“I ADMIT my stories are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionist, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of events as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories.”
That is the great actor Frank Langella writing in the preface of his new book, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them.
Frank continues: “Don’t turn the page if you like your stories spoon-fed or sugar-spread. I didn’t always like some of my subjects, and I’m quite certain some of them found me less than sympathetic. There will be a fair amount of forks to the eye and knives to the throat.” Oh, Mr. Langella, do you really think after such a tempting introduction anybody would forgo turning the page? I sure didn’t!
Dropped Names is a sizzling platter of stellar vignettes — pungent, for sure, but poignant too. He opens telling of a chance Manhattan encounter with Marilyn Monroe in 1953, and ends with the wealthy Bunny Mellon, whose motto was “Nothing should be noticed.” Well, I guess Bunny wouldn’t approve of this book. It screams to be noticed!
Langella is a skillful, often brutal observer, but he doesn’t spare himself, either. He’s not afraid to be what most actors are to some extent — vain and self-absorbed.
The author offers something startling on every page. The reader might disagree with, disbelieve or dislike the delicious carvings here — but just try to put Dropped Names down. A few samples:
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LEE STRASBERG: “Of all the short men I’ve known, the guru of the Actors Studio stood tallest on the list of the arrogant and insufferable … a pompous pygmy.”
RICHARD BURTON: “The sonorous voice, now slurring its words, had succeeded in numbing and stunning me. Could anyone, I wondered, be so unaware of what a crashing bore he had become?”
YUL BRYNNER: “No one smoldered or walked across a stage or a screen like him. He was a one-of-a-kind-star, singular in appearance and original in voice. Never far from a full-length mirror, he maintained his aura assiduously.”
RITA HAYWORTH: “A 54-year old courageous and gentle woman named Margarita Carmen Cansino, one of God’s lost souls, clinging in the night to a man whose name she could not remember.”
JACKIE KENNEDY ONASSIS: “At the Cape she was lovely. Clean scrubbed face in the mornings, barefoot, simple shift dresses, shorts and halters, a large straw carry-all always holding a book, a scarf and some bare essentials. Mostly, though, she carried nothing.”
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THESE snippets don’t nearly do the book justice. From Raul Julia, Billie Burke and James Mason to Dinah Shore, Loretta Young, Colleen Dewhurst, Arthur Miller, Jo Van Fleet, Ida Lupino, Tip O’Neill, Anne Bancroft, Deborah Kerr, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, the Queen Mother, Paul Newman and more, Mr. Langella is surgically precise, and eloquent. Some of these were dear friends, some were lovers; some he met only once and charmed, or quite the opposite. Some he regretted meeting in his careless, self-loving youth. The human condition in most of its vagaries is beautifully rendered between these pages. Frank is never graphic, never quite specific as to certain matters. He draws the curtain, the ocean crashes, the scene fades before the clinch. I like that.
Every chapter in the book is worthy, but two blew me away. One is his take on Bette Davis. He captures, in five pages, the strange, savage nature of her personality; that peculiar insistence on battle and control, though these attributes brought her no apparent pleasure. Perhaps she clung to them because they had once given her a great career?
The other astonishing chapter is devoted to Elizabeth Taylor, whom Frank romanced in 2001. Elizabeth’s health was already in precipitous decline — Langella doesn’t speak of her fabled beauty — but as a woman, she was not ready to throw in the towel. Indeed, she was seeking love as aggressively as she had as an 18 year-old bride. No man, writes Frank “could fill a void as deep as the deepest ocean. No man could possibly stay afloat in it. I knew that when I leaned in to kiss her, but still I kissed her.” Langella’s tender memories speak not just of Elizabeth as an older woman, but as she always was — from her “divine arrogance” to a woman whom “no man could ask for more.” Frank captures the unexpected, inexplicable loneliness at the core of that remarkable star.
Dropped Names, which comes from Harper Collins on March 27th, is worth the price for the Davis and Taylor essays alone. But there’s so much more. It’s like the best steak dinner you’ll ever have — meat a bit bloody! — with a creamy, comforting side-dish.
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Andrew Breitbart who died at only age 43, was a definite thorn in the flesh of liberal La La Land, MSNBC and other more leftist, middle-of-the-road politics. He was an engaging guy socially, and had a large influence over Matt Drudge of the web-savvy and early Drudge Report. His own later website — Breitbart — made a lot of news, and not always good for us Yellow Dog Democrats. But I liked Andrew as I have liked a lot of other naughty guys, and I will miss him as a lively adversary.
As a columnist I always enjoyed a gentlemanly rivalry with those smarter and different from me. And it gave an aspect to writing the news instead of just disagreeing with people. Andrew always reminded me that my relationship with the late Roy Cohn, he of the McCarthy era and finally of the Nixon-Regan years, provided me with lots of gossip and news.
But I recall Andrew Breitbart as ahead of his time when he published in 2005 a book I took notice of, titled Hollywood Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon — the Case Against Celebrity. (Nobody else back then thought that “Celebrity” was dying or ever could.)
We have learned since those days that television and the web vitiates everything — real stars, talented bylines, true life celebrities and even the wanna-be’s. I’ll say this for Andrew: the more I attacked his point of view, the happier he was. He was true to his own self and he will be missed, even as some liberals applaud his being vanquished from the field of play.
I was particularly touched the other night watching my friend, Lawrence O’Donnell, on MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” remembering how he enjoyed his jousts with Andrew. Even seemingly mortal enemies of Breitbart, like the committed Goldie Taylor, said she grieved for his family — and “If you call yourself a liberal, then compassion ought to be your name.”