If some enterprising young psychology student ever wanted to write a thesis on the neuroticism of actors — or the quantifiable psychosis of superstardom — they would find a treasure trove of research in Frank Langella’s juicy new memoir, “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them.” At one point in the book (which is out next Tuesday), the actor expresses to Stella Adler, the legendary acting teacher, his admiration for one of her pupils: Marlon Brando. Adler admits her own reverence for him, but warns, “You don’t want to meet him, dear. That way lies madness.”
While Langella has made movies (he had an Oscar-nominated turn in 2008’s “Frost/Nixon”), he is a true creature of the stage. And in this bitchy, highly entertaining memoir, he throws open the doors of the zoo and reveals the galloping egos, peccadilloes, delusions, insecurities, and self-destructive tantrums of those who labor before and behind the cameras and footlights.
“There will be a fair amount of forks to the eye and knives to the throat,” Langella notes in the preface. He isn’t kidding. Richard Burton is a “crashing bore”; Lee Strasberg is “a complete charlatan and self-serving martinet”; Anne Bancroft is an “angry baby”; and Laurence Olivier was “a silly old English gent who loved to play camp and gossip.” And while the book includes portraits of icons from film (Montgomery Clift), politics (John F. Kennedy), society (Brooke Astor) and literature (Bill Styron), his profiles of theater folks create a complex and often witty collage of life in that world.
Langella’s safe as he delivers his broadsides. All of his subjects are deceased, incapable of either defending themselves or questioning the veracity of his claims. But there are also a number of a deeply affectionate tributes to friends whose loss he mourns: Alan Bates, Stella Adler, Jill Clayburgh, Hume Cronyn,Raul Julia, and Jessica Tandy. But it is the searing look at the theater crowd which lingers after the last page is turned. Langella spares no one — least of all himself.
The 74-year-old actor recalls sharing, as a callow young man, a summer-stock stage with Billie Burke, best known as the Good Witch in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” After an instance in which he milked the curtain call at her expense in a production of “The Solid Gold Cadillac,” she turned to him and said, “Mustn’t be greedy, dear. Your time will come.” After it did, Langella recalls that his agent, Eddie Bondi, told him, “Honey, they love your work! They love your looks! But they hate your personality!”
It’s hardly news that actors tend to be narcissistic. But Langella, as a truly wonderful raconteur, holds up a bright-bulbed, full-length mirror to his subjects. In an anecdote with echoes of “Sunset Boulevard,” he recounts being in a 1956 stock production of “Anastasia” with Dolores del Rio, a film beauty of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Then 51, she was playing the 24-year-old eponymous heroine in the drama. Just fifteen minutes before curtain rise, a Rolls Royce would pull up to the stage door and she would alight, in full first-act costume, attended by a lady-in-waiting and a chauffeur, often bearing an umbrella lest any rays fall upon her tender complexion. When not in scenes, she would retreat to a spacious private enclosure built for her backstage, never speaking to anyone in the cast or crew. After taking her curtain call, she would head directly to the waiting Rolls. Langella praises her performance and is bemused and charmed by the memory. Later in the book, in a wholly different context, Adler offers the following indulgence: “You can be as phony as you like in life but never on the stage.”
Langella is not quite as forgiving. Anthony Quinn, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, and Laurence Olivier are harshly put down. (The latter, with whom he is filming “Dracula,” blithely tells him that one of his youthful fantasies “was to be standing on a pedestal in a museum and having people pay to worship my naked form.”) But Langella has the most fun with Yul Brynner, who refers to himself without irony as the “King of Broadway” and who comes off as something of a racist. He, too, has his “twenty-foot-long limousine” raised on a special elevator within the theater so he can avoid the public. He doesn’t hide his contempt for regular people. “They were shit,” he tells Langella of one audience attending his umpteenth revival of “The King and I.” “I would not bow. I gave them my ass.”
Anger is a theme, and never more so than in a chapter on Anne Bancroft. After declaring that “all actors are angry babies,” Langella writes,“And I knew of no baby angrier than little Anna Maria Italiano, known to the world as Anne Bancroft.” Langella doesn’t seek to trace the source of this anger, in Bancroft nor any of his other subjects. Of Lauren Bacall, Maureen Stapleton says, “I stay out of her way until they feed her.” And when Paul Newman and Langella get into a discussion about using rage in performance, the former says enviously, “You can let it out, I can’t.” When Langella asks Newman where his anger comes from, he responds, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
While anger can obviously be a useful tool for actors, Langella cites many examples of their self-destructive behavior. He paints a fascinating picture of George C. Scott, who directed him in a hit revival of “Design for Living” — a man feared by everyone who, writes Langella, “scared himself most of all.” In the book, there Scott sits during rehearsals, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, as prone to expressing utter delight as he is to go off on black-out binges. When Langella tells him that he has been in and out of therapy for years, Scott is dismissive. “Well, you’re a coward and a pussy. Why the hell do you need someone else to use as a crutch? Suck it up.”
Scott is just one of many monsters who inhabit Langella’s theatrical landscape — deadly cobras waiting to strike, as he observes of Olivier. The legendary British actor at one point takes Langella aside and says, “You know, Franky dear, you’re a monster. So am I. It’s what you need to be a star.” In that instance, one becomes aware that the juvenile behavior and narcissism simply cloak a desperate insecurity and fear that it will all too easily fall apart, when, as Bancroft says to Langella, you can go from being the “toast of the town” to “a pile of crumbs.”
Perhaps the most poignant chapter involves Jo Van Fleet, a great stage actress, though she’s best-known for her brief, Oscar-nominated scene in “Cool Hand Luke.” Her short temper and testiness had exiled her to the ash heap by the time she paid a backstage visit to Langella after a performance of “After the Fall” at Lincoln Center. In short order, she insults Dianne Wiest, Langella’s co-star, who has come to pay obeisance. Then Van Fleet proceeds to badmouth Arthur Miller. “The guy’s a chauvinist asshole,” she says. Langella, who is eager to have his dinner — and not with her — finally asks the actress if there is anything else he might get her. “Yeah,” she says plaintively, “a job.”
Despite such tender sympathies, Langella is onto his fellow players and himself. He leaves it to a wry and drunken Maureen Stapleton to put it all into perspective. With dark humor, he describes sharing a limo with the Tony- and Oscar-winning actress. Proceeding to get rip-roaring drunk in the course of a grid-locked ride, she listens as Langella begins a monologue on the career they share, the challenges of acting — the endurance it requires, the commitment it demands. Langella writes, “Lying with her head back on the seat, the glasses and carafe empty on the floor at her feet, she looked over at me and said, “Who gives a fuck?”