Friday, January 6, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Robert Wagner's Women

According to RJ, ET was the most beautiful woman of her time.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Robert Wagner's Women — In The Movies and In Real/Reel Life.

“THERE’S SOMETHING in the nature of the moviegoing experience itself that approximates the reverie that overtakes you when you’re in love with a beautiful woman.  Going to the movies drops you into a neutral dream state, in which you become receptive, then, hopefully, enchanted.”

Click to order Robert Wagner's “I Loved Her in The Movies: “Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses.”
That’s from Robert Wagner's new book, “I Loved Her in The Movies: “Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses.”

I MENTIONED this delicious tome a while back, and correctly described it as great read, but I realized — after a number of emails — that I hadn’t given out with any “dish.”  No details or anecdotes.  So today, as another fraught, pre-inauguration week ends, and we want to nostalgically relax — or at least I do! — I’ll redress my sin of omission. 

Fair warning, this is not an exploitive tell-all.  Robert (RJ to all his friends) knew most of the ladies he writes of in this book.  Some, rather intimately.  But to describe him as a gentleman of the old school, would be an understatement. Nobody gets scorched — sorry!  And on the one or two occasions he wags his finger, you know the person he’s talking about must have been unbearable!

This is not simply a memoir, but also a history of female stardom and image building.  RJ is a very smart guy, who genuinely adores women and loves the movies, but he received a great deal of help on the “history” part from his clearly super-smart and equally movie-besotted co-writer Scott Eyman.  I found myself in almost complete agreement with the pair’s conclusions about certain careers and performances, with perhaps only one exception.  I’ll get to that later. 

There’s much more, but here are just a few of RJ’s recollections on many of the glorious women who hypnotized generations of fans.
NORMA Shearer:  “Socially, Norma always remained a star, making an entrance so that you never forgot for an instant who she was, and even if you didn’t happen to know who she was, you could certainly tell that she was Somebody. (RJ met Norma when he was ten years old. She was resting in bed, a room whose color he later found out was “delft blue.”  She autographed a photo for him, which he still has.)
Gloria Swanson:  “Gloria was incisive. There was never any doubt about what she thought about any subject.  If you didn’t ask, she’d tell you anyway.  She had loved being a huge movie star, but she wasn’t confined by it; she’s done it, she had processed its meaning and she had moved on.”
Jean Arthur:  “She had a terrible shyness and a sort of congenital unhappiness that got worse as she aged, and grew sensitive about that aging.  Hedda Hopper called her ‘the least popular woman in Hollywood.’ In print.  Today she’d probably be diagnosed as clinically depressed.”
Joan Crawford: “Joan and I had a brief ship-in-the-night fling when I was a young man in Hollywood, and we saw each other occasionally at events after. She was always gracious in a grande dame sort of way.  At the premiere of ‘Prince Valiant’ Joan came over to congratulate me.  I was kneeling down to talk to her and the photographers were gathering.  ‘Stand up.’ She said under her breath. I never look down at anybody!’  I loved Joan.  She was always Joan.
Mae West: “She was a howl — a little middle-aged pouter pigeon of a woman who wasn’t particularly attractive but clearly thought she was, so everybody else played along.”  (RJ hits on something here I’ve always thought and stated — Mae was one of the most content of all the stars because she totally believed the publicity she created for herself and lived entirely in that bubble of fantasy.)
Gene Tierney: “Was very slender and slightly built; she looked as if a stiff wind could pick her up and deposit her in the next county. But I remember how beautifully she moved — like a dancer, as if invisible wires running through her shoulders carried the weight of her body.  She was angelically beautiful.”
Linda Darnell: “I knew Linda quite well.  Obviously she was strikingly beautiful, but as I got to know her I also discovered her kindness and consideration. My impression was that she was deeply ambivalent about a career in movies ... Linda looked older than she was and played ingénue roles by the time she was sixteen.”  (RJ points out that Darnell’s mature beauty — enhanced by a deep, alluring voice — did not serve her well, as time went on.  “Just as she seemed to be in her twenties when she was still a teenager, she seemed in her forties while still in her early thirties.” )
Katharine Hepburn: “What she had absolute self-confidence in was her personality. She was well-aware that there was nobody else remotely like her ... and that her singularity would pull her through even if her talent failed her. You might not like her as an actress, but you could not disregard her as a woman. She counted on that.”
Claire Trevor: “She was warm about everything, funny about almost everything ... she had a sense of inquisitiveness, and of wonder. To her dying day she was interested in every aspect of life.  She was an Earth Mother: bountiful, loving, always supportive. I miss her every day.”
Bette Davis: “For all of her volatility and the special handling she mandated, I always adored her.  Her personal courage never flagged.  She did the best job she could raising her children, and I genuinely believe that vile memoir her daughter B.D. wrote helped kill her — it was the kind of primal betrayal that destroys the will to live.”
Jennifer Jones: “I think she spent her career in terror of her profession ... being invited to Jennifer’s was like going into a hospital ward. For one thing, she would be late for her own dinner. Not ten minutes, but an hour or two.”
Marilyn:  “Everyone wants to know about Marilyn.  I have no horror stories. When I knew her she was a warm, fun girl.  I never saw the Marilyn of the nightmare anecdotes — the terribly insecure woman who needed pills and champagne to anesthetize her from life. Yet the bigger she got, the more her insecurities increased. The more her insecurities increased, the harder it became for her to deal with the stardom she wanted so badly. A vicious circle.”
Elizabeth Taylor: “Some people vote for Ava Gardner, but I think Elizabeth was the most beautiful woman of her time.  Elizabeth moved through life with bravado, gusto; she understood that life has to be seized or it can dribble away, and seize it she did.  Elizabeth had a major impact on my emotional life. I adored her as a woman and respected her greatly as an actress.”
Natalie Wood: “She was a complicated woman, which is just one of the reasons I loved her.  You could never really plumb Natalie’s depths.”
Jill St. John (RJ’s wife of thirty years):  “She reads everything and is ridiculously smart ... the gap between what she played onscreen and who she is, is vast. She is as attached to the earth as anybody I have ever met ... she can bring the world around her to its fullest possibilities ... I still have a sense of discovery with her every single day.”
THERE’s MORE, more more — Audrey, Sophia, Doris Day, Jean Peters, Julie Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck (RJ has written much about his affair with Stanwyck in a previous book), Glenn Close, Debra Paget, and marvelous insight to the perils of female movie careers — then and even now. The book is  a slender, easy treatise on the glamour, grit and the rude, sometimes tragic  inevitabilities of  the particular burden placed on the female in films. Along with issues of age and image, RJ writes: “The minute an actress asserts her prerogatives, you can rest assured that there are hundreds of men all too willing to label her a bitch or worse, an attitude that is rarely the response when a male actor makes equivalent demands.” 

(Recent case in point, “Shameless” star Emmy Rossum. She got what she wanted, but not before some very nasty, sexist, criticism.)
I TOLD you at the top I had one real disagreement with Mr. Wagner and Mr. Eyman.  It’s about Loretta Young’s big scene with Orson Welles in “The Stranger.”  It is when Loretta finds out she has married a Nazi war criminal.  The guys describe the dialogue (a bit incorrectly) and conclude she “plays it down ... the scene doesn’t have the kick it should have.” 
Well, I think it’s one of Loretta’s best performances and that scene, memorably intense. Faced with the truth, finally, she says: “Kill me, go ahead. I want you to kill me. I can’t stand living knowing what I’ve been to you. But when you do it, don’t put your hands on me. Here, use this!” And she grabs a poker from the fireplace, thrusting it at him.  He flees and she faints. This, along with “Cause for Alarm” are two of Loretta’s most committed latter-career efforts.

So that’s my one and only nitpick on “I Loved Her In The Movies” which I frankly adored!
Contact Liz here.