Frank Langella is probably best known for his Tony-winning and Oscar-nominated performances as Richard Nixon in the stage and screen versions of “Frost/Nixon.” He earlier won acclaim for playing Count Dracula on Broadway and in the movies, so it’s tempting to joke that playing one monster prepared him to play another, but in truth Langella’s Nixon is less monster than deeply flawed human being. Langella crafted the character through careful observation, not so much of Nixon’s familiar idiosyncrasies (the hunched shoulders, the choked-back voice) as of the guardedness and desire for power that produced the traits so easily caricatured.
Langella’s powers of observation lifted his Nixon into substance, and they do much the same in the 60-odd brief profiles in “Dropped Names.” For Langella, life is gesture, meant to be observed and interpreted. As a 15-year-old boy, he saw Marilyn Monroe emerging from a limousine. “She saw me standing there, smiled like a sunbeam, and said in a soft whisper: ‘Hi.’ ” The memory lingers of this “ineffable gesture” of “a tortured soul that I saw only as a beautiful woman and a Movie Star.”
A few years later, as an apprentice at a summer theater, he was given a “lesson in style, behavior, and elegance” by the 51-year-old Dolores Del Rio, starring in the play “Anastasia” as a woman half her age. She never went outside in the daytime, he was told, and the shades were always drawn to protect her skin, which she bathed in milk. She arrived 15 minutes before curtain in a limousine, with its “tinted windows tightly shut,” and between acts she sat quietly with her hands folded. The cast and crew were “told never to approach her and, certainly, never to speak with her,” though once, when Langella passed her, she gave him “a faint nod of the head and a warm smile.” After her curtain call, she disappeared again into the limousine. He reflects, “One could, I suppose, remember her as a lonely older woman, desperate to preserve her beauty, living on illusion and reputation. Or one could see her through the eyes of this virtuous eighteen-year-old, as the epitome of glamour, discipline, and professionalism.”
This note of loneliness pervades most of his observations and stories about performers, from his portrait of a pathetically drink- and drug-addled Montgomery Clift to the “male perfection” of Paul Newman, which was preserved, Langella asserts, “with the help of intelligent plastic surgery.”(Those of us who remember Newman’s aging face as drawn and parched-looking may question how “intelligent” it was.) Langella admits that Richard Burton became “a crashing bore,” but he also sees the tragedy in the degeneration of a once-major talent. On the other hand, he relishes the somewhat tacky extravagance amid which the aging Elizabeth Taylor lived, while observing that she “died fame’s inexorable victim.”
“Dropped Names” is a melancholy book, though it could hardly escape being so, of course, since all of the people profiled in it — save one, the centenarian Bunny Mellon — are dead. This is not to say that the book lacks some raucous and entertaining anecdotes, and some withering comments on people Langella dislikes, such as the acting guru Lee Strasberg, whom he calls “a self-serving charlatan.” He deftly deflates some monstrous egos, such as those of Rex Harrison, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But he also demonstrates a great capacity for loyal friendship, as in his affectionate tributes to Alan Bates and Raul Julia.
On the face of it, this is a popcorn book: one to be dipped into for gossipy goodies. Who can resist flipping through it to see what Langella has to say about Jackie O. or Princess Di? But the book gains richness and depth by being taken as a whole, as a revelation that fame turns everyone — even politicians (John F. Kennedy, Tip O’Neill), royalty (Diana, the queen mother), writers (Arthur Miller, William Styron) and socialites (Paul and Bunny Mellon, Brooke Astor) — into actors, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage.
Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.