also: she LOVED the camera, and the camera LOVED her. (I wrote a post called Marilyn and the Camera which has some great quotes from photographers who had worked with her). She was beyond being photogenic. She was magic, and she created that magic for herself. It was like a button was pushed in her when that camera was pointed her way, and she came to life. It was what she did. It made her happy, and you can tell that that is true in the photographs Barris took of her that day on the beach.

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Barris keeps the narration to a minimum. Occasionally he interjects with explanatory footnotes, but most of the text is Marilyn speaking. She talks about her childhood, her mentally ill mother, her marriage as a teenager, Joe DiMaggio, her acting, John Huston, the nude calendar, etc. etc. Again, a grain of salt is needed here ... but even that being said, this is a beautiful book. A coffee table book, I guess - and the photos are haunting. You can hear her laughter mixed with the crashing surf.

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I chose an excerpt where Marilyn talks about various different topics, nothing too deep or personal ... just her own preferences in life.

EXCERPT FROM Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words : Marilyn Monroe's Revealing Last Words and Photographs, by George Barris

On Aging: Women as they grow older should take heart. They've gained in wisdom. They're really silly when they are twenty.

Carl Sandburg, who's in his eighties - you should see his vitality, what he has contributed. Why, he could play the guitar and sing at three in the morning - I like him very much.

On Food, Fragrance, and Flowers: I love food as long as it has flavor. It's flavorless food I can't stand. I usually have a steak and a green salad for my dinner, also for breakfast when I'm really hungry. I keep away from pastries - I used to love them, and ice cream, too. I skip all desserts unless it's fruit. I just don't like the taste of pastries As a kid I did, but now I hate it - and as for candy, I can take it or leave it, usually leave it. But I love champagne - just give me champagne and good food, and I'm in heaven and love. That's what makes the world go round.

I like different scents of perfume, beside Chanel No. 5.

My favorite flower is the delphinium. Roses, any color, are [among my] favorites, too.

On Traveling: I like getting there, not the actual traveling itself. I've never been to Italy, but I love Italians. Paris I hear is a marvelous plae - the city of lights. It must be beautiful; I hope someday to go there and all these other exciting places.

I've traveled to England, Korea, Japan, and Mexico. I've been to Canada, too - when I made the film River of No Return, in 1953. We were on location in the Canadian Rockies and Banff. Did you know I almost drowned in the Bow River, when the icy torrent dragged me downstream? I also tore a ligament in my ankle when I tripped over a rock in the river. They had to put me in a cast for ten days when my ankle swelled badly. Now I can laugh about it, but it wasn't funny then. Imagine, this was my contact with nature - poor little me. A big-city girl, drenched, half drowned, and crippled, crushed by the wilderness. But if you remember the picture, I rode a log raft down the rapids. It sure was beautiful country. Oh, yes, how can I ever forget Canada?

On Television and Movies: The only time I watch television is for the news program or for a good movie. I'm not what you'd call a TV fan. I was going to do Somerset Maugham's Rain - the Sadie Thompson role. I find it an exciting one, but the deal fell through. I wanted Lee Strasberg, my drama coach, to direct me in it, but NBC wanted an experienced TV director. I think it can be an exciting movie for the big screen - I believe in movies. Everyone should get out of their house once in a while - not just sit around with their socks on.

On Acting and Actors: When anyone asks me for advice on how to become an actress, the only advice I feel qualified to give is only through my own experience. So here goes: Always be yourself. Retain individuality; listen to the truest part of yourself. Study if you can. Get a good teacher. Believe in yourself. Have confidence, too.

I have favorite motion-picture stars, like everyone else. You know who mine are? My favorite is Marlon Brando. I mean, really, I believe we'd be an interesting combination. I've said that about Marlon for a long time, but we haven't found the right story. Can you imagine us on the big screen? I hope something happens soon.

Greta Garbo, I've never met her. It really bugs me when I miss one of her films on TV. Oh, if you could only get me to meet her! I've also heard wonderful things about Jeanne Eagels and Laurette Taylor. And the one they called the Blond Bombshell: Jean Harlow. Kay Kendall was a great comedian. She was really talented.

I would have loved working with Gerard Philipe, the handsome French star - his films I've been told were a huge success in France, as were his stage plays. I was told he wanted to make films with me. Oh, what a shame we never got the opportunity. We would have made an interesting team. What a shame. He was so young to die; he was thirty-six. He had been ill and apparently died of a heart attack.

On Marilyn: Those things the press has been saying about me [are fine] if they want to give the wrong impression. It's as simple as all that. I'm not interested in being a millionaire. The one thing a person wants most in life is usually something basic money can't buy. I'm not the girl next door - I'm not a goody-goody - but I think I'm human.

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October 17, 2008

The Books: "Timebends: A Life" (Arthur Miller)

35309.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Timebends: A Life, by Arthur Miller

This is truly bizarre. Today happens to be Arthur Miller's birthday. His is the next book on the shelf. So happy birthday, Arthur Miller.

When Timebends came out, in 1987, I remember there being mixed reviews. I think mainly folks were expecting salacious revelations about Marilyn Monroe - and the book decidedly does not deliver on that score. But why does it not deliver? Because Marilyn Monroe was not some unearthly sexual goddess to Arthur Miller. She was a real girl, sweet, troubled, innocent, lovely - and she was his wife. He does not take us into their bedroom, and he does not "explain" her. She can't be "explained" by one person alone, and it is not up to Miller to interpret her for us. The Marilyn sections of the book are very lovely - I loved the picture of her that emerged ... but it's certainly not the whole book, it is not even the context in which the entire book is placed. It is an event, like any other ... something that made up a good deal of his emotional life for some time, as well as his creative life (as he tried to write material that would show the world she was a "real actress"). (Once upon a time I put together a giant post called "The Making of The Misfits" - filled with photos and book excerpts about that troubled film-shoot. The whole thing really had began as Miller's desire to write something he felt Marilyn could do, something worthy of her.) But in general, the Marilyn in the book is revealed as a real person, maybe more beautiful than most, certainly more famous ... but a woman with anxieties, quirks, and a lovely sense of humor and intellect that he found captivating.

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Additionally, there is a lot of politics in the book (which is also not surprising) - and in many ways it gives a grand sweeping look at the journey of the American Left from the 30s to the 50s ... well, and yes, into the 60s - but by then many of the definitions had changed. Miller was from New York, and had grown up going to see productions at the Group Theatre, that bastion of the American Left, and had been gobsmacked by Clifford Odets' fiery language, and the vision that theatre could be somehow relevant and revolutionary. His compassion for the downtrodden, the persecuted, the forgotten masses could be seen as radical (and it certainly was at the time) - yet at the same time he had great contempt for the Soviet system of oppression and censorship, and worked hard through his life to support the persecuted writers in the Soviet bloc. And while he had seen the downside to American capitalism in his own family misfortunes, he was also amazed during the groundbreaking production of Salesman in Beijing in 1983 - which took China by storm. I actually remember some of the news reports about that production trickling down to me in junior high. I had read Salesman by then, so I knew of it ... but that production can be seen, in certain lights, as a watershed moment in China's cultural history. People went NUTS for Salesman in China. They had gone NUTS for Salesman in America in the 1940s and there, 50 years later, in a Communist country, they went nuts again. Even more nuts. Miller was amazed by the response. The curtain would go down at the end of the production, and Chinese men in suits would be hugging one another in the aisles, weeping. Amazing. It had spoken to them, to their experience, their hopes and dreams - another culture, another political system - none of that mattered. The message of Salesman, of the inherent dignity of man, despite his financial success, had a deep deep resonance for the Chinese. Salesman traveled, in other words. John Updike shares an interesting anecdote about Miller, which, I think, might surprise some people who just brush Miller off as a radical:

I went to the Soviet Union [in 1964] for a month as part of a cultural exchange program ... I came way from that month ... with a hardened antipathy to communism ...

There was something bullying egocentric about my admirable Soviet friends, a preoccupation with their own tortured situations that shut out all light from beyond. They were like residents of a planet so heavy that even their gazes were sucked back into its dark center. Arthur Miller, no reactionary, said it best when, a few years later, he and I and some other Americans riding the cultural-exchange bandwagon had entertained, in New York or Connecticut, several visiting Soviet colleagues. The encounter was handsomely catered, the dialogue loud and lively, the will toward friendship was earnest and in its way intoxicating, but upon our ebullient guests' departure Miller looked at me and said sighingly, "Jesus, don't they make you glad you're an American?"

Miller's family lost everything in the stock market crash, and so their situation was quite reduced. I believe they moved to Brooklyn, a huge downward step, off the island, so to speak, and Miller was a young child, but very much remembers the stress and fear of that time. Much of his memory would be put to use later on when writing Death of a Salesman - the tenement buildings, the change of Brooklyn from a more rural area to something crowded and fetid ... Not to mention the fact that he did have an uncle who was a salesman, a brash funny and vaguely pathetic man - an early prototype for Willy Loman.

I did not go into Timebends with any specific expectation like some people did. I didn't think, "He had BETTER talk about Marilyn Monroe for 300 pages straight!" Or "He had BETTER dish on how he felt about Kazan and the HUAC - if he doesn't? I will HATE the book" ... or etc. etc. I found some of it didactic and rather humorless, and much of his political sections were boring and preachy ... but you move through them and then get on to the business of theatre. To Miller, it all was one. You can tell that in his plays as well. His plays always have a "message", some social, political, or cultural message ... and it is that reason that they can sometimes seem didactic in a way that Tennessee Williams' plays never do. It's interesting: they were contemporaries, the two giant stars of the American stage, the two men (with O'Neill and Odets in the generations before paving the way) who brought an American voice and an American perspective where before there had been none. Much of the Broadway fare in the early years of the 20th century, up into the 1920s, was written by Americans, sure, but they took as their inspiration the works of Noel Coward, or Shaw, or other Europeans. It was not a truly American art-form. Vaudeville was, but not the mainstage of the Broadway theatres. That began to change with O'Neill - and Odets ... two wildly different playwrights with different perspectives ... but they cleared the space for what would happen in the 40s, and 50s - when out came playwrights like Miller, and Williams, and Inge, and Saroyan. These playwrights are American to the core. It is a voice I am talking about, a sensibility - it is its own thing, and these guys helped put American on the map, at least in a theatrical sense.

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Miller's book details his own part of that historic moment in our cultural life.

It has since come to light that Miller and his last wife - Inge Morath, a photographer - had a child who had Down's Syndrome, and Miller was so horrified and embarrassed that he put the child in an institution and never saw him again. He never even acknowledged the child's existence. For decades. Inge Morath would go to visit her son, but it was a horrible situation. The child is now a man, and many of Miller's old friends have reached out to him - but Miller himself never did. And there's not a word of this in Timebends, which is truly chilling. The daughter he had with Morath - Rebecca - is now a director, actress, writer - and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis - and Miller showers her with praise and love in Timebends. The story about the Down's Syndrome child came out this past year - so reading Timebends in the 80s, you'd never ever know that this giant THING was missing. Miller had some major demons going on, obviously, and I do wonder what price he paid (psychologically, I mean) in keeping this huge thing a secret. His last play was Finishing the Picture (2004) and it was (obviously, if you know Miller's life) the story of the making of The Misfits, with its star actress going deeper and deeper into madness and incomprehensibility, as the hard-drinking macho cast and crew wait for her to appear, so that they can "finish the picture". Miller was 90 years old, and there he is ... going back in time to a moment when maybe he thought he could "save" someone ... going over it and over it (as he had done before, in his play After the Fall) ... maybe in doing so he thought he could change his own past. He died before the revelation came out about his abandoned son, so naturally there has been MUCH chatter on the airwaves about it. For my part, it makes me look at his work in a different way: the evocations of fathers and sons, so common in his work ... the passing on of the torch, so important in all matters of family and mortality ... what do we pass on? What have we, as men, as fathers, made of ourselves? What can I give to my son? What do I have to give? There is a whole new way to look at these existential questions now. It's awful, but I wonder if a lot of his torment and didacticism came from the fact that he had done this awful thing and he felt the need to hide it.

The excerpt I share below is giant, so sit back, and get ready. It is the story of the making of Death of a Salesman, and it is not only my favorite section in the book - but perhaps my favorite section of ANY book. He's an elegant writer, not too emotional, but his memories of that time in his life are intense and you really get the sense that he was pushing himself THROUGH something, he was dreaming himself into a space where he could find his voice and share it. Not an easy thing to do. He had already had one success - All My Sons ... but with Salesman he went deeper. It was profound for him. I will not re-cap his thoughts here - they are all below.

But the elements of this story resonate for me, and have for years, ever since I first read it:

-- his experience of seeing Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, and what it said to him, what it did to him ... It basically gave him permission. To go big, to go huge, to be relevant and important ... not to imitate Williams, that could not be done, they were different men ... but to stop being microscopic and go into the macro-level. (His giving-of-the-props to Williams here is incredibly generous. Because he could very easily have taken the credit himself for what happened to American theatre in the 1940s ... Salesman was as huge a phenomenon as Streetcar ... but he doesn't. He hands that to Williams.)

-- his feeling that he needed to build a shack with his own hands to write the play (he didn't know why he had to, but he knew he did ...) Here he is in front of the shack, many years later.

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-- the fact that he would finish work on the play after a long day, and find that he had been crying all day ... without even realizing it

-- Kazan signing on to direct - a huge deal. (And Kazan's response to reading the play for the first time ... gulp ...)

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-- finding their Willy Loman. The story of Lee J. Cobb - who was really too young for the part, he was the contemporary of Arthur Kennedy who played his own son ... but how Cobb basically insisted that the part was his and his alone.

-- then - the UNBELIEVABLE story of the moment in rehearsal when Lee J. Cobb "got it". I have goosebumps right now just thinking about it.

-- and then: opening night ... and what happened in that theatre that night.


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It is a magnificent story, from beginning to end, and one I treasure. It feels, in a weird way, like it belongs to me. In the same way that I feel that the signing of the Declaration of Independence belongs to me, or that Walt Whitman belongs to me, or that the first walk on the moon belongs to me. These are stories that make up our culture, our history ... and they are part of me, mine.

At the end of Death of a Salesman, Willy's wife Linda says what are probably the most famous lines in the entire play:


Don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

And so it has.


EXCERPT FROM Timebends: A Life, by Arthur Miller

Already in the sixties I was surprised by the common tendency to think of the late forties and early fifties as some sort of renaissance in the New York theatre. If that was so, I was unaware of it. I thought the theatre a temple being rotted out with commercialized junk, where mostly by accident an occasional good piece of work appeared, usually under some disguise of popular cultural coloration such as a movie star in a leading role.

That said, it now needs correction; it was also a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized, as it would be by the mid-fifties, into young and old, hip and square, or even political left and middle and right. So the playwright's challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America. With ticket prices within reason, this meant that an author was writing for his peers, and if such was really not the case statistically, it was sufficiently so to support an illusion that had a basis in reality. After all, it was not thought particularly daring to present T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party on Broadway, or Laurence Olivier in a Greek tragedy, or Giraudoux's The Madwomen of Chaillot, or any number of other ambitious works. To be sure, such shows had much shorter lives than the trash, but that was to be expected, for most people would much rather laugh than cry, rather watch an actor being hit on the head by a pig bladder than by some painful truth.

The net of it all was that serious writers could reasonably assume they were addressing the whole American mix, and so their plays, whether successfully or not, stretched toward a wholeness of experience that would not require specialists or a coterie to be understood. As alienated a spirit as he was, O'Neill tried for the big audience, and Clifford Odets no less so, along with every other writer longing to prophesy to America, from Whitman and Melville to Dreiser and Hemingway and so on.

For Europe's playwrights the situation was profoundly different, with society already being split beyond healing between the working class and its allies, who were committed to a socialist destiny, and the bourgeois mentality that sought an art of reassurance and the pleasures of forgetting what was happening in the streets. (The first American plays I saw left me wondering where the characters came from. The people I knew were fanatics about surviving, but onstage everyone seemed to have mysteriously guaranteed incomes, and though every play had to have something about "love", there was nothing about sex, which was all there was in Brooklyn, at least that I ever noticed.) An American avant-garde, therefore, if only because the domination of society by the middle class was profoundly unchallenged, could not simply steal from Brecht or even Shaw and expect its voice to reach beyond the small alienated minority that had arrived in their seats already converted to its aims. That was not the way to change the world.

For a play to do that it had to reach precisely those who accepted everything as it was; great drama is great questions or it is nothing but technique. I could not imagine a theatre worth my time that did not want to change the world, any more than a creative scientist could wish to prove the validity of everything that is already known. I knew only one other writer with the same approach, even if he surrounded his work with a far different aura. This was Tennessee Williams.

If only because he came up at a time when homosexuality was absolutely unacknowledgeable in a public figure, Williams had to belong to a minority culture and understood in his bones what a brutal menace the majority could be if aroused against him. I lived with much the same sense of alienation, albeit for other reasons. Certainly I never regarded him as the sealed-off aesthete he was thought to be. There is a radical politics of the soul as well as of the ballot box and the picket line. If he was not an activist, it was not for lack of a desire for justice, nor did he consider a theatre profoundly involved in society and politics, the venerable tradition reaching back to the Greeks, somehow unaesthetic or beyond his interest.

The real theatre - as opposed to the sequestered academic one - is always straining at the inbuilt inertia of a society that always wants to deny change and the pain it necessarily involves. But it is in this effort that the musculature of important work is developed. In a different age, perhaps even only fifteen years later, in the sixties, Williams might have had a more comfortably alienated audience to deal with, one that would have relieved the pressure upon him to extend himself beyond a supportive cult environment, and I think this might well have narrowed the breadth of his work and its intensity. In short, there was no renaissance in the American forties, but there was a certain balance within the audience - a balance, one might call it, between the alienated and the conformists - that gave sufficient support to the naked cry of the heart and, simultaneously, enough resistance to force it into a rhetoric that at one stroke could be broadly understandable and yet faithful to the pain that had pressed the author to speak.

When Kazan invited me up to New Haven to see the new Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire - it seemed to me a rather too garishly attention-getting title - I was already feeling a certain amount of envious curiosity since I was still unable to commit myself to the salesman play, around which I kept suspiciously circling and sniffing. But at the same time I hoped that Streetcar would be good; it was not that I was high-minded but simply that I shared the common assumption of the time that the greater the number of exciting plays there were on Broadway the better for each of us., At least in our minds there was still something approximating a theatre culture to which we more or less pridefully belonged, and the higher its achievement the greater the glory we all shared. The playwright was then king of the hill, not the star actor or director, and certainly not the producer or theatre owner, as would later by the case. (At a recently televised Tony Awards ceremony, recognizing achievement in the theatre, not a single playwright was presented to the public, while two lawyers who operated a chain of theatres were showered with the gratitude of all. It reminded me of Caligula making his horse a senator.)

Streetcar - especially when it was still so fresh and the actors almost as amazed as the audience at the vitality of this theatrical experience - opened one specific door for me. Not the story or the characters or the direction, but the words and their liberation, the joy of the writer in writing them, the radiant eloquence of its composition, moved me more than all its pathos. It formed a bridge to Europe for me, to Jouvet's performance in Ondine, to the whole tradition of unashamed word-joy that, with the exception of Odets, we had either turned our backs on or, as with Maxwell Anderson, only used archaically, as though eloquence could only be justified by cloaking it in sentimental romanticism.

Returning to New York, I felt speeded up, in motion now. With Streetcar, Tennessee had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman, a salesman always full of words, and better yet, a man who could never cease trying, like Adam, to name himself and the world's wonders. I had known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind. I wanted precisely the same fluidity in the form, and now it was clear to me that this must be primarily verbal. The language would of course have to be recognizably his to begin with, but it seemed possible now to infiltrate it with a kind of superconsciousness. The play, after all, involved the attempts of his son and his wife and Willy himself to understand what was killing him. And to understand meant to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unashamedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the "natural". If the structure had to mirror the psychology as directly as could be done, it was still a psychology hammered into its strange shape by society, the business life Willy had lived and believed in. The play could reflect what I had always sensed as the unbroken tissue that was man and society, a single unit rather than two.

By April of 1948 I felt I could find such a form, but it would have to be done, I thought, in a single sitting, in a night or a day, I did not know why. I stopped making my notes in our Grace Court house in Brooklyn Heights and drove up alone one morning to the country house we had bought the previous year. We had spent one summer there in that old farmhouse, which had been modernized by its former owner, a greeting card manufacturer named Philip Jaffe, who as a sideline published a thin magazine for China specialists called Amerasia. Mary worked as one of his secretaries and so had the first news that he wanted to sell the place. In a year or two he would be on trial for publishing without authorization State Department reports from John Stewart Service, among a number of other China experts who recognized a Mao victory as inevitable and warned of the futility of America continuing to back her favorite, Chiang Kai-shek. Amerasia had been a vanity publication, in part born of Jaffe's desire for a place in history, but it nevertheless braved the mounting fury of the China lobby against any opinion questioning the virtues of the Chiang forces. At his trial, the government produced texts of conversations that Jaffe claimed could only have been picked up by long-range microphone as he and his friends walked the isolated backcountry roads near this house. Service was one of many who were purged from the State Department, leaving it blinded to Chinese reality but ideologically pure.

But all that was far from my mind this day; what I was looking for on my land was a spot for a little shack I wanted to build, where I could block out the world and bring into focus what was still stuck in the corners of my eyes. I found a knoll in the nearby woods and returned to the city, where instead of working on the play I drew plans for the framing, of which I really had very vague knowledge and no experience. A pair of carpenters could have put up this ten-by-twelve-foot cabin in two days at most, but for reasons I still do not understand it had to be my own hands that gave it form, on this ground, with a floor that I had made, upon which to sit to begin the risky expedition into myself. In reality, all I had was the first two lines and a death - "Will!" and "It's all right. I came back." Further than that I dared not, would not, venture until I could sit in the completed studio, four walls, two windows, a floor, a roof, and a door.

"It's all right. I came back" rolled over and over in my head as I tried to figure out how to join the roof rafters in air unaided, until I finally put them together on the ground and swung them into position all nailed together. When I closed in the roof it was a miracle, as though I had mastered the rain and cooled the sun. And all the while afraid I would never be able to penetrate past those first two lines. I started writing one morning - the tiny studio was still unpainted and smelled of raw wood and sawdust, and the bags of nails were still stashed in a corner with my tools. The sun of April had found my windows to pour through, and the apple buds were moving on the wild trees, showing their first pale blue petals. I wrote all day until dark, and then I had dinner and went back and wrote until some hour in the darkness between midnight and four. I had skipped a few areas that I knew would give me no trouble in the writing and gone for the parts that had to be muscled into position. By the next morning I had done the first half, the first act of two. When I lay down to sleep I realized I had been weeping - my eyes still burned and my throat was sore from talking it all out and shouting and laughing. I would be stiff when I woke, aching as if I had played four hours of football or tennis and now had to face the start of another game. It would take some six more weeks to complete Act II.

My laughter during the writing came mostly at Willy's contradicting himself so arrantly, and out of the laughter the title came one afternoon. Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Death and the Maiden quartet - always austere and elevated was death in titles. Now it would be claimed by a joker, a bleeding mass of contradictions, a clown, and there was something funny about that, something like a thumb in the eye, too. yes, and in some far corner of my mind possibly something political; there was the smell in the air of a new American Empire in the making, if only because, as I had witnessed, Europe was dying or dead, and I wanted to set before the new captains and the so smugly confident kings the corpse of a believer. On the play's opening night a woman who shall not be named was outraged, calling it "a time bomb under American capitalism"; I hoped it was, or at least under the bullshit of American capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.

But some thirty-five years later, the Chinese reaction to my Beijing production of Salesman would confirm what had become more and more obvious over the decades in the play's hundreds of productions throughout the world: Willy was representative everywhere, in every kind of system, of ourselves in this time. The Chinese might disapprove of his lies and his self-deluding exaggeration as well as his immorality with women, but they certainly saw themselves in him. And it was not simply as a type but because of what he wanted. Which was to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count. When he roared out, "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!" it came as a nearly revolutionary declaration after what was now thirty-four years of leveling. (The play was the same age as the Chinese revolution.) I did not know in 1948 in Connecticut that I was sending a message of resurgent individualism to the China of 1983 - especially when the revolution it had signified, it seemed at the time, the long-awaited rule of reason and the historic ending of chaotic egocentricity and selfish aggrandizement. Ah. yes. I had not reckoned on a young Chinese student saying to a CBS interviewer in the theatre lobby, "We are moved by it because we also want to be number one, and to be rich and successful." What else is this but human unpredictability, which goes on escaping the nets of unfreedom?

I did not move far from the phone for two days after sending the script to Kazan. By the end of the second silent day I would have accepted his calling to tell me that it was a scrambled egg, an impenetrable, unstageable piece of wreckage. And his tone when he finally did call was alarmingly sober.

"I've read your play." He sounded at a loss as to how to give me the bad news. "My God, it's so sad."

"It's supposed to be."

"I just put it down. I don't know what to say. My father..." He broke off, the first of a great many men - and women - who would tell me that Willy was their father. I still thought he was letting me down easy. "It's a great play, Artie. I want to do it in the fall or winter. I'll start thinking about casting." He was talking as though someone we both knew had just died, and it filled me with happiness. Such is art.

For the first time in months, as I hung up the phone, I could see my family clearly again. As was her way, Mary accepted the great news with a quiet pride, as though something more expressive would spoil me, but I too thought I should remain an ordinary citizen, even an anonymous one (although I did have a look at the new Studebaker convertible, the Raymond Lowery design that was the most beautiful American car of the time, and bought one as soon as the play opened). But Mary's mother, who was staying the week with us, was astonished. "Another play?" she said, as though the success of All My Sons had been enough for one lifetime. She had unknowingly triggered that play when she gossiped about a young girl somewhere in central Ohio who had turned her father in to the FBI for having manufactured faulty aircraft parts during the war.

But who should produce Salesman? Kazan and I walked down Broadway from the park where we had been strolling and talking about the kind of style the production would need. Kazan's partnership with Harold Clurman had recently broken up, and I had no idea about a producer. He mentioned Cheryl Crawford, whom I hardly knew, and then Kermit Bloomgarden, an accountant turned producer, whom I had last seen poring over Herman Shumlin's account books a couple of years before when Shumlin turned down All My Sons. I had never seen Bloomgarden smile, but he had worked for the Group Theatre and Kazan knew him, and as much because we happened to have come to a halt a few yards from his office building as for any other reason, he said, "Well, let's go up and say hello." When we stood across the desk from him and Kazan said he had a play of mine for him to read, Bloomgarden squeezed up his morose version of a smile, or at least a suggestion of one he planned to have next week.

This whimsical transforming of another person's life reminds me of a similar walk with Kazan uptown from a garage on Twenty-sixth Street where he had left his old Pontiac to be repaired. He began wondering aloud whom he should ask to head a new acting school to be called the Actors Studio, which he and Clurman and Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford were organizing. None of these founders was prepared to run the place, Kazan, Clurman, and Lewis being too busy with their flourishing directing careers, and Crawford with her work as a producer. "Lee Strasberg is probably the best guy for it. He'd certainly be able to put in the time." In due course Strasberg became not only the head of the Actors Studio but also its heart and soul, and for the general public its organizer. So his work there was made possibly by his having been unemployable at the right moment. But that, come to think of it, is as good a way as any to be catapulted into world fame.

Willy had to be small, I thought, but we soon realized that Roman Bohnen and Ernest Truex and a few other very good actors seemed to lack the size of the character even if they fit the body. The script had been sent to Lee Cobb, an actor I remembered mainly as a mountainous hulk covered with a towel in a Turkish bath in an Irwin Shaw play, with the hilarious oy vey delivery of a forever persecuted businessman. Having flown himself across the country in his own two-engine airplane, he sat facing me in Bloomgarden's office and announced, "This is my part. Nobody else can play this part. I know this man." And he did indeed seem to be the man when a bit later in a coffee shop downstairs he looked up at the young waitress and smiled winsomely as though he had to win her loving embrace before she could be seduced into bringing him his turkey sandwich and coffee - ahead of all the other men's orders, and only after bestowing on his unique slice of pickle her longing kiss.

But while I trusted his and Kazan's experience, I lacked any conviction of my own about him until one evening in our Grace Court living room Lee looked down at my son, Bob, on the floor and I heard him laugh at something funny the child had said. The sorrow in his laughter flew out at me, touched me; it was deeply depressed and at the same time joyous, all flowing through a baritone voice that was gorgeously reedy. So large and handsome a man pretending to be thoroughly at ease in a world where he obviously did not fit could be moving.

"You know - or do you? -," Lee said to me one day in Bloomgarden's office a week or so before rehearsals were about to begin, "that this play is a watershed. The American theatre will never be the same." I could only gulp and nod in silence at his portentousness - which I feared might augur a stately performance - and hope that he would make Willy come alive anyway.

But as rehearsals proceeded in the small, periodically abandoned theatre on the ratty roof of the New Amsterdam on Forty-second street, where Ziegfeld in the twenties had staged some intimate revues, Lee seemed to move about in a buffalo's stupefied trance, muttering his lines, plodding with deathly slowness from position to position, and behaving like a man who had been punched in the head. "He's just learning it," Kazan shakily reassured me after three or four days. I waited as a week went by, and then ten days, and all that was emerging from Lee Cobb's throat was a bumpy hum. The other actors were nearing performance levels, but when they had to get a response from Lee all their rhythms slowed to near collapse. Kazan was no longer so sure and kept huddling with Lee, trying to pump him up. Nor did Lee offer any explanation, and I wondered whether he thought to actually play the part like a man with a foot in the grave. Between us, Kazan and I began referring to him as "the Walrus".

On about the twelfth day, in the afternoon, with Eddie Kook, our lighting supplier, and Jimmy Proctor, our pressman, and Kazan and myself in the seats, Lee stood up as usual from the bedroom chair and turned to Mildred Dunnock and bawled, "No, there's more people now ... There's more people!" and, gesturing toward the empty upstage where the window was supposed to be, caused a block of apartment houses to spring up in my brain, and the air became sour with the smell of kitchens where once there had been only the odors of earth, and he began to move frighteningly, with such ominous reality that my chest felt pressed down by an immense weight. After the scene had gone on for a few minutes, I glanced around to see if the others had my reaction. Jim Proctor had his head bent into his hands and was weeping, Eddie Kook was looking shocked, almost appalled, and tears were pouring over his cheeks, and Kazan behind me was grinning like a fiend, gripping his temples with both hands, and we knew we had it - there was an unmistakable wave of life moving across the air of the empty theatre, a wave of Willy's pain and protest. I began to weep myself at some point that was not particularly sad, but it was as much, I think, out of pride in our art, in Lee's magical capacity to imagine, to collect within himself every mote of life since Genesis and to let it pour forth. He stood up there like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position.

At the end of the act, Del Hughes, our sweet but hardheaded, absolutely devoted, competent stage manager, came out from a wing and looked out at us. His stunned eyes started us all laughing. I ran up and kissed Lee, who pretended to be surprised. "But what did you expect, Arthur?" he said, his eyes full of his playful vanity. My God, I thought - he really is Willy! On the subway going home to Brooklyn I felt once again the aching pain in my muscles that the performance had tensed up so tightly, just as in the writing time. And when I thought of it later, it seemed as though Lee's sniffing around the role for so long recapitulated what I had done in the months before daring to begin to write.

The whole production was, I think, unusual for the openness with which every artist involved sought out his truths. It was all a daily, almost moment-to-moment testing of ideas. There was much about the play that had never been done before, and this gave an uncustomary excitement to our discussions about what would or would not be understood by an audience. The setting I had envisioned was three bare platforms and only the minimum necessary furniture for a kitchen and two bedrooms, with the Boston hotel room as well as Howard's office to be played in open space. Jo Mielziner took those platforms and designed an environment around them that was romantic and dreamlike yet at the same time lower-middle-class. His set, in a word, was an emblem of Willy's intense longing for the promises of the past, with which indeed the present state of his mind is always conflicting, and it was thus both a lyrical design and a dramatic one. The only notable mistake in his early concept was to put the gas hot-water heater in the middle of the kitchen, a symbol of menace that I thought obvious and Kazan finally eliminated as a hazard to his staging. But by balancing on the edges of the ordinary bounds of verisimilitude, Jo was stretching reality in parallel with the script, just as Kazan did by syncopating the speech rhythms of the actors. He made Mildred Dunnock deliver her long first-act speeches to the boys at double her normal speed, then he doubled that, and finally she - until recently a speech teacher - was standing there drumming out words as fast as her very capable tongue could manage. Gradually he slacked her off, but the drill straightened her spine, and her Linda filled up with outrage and protest rather than self-pity and mere perplexity. Similarly, to express the plays' inner life, the speech rate in some scenes or sections was unnaturally speeded or slowed.

My one scary hour came with the climactic restaurant fight between Willy and the boys, when it all threatened to come apart. I had written a scene in which Biff resolves to tell Willy that the former boss from whom Biff had planned to borrow money to start a business has refused to so much as see him and does not even remember his working for the firm years ago. But on meeting his brother and father in the restaurant, he realizes that Willy's psychological stress will not permit the whole catastrophic truth to be told, and he begins to trim the bad news. From moment to moment the scene as originally written had so many shadings of veracity that Arthur Kennedy, a very intelligent citizen indeed, had trouble shifting from a truth to a half-truth to a fragment of truth and back to the whole truth, all of it expressed in quickly delivered, very short lines. The three actors, with Kazan standing beside them, must have repeated the scene through a whole working day, and it still wobbled. "I don't see how we can make it happen," Kazan said as we left the theatre that evening. "Maybe you ought to try simplifying it for them." I went home and worked through the night and brought in a new scene, which played much better and became the scene as finally performed.

The other changes were very small and a pleasure to make because they involved adding lines rather than cutting or rewriting. In Act I, Willy is alone in the kitchen muttering to himself, and as his memories overtake him the lighting brightens, the exterior of the house becomes covered with leaf shadows as of old, and in a moment the boys are calling to him in their youthful voices, entering the stage as they were in their teens. There was not sufficient time, however, for them to descend from their beds in the dark on the specially designed elevators and finish stripping out of their pajamas into sweaters and trousers and sneakers, so I had to add time to Willy's monologue. But that was easy since he loved talking to himself about his boys and his vision of them.

The moving in and out of the present had to be not simply indicative but a tactile transformation that the audience could feel as well as comprehend, and indeed come to dread as returning memory threatens to bring Willy closer to his end. Lighting was thus decisively important, and Mielziner, who also lit the show, with Eddie Kook by his side, once worked an entire afternoon lighting a chair.

Willy, in his boss's office, has exploded once too often, and Howard has gone out, leaving him alone. He turns to the office chair, which in the old days was occupied by Frank, Howard's father, who had promised Willy shares in the firm as a reward for all his good work, and as he does so the chair must become alive, quite as though his old boss were in it as he addresses him: "Frank, Frank, don't you remember what you told me? ..." Rather than being lit, the chair subtly seemed to begin emanating light. But this was not merely an exercise in theatre magic; it confirmed that we had moved inside Willy's system of loss, that we were seeing the world as he saw it even as we kept a critical distance and saw it for ourselves.

To set the chair off and make the light change work, all surrounding lights had to dim imperceptibly. That was when Eddie Kook, who had become so addicted to the work on this play that his office at his Century Lighting Company had all but ceased operations, turned to me and said, "You've been asking me why we need so many lights. [We were using more than most musicals.] The reason is right there in front of you - it takes more lights to make it dark." With fewer lights each one would have to be dimmed more noticeably than if there were many, each one fractionally reduced in intensity to create the change without apparent source or contrivance.

Salesman had its first public performance at the Locust Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Across the street the Philadelphia Orchestra was playing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony that afternoon, and Kazan thought Cobb ought to hear some of it, wanting, I suppose, to prime the great hulk on whom all our hopes depended. The three of us were in a conspiracy to make absolutely every moment of every scene cohere to what preceded and followed it; we were now aware that Willy's part was among the longest in dramatic literature, and Lee was showing signs of wearying. We sat at either side of him in a box, inviting him, as it were, to drink of the heroism of that music, to fling himself into his role tonight without holding back. We thought of ourselves, still, as a kind of continuation of a long and undying past.

As sometimes happened later on during the run, there was no applause at the final curtain of the first performance. Strange things began to go on in the audience. With the curtain down, some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping. People crossed the theatre to stand quietly talking with one another. It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end of it.

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October 16, 2008

The Books: "The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx"

the-grouncho-letters.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx

When I was a senior in high school, I started dating someone. He had gone to my high school, but he was 3 years ahead of me, so at that time - he was already graduated from high school and a couple of years out into the world. So yeah, baby, I was 16 years old dating a dude who was 19. Hells yeah! The drama nerd takes the lead over her contemporaries in the cafeteria!

And so it is ironic that Groucho Marx would come up on ye olde bookshelf today: Yesterday I posted about Steve Martin. My boyfriend back then reminded me of Steve Martin, even down to what he looked like. He had the same long lean angular body, the same thick hair, the same serious face that could look, when he was performing, completely surreal. But it was more than that. His sense of humor was very similar - absurd yet traditional - surreal yet goofy - and he, too, was an ambitious actor and stand-up, who was already pursuing his dream when he was in high school. He wore hi-top sneakers when he was my date to the Prom, he would take me to old-movie nights at the campus theatre - where I was introduced to the glory of black-and-white films ... and he also made it his business to school me in all things Marx Brothers.

I had a free period in the middle of the day, and my boyfriend lived right down the street from the high school, so I would go over to his house, and he would put in a VHS tape of Marx Brothers movies. And yeah, we would make out, too, and stuff like that, and then I would adjust my blouse and go back to Chemistry class. But mainly, he just wanted me to see all the Marx Brothers movies. We would watch the movies, and occasionally he would pause the tape and rewind so I could watch a bit again, and he could say to me, "Watch the timing here - watch how perfect it is ..." It was so much fun.

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A couple of years ago, I reconnected with him - which was a miracle in and of itself - our breakup had been a smashup of apocalyptic proportions, involving all of our friends, and what felt like the entire high school. People I didn't even know, people from other grades, came up to me and said, "Man, I heard about the breakup ... how are you doing?" Insane. For a brief terrible moment, I became one of those girls who was the 'star' of her high school, merely because of her chaotic personal life.

It was so good to see him again, still crazy after all these years.

Miraculously, he came out with a book a couple of years ago - on the history of vaudeville. It is called No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. (The book is terrific. I highly recommend it - indispensable addition to any theatrical-history library.) It got fantastic reviews, including one in The New York Times.

Actually, come to think of it, it wasn't miraculous at all that that old high school boyfriend would go on to write a history of vaudeville (from a libertarian perspective, I might add). One of the most beautiful things for me, about the success he has now achieved, is that it is not at all a surprise - remembering the boy he was. The boy who, at 19, made me watch all the Marx Brothers movies, because he was horrified I hadn't seen them. Who didn't just watch the Marx Brothers ... he STUDIED the Marx Brothers. The boy who was, even then, encyclopedic on vaudeville - knew all the names, all the anecdotes ... and I remember the feeling, back then, that to him - WC Fields, and the Marx Brothers, and Mae West, etc. etc. were as vital and important to him as modern-day movie stars. Even more important, because they were the pioneers.

So it seems apt that the day after I write about Steve Martin (and I had been thinking about my high school boyfriend the entire time I wrote it) - I would come to this wonderful collection of letters from AND TO Groucho Marx. The best thing about this book is that it is a two-sided replication of his lifelong correspondence with people. So we don't just get his letters TO E.B. White or Howard Hughes - we see what these luminaries wrote back to him.

Not surprisingly, the letters are hysterical. They rollick along, and you just feel like you are in the presence of one of the wittiest men who ever lived.

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Groucho Marx was not educated, at least in terms of having gone to school. He realized that this was a lack, something he needed to rectify, so he set about to make up for it by becoming extremely well-read. I love the following letter he wrote to Peter Lorre, of all people, in 1961, but look at the topic!

Dear Peter:
It was very thoughtful of you to send me a book explaining James Joyce's "Ulysses". All I need now is another book explaining this study by Stuart Gilbert who, if memory serves, painted the celebrated picture of George Washington which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. I realize that there is some two hundred years' difference in their ages, but any man who can explain Joyce must be very old and very wise.

You disappeared rather mysteriously the other night, but I attribute this to your life of crime in the movies.

Best to you both.

Regards,
Groucho

hahahahahaha It's short, to the point, and is perfection personified. All of his letters are like that. Funny, but not obnoxiously so. I would call them more witty, than out-and-out funny. He was a generous man, a well-brought-up man, who kept up his letter-writing with a variety of people - always polite, always funny, always self-deprecating.

It is a lovely book and has recently been re-released in a nice new volume, a paperback, that you can find at Barnes & Noble. It was originally published in 1967 and I have a second-hand hard copy, but thanks be - someone decided to put it out again.

It's really fun to sit and read through these letters. Groucho is an elegant and humorous companion. No huge revelations here, just joy and wit. I also like the book because it is not arranged chronologically, with letters flying hither and thither to various correspondents. The book is arranged via correspondent - so you get the full set of letters between him and E.B. White - even if they span over many years. So you can get a sense of the relationship, of the continuity. Smart move on the editor.

The excerpt I chose today is his correspondence with T.S. Eliot.


EXCERPT FROM The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx

FROM T.S. ELIOT

26th April, 1961

Dear Groucho Marx,

This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery. Whether you really want a photograph of me or whether you merely asked for it out of politeness, you are going to get one anyway. I am ordering a copy of one of my better ones and I shall certainly inscribe it with my gratitude and assurance and admiration. You will have learned that you are my most coveted pin-up. I shall be happy to occupy a much humbler place in your collection.

And incidentally, if and when you and Mrs. Marx are in London, my wife and I hope that you will dine with us.

Yours very sincerely,
T.S. Eliot

P.S. I like cigars too but there isn't any cigar in my portrait either.



June 19, 1961

Dear T.S.:

Your photograph arrived in good shape, and I hope this note of thanks finds you in the same condition.

I had no idea you were so handsome. Why you haven't been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of the casting directors.

Should I come to London I will certainly take advantage of your kind invitation and if you come to California I hope you will allow me to do the same.

Cordially,
Groucho Marx



January 25, 1963

Dear Mr. Eliot:

I read in the current Time Magazine that you are ill. I just want you to know that I am rooting for your quick recovery. First because of your contributions to literature and, then, the fact that under the most trying conditions you never stopped smoking cigars.

Hurry up and get well.

Regards,
Groucho Marx



23rd February, 1963

Dear Groucho Marx,

It seems more of an impertinence to address Groucho Marx as "Dear Mr. Marx" than it would be to address any other celebrity by his first name. It is out of respect, my dear Groucho, that I address you as I do. I should only be too happy to have a letter from Groucho Marx beginning "Dear T.S.E." However, this is to thank you for your letter and to say that I am convalescing as fast as the awful winter weather permits, that my wife and I hope to get to Bermuda later next month for warmth and fresh air and to be back in London in time to greet you in the spring. So come, let us say, about the beginning of May.

Will Mrs. Groucho be with you? (We think we saw you both in Jamaica early in 1961, about to embark in that glass-bottomed boat from which we had just escaped.) You ought to bring a secretary, a public relations official and a couple of private detectives, to protect you from the London press; but however numerous your engagements, we hope you will give us the honor of taking a meal with us.

Yours very sincerely,
T.S. Eliot

P.S. Your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognises you without the cigar and rolling eyes. I shall try to provide a cigar worthy of you.



16th May, 1963

Dear Groucho,

I ought to have written at once on my return from Bermuda to thank you for the second beautiful photograph of Groucho, but after being in hospital for five weeks at the end of the year, and then at home for as many under my wife's care, I was shipped off to Bermuda in the hope of getting warmer weather and have only just returned. Still not quite normal activity, but hope to be about when you and Mrs. Groucho turn up. Is there any date known? We shall be away in Yorkshire at the end of June and the early part of July, but are here all the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, your splendid new portrait is at the framers. I like them both very much and I cannot make up my mind which one to take home and which one to put on my office wall. The new one would impress visitors more, especially those I want to impress, as it is unmistakably Groucho. The only solution may be to carry them both with me every day.

Whether I can produce as good a cigar for you as the one in the portrait appears to be, I do not know, but I will do my best.

Gratefully,
Your admirer,
T.S.



June 11, 1963

Dear Mr. Eliot:

I am a pretty shabby correspondent. I have your letter of May 16th in front of me and I am just getting around to it.

The fact is, the best laid plans of mice and men, etc. Soon after your letter arrived I was struck down by a mild infection. I'm still not over it, but all plans of getting away this summer have gone by the board.

My plan now is to visit Israel the first part of October when all the tourists are back from their various journeys. Then, on my way back from Israel, I will stop off in London to see you.

I hope you have fully recovered from your illness, and don't let anything else happen to you. In October, remember you and I will get drunk together.

Cordially,
Groucho



24th June, 1963

Dear Groucho,

That is not altogether bad news because I shall be in better condition for drinking in October than I am now. I envy you going to Israel and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for the country. I hope to hear about your visit when I see you and I hope that, meanwhile, we shall both be in the best of health.

One of your portraits is on the wall of my office room and the other one on my desk at home.

Salutations,
T.S.



October 1, 1963

Dear Tom,

If this isn't your first name, I'm in a hell of a fix! But I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons', a prizefighter who once lived in St. Paul.

I had no idea you were seventy-five. There's a magnificent tribute to you in the New York Times Book Review Section of the September 29th issue. If you don't get the New York Times let me know and I'll send you my copy. There is an excellent photograph of you by a Mr. Gerard Kelly. I would say, judging from this picture, that you are about sixty and two weeks.

There was also a paragraph mentioning the many portraits that are housed in your study. One name was conspicuous by its absence. I trust this was an oversight on the part of Stephen Spender.

My illness which, three months ago, my three doctors described as trivial, is having quite a run in my system. The three medics, I regret to say, are living on the fat of the land. So far, they've hooked me for eight thousand bucks. I only mention this to explain why I can't get over there in October. However, by next May or thereabouts, I hope to be well enough to eat that free meal you've been promising me for the past two years.

My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.

I hope you are well again.

Kindest regards,
Groucho



16th October, 1963

Dear Groucho,

Yours of October 1st to hand. I cannot recall the name of Tom Gibbons at present, but if he helps you to remember my name that is all right with me.

I think that Stephen Spender was only attempting to enumerate oil and water colour pictures and not photographs - I trust so. But, there are a good many photographs of relatives and friends in my study, although I do not recall Stephen going in there. He sent me what he wrote for the New York Times and I helped him a bit and reminded him that I had a good many books, as he might have seen if he had looked about him.

There is also a conspicuous and important portrait in my office room which has been identified by many of my visitors together with other friends of both sexes.

I am sorry that you are not coming over here this year, and still sorrier for the reason for it. I hope, however, that you will turn up in the spring if your doctors leave you a few nickels to pay your way. If you do not turn up, I am afraid all the people to whom I have boasted of knowing you (and on being on firs