In Frank Langella’s new book, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, the stage and screen actor does just that. The actor, who is perhaps best known for his sexy version of Count Dracula in Dracula and his recent turn as Richard Nixon inFrost/Nixon (he won a Tony for the play and was nominated for an Oscar for the film) has not only had a varied career, but spent it with some interesting and unexpected people.
Dropped Names has its share of bitchy moments — Langella doesn’t like everyone he writes about (cough, cough, Lee Strasberg), but it’s not a mean book. Because the majority of the subjects have passed on, it feels more like a series of tributes. As Langella is concentrating on his impressions of other people, it isn’t strictly biography, either. Facts about his life and career as an actor can be pieced together from the disparate stories, but the book is (mostly) free of ego, which is remarkable for an actor’s memoir.
|In the role that made him a star, Dracula|
Each chapter is in the order of the actor or entertainment figure’s passing, so the chapters jump about a bit in chronology. This adds to the feeling of just sitting around with Langella and listening to him drop names, one story leading to another. It makes for an entertaining read, and as the author suggests in his preface, the reader could hop around the book, from subject to subject. There is a kaleidoscope effect at times, as certain profiles overlap, as if Langella, by focusing on a different person at the same event, is telling the same story from a slightly different perspective.
The gossip and anecdotes flow freely. The chapters that prove the most interesting are usually about people Langella knew well, such as his close friend Raul Julia. He includes a touching tribute to a fellow actor who started as a man-crush and then turned into a deep, loving friendship, “In this era when 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 — Raul defined real masculinity.”
His chapter on Julia crosses over with ones on Jill Clayburgh and George C. Scott. The three actors were appearing in a play together in 1984, Noel Coward’s Design for Living, directed by Scott. In quite a few instances Langella proves himself to be on the touchy side, as friendships flounder, “For a year or more afterward Jill and I stayed in contact … But an incident so small and petty; a series of unreturned phone calls not worth the ink to explain, caused us to drift apart. I will forever regret the loss of those irretrievable years.” We have all had similar experiences. You don’t need to be a temperamental actor to throw a hissy fit that you regret later.
|Al Hirschfeld’s illustration of Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia, and Langella in Design for Living|
Sometimes he just hints at an actor’s identity, as he does in a passage with George C. Scott, who shares his disdain for The Method. “I had worked recently with one star who was on the rise. A street-smart wise guy and Actors Studio devotee. I mentioned his name. ‘An asshole,’ said George, ‘a talentless fucking asshole. The guy wouldn’t know syntax if it came up and bit him. You need brains to be an actor.’” Most likely the actor, who the reader can have fun trying to guess his identity, is still alive, and Langella doesn’t want to drop his particular name just yet.
Dropped Names can be best enjoyed if you have a love and knowledge of Old Hollywood and a passing knowledge of New York theater. Langella is as much of a fan of actors as his audience, which makes him especially endearing. He can be bitchy, too — frustrated with their egos, alcoholism, and tantrums. His glimpses into behind-the-scenes film and the theater convey how especially hard Hollywood can be on an older actor or actress:
Miss [Ida] Lupino’s need was of no matter to our director and his producers. When I asked him why they had let her go, he said: “Oh she’s brilliant, but we just don’t have time for her.”
It is generally true in my profession that a faulty camera or an incorrect prop will often be given more attention and time than a worthy actor in need. And also true that idiot actors who come on the set stoned or drunk with petty or moronic demands are far more indulged than ones who calmly ask intelligent questions. Management likes to feel superior to actors and Miss Lupino’s searching mind was clearly intimidating to them.
He also gives a knowing peek into Hollywood filmmaking at its most excessive:
Cutthroat Island … remains, in my film experience, the single most egregious example of excess I have ever witnessed in the movie world. Writers being paid $100,000 a week to punch up horrible dialogue with inane jokes, private cooks serving gourmet food to the Harlins under a cozy tent while hundreds of extras being paid less than minimum-wage stood in the freezing rain for hours …
|As Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon|
And that was just for starters. Langella is most amusing about his own perceived failures. About a film called The Wrath of God, which co-starred film legends Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth, he says, “The worst is my performance, terrible dialogue, and a horse who hated me.” He did enjoy the deadpan cool and wit of Robert Mitchum, “Get out your pencil, Frank, and take this down. Herewith a list of the ten dullest actors in Hollywood. They are: Gregory Peck.” I have to say I agree with Mitch 100% on that one. Langella also managed a brief liaison with Hayworth, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers, although he didn’t know it at the time.
Movie buffs will be interested to hear about his close encounters with Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, etc. Some of his interactions are not much more than fan encounters, which is refreshing. What may be surprising to some is how he came in close proximity to Jackie O and her friends, the wealthy high society family the Mellons, through a youthful theater apprenticeship and friendship with Bunny Mellon’s daughter Liza. This opened up an entire lifestyle, and even a brief relationship with the former First Lady.
Langella is not afraid to name names — as long as the subject is deceased. But after reading Dropped Names it’s impossible not to wonder how many more stories he could tell, if he included people who are still living.
You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e