Friday, July 26, 2013

The actor as author

I rarely read books by celebrities, and the ones I've looked at are not well written.  Just recently, a few days after watching an old movie by Mel Brooks, The Twelve Chairs, I saw a book by the star of the movie, Frank Langella, who has had a long career on the stage and in some movies. I could tell right away it was not a book of mere gossip but something of quality.

The book, published last year, is called Dropped Names, a collection of perhaps two dozen vignettes in which Langella recalls some of the famous people he has known or met.  Some, like an amusing encounter with the Queen Mother at the Ascot Derby in 1972, are memories brought to life with deft dialogue and description. And like nearly all of the chapters, this one is concise.

The portraits are rarely flattering; in fact, Langella has devastating insights into some of the 20th century's most notable narcissists, from Yul Brynner and Bette Davis, whom he meets in her old age, to Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brooke Astor.  His encounters with Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier are memorable and witty; his appreciation of Alan Bates and Jackie Kennedy are moving.

Especially memorable is one of his early memories as an unknown actor being invited to an afternoon party attended by President Kennedy and Jackie in 1961, where the romance and glamor of the day (at the Mellon estate on Cape Cod) is remembered with beauty, where the reader can share his picture of Jackie radiantly happy to see her husband totally relaxed, laughing until tears ran down his cheeks.  There is an elegiac quality to this gem of an essay.

So, you might ask, is this book another example of a noted actor dropping names and little more? No, it is an example of excellent writing that has something to teach would-be authors. Actors, if they are good, are sensitive, intelligent, and keenly observant. They make carefully planned entrances and exits. So do good writers.

Langella is a sensitive observer of behavior, and he obviously has written a lot over the years.  He knows how to bring a scene alive with details, then end it gracefully.

Langella shows himself to be a man who has lived a very full life. His portrait of his close friend Raul Julia is beautiful. He is typically honest in saying that he, a very healthy and active heterosexual, fell in love with Raul (also a married man with kids), calling him playfully his "boyfriend." He was devastated when Raul died young. At the end Langella writes:

 "Unconsummated love between men can be as powerful as any love between a man and a woman, and equally if not more powerful than physical love with either."  There is great wisdom and courage in this statement and the insight of a man who has experienced life fully.

This chapter alone might make Dropped Names memorable; but all the portraits, in their searing honesty, offer skillful models of the writer's craft, which may have more in common with acting than I ever realized.

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