Brides’ Heads Revisited
The success rate for Hollywood marriages probably hovers around 1%. I have no data to back that up, but celebrity unions don’t tend to last very long. The June 1992 issue of Movieline examined some famous Hollywood pairings that failed to go the distance. The article opens with Julia Roberts’ near miss (recent at the time) with Kiefer Sutherland before going back and examining Hollywood’s Failed Marriage Hall of Fame.
Was it only a year ago when, caught up in the romantic frenzy of the traditional marrying month of June, Julia Roberts took over the back lot of 20th Century Fox and invited 500 fellow romantics to watch her bond for life with Kiefer Sutherland, with whom she had “fallen madly in love” and about whom she’d said, “I’ve been immensely blessed in the discovery of this person”? Well, for all of you who think that Julia’s last-minute decision not to tie the knot with Kiefer was on a tragic par with the release of her back to back films Sleeping With the Enemy and Dying Young, think again. This is Hollywood.
Julia just may have been hearing the echo of marriage expert Joan Crawford’s timeless observation, “Hollywood itself stands in the way of any great, true love.” Indeed, Hollywood probably would stand in the way of any great, true love if the people who live in Hollywood didn’t get there first. Crawford, for example, somehow found the time in between her marriages not only to give the press the aforementioned words of wisdom but to opine that “career and marriage do not mix” and, on a more personal level, “no more marriages for me”; but she seems to have been thoroughly unimpeded by her self-awareness from making herself and all of her spouses completely miserable.
Lucky for us, the moral instruction Hollywood offers up is hardly anywhere better recorded than in the area of marital relations. Regrettably, we get less commentary from the grooms, though marriage gluttons like Artie Shaw and Mickey Rooney could hold their own with Liz Taylor. Perhaps the traditional fixation on marriage as the triumph of the bride alone is to blame, but even in these more liberated days it’s the women who do too much talking about visions of eternal marital bliss.
Much like actual human beings, actors who are in love prove utterly unable to imagine the end of their romances. Unfortunately for them, the press does. And so, when Kelly Preston declared in 1989, about her fiance Charlie Sheen, “Love is really the answer, and I feel blessed to have someone like him to walk with into the future,” observers with even the poorest memories recalled her 1986 claim that, in her husband Kevin Gage, she had met her “soul mate.” Some people might even remember that Preston once compared another actor-boyfriend, George Clooney, to John Travolta by saying, “[John’s] really sexy, but not as sexy as my man.” Needless to say, Preston didn’t stay married to Gage, and didn’t go on to marry Sheen or Clooney. She married John Travolta last year.
Blabbing to the press has always been the most effective way of declaring one’s love in Hollywood. Of course, it remains tough to top Ava Gardner who, when asked in the ’40s what she saw in 120-pound Frank Sinatra (her third husband), replied, “Well, there’s 10 pounds of Frank and 110 pounds of cock!” But that doesn’t stop anyone from trying.
The average Hollywood bride, of the ’40s or anytime hence, lacking Ava Gardner’s powers of articulation, usually reduces her entire state of being to a single phrase: “I am so happy.” In 1943, Judy Garland said, “I am very happy,” when she began her two-year marriage to orchestra leader David Rose. Mia Farrow said the very same thing more than 20 years later when she married Frank Sinatra. Apparently, Frank still possessed that talent to make a woman really happy, for Farrow went on to say, “This is the happiest day of my life.” Rita Hayworth chose to embellish the simple quote when she married Prince Aly Khan in 1949. “I’m deliriously happy…” she said. “I’ve never known what happiness was before.” Since this was the third of her five husbands, her fans no doubt thought it was high time she learned. Leslie Caron, overcome with joy when she married her second husband, director Peter Hall (who would eventually charge her with adultery and name Warren Beatty as corespondent), claimed, “I found the man I love and am divinely happy.” Lana Turner, fresh out of the gate with first husband Artie Shaw, told the press, “I can’t tell you the peace and happiness that is mine now,” and stuck close to that line reading through seven marriages. Of restaurateur husband Steve Crane (Cheryl’s dad), Turner said, “We have always been so congenial together–and so happy.” Between 1935 and 1959, Joan Crawford said, “We’re very happy,” “We are extremely happy,” and, “I’m the happiest woman alive,” about three separate marriages, to Franchot Tone, to Philip Terry and to Al Steele, respectively. (Crawford took the party line when it came to splitsville, too: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., she said, “made me extremely nervous and [it was] impossible to concentrate on my work”; Tone, she said, “caused me to become greatly upset and unhappy, so that I am not able to do my work in peace”; and Terry interfered with her work by making her “turn down script after script with his criticisms.”)
But the worst offender in this–and not only this–category is Elizabeth Taylor, who simply plagiarizes her own statements from one marriage to the next. After telling the world, of hotel heir Nicky Hilton, Hubby #1, “He’s the one I want to spend my life with,” Taylor said of Hubby #2, Michael Wilding, “I hope you all will be as happy some day as I am right this moment. This is to be the beginning of a happy end.” Well, the beginning of the end, in any case. Hubby #3, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash, so it’s not strictly fair to say they would necessarily have divorced, but it’s worth noting that Taylor next wed his good pal, singer-actor (and, at the time, husband of Debbie Reynolds) Eddie Fisher. Ever the “this is it” gal, Taylor told the press, when Fisher became Hubby #4, “I’ve never been happier in my life! I’m so happy, so very happy. Eddie and I are going to be on our honeymoon for 30 or 40 years.” Or until they got to the set of Cleopatra, whichever came first. At the very least, Taylor can be commended for officially clarifying that in Hollywood, “love” is not always, well, “love.” “I didn’t love Eddie. I married him because he needed me,” she explained as she helped her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton realize his “love” for his wife Sybil was not really “love.” When she wed Burton, she said of Hubby #5, “I’m so happy you can’t believe it” (exactly, Liz, exactly). She was so happy, in fact, that she divorced Burton and then remarried him. When Burton became Hubby #6, Taylor indicated the extent of their new, improved happiness when she observed, “We are stuck together like chicken feathers to tar.” By her 1976 wedding to John Warner, Liz was back to her standard description, “I have never been so happy,” though history does not record whether this spontaneous remark came before or after Taylor learned that Warner had given her a bull and two cows as a wedding gift. When Taylor wed current husband Larry Fortensky last year, she told the world, “This is it, forever.” Because she’s getting up in years, who knows, perhaps this once she may be right. As the archetypal Hollywood bride, Liz is living proof that famous people aren’t like ordinary folk; she, after all, asked Beverly Hills hairstylist Jose Eber to be in her bridal party, and ordinary folk know that no matter how well your bangs fall, a 15 percent tip will pretty much cover it.
The only truly serious contender in the Liz Sweepstakes is Martha Raye, whose recent seventh marriage (to a man 33 years her junior) caused her family to call her insane. It’s not easy to get married for the last time more than once, but as early as her third marriage, in 1941, Raye was saying things like, “I’m sure this is going to be the last. The first two times I didn’t say that because I wasn’t sure.” When she hitched up with Thomas Begley in 1954 (for two years) she said, “This time it’s for good.” Five years later, she told the press, “This is it. I want everybody to come because this is my last marriage.” She and husband Robert O’Shea split four years later.
It cannot fail to amaze spectators that no one ever, ever thinks to question a bride’s bliss in Hollywood. Or perhaps nobody bothers. This is a community where, for the most part, no one ever questions the validity of anything. You can hardly shut anyone up long enough to question the validity of anything. In the present era, with people increasingly encouraged to speak out about their innermost self-understandings (“My name is Roseanne, and I am dysfunctional”), actresses are more prone than ever to deliver entire soliloquies on their mates, past and present. Linda Evans has been positively enlightening about her former marriage to John Derek in the ’60s: “It was the most wonderful life I can imagine any woman having. He would spend months handcrafting a vest or boots for me. Then he would wait for me to come home and have champagne and grapes individually dipped in egg white and dusted with sugar next to a fur bed he had laid by the fireplace in a room full of candles. I would wake up and find a foot-long poem he had written for me on parchment paper by the side of my bed in the morning.” Of course, one day Evans woke up and divorced Derek; younger lookalike Bo replaced her in his bed.
When stars get confessional, of course, it’s prudent to fasten your seatbelt. Dyan Cannon, speaking up about her husband of three years, Cary Grant, shared with us this information: “I didn’t know anything about orgasms at all. He tried to help me with that.” Gee, thanks, Dyan–we were going to ask you about that after we read the results of your Pap smear.
Cannon was there, too, when it came time to pioneer Hollywood relationship analysis. Brigitte Bardot, probably a Ph.D. in psychology in a previous life, gave the dubious movement a shove back in 1957 when she ended her marriage to Roger Vadim with the explanation, “He is more like a brother than my husband.” Cannon, however, went much further when she said of her 1965 marriage to Cary Grant: “I think I went out to find myself another Daddy. Daddy looks extraordinarily like him.” In 1967, Jean Arthur added her 10 cents to this Freudian web of love by saying of her one-day marriage to Julian Ankar: “He looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln, and that’s why I fell in love with him.” More recently, Robin Givens said, “Mike [Tyson] is a baby with my mom; he’s just ‘Hug me, love me.’ He likes the fact that she…tucks him in bed.” Not to be outdone, Madonna worked more than one family member into her discussion of husband Sean Penn. “We have so much in common he is almost like my brother,” she told the press, then added the somewhat more alarming remark, “When I squint my eyes, he almost looks like my father when he was young.”
It is through such uninhibited talk that we can come to an understanding of why so many of these unions didn’t last–in point of fact, the marriages were scary. Back in 1935, Joan Blondell said of first husband, George Barnes, “I was frightened to death most of the time.” More than 50 years later, Brigitte Nielsen described her passion for Sylvester Stallone by saying, “It’s scary when you love someone and think you can’t live without him.” Geena Davis ran more freely with this theme when she said of her husband of three years, Jeff Goldblum, “I like scaring Jeff. I like scaring people.” But Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had summed up the essential quality of terror underlying Tinseltown’s marriages as early as 1929 when he said, “Marriage is a wonderful thing. But it certainly scares you.” (Yes, and even more so if you marry Joan Crawford, which he did.)
Perhaps the “scary” quality of Hollywood marriage is the thing that makes it so fragile and causes it to break so fast. Dyan Cannon, having barely had time to recover from her gratitude to Cary Grant for his efforts to school her in orgasms, was testifying in her divorce suit against him that he spanked her because she planned to go to a disco wearing a miniskirt with heavy makeup. (Would it have been okay if she were wearing less makeup?) Sometimes the change in a relationship takes place so quickly there’s no opportunity to give testimony. In Harry Hamlin’s case, it was only a matter of hours. The day before he filed for divorce from Laura Johnson he issued a statement saying, “The marriage couldn’t be more solid.” On previous occasions, he had already stated, “Our relationship is like a rock,” and, “Laura is the best wife I could ever imagine finding, having and loving.” Just because Johnson claimed in the divorce proceedings that Hamlin had emotionally abused her, calling her a slut and a whore, that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship wasn’t like a rock.
It’s easy to see why some of these marriages fail, and the participants make it all the easier by being eager to say just what went wrong. Back in ’35, Mrs. Arthur Lowe told the world that her husband “shook his golf sticks” at her canary. The beast! More understandable, perhaps, was Joan Collins’s reason for splitting with her husband of four years, Maxwell Reed: he told her she had no talent. Rita Hayworth quit her mate for five years, Orson Welles, with the comment, “I just can’t take his genius anymore.” Ethel Merman divorced Ernest Borgnine after 21 days because she did not like his maid. Then, just to prove that some things do get better in Hollywood, there’s Sarah Owen’s account of why she split up with James Woods: “My girlfriend was standing by the window and said, ‘What a beautiful view.’ Jim said, ‘If you think that’s beautiful, what do you think of this?’ When we turned around, he had his penis in his hand.” Woods had, by the way, once described Sarah as “the person who led me back into the light of my life.”
When the split does come, it’s a sobering exercise to compare the newly divorced person’s opinion of his or her ex to earlier sentiments. In the first glow of romance in 1985, Joan Collins eagerly told the world, “I’m thrilled. Peter [Holm] is perfect for me.” After the demise of their 22-month marriage, she said of him, “He is a crazed, irrational maniac.” The woman who had once said, “I married Peter because I want to introduce him as my husband and not my boyfriend. He has tremendous strength of character and is also very much his own man. He couldn’t be manipulated by the President of the United States,” would say, in 1987, “I think he’s a bit of a loser.”
Cher knows whereof Joan speaks. After telling everyone, “I really do love that guy… Gregg is the greatest, most loving man I’ve known,” when she wed Gregg Allman three days after divorcing Sonny Bono, Cher reconsidered things when the couple separated after five days: “He thought women had only two uses: to make the bed and to make it in the bed.” Debbie Reynolds felt like she was making the right choice by wedding Eddie Fisher in 1955: “There is one person in your life that you are to meet someday…he’s your dream man. I’ve been lucky enough to meet this someone.” After he had run off with Liz Taylor, Reynolds recalled, “he was an impatient, lazy lover.”
Many times, it is the husband’s perception of the parted couple’s differences that provides the startling study in contrasts. Compare Goldie Hawn’s remark about ex Bill Hudson, “There’ll never be anything mean between us,” to his assessment of her: “She is a cold-eyed shark.” Likewise, Joan Crawford’s blithe comment, “All of my ex-husbands are among my best friends,” should be held up next to former husband Franchot Tone’s cooler observation: “She’s like that old joke about Philadelphia. First prize, four years with Joan. Second prize, eight.”
Then there are the ex-husbands whose remarks tell the entire story: Consider Richard Burton, who once said of Elizabeth Taylor, “She’s without a doubt the most beautiful woman in the world,” but later changed that opinion to, “she’s too fat.” Sylvester Stallone said of first wife Sasha, “It was love at first sight,” but later told a magazine, “The relationship was like a tank and we were running on empty.” This was tame compared with his view of second wife Brigitte Nielsen. “Emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, she’s a rare specimen of a woman,” he proclaimed early on. “She has heart, humor, beauty, athletic prowess, maternal instincts. She’s a tough act to follow. She’s got it all.” After the wedlock fizzled, he amended these statements somewhat by remarking, “She is a dark cloud that is finally passing over my head.” (Sly’s mom, Jackie Stallone, deserves some credit for seeing the light all along. Sasha, she once noted, “was a greedy little zero.” But this was more generous than her comment on Brigitte: “Mark Gastineau shouldn’t marry her because she’s so inflated with silicone bags. I’m afraid if he fell on her during the wedding night, she’d explode.”)
When all is said and done, Helen Morgan’s tale of why she got divorced still serves as the most fitting statement about Hollywood marriages. Morgan was a Broadway actress who was having considerable success in Hollywood in the ’30s, but not in her marriage. When she went public with the reasons for her marital breakup, newspaper headlines shrieked that Morgan “TELLS OF ABUSE,” then recounted her hysterical story of the wild party her husband threw while she was out literally singing for their supper. In Morgan’s version of the outrageous proceedings that provoked her to end her marriage, she stated that her over-hospitable husband allowed his cigar-chomping guests to spill into the room where Morgan kept her goldfish. The precious gilled critters, she insisted, suffered greatly from the smoky air. (Tragically, all this was left out of the later movie musical of her life story, in which Ann Blyth was Morgan and Paul Newman was her no-good husband.) The point is that, in Hollywood, the reasons for getting a divorce are often as flimsy as the reasons for getting married. If marriage these days in any town requires a certain suspension of disbelief, in Hollywood, the capital of disbelief suspension, marriage requires nothing less than a temporary gag order on, ahem, unbridled cynicism.
Rachelle Unreich is a freelance writer based in Melbourne