Monday, August 24, 2015

Sweet and Salacious:
Actor Frank Langella Dishes

Like an elegant ante-pasta platter, Dropped Names kept me eating one bite-sized chapter after another, some sweet, some salty, more bittersweet.  These are anecdotes that actor Frank Langella has perfected in decades of late-night after-drinks conversation with other actors.  In committing these stories to print, Langella has also reflected on the craft of acting, and the dangers of celebrity.

[Photo: Langella as "Dracula," in a film adaptation in 1979 of his star turn on Broadway; today; and as "Nixon," a role created for the play Frost/Nixon and re-created for the film. See my reflection on Frost / Nixon.]

For sweet, we have from Marilyn Monroe a kind word, just one, that fires ambition in the geeky sixteen-year-old Langella.  There's John F. Kennedy, in yellow trousers, putting young Langella at ease.  Gray and gay Noel Coward flirts with Langella, but the younger man feels only admiration and gratitude for Coward's rapt attention; at a tribute years later, Langella sees Coward's eyes well with tears.  Actresses past their prime maintained their dignity and air of mystery: Delores Del Rio, Billie Burke, Loretta Young.  Langella calls Raul Julia "my boyfriend" who comes across as an overgrown puppy of a man, exuberant and without guile.

For bittersweet, we have greats or near-greats in decline.  Some are just tired:  James Mason, James Coburn, Jack Palance.  A mediocre director named Cameron Mitchell, once a handsome actor, now squeezed into a suit coat that fit him in his glory days, blushes as he jigs for the cast and crew.   The great actor George C. Scott, directing Langella in Coward's Design for Living, leaves rehearsal after draining a six-pack and a bottle of Scotch; gets pissed off (and on) during a drunken confrontation with Langella at a urinal  (giving Langella the opportunity to make the pun "I rained on his tirade"); and wanders off stage during a sold-out performance of Inherit the Wind, muttering "I'm sorry... forgive me."

For salacious, we have Langella's affairs, and a slew of self-centered megolomaniacs.  Of the former group, I'll say nothing; this is a family blog. Of the latter group, famed "Method" teacher Lee Strasberg leads the pack:  Not only does Langella detest the pompous little man, but he quotes friend Stella Adler saying, "It will take one hundred years to undo the harm he has done to the acting community" (29).   Anthony Quinn sends a personal assistant to tell Langella that "Hi" is not a sufficiently respectful way to address Mr. Quinn.  Richard Burton is a drunken bore who monotonizes conversation in Langella's dressing room for hours; Yul Brynner's "King" persona carries over into everything he does.

About his own profession, Langella straddles two poles.  Strasberg was, in Langella's understanding, about indulging one's own emotions; while England's quintessential classical actor John Gielgud (my drama teacher's drama teacher) was too far removed from emotional truth, though he did seek roles outside his comfort zone.  Langella frequently castigates actors, also playwright Arthur Miller, for lacking any introspection.  There's got to be technique; the emotion can't be some kind of personal therapy; and, as Maureen Stapleton said to Langella, "Ya' gotta mean it, baby" (266).

There's an odd undercurrent here about masculinity.  Langella gives us Robert Mitchum and James Coburn as their agents would have him do, as strong, silent, hard drinking, unsentimental he-men.  Langella laughs at his own adolescent behavior when he competes with novelist William Styron over an inch or two in the boudoir of a French mistress they shared.  But it's man's man George C. Scott who surprises us most.  Asked in flight, drunk, what he would have done instead of acting, Scott told Langella, "I would spend the rest of my life sitting at the bedside of the real men in veterans' hospitals playing chess... But why would they want to be bothered by some faggot actor" (188)?

Near the end, Langella passes on universally good advice from heiress Bunny Mellon.  Asked how to talk to famous people, she said to just repeat the last few words of everything they say, as a question.  Brilliant! 

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