on 18 October 2012
I was drawn to this book as much for the 'low down', subjective as it is, on the famous people contained within its pages, than any particular admiration of its author. Despite never reaching the dizzy heights of A-list movie star status (inasmuch as that carries any weight these days) it must at least be acknowledged that Frank Langella has lived a full and eventful life spent doing what he loves and doing it well. And given the wealth of experience he has both in theatre and film, his musings on the many friends and acquaintances he made during his impressive career certainly justifies the publication of this book.
I note with interest how other readers here comment on the inferior presentation of the book - its poor quality paper and the bemusing rough-cut and staggered edging to its pages. When I came across a brand new copy at the library I assumed it was just a one-off edition which had somehow been carelessly chewed up during the production process. But to realise this was intentional is strange, indeed. Unless that intention was to frustrate the readership by having them struggle to turn the pages then I'm afraid I fail to see the point, as it does nothing to help the book stand out in any cosmetically advantageous way.
Apart from anything else, one thing this book did clear up was something about Frank Langella I found most memorable, ever since seeing the 1979 film 'Dracula' in which Frank plays the eponymous Count. In one close up scene in that film Frank's eyes can clearly be seen 'vibrating' (as he calls it) with amazing speed - a trait I thought he'd impressively affected for the part and which I certainly couldn't emulate. But in the chapter about director John Frankenheimer, Langella reveals (page 210) how he was born with a condition called 'nystagmus', which causes his eyes to flutter rapidly whilst trying to focus. This particular chapter also provided one of the few (for me) laugh out loud moments when Frankenheimer explains to Langella the two positions an actor is in when seeking a role, the crude detail of which I won't relate here. But, ultimately, Langella infuriates Frankenheimer by going back on a decision to play a part he'd been offered, rejecting it in preference to another role. From that day forward until the day he died, Frankenheimer never offered Langella another part.
One unfavourable reviewer here has taken exception to Langella's cruelty. I didn't find it unduly so. And the above inclusion, and others like it, demonstrate that it's not one way traffic as Langella is just as ready to show himself and his past indiscretions in a poor light and is not averse to self deprecation or documenting his own imperfections. I didn't find the book, as with so many of this kind, an exercise in mud-slinging and/or egotistical self aggrandisement. At no time did I get a sense of him wanting to settle professional scores or dish the dirt just for the sake of it. He's just recording experience and opinion and, in the main, he qualifies his personal take on the luminaries he's had the privilege, or at least the chance, to work with and get to know, either on a superficial level or intimately, during his long and varied career.
Yes, there are those he clearly didn't like - Anthony Quinn and Lee Strasberg are two who spring to mind. I don't think Langella was Richard Burton's greatest fan, either - but then Langella is certainly not alone in granting Burton's irrefutable talent, whilst expressing a barely disguised irritation at the overbearing, egotistical persona that came with it. For instance, as Burton stood on the stage of the empty Martin Beck Theatre after one of Langella's performances, he asked, 'How many seats in this house?' 'About eleven hundred,' Langella replied. 'Hmmm,' Burton mused, 'can't gross enough for me.'
But there are many here who Langella greatly admired, like James Mason and Noel Coward - those he adored such as Alan Bates and Raul Julia - and there are many more of whom Langella's opinion comes across as ambivalent, leaving you with a sense of him having faithfully documented some worthwhile detail of his relationship with them, either professional or personal, but having no great love of, or aversion to, them one way or the other.
I was impressed with Langella's writing style. Sometimes a little over florid and melodramatic in his descriptions, belying his life long thespian disposition. But there's an erudition at work, both in terms of literary merit and undeniable professional authority, which left me with a sense of him giving a forthright and honest opinion of his subjects as he experienced them first hand.
But I'll finish on the two overriding impressions this book left me with. The first is the effect it had on my sense of the 'greatness' we attribute to those icons we've all grown up to believe have some kind of unique, god/goddess-like status. Names like Olivier, Gielgud, Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth. When you read here about their frailty, their doubts, fears, insecurities, and downright naivete, albeit often at the tail end of their lives and flickering careers, you realise how so many of them are no less vulnerable and predisposed to life's fickleness and occasional bouts of irrationality and paranoia, than anyone else. Indeed, at the beginning of the chapter on Anne Bancroft, Frank accedes to the popular cliche used to describe members of his profession which is that 'Actors are babies'. And in this regard, the book strips away the veneer and makes the pedestal on which many of us put them seem so much shorter than it did before.
I suppose the second impression is a kind adjunct to the first - a clue to which is to be found in the subtitle: 'Men and women as I knew them'. At the age of 74, it's inevitable that Frank Langella's reminiscences of the many famous people he's known and worked alongside are going to include many who are no longer alive. But when I tell you that, of the 60+ people featured in this book, the only subject among the living is the final entry, a centenarian named Bunny Mellon (unless you count the bit part players, such as Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas who appear only as cameos in an amusing anecdote during the chapter on Alan Bates) it will drive home the point that this is essentially a book about dead people. And as I read the inevitable finale to many pieces, be it Yul Bryner's death from lung cancer, Anthony Perkins' demise from an Aids related illness, or Alan Bates' stoical forbearance before finally succumbing to pancreatic cancer, to name but three, the more I read, the more I experienced a withering sense of my own mortality. As Paul Newman's 'Hud' Bannon famously said, 'It happens to everybody, nobody gets out of life alive.' But it's just a little unsettling to have it so relentlessly rammed home with such fatalistic inevitability.
Yet, I heartily recommend this book. Those who are interested in a plethora of private anecdotes which deal with intimate moments of the famous away from the public glare, not cobbled together by some hack at third hand but written by a worthy, articulate, raconteur who lived and was part of the world he writes of, will find much to enjoy here. I'm very glad I took the time to read it. So much so that it left me hopeful that Frank Langella will take the time to produce a second volume of 'Dropped Names'. Because on the strength of this commendable effort I'd certainly be keen to read more.