She's the last of the great Hollywood starmakers. Aspiring actors cling to her cottage door at Universal Studio's vast lot, praying for the privilege of a 15-minute interview.Monique James, actors know, can make the difference between stardom and a lifetime on Hollywood's seedy fringes.
No other person here works so effectively at a time when other studios have abandoned giving unknowns long-term contracts, Monique James maintains a stable of some 30 young, mostly obscure actors. Her word, as head of Universal's New Talent Development program, can put a new face on television and motion picture screens across the country.
James has already produced three Academy Award nominees - Katherine Ross, Carrie Snodgress and Valerie Perrine - out of her troupe of obscure actors. And there's a host of bright prosepcts waiting in the wings, including the likes of James Brolin, Susan Clark, Michael Sarrazin, Gretchen Corbett and John Delancie.
Many people here consider Universal's studio contract system anachronistic, a sorry throw-back to the old days of studio despotism. Monique James, puller of strings and maker of dreams, is often seen as a relice from the bygone glamorous days. "She's the last of a breed," insists a former associate at Universal. "There's no one like her anymore. She's the last of the dynamos."
At lunch in Universal's glittery commissary, the matronly, middle-aged Miss James squints at the suggestion that the studio star system is dead. She is one of those rare believers in the permance of Hollywood's star-studed folkways. "You know, it's still so wonderful." James says with an upper-class lilt. "The glamor and all - the public wants it today as much as ever - they want beautiful people to observe people they can identify with."
During Hollywood's dog days in the '60s, James admits, stardom's dream fled these parched hills. People, particularly the young, stumbled upon different cultural symbols emanating from back-alley coffee houses and pot-scented music halls. But the hollow '70's have seen a return to center stage of Hollywood's television and movie personalities.
"Lindsay Wagner," James says of one of her creations, "gets the adulation Joan Baez used to get. The adulation that used to be reserved for rock stars has shifted back to Hollywood." This development has been a boon to the New Talent program, opening up a new market for stars which James, with her stable, is ready to satiate.
When it began 12 years ago, the New Talent program was seen as an exercise in corporate senility. Today, with the growing celebrity madness, it has reenforced Universal's leading role in the entertainment industry. Universal is the only studio which has the brains to spend dollars for the development of new talent," observes Phil Rodgers, a former Universal executive and now an independent Hollywood agent. "They know better than anyone else how best to supply and affect the marketplace. They run things from the standpoint of a damn supermarket and it works."
With more "product" - feature films and television movies - than any other studio, Universal can provide an ideal showcase for new stars. A veritable leisure-suit Wall Street, it can broker roles for its contract players and get the exposure stardom craves. Monique James, with her vast contacts, can "persuade" virtually any producer in Hollywood to take a look at a favored client.
In exchange for her invaluable services, James has gained a reputation for demanding her actors do as they are told. If an actor considers a part below him, James has been known to put him on ice for a period. "She can be rather ruthless," a former actress recalls "If one of her players defies her, she can make darn sure they don't work for a while."
With the soft smile of a high-society matron, Monique James defies her image as a hard-driving, ice-blooded professional woman - the sort of steely character Faye Dunaway portrayed in "Network." She seems exceptionally soft and warm when talking about her actors, and shepherds them like a Cub Scout den mother. Between the hugs and kisses she sings the praises of "a new Laureen Bacall" or "a young Paul Newman" without the slightest provocation. Sometimes you almost feel like laughing at her antics - until you realize James helped launch the career of Paul Newman as well as got the first television job for today's office draw, Robert Redford.
How does she separate the potential Newmans from the no-potential nobodies
"I do it with an interview or a chat. We ask the actor or actress to prepare a scene of their choosing. The choice itself is very revealing. It's basically how they see themselves. Even if someone has little experience it shows."
"They show whether they can relate to another person. The thing is their voice. The way they move. There's no one thing - it's just a combination of things which happen or don't happen. In each case, it's different."
Like many of those who run the Hollywood dream factory, Monique James emerged from the theatrical wars of New York. The daughter of the late Edwin L. James, once managing editor of the New York Times, she began acting on the post-war Broadway stage. Later on, she teamed up with the formidable Eleanor Kilgallen to form one of the big city's top talent agencies.
Since moving to California in 1958 to join Universal. James has kept her supply lines to New York talent intact. Working with Kilgallen she brings young Broadway prospects to tinsel town and shoves them into television. She believes that only through exposure to the TV market can true star-potential be gauged.
"Television and motion pictures are coming closer together," James says, drawing on a cigarette. "There used to be a time when there was a stigma to television. That doesn't exist anymore." Television, young actors today realize, will create the stars of the future. Using the family living room as a stage, obscure prospects can become household heroes overnight.
James uses the skyrocketing career of Susan Clark to demonstrate the increasing decisive role of television in star-making. For 10 years Clark played in feature films at Universal, getting decent parts and virtually no national exposure. As recently as a year ago, James remembers pestering one top producer about a part for Clark. The producer, James recalls with a grin, rejected Clark because "She's much too tall, much too strong."
Then, suddenly, following Clark's stunning performances this year in the TV movies "Babe" and "Amelia," the producer was pounding down James' cottage door. Clark overnight, had become a promising starlet, and gone were the objections to her long-legged looks.
This experience has been amplified by many of James' new stars. James Brolin, for instance, got his role as Clark Gable in "Gable and Lombard" only after a successful stint in "Marcus Welby MD." (Brolin and the film got bad reviews, but James doesn't expect that to hurt his career.) "Television goes right into their homes." James explains. "Every single night it hits a greater number of people than the biggest hit movie. If you make it in television, your chances of becoming a big star in the future are much, much better."
The young stars are themselves sometimes overwhelmed by the impact of a television appearance. The night after her starring role in the TV movie melodrama "The Savage Bees." actress Gretchen Corbett was virtually mugged by hysterical housewives at a Los Angeles supermarket. The ladies were overwrought with joy at seeing Corbett safe and sound after her harrowing escape on TV the night before from attacking swarms of bees.
"My cousin from Pasedena called me up when the movie was still on," Corbett recalls as she picks at some runny cottage cheese in Universal's commissary. Her cousin pleaded with her to stay in her Volkswagen, which was at that moment surrounded by the maddened bumble bees." She said, 'Please, Gretchen don't come out of that car." It's simply incredible - people can't distinguish between real life and TV."
A soft-featured blonde in her mid-20s. Gretchen Corbett on one fall night became a face known to millions. She may still be far from super-stardom but the exposure, she believes, puts her well on her way. Under James' guidance the last three years, Corbett has already played on top television shows like "The Rockford Files" and "McMillan and Wife." While most actresses spend their first years in Hollywood pining away at Cafe Figaro, Corbett got work on the "Kojak" series on her second day in town.
That is the power of Monique James. "She knows a lot of people," Corbett says gratefully. "She reads all the scripts and gets and opportunities to act. What's hard to get through the door. James opens all the doors."
Anyone familiar with the struggles of most actors, can't help but be amazed at the progress of so many James properties.Her most recent hot prospect, 28-year-old John DeLancie, is an example. Arriving here from New York in October, DeLancie has already gotten his long, handsome face all over the airwaves. In less than two months he's landed some jobs on "The Six Million Dollar Man." "MacMillan," and "Captains and Kings." He just got the lead role in the ABC Television movie "Flight of the Maiden," which airs in February.
Like many of Hollywood's new breed of actors. DeLancie left New York after noting the despair and dissolution of his peers on the classical stage.
"I once was prepared for years of banging my head against the wall." DeLancie said, sprawled out amid cartons in a deserted Universal office. Now, he just concentrates on developing on developing film skills, leaving his future in the hands of Monique James. "I don't worry anymore about becoming a star," DeLancie said with the calm of a banker who knows he's got a good investment portfolio. "I've got Monique and that's what she's all about. That's her job."