Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book: Dropped Names, by Frank Langella (2012)

The subtitle is the first indication that something may be up. Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. Frank Langella tells you straight off that this memoir isn’t about him, it’s about them: the luminaries he met during a long career on screen and stage. And it’s as he knew them, so conventional appreciations may not be the order of the day.

Oh, they are, more often than not. But even then not in the usual fashion. Langella opens his book with a brief description of a show meal with actors, the conversation fast-moving, gossipy, occasionally mean. He aims to recreate that feeling here. So while there are moving tributes to close friends – Raul Julia, Alan Bates – Langella can also write about another favorite, Anne Bancroft, with an unsparing eye for her narcissism. Then there are the times Langella gives someone both barrels. Richard Burton was a bore, Rex Harrison a preening ass, Lee Strasberg “a pompous pygmy ... a cruel and rather ridiculous demigod.” Not all of his targets are easy ones: Langella’s affection for Paul Newman is laced with unflattering commentary.

Dropped Names is a strange book. Langella places his reminiscences in the order the subjects died, which results in a fixation on infirmity and loss. He repeatedly laments the current age when “wit, intelligence and style have lost ground to stupid, vulgar and loud,” and “young male stars seem a sexless set of store-bought muscles set below interchangeable screw-top heads with faces of epic blandness - sheep trying to look like bulls.”

There’s clich├ęd writing throughout, but it’s punctuated by sharp observations that read like a skilled actor sizing up a character. Langella describes Ida Lupino (“too good for the room ... a first rate artist crying out for help”) before she was fired by producers for being more trouble than she was worth, noting how she was “put together in the way that heavy drinkers, particularly women, organize themselves: impeccable hair, makeup, clothing; a tidy house of cards.” A book in its own right could be made of his chapter on Arthur Miller, focusing on Langella’s failed attempts to cajole the playwright into penning a more honest version of himself for a revival of his autobiographical autopsy of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe After The Fall. And many of Langella’s stories are simply damn good, like bring hazed by Robert Mitchum on a movie they both know is crap. The best is a throwaway: Langella calls Nancy Marchand, his co-star in a play who is being replaced by an Oscar nominee in the TV production. Langella vows he won’t do the film without her. “Don’t be an asshole,” Marchand says, and hangs up on him.

In a sense, all of Dropped Names is an actor’s trick, one of the oldest in the book. Langella brings big names onto the stage, giving them the limelight – then proceeds to steal the scene. In a structure meant to showcase others, Langella keeps revealing pieces of himself. His disappointments, his jealousies, his feelings for women of shall we say a certain age. Langella is brutally honest on every subject, and that eventually includes Frank Langella.

His recollection of an on-set affair with an older Rita Hayworth is here, and includes some great Mitchum material. The book closes with a lengthy passage in praise of philanthropist and socialite “Bunny” Mellon, now embroiled in the criminal case against Senator John Edwards. This New York Times article about Mellon draws from Langella’s book.