Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
Harper: 356 pp., $25.99
Frank Langella's "Dropped Names" is a different kind of memoir. Rather than recapping his life story, the veteran stage and screen actor offers a series of quick sketch profiles of those he's crossed paths with whose fame, generally speaking, outshines his own. Intimately acquainted with the capriciousness of the limelight and its warping effect on celebrity souls, the book has wicked fun placing its subjects (all dead save socialite Rachel "Bunny" Mellon) on Dr. Langella's couch, where the patients, in a highly unusual twist, rarely get a word in edgewise.
Unlicensed to practice psychoanalysis (though no stranger to therapy), Langella sometimes seems to have an ax to grind — that of an accomplished actor deprived of the stardom granted to his inferiors. (A three-time
A warning is issued in the preface: "Don't turn the page if you like your stories spoon-fed or sugar-spred. I didn't always like some of my subjects, and I'm quite certain some of them found me less than sympathetic." He further cautions that there will be "a fair amount of forks to the eye and knives to the throat; even a self-inflicted wound or two."
The violence of the imagery is in keeping with his description of his Bayonne, N.J., upbringing, in which he was "raised by a pack of Italian wolves who hadn't known a demitasse from a debutante." Langella is an uncommonly elegant man, an actor of piercing intelligence and seemingly implacable self-assurance. But lurking beneath this dapper surface is a street fighter. When an actor with an ego comparable to his enters his vicinity, he leans in for a shoulder bump.
It doesn't take a lab technician to detect the high level of testosterone in his summation of a few Hollywood notables:
Even a nonthreatening presence such as
What was he doing counting the emery boards and bottles of witch hazel in Taylor's private oasis? For a brief moment, the two courted in a bizarre
"'Oh, baby, I'm not going to make it,' she said, howling in mock agony, like a woman trying to climb an icy hill and continuing to slide backward.
"'Yes, you can,' I said, placing both my hands on her fulsome cheeks and pushing. She dissolved in laughter, managed two or three steps, and collapsed on the landing…A happy, giggly little girl.
"'Come on in, baby.'"
Older women, such as
The subtitle of the book, "Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them," stresses the subjective aspect of these profiles. These are photographs developed in Langella's private darkroom. Sometimes the camera angle is just right, as when he captures President John F. Kennedybeing delighted by Noël Coward's naughty humor at the Mellons' Cape Cod manse. (What a boon to a young ambitious hobnobber, those Mellons were!) But often the interpretations he arrives at seem speculative to a fault. A chance run-in at a Sunset Boulevard hotel with a cantankerous
Langella's incisive comments on acting made me wish that he had focused "Dropped Names" exclusively on actors and their art. His savaging of