Those Lovely Liars
There was a time when Hollywood was glamorous. No there wasn’t. The reality is that Hollywood was a dirty place filled with unscroupulous people doing very inappropriate things. Movie stars who appeared to be gods and goddess on the silver screen were often sad, damaged people. The glamour of old Hollywood was an illusion. Or if you are feeling less charitable, it was a lie. This article from the February 2003 issue of Movieline magazine looks at the real lives of some of the best liars in Hollywood’s bygone era.
I ONCE HAD AN IDEA FOR A NOVELTY HOME ENTERTAINMENT, a cross between a board game and a new kind of Charades. The board was designed as a tour of Beverly Hills–all those beguilingly twisted lanes that worm their way up into the hills with dense, brilliant flowering shrubs at every turn (it could have made a pretty board)–and the player had to gain access to the privileged homes of the famous. Ten stars penetrated and you won the game. As your token–the top hat or the racing car–made its way along Summit Drive and Bellagio Road and you came upon a star’s house, all you had to do to gain entry was to “do” the stars who lived therein, to take on their personas and “be” them for a few moments. Not them in the movies, but them in real life. You could be them on the telephone, putting on makeup in the mirror, lighting a cigarette (those were the days!) or just ambling along the street. If the other players had to admit that you “were” the star, then you were in.
What gave me the idea? Well, apart from a lifetime of the distant relating to movie stars that afflicts us all, there was Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. The narrator of that novel is a rather sad, lonely fellow who has half slipped into movies. It’s not just that he likes movies–he feels most at home in them. He knows that other people treasure key moments from life–but he prefers moments from the movies. And he often sees movie stars out on the streets. The book is done in such a nice, deadpan way that you initially don’t get a fix on whether this is madness or real. In one passage the narrator suddenly says to us, “Who should come out of Pirate’s Alley half a block ahead of me but William Holden!” I love that exclamation mark. It quivers with nostalgia for the innocent awe that might see a drab depressive like William Holden on the street as an icon. I mean the William Holden who could never give up drinking, the one who died alone in some apartment building in Santa Monica and wasn’t found for days. Bill Holden–famous, Oscar-winning, bankable Bill Holden! And it was days before anyone wondered about him. Whole days of decay.
The Moviegoer doesn’t see that Holden–we only learned about him later. No, The Moviegoer was published in 1961 and it sees the late ’50s superstar: the classically trim, handsome, urbane, controlled fellow. Not the ragged hobo from Picnic, with his shirt torn away by the collective lust of Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Rosalind Russell and Betty Reid–that, of course, was acting–but rather the sophisticated, cool presence of Sabrina, The Country Girl or Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, In my game you had to just be Bill Holden for a few minutes in such a way that you erased your own exclamation mark and people hardly even noticed. Think about it and you realize that this game works best with stars of the ’50s or earlier. The ’50s were the last age of starry elusiveness, the last time when you might rub your eyes and say, “Is that William Holden?” Nowadays, having stood in line waiting to check your groceries out every week next to some expose on Tom or Winona, and having seen them endlessly on “Extra,” well, if you see some star you sort of feel like saying, “Oh God, don’t look, but it’s Tom Cruise waiting to be noticed. Hasn’t he anything better to do?” And often, honestly, I decide that he hasn’t. I think if I had to do him, I’d just sit back in a chair and look amazed. Really!
In the ’50s, you still only saw the stars in their movies. Exposure hadn’t caught up to them. And most movie stars took it for granted that they shouldn’t go on television because it was vulgar and demeaning, which it was (and still is). There was this amazing gap between the radiance of the star (everyone was still glamorous then) and their awful, awkward reality. If Humphrey Bogart had been half as shrewd and hard-boiled as “Bogey,” he would have known better than to put on a toupee and wear makeup when people came to pay their last respects when he was dying of cancer. And he still snarled and generally behaved like Humphrey Bogart!
Of course, no one in the ’50s was more horribly trapped in that gap between radiance and reality than Rock Hudson. The name itself, “Rock Hudson,” virtually demands to be carved off a cliff-face. And yet, the real Rock Hudson–also known as “Roy Fitzgerald” or “Roy Scherer” (good names for extras)–had to smile and look handsome and attractive for every idiot who said, “I’d like you to meet Rock Hudson!” Did he have spring grips on which he could practice his handshake, to be manly and convincing? He played Taza, Son of Cochise, Captain Lightfoot, Bick Benedict in Giant and even Lieutenant Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, adapted from Ernest Hemingway. In truth, the Rock played a lot of very sensitive men, with Jane Wyman a couple of times in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows (of course, heaven in ’50s America was a very mean-spirited place), and in sly romantic comedies like Pillow Talk and Man’s Favorite Sport? Even in his most iconic days as “Rock,” he seemed house-trained, capable of keeping his shirt on, doing clever dialogue and understanding varieties of feeling. It’s intriguing how Rock Hudson, in all his travails–being the fake and being found out–never really lost his dignity. It’s as if some quarter part of us, maybe, guessed all along that there was, if not magic, masquerade in him.
Grace Kelly is another case study in the glamour gap. If you look at Grace Kelly’s film roles, you have this feeling of Hollywood being in awe of her ladylike image from start to finish: a Quaker in High Noon; the ice maiden in Mogambo; the model ready for marriage in Rear Window, the very rich girl already casting an eye at Monte Carlo in To Catch a Thief, a princess in The Swan; and a society girl in High Society. There was only one picture, really, where Kelly wasn’t positioned and photographed as the crème de la crème, and that was The Country Girl, where she got the Oscar quite simply for standing up without the major advantages of make-up and wardrobe. It’s pretty clear now that Grace Kelly was an honest if wealthy slut, eager to go to bed with as many admiring males as her calendar could accommodate. And why not? What’s the point of being a movie star if you’re not in line for some of those residual advantages? But the sham image worked. An authentic Prince of Monaco fell for it. And then, far more sadly, I daresay, Kelly herself fell for it. In other words, the cheerful opportunist (why use the word adventuress when comparable behavior in a male is treated as plain lifestyle?) gave up the ghost for state occasions in a toy kingdom, for real Catholic vows and attitudes, and for being the increasingly forlorn trophy wife of a Latin prince who got around. If Grace Kelly had stayed in the business (she would have been 74 this year), she might have been our age’s Katharine Hepburn–a great star and one of the famous lays of the land.
Kim Novak is another case in point. It was always, I think, a little unkind of the world to ask her to act when she was already a phenomenal wonder of nature. But Harry Cohn and so many others wanted to make her a lady: to have poise, to be possessed by elocution, deportment, style, panache and lady-like restraint. Whereas the real Kim Novak showed every sign of being a little awkward, very shy and as horny as you’d want. Her private life was a merry riot, but Hollywood kept trying to make her a lady (that was a great ’50s concept and it went along with being on the far, dark side of the sexual revolution–ladies did not have or ask for women’s rights). That’s why the great Novak film is Vertigo, when she gets to be two people: Madeleine, the blonde, dressed in gray, aloof, not noticing the rest of the world, somewhat shocked to find that James Stewart has undressed her; and Judy, the raunchy redhead, a cheerful vulgarian who might be all too ready to strip if Stewart would just get that other-world look out of his eyes and appreciate the flesh he has right here and now.
You can hardly think of Kim Novak without recollecting her predecessor at Columbia, Rita Hayworth. Talk about unhappy lives. Rita Hayworth was in all likelihood sexually interfered with by her father, who was her first partner in her dancing act. She was then tossed around by a lot of very worldly men, including Orson Welles, Aly Khan and crooner Dick Haymes, who never paid much attention to her feelings or her reality. She was cast as classical temptress figures in Salome, The Loves of Carmen, The Lady From Shanghai (that one for Welles), Miss Sadie Thompson, and the most famous of all the gorgeous temptresses, Gilda. She did that act to perfection. You could hardly look at her without suddenly knowing how to spell “voluptuous.” She was one of those people who suffered the great misfortune of being loved by the camera so much that everyone assumed she was the goddess of love. It was like being William Holden and being taken for a guy who knew and had done everything, instead of a man so wracked by feelings of failure that he had to drink. In Hayworth’s case, the gap took this form: that men, incapable of stopping themselves, went to bed with “Rita Hayworth” and woke up with her, unable to escape quickly enough.
Now you may argue, and plenty of actors and actresses might agree, that the gap between a star’s persona and a star’s real life has always been and still is inevitable. That the spur to acting is a kind of dismay with life that begs for pretending, for the precious, serene moments where you can just be “Grace Kelly” or “William Holden” and feel the exclamation mark rising after your name like identity’s hard-on. The thing about the ’50s is that it was the last of an age and the beginning of the end. It is then that we began to see that the screen might not be merely worshiped–it might also be mocked. It could possibly be a dire camp joke. Maybe the whole wretched temple could be pulled down. Which brings to mind another of the great figures of the ’50s, Victor Mature, who pulled down the Philistine palace in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. But imagine a Hollywood actor called Mature! The great Victor apparently saw and enjoyed the joke as much as anyone. Part of the undying pleasure of Samson and Delilah, though, is that his costar, Hedy Lamarr (so very close to Heady L’Amour) did not. She believed totally in being “herself,” the femme fatale who would cut your hair off so that you never noticed the loss of other parts. In Samson and Delilah, Mature and Lamarr confront each other, two forces, two epochs, two acting styles, and you feel as much poison and trouble as you would later with Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut. There, truly, is the lesson: if you want to be William Holden, you have to do it so well, so thoroughly, that you can do it with your eyes shut. Otherwise, you look dishonest. Which just won’t do. We like to love our liars.