Book: Dropped Names, by Frank Langella (2012)

 Books, Movies, Theater  Comments Off on Book: Dropped Names, by Frank Langella (2012)
May 152012

The subtitle is the first indication that something may be up. Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. Frank Langella tells you straight off that this memoir isn’t about him, it’s about them: the luminaries he met during a long career on screen and stage. And it’s as he knew them, so conventional appreciations may not be the order of the day.

Oh, they are, more often than not. But even then not in the usual fashion. Langella opens his book with a brief description of a show meal with actors, the conversation fast-moving, gossipy, occasionally mean. He aims to recreate that feeling here. So while there are moving tributes to close friends – Raul Julia, Alan Bates – Langella can also write about another favorite, Anne Bancroft, with an unsparing eye for her narcissism. Then there are the times Langella gives someone both barrels. Richard Burton was a bore, Rex Harrison a preening ass, Lee Strasberg “a pompous pygmy … a cruel and rather ridiculous demigod.” Not all of his targets are easy ones: Langella’s affection for Paul Newman is laced with unflattering commentary.

Dropped Names is a strange book. Langella places his reminiscences in the order the subjects died, which results in a fixation on infirmity and loss. He repeatedly laments the current age when “wit, intelligence and style have lost ground to stupid, vulgar and loud,” and “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.”

There’s clichéd writing throughout, but it’s punctuated by sharp observations that read like a skilled actor sizing up a character. Langella describes Ida Lupino (“too good for the room … a first rate artist crying out for help”) before she was fired by producers for being more trouble than she was worth, noting how she was “put together in the way that heavy drinkers, particularly women, organize themselves: impeccable hair, makeup, clothing; a tidy house of cards.” A book in its own right could be made of his chapter on Arthur Miller, focusing on Langella’s failed attempts to cajole the playwright into penning a more honest version of himself for a revival of his autobiographical autopsy of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe After The Fall. And many of Langella’s stories are simply damn good, like bring hazed by Robert Mitchum on a movie they both know is crap. The best is a throwaway: Langella calls Nancy Marchand, his co-star in a play who is being replaced by an Oscar nominee in the TV production. Langella vows he won’t do the film without her. “Don’t be an asshole,” Marchand says, and hangs up on him.

In a sense, all of Dropped Names is an actor’s trick, one of the oldest in the book. Langella brings big names onto the stage, giving them the limelight – then proceeds to steal the scene. In a structure meant to showcase others, Langella keeps revealing pieces of himself. His disappointments, his jealousies, his feelings for women of shall we say a certain age. Langella is brutally honest on every subject, and that eventually includes Frank Langella.

His recollection of an on-set affair with an older Rita Hayworth is here, and includes some great Mitchum material. The book closes with a lengthy passage in praise of philanthropist and socialite “Bunny” Mellon, now embroiled in the criminal case against Senator John Edwards. This New York Times article about Mellon draws from Langella’s book.

 Posted by at 8:00 pm
Mar 212012

Paperback 510: Beacon Books B662X (2nd ptg, 1963)

Title: Strange Thirsts
Author: Michael Norday
Cover artist: Uncredited

Yours for: Not for sale (donation to the collection from Doug Peterson)

Best things about this cover:

  • This book, and the next few I’ll feature on this blog, are all gifts from my friend Doug Peterson. He brings me new books almost every time I see him, and my recent trip to Brooklyn was no exception. My wife had to accept this particular round of gifts, as I was out of commission with vicious food poisoning, but I’m sure he (and everyone) knows how grateful I am.
  • I guess I’ve seen one too many of these semi-suggestive lesbian covers, because the only thing I can see are the blonde’s crazy leprechaun shoes. I hope those are for “the annual college play,” because if she’s wearing those on the street, people are going to chase her and demand to know where she keeps her gold.
  • I hope “Strange Thirsts” refers to the blonde’s irresistible compulsion to drink the brunette’s bath water.
  • I like my lesbian paperbacks to be somewhat more provocative than this. Hardly any flesh, even. A couple of tiny slivers of cleavage. Come on. A lesbian paperback cover’s lasting impression should not be bathroom tile, house plants, and seriously flamboyant footwear.

Best things about this back cover:

  • Yeah, yeah, “warped.” You said that on the front cover.
  • “Imported,” HA ha. “Hey, did the new shipment of Zane Hunter come in yet?”
  • “Dale, for relief, turned to pretty Julie Hilton.” For relief? Relief from What? The sexual attention of a glamorous actress?
  • I like that Julie enjoyed “questionable ecstasies.” “You call those ecstasies? Hmm. I’m dubious.”
  • “Baby-skinned”is a horrifying adjective.
  • “Dale, get in here. You *gotta* see this degradation…”
  • “Probes deeply, boldly, into forbidden areas.” That’s what I call obvuendo!

Page 123~

There were times when her flesh seemed unable to wait for the completion that he would give it with his own.

So he’s going to give her flesh completion? With his own flesh? His own completion? But the whole paragraph is about how they’re *not* having sex because they’re waiting for marriage … only the very next chapter is entitled “Menage à Trois”! Crazy college kids.


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Movie: Coriolanus (2011)

 Movies, Theater  Comments Off on Movie: Coriolanus (2011)
Feb 082012

In the year-end glut of movies seeking awards, one or two titles always get lost. The latest victim: the modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Upfront, I confess that the movie represents my first serious exposure to the play. This Slate piece explores the unique place Coriolanus holds in the Shakespeare canon, including T. S. Eliot’s claim that it is “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.” Caius Martius is Rome’s most feared general, a man who does battle with soldiers he respects to protect a citizenry he holds in contempt. A particularly bloody victory over the Volscian army following the siege of Corioles gives Martius the new name of Coriolanus and entrée into the world of politics. But he refuses to curry favor with the masses, intending to govern the same way he marshaled his forces. Other politicians, fearing Coriolanus’ rise, stir up opposition to his appointment. The general goes into exile, then wreaks vengeance against the nation that banished him.

It’s a breathtakingly complex piece of writing, bereft of heroes and villains. Coriolanus is both admirable and monstrous, often simultaneously. Menenius, Coriolanus’ political mentor and the play’s most overtly calculating figure, has the Republic’s interests at heart, while the self-serving populist tribunes raise valid objections to granting Coriolanus power.

There are astonishing performances galore. Brian Cox’s beautifully modulated Menenius, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the scheming tribunes, and an absolutely staggering Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the mother who made Coriolanus the man he is. Ralph Fiennes does impressive work in front of the camera in the lead role and behind it as director. The film is propulsive, taking full advantage of the Serbian locations to present a landscape steeped in ancient simmering hatreds. Speeches are captured on cell phone cameras, critical dialogue is put into the mouths of commentators on the Roman equivalent of Fox News. It’s a fleet and furious adaptation of the Bard. Here’s the trailer.

 Posted by at 8:04 pm