Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket, Odds Against Tomorrow). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow.
Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan, J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.
He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..
It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.
I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.
I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).
There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.
So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.
Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.
Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.
What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.
Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.
I finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.
Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.
Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’
The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).
Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.
The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.
I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.
It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.
Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent
By Brian Kellow
New York: Viking, 2015
A biography of the greatest agent of one of the greatest periods of American cinema is a book to read; especially if that agent is a woman; and even more so, if she zings one-liners like Sue Mengers.
Brian Kellow’s book is admirably researched and a great read. We learn that Mengers was Jewish, born in Hanover, and that her family only emigrated to the US in 1935. Kellow depicts Menger’s struggles with her mother as the driving force in her life: ‘My mother, the Gorgon’ says Mengers in the very first sentence of Chapter One. But surely hazard, chance, the luck to have ended up in New York whilst many of her relatives in Germany ended up in ovens must also have informed her very particular way of being in the world and helped shape her actions?
In the first few chapters, Kellow depicts Mengers as a character out of Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything: a combination of Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen from Mad Men in the process of becoming like a character in a Jacqueline Sussann novel. She begins intelligent, hard-working, and with incredible drive and proceeds to shed her inhibitions in order to get what she wants, all the while scheming to get more power, and more permanent sources of it, than transient desirability could be cashed for. That’s how Mengers worked her way from acting school (she was pretty enough to think of becoming a star), to working as a general receptionist at MCA, then run by Lew Wasserman, to working as Jay Kanter’s secretary. Kanter was the agent for Brando, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe amongst others; and Mengers took and made the calls. If the boys of her stature, the Geffens and the Ovitzes, made it up through the mailroom, Mengers – and she had no peer amongst women – made it through the secretarial pool.
In 1957 Mengers left MCA, landed at the Baum and Newborn Agency — smaller but offering more room to rise — and by ‘59, Sue was secretary to Charles Baker, head of the theatre department at the William Morris Agency, one of the biggest, oldest and most respected in the business and still run by the legendary Abe Lastfogel, who had joined in 1912. Whilst there, Mengers met Alice Lee “Boaty” Boatwright, a young casting director who was to become a great aid, resource and life-long friend. One of the interesting things about the book is that it demonstrates that whilst Mengers could play with the boys, and on their own terms, she earned and enjoyed the trust and confidence of the girls.
In 1963 Mengers went to work for Korman Associates, another small firm whose list was mainly B, and whose most famous client was probably Joan Bennett. By then, Bennett’s star had plummeted to such depths that a leading role in the ABC-TV hit daytime soap, Dark Shadows, was considered a career boost (Interestingly, it was produced by Lela Swift, who also directed 588 episodes). Mengers was relentless in pursuing new talent, always already stars — she didn’t have the patience to develop unknowns — and made such a name for herself that people, famous people, were already talking about her.
Menbgers was friends with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, then at the peak of their stardom; Nicky Haslam, already the jet setting society designer, and Gore Vidal and his partner Howard Austen — whom Mengers would become deeply devoted to — and many others. According to Haslam, Vidal and Mengers made ‘topping jokes, topping remarks. They wouldn’t exactly put people down; they would just to react to what people said with much funnier lines.’
Mengers had a talent for friendship. She had the wit and the chutzpah to be what was then called a ‘fag hag’ — she was at ease with gay men and their culture and shared in the outsider’s ironic stance; she could be a man’s woman – she certainly loved the boys; and, most importantly, she was a girly girl who helped many of what would become the most powerful women in Hollywood in the Blockbuster Era (Sherry Lansing and Elaine Goldsmith) get a leg-up in the business. Many of her friendships would be lifelong ones and she inspired rare devotion in her friends if not always in her clients.
Part of Mengers’ attraction was her smarts, her flouting of social conventions and her wit. She’d been Constance Bennett’s agent in the 60s when the 30s Diva was finding it hard to get a job and, after much hard work, landed her a choice part as Lana Turner’s mother in Madame X, only to have Bennett hound her for star billing or at least her name in a box. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage shortly after making the film and Mengers couldn’t resist quipping, ‘Well, at least she’s got her box now’. After the Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate in her home, she soothed an anxious Barbra Streisand by telling her, ‘Don’t worry honey. Stars aren’t being murdered. Only featured players’. And famously, ‘if you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me.’
Mengers relished having so many of the top stars and directors of a defining epoch in American cinema on her roster, amongst them: Gene Hackman, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols and even Brian de Palma. But she saw Barbra Streisand, then the biggest star not only in the movies but in the whole of the world of entertainment, as the lynchpin to her roster. She considered her a ‘soul’ sister, managed her career throughout the 70s and would be devastated when Streisand left her in ’81.
Nonetheless, throughout the 70s, Mengers personified the figure of ‘The Hollywood Agent’ in American Culture, the only woman ever to do so. CBS 60 Minutes, then a top-ten network show and one of the most respected news programs on American television, did a profile of her in her trademark pink shades, speaking in her baby girl voice: ‘I was a little pisher, a little nothing, making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris agency in New York,’ she tells Mike Wallace,’…and I thought, Gee, what they do isn’t that hard, you know. And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars…And I suddenly thought: that beats typing.
Sue Mengers has been a legend for a long time. In 1973’s The Last of Sheila, Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, a client, based the character of the bulldozing agent played by Dyan Cannon on Mengers. And everyone in the know, and even some who weren’t quite, knew who was being referred to. As recently as 2013, Bette Midler played her in the hit Broadway play, I’ll Eat You Last. Mengers is a myth and a legend.
What Kellow does in Can I Go Now? that’s so great is that he a brings the person to life ; we get to know the funniness, the love of pot, the talent for bringing people together at dinner parties, the good times and the good business. Kellow also does an excellent job of charting the development of the agency business in the US – the book is a great, more personal companion to Frank Rose’s excellent The Agency: William Morris and the Secret History of Showbusiness and to Connie Bruck’s equally good When Hollywood had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. The book is also a marvellously entertaining recounting of some of the biggest deals in the business, featuring some of the most important stars and movies of that great decade of American Cinema, the 70s. It’s a book to read.
Judy Garland on Judy Garland, edited by Randy L. Schmidt. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014
It could be argued that of all Studio-Era stars, Judy Garland is the one that continues to be most present in the culture; most seen and heard, most discussed, indeed so much of a reference point that we might take her presence for granted. Every Easter we see her in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire; every Christmas it’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in Meet Me in St. Louis; not a year goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz, recently even in Cinemas and in 3-D. Her death in 1969 was said to have sparked the Stonewall Riots, the subject of one of this year’s great flop movies. She’s a gay icon. But the obsession with her life and career is, as Susan Boyt so movingly demonstrated in the excellent My Judy Garland Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), not limited to gay males d’un certain age. End of the Rainbow, a musical show about her life, is still touring after its debut in 2005, and Tracie Bennett won the Tony for her performance in the play in 2012. This year, Lorna Luft, the other Garland daughter, has been touring the UK in The Judy Garland Songbook and Variety just announced that The Judy Garland Show, which ran for a short time in 1963 and 1964, would, with The Merv Griffin show, anchor the new Talk-Variety block on Get TV.
All the above is a context as to why I was so eager to read Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters. In the back cover of the book, Sam Irvin, author of Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, tells us, ‘The Holy Grail for fans of Judy Garland! Randy Schmidt is the Indiana Jones of Garland archaeology. Never before has Judy been given such laser-focused spotlight to speak for herself – and like her greatest musical perofrmances, she takes center stage and wows us with every phrase.’ After reading the book, my first thought was, ‘who does Sam Irvin think he’s kidding’?
The book is composed of interviews garnered from radio, the fan magazines, newspapers and later television. They’re organised by decade. The first two deades are clearly studio stage-managed. Thus in the 30s we get a lot about how Judy’s stuck ‘In-Between’, the title of one of her great hits of the period, where she’s not yet a child but can’t quite go on dates. The forties are very much a way of stage-managing the public reception of her love life; mentions of Artie Shaw and then her elopement with David Rose, her subsequent marriage and divorce with Vincente Minnelli and the birth of Liza. The fifties are only partially covered and we only get slected interviews mainly from the fan magazines until 1955, thus covering the period where she was fired from MGM to the moment just after the release of A Star is Born. The Sixties is expectedly necrophiliac but covers a greater diversity of material, including excellent interviews with Art Buchwald and a transcript from a superb interview with Gypsy Rose Lee on TV.
On the one hand, it’s great to see these collected in one volume. On the other, most of them are quite readily available and the ones culled from TV or radio would be so much better to listen to or watch that one feels disappointed. One doesn’t really begin to hear her ‘voice’ until the sixties, though there are some hints in the 50s material as well.
There’s no question that this is rich source material; and that Randy L. Schmidt has done a good job of collating it together. But reading through the material one wishes someone had offered an analysis or more of a context for each of those periods covered as it raises a lot of questions and answers none: Are Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland the key popularisers of the concept of the teenager in the twentieth century?;How did what Garland mean evolve throughout the 40s? Is anything Garland did in the 50s different to what Sinatra did and is the differing ways they were imaged and publicised not a continued marker of an oppressive sexism? How could someone who worked at that pace across so many media and into middle age in the Sixties avoid drugs and alcohol when much younger people in that decade were much quicker to succumb? How could someone who never stopped working and always earned top dollar never have any money (i.e. were Freddie Fields and David Begelman, her managers in the sixties, thieves?} These are the questions the book raises, though it is perhaps unfair to expect a book of this kind – a collection of interviews – to answer them. I nonetheless wish someone would.
Thus a good collection of interviews, with quite a lot of repetition amongst them, less context and analysis then one would have hoped even within the scope of such a book, and ultimately a disappointment.
For Garland completists only.
Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers
London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2015.
It’s always a mistake for any biography to announce itself as ‘definitive’ in the title: it invites contradiction; and on the evidence of reading Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, it will not be the last word on the great star: the interior life, what drove him at different stages in his life, even why so many of his film performances continue to thrill when the films themselves don’t, are questions the book does not answer satisfactorily.
But to say that it is not definitive is not to say that it is not good. In fact it’s the best one we’ve got so far and Robert Sellers has conducted dozens of new interviews, dug up and clarified essential facts that we did not know or which were not clear before – for example, he firmly establishes that whilst his father was Irish and his mother Scottish, O’Toole himself was born in Leeds – and we even get charming nuggets such as the following: ‘O’Toole left RADA, aged twenty-three, with a little blue book that every student was given upon graduation, The RADA Keepsake and Counsellor. It gave indispensable advice for the rocky road that lay ahead, gems like: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the job as long as the shoes you were wearing at the audition were clean.’
Sellers is very good at contextualising O’Toole’s first steps as an actor. We learn that O’Toole ended up in the same class at RADA as Albert Finney and Alan Bates; actors who would really come into their own and symbolise a new type of British cinema in the sixties. Interestingly, of these, and even if one were to include his great friend Richard Harris, O’Toole is the one who would remain least associated with the dominant currents of British Cinema in this period. He’s got no equivalent to Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Harris’ This Sporting Life and Bates is almost exclusively associated with British Cinema (Georgy Girl, Women in Love, The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, etc.). O’Toole was different. His first big splash was in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, where Noel Coward quipped he was so pretty he should have been called Florence of Arabia. It was a ‘runway production’; British story, director etc. but also international money and international stars (Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff); a typical Sam Spiegel production. And it’s interesting that many of O’Toole’s greatest success or most famous films of the 60s would have strong associations with Britain but all be in one way or another ‘international’: Becket, Lion in Winter, Lord Jim, Goodbye Mr. Chips, even, in different ways, What’s New Pussycat.
Sellers is marvellous at illuminating his work in theatre. He interviews lots of his contemporaries, co-stars, people who worked with him in various capacities and their accounts are vivid and illuminating. We do get real insight into his time at the Bristol Old Vic, his star-making turn at the Royal Court and the West End in The Long and the Short and the Tall in 59, his legendary performance as Shylock at Stratford for Peter Hall, the famously disastrous Macbeth in 1980 and of course late triumphs such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. These aspects of the book are excellent .
The personal life, his relationship with his father and with his son, with his two wives and two daughters, all of these are sketched out clearly if a bit unsatisfactorily, though the fault here might be more with this reader’s wanting to know more than with the way the book tells it. Certainly Sellers seems to have had unprecedented access to the family and to personal papers, all of which are put to good use in the book.
The picture is of a star who continues to dazzle, a man with somewhat bipolar tendencies who drank to unconsciousness during one part of his life and until his body could take it no more; a selfish but good man; a literary man who delighted in performing and in the admiration and applause of others. This is all vividly sketched. So why the grumbling? I suppose I would have wanted more on the film career; that’s what we see now; that’s what matters disproportionally now; that was a large part of his life then. As the book makes clear, he loved being a film star. Lastly, I don’t think we get enough of a sense of who Peter O’Toole was as a person; his actions are clearly narrated and well-documented by the book; his fears, dreams, desires still remain opaque. I suppose we can consult O’Toole’s own excellent autobiographies: Loitering With Intent: The Child and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice. But they’re only partially revealing, and only on that period before he became famous. Nonetheless, these are perhaps the grumblings of a fan: Sellers’ book tells us so much more than we already knew that it’s begrudging to criticise him for not telling us as much as we want to know. Thus the book might not be definitive. But it is essential to anyone who wants to know more about Peter O’Toole.
Grace Jones: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
by Grace Jones, as told to Paul Morley, London: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
It’s out, seems written rather than dictated — a credit to the writing of Paul Morley –full of wonderful imagery and in a unique voice; very intelligent too, with some of the most acute observations on the development of the discotheque and on disco music that I’ve ever read.
Why Grace Jones remains fascinating is clear: throughout the 70s and eighties she was at the centre of a dynamic intersection of art, fashion, music and celebrity culture, with even a short but memorable raid into the movies; as a model in Paris, she roomed with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange; she was photographed by Helmut Newton, painted by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring designed for her videos, Issey Miyake and Kenzo designed her clothes, Phillip Treacy designed her hats, Jean-Paul Goude directed her videos. She was a star of Studio 54 when it was the centre of Club culture, the same for the Garage later, and Le Palace in Paris after that; she and Dolph Lundgren were the celebrity couple of their day and as visually striking as any duo in the 20th Century. She co-starred with Schwarzenegger and Eddy Murphy in their heyday and is one of the most memorable of Bond villains; and this is all be before we get to the music, which is, justly, what she is most celebrated for — she produced music that has stood the test of time even as it vividly represents it;
The joy of reading this book is that as an intelligent woman, a cultured woman with lots of experience, she’s got a lot of perceptive things to say on all the cultural moments and movements she participated in, and she says it honestly and with warmth and a great deal of humour. ‘I wanted what I did to be entertainment, but the entertainment that is really art that likes to party’. It was and is; and the book vividly demonstrates how and why Grace Jones is an artist.
Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
In June 2013, at a University of Southern California event with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg predicted an implosion of the film industry: the failure at the box office of ‘tentpoles’, mega-budget movies that are designed with potential sequels in mind and anchor a studio’s release schedule, ‘are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.’
According to Anne Thompson in her interesting and illuminating new book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System, the prediction came true. White House Down, After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Turbo and R.I.P.D. tanked at the box-office and the whole cinematic apparatus — the paradigm of production, distribution, exhibition — and the technological, economic and political structures that underpin it, did indeed change.
‘In 2012 US domestic movie box-office delivered a record-breaking $11 billion, up 8.4 % on the previous years’ Thompson writes. ‘If record foreign box office added to total it would have been a $35 billion year’. But as Thompson goes on to show, ‘despite appearances, the movie business isn’t thriving. The seeds of the industry’s destruction were present in 2012’.
Film in 2012
Inspired by William Goldman’s, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, an examination of the state of Broadway and its theatre through following the 1967-68 Season, Thompson follows, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012: The discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January (Searching for the Sugar Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Your Sister’s Sister); the backgrounds to two potential franchises released in the Spring and why one worked (The Hunger Games) and one didn’t (John Carter); and how in 2012 the word “film” officially became an anachronism because by then the changeover to digital was pretty much complete.
Thompson also demonstrates how in May, the Cannes International Film Festival launched Cannes veteran Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cannes newbie Paul Thomas Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. ‘The studios use Cannes as a massive marketing opportunity to launch their pictures in the all-important global market, which has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 per cent of the film industry’s annual grosses.’
Comi-Con in July underlined the importance of the comic-book movie and how the competition between those superheroes based on Marvel and those on DC carries over from the comic-book fan-base onto the film adaptations. According to Thompson: ‘Warner Bros, which acquired DC Comic in 1969 and therefore movie and television rights to the jewels in the DC crown, Superman and Batman, discovered in the early eighties that many fans of the comics were attending Comic-Con – and would come to see their movies. Soon the promotion of movies inspired by comic books expanded to genre films, and eventually just about anything aimed at the studio’s sweet spot, the young male demo’.
Thompson offers interesting insights into how the Fall film festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) helped launch Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln; how female representation in popular movies hit its lowest in five years (only 28% of speaking parts in the highest grossing US movies were women) and how gender politics affected the reception of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; and lastly, she gives a sharp and entertaining account of ten things that changed the Oscar race that year (One of them is that on the opening day of Zero Dark Thirty, three US Senators accuse the filmmakers of inaccuracy).
The Whole System Has Changed
What becomes clear in the book is that the whole system has changed, at least as it pertains to the ‘Global’ film industry with a primary base in the United States (Bollywood, Nollywood, Chinese Cinema etc. are all bypassed in this account). The overall structure of the industry is still oligopolistic with six majors who are signatories to the Motion Picture Association of America: News Corp-owned Fox, Sony, Warner Bros (which owns HBO), Viacom owned Paramount (which also owns CBS and Nickelodeon), Comcast owned NBC Universal (which owns USA and the Sci-Fi Channel) and Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN). Lionsgate, who is not a signatory to the MPAA, is now also considered a major. These companies control the film industry. But what that industry is has now changed.
Movies are now made on digital. On one hand, this permits all kinds of additional special effects, which can potentially make them very expensive; on the other hand, more personal dramas that don’t require much post-production can now be made on a micro-budget. As a result, in 2012 Sundance logged more than 4000 feature submissions.
Screen conversions from 35mm to digital expanded globally from 16, 000 in 2009 to 36,000 in 2010 and by 2012 the changeover was complete. Studios benefitted economically but even filmmakers are wary of digital. They ‘try to sock away a 35mm print of their films for safe-keeping as digital formats demand constant, expensive upgrading to the latest system’.
Thompson vividly demonstrates how the whole distribution system has changed. It used to be that movies played in theatres, then the film was made available after three or four months at a premium cost by Video on Demand (VOD), then sell and rent on DVD’s, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world. Now there’s a rush to get everything to Video on Demand (VOD) as quickly as possible and some films were available on VOD before they screened in theatres or bypassed theatres altogether. According to Thompson, ‘‘close to a quarter of the 2012 Sundance releases were made available concurrent with or before their theatrical openings on VOD outlets – cable iTunes, Hulu or filmmakers’ own website’ Recently, Josh Whedon’s In Your Eyes is an example of a film that bypassed traditional distribution structures and went right to VOD on the very same day it was premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the type of distribution theatre owners most fear because it renders them obsolete.
A Four Quadrant Movie
In 1982 Spielberg’s E.T. was the biggest box office success of its year. It was based on an original story and it stayed on screen for over a year in America. It was the ‘four quadrant movie’’, films that are equally appealing to young, old, male or female that studios constantly chase after. But of the top 26 films of 2012,’ nineteen were based on some other property, eight were sequels, four were comic-book franchises, two were remakes, two were prequels, and seven were originals’. Moreover, the biggest market is now China. it grew 36% in 2012, outstripping Japan as American’s biggest foreign market. American studios are so eager to curry favour there that they went so far as to re-edit Django Unchained an Iron Man 3 in order to get it through the censors and into that now lucrative market.
According to Thompson, in their University of California talk ‘Spielberg and Lucas were basically calling attention to the end of the movie business in which they grew up’. Spielberg, as powerful a director as there is in Hollywood, had struggled to get Lincoln made. It was a serious drama with no sequel potential. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and getting the money to make it had been so difficult he considered turning to HBO.
Steven Soderbergh did indeed go to HBO to make the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. As a studio movie it would have cost $70 million to make and the studios didn’t want to risk it, even with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached to star. It was made instead at HBO for $23 million, won the Emmy, and was released theatrically outside the US. Oliver Smith, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, and Spielberg himself now all routinely work in television. That’s where serious drama and comedy that isn’t aimed at adolescents are being made.
What Thompson doesn’t explore are the aesthetic consequences of this. What might it mean to cut off romance, interiority, complex character psychology and so on from big screen presentation. Many might ask whether it would matter if the bigger and smaller screens carve up different genres or different themes amongst themselves, with spectacle relegated to the big screen, and more personal dramas to the smaller screen. But I think it matters a huge amount. In a now famous ‘Memo to Hollywood’ Manohla Dargis in The New York Times tells filmmakers the following:
‘ You know that moody shot that you and your director of photography anguished over for hours and hours? It may look beautiful, but there are critics who will never know, which certainly encourages them to pay more attention to the plot than the visuals. Viewers who bypass the theatrical experience and prefer watching movies on their televisions and tablets may not mind. Some directors, especially those whose talking heads and two shots look better on small screens, also won’t care; others just want their work seen however, wherever. But I bet there are directors who would freak if they knew how some critics were watching their movies’.
So should anyone interested in the art of movies since, perhaps even more fundamentally, sometimes even basic plot is not optimally decipherable on a tablet or phone. What one sees and how one is shown it is essential to how we experience and evaluate entertainment and art. Of course it does not always follow that bigger is better. But there should be some correlation between how a movie is designed to be seen and how it is in fact seen; at least as concerns evaluation of all kinds, but particularly that by professional critics.
Thompson’s Got Great Sources
If Thompson doesn’t answer this type of question she does touch on many others I have not addressed here. Thompson is a journalist who is there at all the events and festivals she’s writing about. She’s got great sources, and she seems to be writing in the heat of thought as it sparks to life and in the midst of events as they unfold. We get to follow, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012 from Sundance to the Academy Awards (ultimately awarded in February 2013). Thompson thus affords herself and us an eye-witness and critical look at the state of the industry and the state of the art. And as her vividly entertaining and informative book makes clear in so many different ways, the prognosis is not good.
Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
Anne Thompson is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Thompson on Hollywood
Newmarket Press for IT Books, UK: Harper Collins, 2014
Available from Kindle Amazon and other outlets.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Conversation.
Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) is her memoir of growing up in an unconventional, bohemian and artistic household; first in Ireland, then London, and later, by the book’s end, in New York, where she starts her first serious love affair with fashion photographer Robert Richardson. She is of course the daughter of the legendary film director John Huston, the maker of classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King, and many others. Her mother too was famous, ‘the youngest member to join the best dance company in the nation, Ballet Theatre,’ (p.13), gracing the June 9, 1947 cover of Life as ‘Young ballerina, Ricky Soma’ and under contract to David Selznick when she met John Huston.
The story is told with great generosity of spirit, a flair for conveying the drama of incident and a sharp eye for a telling detail that readers appreciate knowing, like her father’s wearing Guerlain’s lime cologne or his middle name being Marcellus – who knew? Huston evokes through naming flowers, animals, the different kinds of colours one finds in Ireland, the obstacles to a hunt. She’s got the vocabulary to convey a range of places things and experiences — and she writes vividly and well.
Anjelica Huston is not only an iconic 1970s model, Academy Award-winning actress (for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985, directed by her father), and a director (Agnes Brown); she’s an American aristocrat. She likes to tell us that she’s descended from Civil War generals and the State Attorney of Ohio on her father’s side; a yogi and owner of the famed showbiz speakeasy Tony’s Wife on her mother’s; that she was born whilst her father was making The African Queen and that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to ask whether her father had had a boy or a girl.
Any film buff will know about her father, or that her paternal grandfather was Dodsworth in the movies and introduced Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘September Song’ on stage; or that she herself is the third generation of Oscar winners in her family. But like all Twentieth Century aristocrats, though they might derive their power from a particular genealogy grounded in the history of a specific country, they themselves are not rooted to a particular place. The world is their arena of action and the great capitals and fashionable vacation destinations their playground. The ‘jet set’ was the term developed for the late twentieth-century variant of the rich and /or famous to which Anjelica Huston and her family belonged.
In the acknowledgment section of A Story Lately Told, Huston thanks her ‘darling sister Allegra, whose own memoir was an inspiration’ (p.253). And one can understand how that would be the case: Allegra Huston’s book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) is also a coming of age story that deals with many of the same places and people. But it is a truism that each child has a different upbringing even when raised in the same family by the same set of biological parents; parents become more experienced, they change, or circumstances change, or each child may bring out a different aspect of the parents’ personality.
Plus, Allegra Huston had a more dramatic story to tell: growing up thinking that she shared the same set of parents as Anjelica she later discovers that her real father was Viscount Norwich, son of Great Britain’s postwar Ambassador to Paris — Duff Cooper – and Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, one of the great beauties of the 20s, and under her married name of Diana Cooper, a sensation on stage in The Miracle for Max Reindhart. There are enough books by or about the Norwich’s to fill a small bookshelf. Their names also appear in the memoirs and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and other luminaries of the era. Norwich himself appears as a fictional character guiding tourists through the great sights of Europe in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred; it was whilst undertaking such tours that Norwich met Allegra’s mother and thus the ‘Love Child’ in the title of Allegra’s book.
It is an indictment of Norwich, and a compliment to Huston, that in spite of her three other siblings having slightly different parentage, she remembers that ‘We were brothers and sisters, and Dad was our father. I never felt I was second best to him. I was as much his child as any of us (p. 218). This couldn’t be said for the Norwich’s; and in her own book Anjelica remembers that, ‘Mum told me that when she was pregnant with Allegra, John Julius’s mother, Lady Diana Cooper, had come by the house with a bunch of violets. Mum was ambivalent about the gesture, feeling that there was something condescending about it, particularly in Diana’s choice of flowers, like a bouquet a grand person might present to a poor relation she said (p.150)..
Part of the great pleasure one experiences when reading A Story Lately Told is the account of the places and people that form the context of a kind of upbringing that might have seemed exceptional in the middle of the last century but might no longer seem so: people travel a lot more and families made up of different baby-daddies and indeed different baby-mommies would, if one believed daytime television, be the norm rather than the exception today.
The first part of the book deals with Ireland as Anjelica’s first memories are of growing up there, or more precisely at St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Craughwell, Co. Galway. Jean-Paul Sartre who went there to write a script for John Huston’s film of Freud wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests…his emptiness is purer than death.’ But that’s not how Anjelica remembers the house and that’s not how she remembers her father. For her, the house is full of the music of Montand, Sinatra, Holiday, Piaf and Moloudji; it’s full of art books and Penguin Classics. It’s a house where the rugs are Aubusson, the posters are by Toulouse Lautrec, the crystal is Waterford, the silver is Georgian, the couture is by Dior and Balenciaga, and there are Greek marbles, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, Louis XIV furniture. Anjelica knows both the price and value of such things. Her father, who gambled for and won a Monet, taught her. But the people she grew up with are the servants, the nannies, the Creaghs who were cook and butler; and she remembers them not only with fondness but with enough feeling to have kept up with them and revel in their successes: the Creagh’s daughter, Karen would later be ‘and All Ireland Champion céili dancer’ Anjelica recounts with warmth and pride (p. 54).
If the chapters on Ireland sketch out a childhood, the chapters in London sketch out her teenage years. It’s Hyde Park and Carnaby Street, crushes on the Beatles, shoplifting at Biba. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the anecdotes about the famous; Carson McCuller’s visit to St. Clerans where she was taken around the house the first day and then didn’t leave her room for the rest of her stay; Anjelica’s first sighting of Mick Jagger when she was understudying Marianne Faithfull in a play; feeling slightly used by James Fox.
Huston has a storyteller’s gift. I love her evocations of place. But I also love how she dramatises her anecdotes: the story of the Irish lady she met at one of the country hunts who won a paternity suit against the husband she had not lived with for seven years because she claimed they were once guests at the same country house and accidentally ‘shared a sponge’. There are many more like that. The chapter in New York, where she finds herself in fashion, meeting Diana Vreeland, being photographed by Avedon and Bailey, modeling for Halston and Zandra Rhodes. It’s a rich life that Anjelica Huston shares.
A Story Lately Told is a beautifully told tale, one that honours both her mother and her father as well as the three countries in which she grew up. It’s the story of an artist as a confused but interested young woman; and it’s proof that Anjelica Huston is an artist in more than one medium.
Ava Gardner, The Secret Conversations (Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, London: Simon and Schuster, 2013)
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.
The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .
Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12). Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).
We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular. They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.
Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.
What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.
Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).
She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).
Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’ (p.31).
She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).
But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).
She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’
Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott, ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).
The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.
There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).
In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).
A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.