Liz Smith: Frank Langella's Big Bite — The Actor Draws Blood, Pain and Love in "Dropped Names"

And more from our Gossip Girl: a goodbye to Andrew Brietbart

“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:

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Wiley Canuck says:

    Just requested Langella’s book from the Library. Read the precis and it has been highly recommended. Looking forward to reading it. Have always had the impression of Mr. Langella that he tells it like it is.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Richard Burton was, by all accounts, truly a boor. And a total bore. Particulary after one too many drinks. I forget which of his “leading ladies” made the comment but one commented that he could enrapture you for three or four days and then suddenly he started repeating the stories. Word for word. As if they were memorized from a script. Who knew what lay beneath?  Same with Elizabeth Taylor. Perhaps that is why they became so obsessed with each other. Kindred spirits. Eternally searching for something missing I suppose. In her case, however, it may have been something stolen . By Nicky Hilton. Who she didn’t need to worry about running into in heaven.

    Sounds like a fascinating book. But I wonder who will write a book about Frank Langella. And tells us all about him. Ah, the schadenfeude.  And the sharp tongues that go with it. And the even sharper pens.  I’m so glad I’m not famous. What a nasty book that would be if someone wrote about me!  Someone made a comment about Elizabeth Taylor over the weekend I didn’t particularly care for. I pointed out that she meant well. And then added “Something no one will ever accuse you of…” No one had a sharper tongue or a sharper pen than Andrew Breitbart.  Even the few valid points he made were pointed. Not sure if he meant well.

    And on the subject of snark where is our favorite Count?

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Elizabeth was already afraid she would bore Burton, because he supposedly such an intellect.

      They probably both ended uo bored, and rather quickly, too. But for their scandalous love a studio almost toppled, another marriage was ruined, people were humiliated. And had she not captured him in matrimony, her reputation as the world’s greatest mancatcher would have been seriously wounded.  Especially as she was moving into her more matronly 30’s.

      She might even have thought about the effect on her children.  By all accounts Burton–when sober–was an excellent parent. 

      Your point on Mr. Hilton is well-taken.  After leaving her abusive father and smothering mother, she went right into being abused by Nicky.  I’ve always felt something in her died during that dreadful honeymoon.

      • avatar rick gould says:

        I always felt like Elizabeth was like a lot of ’50s women, who was always looking for security, and found out in middle-age that she could take care of herself.

        But I agree, Mr. W., that it must have been a horrible realization that despite being married to a drunk, pill-popping abuser like Nicky Hilton, that Taylor’s parents and studio wanted her to “work it out,” because he was a Hilton and the scandal of divorce. And it may be hard for many to believe, but ET was sheltered when she married Hilton at 18, a virgin physically and mentally, as Taylor herself put it.
        If you think about it, ET never had much luck in the men department.

        • avatar Baby Snooks says:

          She found out with Nicky Hilton that she could take care of herself and didn’t need the chaperones or the adults to manage the money. And she did okay in the latter department although she learned with Michael Wilding and Mike Todd that husbands can prove to be expensive. And Eddie Fisher had the potential to “wipe her out” although in the end he settled for what was simply “commuhity property” although that of course still put a dent in her financial “nest egg” at that point in time. And probably explained her reaction to him through the years whenever someone mentioned him. In that sense, she was absolutely a “50s” woman. A man simply didn’t take from a woman. Never mind that she knew how in fact they did. And how expensive, again, a husband can be. Perhaps that is why she didn’t try “Love Potion Number Nine.”  She negotiated for herself with Cleopatra and proved to be a good negoiator. She set up trusts for herself, her mother, and her children.  She wasn’t wealthy at that point but she could have retired and lived quite well. Along with everyone else.  But Burton came along and she picked up the “money bug” and they both walked away with around $25 million apiece from the ongoing and rather bizarre string of “The Burtons” movies. Even when they weren’t in them with the other, everyone flocked to see the films.  No one will ever know what she was really worth. But I suspect by the time the perfume money started rolling in it was “pin money” as we used to call it. Money to have fun with. She got nothing from Nicky Hilton. Had a “pre-nup” with John Warner. EVerone else? Well, there are rumors that despite the divorces, she still remained part of “The Burtons” because of the way they set everything up and because of the tax ramifications of “divvying it up” and so Sally Burton gets a piece of the action so to speak. As someone commented not long ago again, the “estate reutnrn” most likely will be more of a “corporate” return. She wasn’t really that bright but was bright enough, particularly in terms of learning from Burton, to find the best attorneys and accountants she could find. She didn’t sell the “Burton” diamond for any reason other than the trusts weren’t producing enough income. And she needed more capital. And that ring was the one thing that would bring in the most. So she sold it. Same thing with the van Gogh when she decided to sell it and she basically admitted as much. Referring to her “growing family.” Not expecting to get hit with a lawsuit.  As for depending on a man to take care of her, well, again, she learned early on it didn’t work that way. Not for her.  But, well, as she put it to Hedda Hopper, she didn’t like to sleep alone. And so, well, she rarely did. No one thought she could ever top that interview with Hedda Hopper. Until she hit the campaign trail with John Warner and said she always married the men she slept with. People are still roaring over that one. And probably always will.

  3. avatar wlaccma says:

    I am just sorry Breitbart did not live long enough to apologize to those people he destroyed with his doctored videos.