Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them by Frank Langella

“See anything you like, professor?”  That’s what Frank Langella asked Laurence Olivier after running through the room naked.

He knew Bette Davis late in her life, when she was, he writes, “heading toward her grave resolutely maintaining the courage to be hated.”

Rex Harrison was a “son of a bitch.”

Upon their first meeting, Anthony Perkins asked him, “How big is your cock?”

In a TV version of The Mark of Zorro, Yvonne de Carlo played his mother in front of the cameras while treating him “like a pretty girl in the back seat of a convertible on a hot summer night” off camera.

These are some of the names dropped in Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Have Known Them, Frank Langella’s sexy, funny, bittersweet, and sometimes downright sad memoir of his decades as a stage and screen actor.  Each of the sixty-five chapters in the book covers someone he knew or met or had some connection with, however briefly, someone who is no longer with us and can no longer protest or, worse, sue.

Langella happily confesses his own youthful narcissism in what is, however entertaining, a litany of narcissists, people firmly convinced that they are the center of the universe.  While spending time with such people is rarely an agreeable experience for us civilians, Langella, having a typically inflated actor’s ego himself, is able to cut through all of that in most cases and show us the person within all that bluster and pomp.

This is not exactly a showbiz tell-all.  Rather than giving us every sordid detail, Langella teases us with bits and pieces of his life, glimpses of past moments and experiences, and manages to leave us wanting more.  Dishy without being mean, it’s a breezy book filled with familiar faces and names (to people old enough to recognize all the names, anyway) that makes for pleasant reading for anyone who enjoys books about show business.  Best of all, unlike so many showbiz memoirs, it doesn’t leave us feeling like we need to take a shower with lye soap and a steel brush.

While I’m on the subject, I want to point out one of my favorite Frank Langella performances in a movie that never received much attention.  In Starting Out in the Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton (which I have not read), Langella plays a formerly celebrated writer who has been forgotten by virtually everyone as he works on his final novel, which he has been writing for a decade.  The story involves his relationship with his daughter (Lili Taylor) and a graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who tries to convince him to let her pick his brain for her Master’s thesis.  Langella gives a quietly powerful performance in a movie that is just as quietly powerful.  See it if you can.

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