Book Review by Michael Ladenson
Book Review by Michael Ladenson
It's not every thespian that Al Pacino dubs "a great actor," especially after they've walked out on one of Pacino's pet projects. But in the film Looking for Richard, the star's exploration of Shakespeare's Richard III, that's how he refers to Frank Langella, who originally signed on to play Clarence in that picture but apparently couldn't take the production's meandering discussion process for each scene. A Tony Award winning stage veteran and accomplished character actor on film, Mr. Langella reveals some of this impatience in Dropped Names, his memoir of encounters with the dead and famousa gossipy compendium that provides ample, if not undiluted, pleasure.
"The artifice in his persona was, no doubt, long practiced and I knew instinctively that I was in danger," writes Mr. Langella after an apparently congenial first meeting with Laurence Olivier, who played Van Helsing to the author's cinematic Dracula. "I was in the presence of a predatory animal who had caught me in his sights ..." You might be forgiven for seeing Mr. Langella as a bit of a predator himself, as he makes his career elbowing his way through a succession of encounters with big names in and out of show business, from JFK to Elizabeth Taylor. At one point, Olivier tells him, "... there is nothing so rewarding as being inside an ensemble . Particularly when playing Chekhov. So much more thrilling than giving a Star Performance." Mr. Langella states, "I did not believe or agree with him then, and time has not in the least altered my opinion." The rest of the book makes it clear that our author is being absolutely truthful.
Honesty is a notable feature of this book, which intrepidly names names as it cycles through the mostly unflattering features of the many deceased luminaries its author has encountered on his climb through show business. You'll get to savor Richard Burton's boorishness, Elizabeth Taylor's desperation, Anthony Quinn's egotism, Lee Strasberg's megalomania, Rita Haworth's desperate struggle with Alzheimer's and Elia Kazan's penchant for sexual manipulation. And that's only a handful of the sixty-some names Mr. Langella drops, not all so witheringly. The author forthrightly puts himself in the wrong in his interactions with the gentle Deborah Kerr, and he pays touching tribute to his friendship with Raul Julia. His chapter on Alan Bates, with whom he appeared so brilliantly on Broadway in Fortune's Fool, is the most moving tribute to the camaraderie between actors that I have ever read; as a bonus you get Lauren Bacall's amusingly apposite one-word review (and I speak as a great fan of the show).
A good chunk of the book is quite friendly, with respectful recollections of Al Hirschfeld, George C. Scott, Maureen Stapleton (though it retells a Bye Bye Birdie anecdote that Ms. Stapleton debunks in her own memoirs), Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and others. But it is all supremely gossipy, and if you enjoy showbiz gossip, as I do, you might react as I did in childhood when I discovered you could get a pack of Life Savers that consisted of all red ones. Even if you blanche at Mr. Langella's more pointed recollections, there are such pleasant scenes as Noël Coward convulsing JFK and Jackie with stories laden with expletives that would be too edgy for the New York Times now, let alone the leader of the Free World in 1961. And Mr. Langella is a creature of the theater through and through; at a party featuring the Kennedys, it is the presence of Coward that gives him the most exciting surprise.
If the author is disarmingly frank about, say, Anne Bancroft's temperament and his own unflattering opinion of Ricardo Montalban, he can also be unsettlingly coy about something else. Homosexuality comes up in his recollections of Coward, Charles Laughton, Anthony Perkins and others. Mr. Langella, who was a true beauty in his youth (and looks damn good in his seventies) has a marriage behind him, a couple of children and several affairs with women (including a famous one with Whoopi Goldberg that goes unmentioned in Dropped Names). But as several of the memoir's gay characters circle around his charismatic young self, Mr. Langella leaves flirtatiously open the possibility that he played both sides of the street. As he basks in Noël Coward's attentions, feeds shrimp to Roddy McDowall, and commiserates with Dominic Dunne about the agonies of the closet, he hides coquettishly behind his fan in a way that seems rather archaic in 2012.
Other than that, if the book has a flaw, it is being a bit too much of a muchness; the problem of an all-red pack of Lifesavers is that you find yourself, surprisingly, getting sick of the same flavor, however much it saves you the trouble of making others eat the orange and green ones. You might feel like you'll throw this book through a window if you read one more recollection of Mr. Langella stoically fending off the clingy attentions of one more faded movie star. The author is a terrific actor, and he permits himself an occasional serious observation about his craft; I could have used more. I would also have liked a more interesting look into his mind than simply knowing that he refused to applaud Elia Kazan at the Oscars and didn't vote for George W. Bush; such facts don't exactly distinguish him in the entertainment world. I was intrigued by the thoughts on family that briefly emerge in his deathbed colloquy with Dominic Dunne, and was sorry to see them duck back undercover so quickly.
Nonetheless, Dropped Names is an undeniable pleasure, one you may be tempted to devour too quickly. But, unlike a hunk of chocolate mousse cake, it'll still be there for you to taste again and again in the future, as you'll surely want to. I know I will.
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