Actor Frank Langella has lifted the curtain on life among the biggest stars of stage and screen in a searingly frank and supremely bitchy new memoir.
Frank Langella, 74, one of America’s most celebrated stage actors, though best known in his Oscar-nominated role as disgraced president Richard Nixon in the recent hit film Frost/Nixon, has laid bare – as only a privileged insider really can – the huge egos, crushing insecurity and, all too often, unpleasantness of stars worshipped by millions.
The actor has called his memoir Dropped Names: Famous Men And Women As I Knew Them – a subtle reference to the fact that, to spare blushes, Frank Langella has written only about people who are dead.
In the world described by Frank Langella, Richard Burton was a “crashing bore” who liked to recite poetry in a drunken stupor, Rex Harrison was a “real son of a bitch” terrified people would think he was homosexual (he wasn’t), and Laurence Olivier was a “silly old English gent who loved to play camp and gossip”. Paul Newman was dull, and Graduate star Anne Bancroft was so vain she fell in love with her own reflection.
As for John F. Kennedy – who would have thought his idea of a perfect afternoon was listening to Noel Coward telling dirty jokes and belting out Mad Dogs And Englishmen on the piano. But a 24-year-old Frank Langella was there to see it during a Cape Cod lunch party.
He was so shocked by the JFK’s “fast and furious” belly laughs at Noel Coward’s wit that he feared the president would have a heart attack.
Later, he watched in awe as – with Secret Service men staring impassively from every doorway – JFK jumped onto a coffee table to dance as Coward played his most famous tunes and Jackie Kennedy sang along, knowing all the lyrics by heart. Before boarding his helicopter, JFK turned to Frank Langella and asked: “What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”
Few of those with whom Frank Langella has trodden the boards or worked on a film set will thank him for his revelations, affectionate as some of them are clearly intended to be.
“There will be a fair amount of forks to the eye and knives to the throat,” Frank Langella, an elegant writer, warns at the outset about his recollections of those who have crossed his path during a 47-year acting career.
Rita Hayworth was 20 years older than him, almost permanently drunk and suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The actress was unable to remember her lines unless they were written in huge block letters and placed next to the camera.
But Frank Langella, then 34, still fell for his co-star, and they began a passionate affair together on the set of the little-remembered 1972 Western called The Wrath Of God.
The couple – playing mother and son in the film – spent every evening together in her rooms, working their way through endless bottles of bourbon and wine as she reminisced mournfully about the good old days.
“Don’t stare at me, baby. You can see me in the movies,” Rita Hayworth told him loftily one night, but when he left her for the last time after several weeks, she ran out to the car and pleaded: “Don’t leave me. I gotta have a man with me.”
Two decades later Frank Langella would be pursued by another desperately lonely, ageing movie star in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor.
The actor reserves particular ire for Anne Bancroft – an “elegant” stage name, he says, which was “about as suited to her as Cuddles would have been to Adolf Hitler”. Frank Langella first met Anne Bancroft, wife of comic actor Mel Brooks, and the actress who played the glamorous Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, in 1966 when they co-starred in a play.
Although they were close friends for two decades, Frank Langella soon realized Anne Bancroft was “consumed by a galloping narcissism that often undermined her talents”.
Anne Bancroft once told Frank Langella how she had been in a New York department store when she saw a woman smiling at her. The actress felt “inexplicably” attracted to the woman and wanted to go over and “embrace and kiss her passionately” – until she realized she was looking into a mirror.
Self-love surely doesn’t come more intense than this, but Yul Brynner apparently came close. No actor ever talked about himself so much, Frank Langella recalls. And perhaps none had so little time for his fans.
The shaven-headed star – “never far from a full-length mirror” – once gave Frank Langella and his former wife, Ruth, a lift in his 20ft-long white limo. On the drive, Yul Brynner explained how he’d had a special lift – big enough to fit a car – installed in the Broadway theatre where he was starring in The King And I.
His chauffeur could drive straight in and spare the star from having to “deal with the public”. Yul Brynner even showed off a pair of blinding flash lights which he kept handy “in case blacks attack my car”.
Frank Langella admits he had looked up to the stars of the British stage since a boy, only to be disappointed when he met them. And there was no more crushing disappointment, it seems, than Rex Harrison.
At their first meeting, at a theatrical agent’s cocktail party, Frank Langella was about to congratulate him on his performance in My Fair Lady and reached out to shake hands.
He was just telling Sir Rex what a great honor it was to meet him when Rex Harrison cut him dead. “Thank you”, he said, flinging his coat over Frank Langella’s outstretched hand and marching into the main room of the party. It didn’t seem to be an unintentional slight.
Years later, Frank Langella recalls, he sought out Rex Harrison backstage at a theatre where he was performing and (undaunted by their previous encounter) delivered an impassioned speech on how Sir Rex had inspired him since he was a boy.
Rex Harrison stood and listened. “Thank you. Very kind. I’m afraid I can’t ask you to sit down,” he said, and with that Frank Langella found himself back in the corridor.
Richard Burton similarly failed to impress, though this time the venue was Frank Langella’s dressing room while he was starring in Dracula on Broadway in 1977.
Single-handedly polishing off a bottle of Scotch which he had offered nobody else, a slurring Richard Burton launched into a series of reminiscences about Britain’s great theatre actors and recited lengthy sections of Dylan Thomas’s poetry.
As the hours wore on, Frank Langella just wanted to get home. “Could anyone, I wondered, be so unaware of what a crashing bore he had become?” he writes. “There sat a man approximately 52 years of age, looking ten years older, dressed in black mink, with heavily applied pancake [make-up], under a tortured, balding helmet of jet black hair, grandly reciting tiresome poetry.”
At least, says Frank Langella, Richard Burton wasn’t terrified of playing roles that might make audiences question his heterosexuality – unlike Rex Harrison and Laurence Olivier. (Richard Burton told Frank Langella he had “tried” homosexuality once but “didn’t like it”.)
Since Laurence Olivier’s death, several books have speculated that he was bisexual and it’s clear Frank Langella was never sure about his co-star’s orientation when they were making the film Dracula in 1978.
Frank Langella was the count and Laurence Olivier, then 71, played the vampire-hunter Professor Van Helsing. The pair stayed in a drafty hotel in Tintagel, Cornwall, during filming. They had connecting suites and spent many weeks in each other’s company – reading the newspapers and gossiping in the morning, and dining together at night.
Frank Langella, then 40, clearly enjoyed Laurence Olivier’s company, even if the British acting giant’s language would become increasingly “ribald”, teasing his younger star about his “naughty bits”. Suffice to say, Frank Langella liked to sleep naked but made sure he quickly put on a pair of boxer shorts if he heard Laurence Olivier stirring next door.
One morning, Frank Langella decided to surprise Laurence Olivier – who was sitting reading in Langella’s room – by streaking to the bathroom, turning at the door to say: “Oh professor, see anything you like?”
Laurence Olivier howled with laughter and shouted: “Bravo dear boy!”
But he pointedly did not look up when Frank Langella came back into the room.
Frank Langella recalls how Laurence Olivier once boasted about his impressive figure as a youth, revealing that one of his fantasies had once been “to be standing in a museum and have people pay to worship my naked form”. Laurence Olivier, Frank Langella concluded, could be “charming, delightful and admirable” but was also a “deadly cobra capable of striking without notice”.
Other thespian egotists exposed by Frank Langella include Anthony Quinn, whose huge self-importance Langella liked to prick by always saying “Hi” to him, an informality he knew infuriated the star of Zorba The Greek so much that each time he would then refuse to talk to him.
And then there was Charlton Heston, a great movie star who thought he was also a great actor when – in Frank Langella’s estimation – he was a “piece of wood”.
Frank Langella says the Ben Hur star had such an enormous ego that he would always greet fellow guests at a party as if he was the host. Frank Langella last encountered him at a dinner honoring Laurence Olivier. After the audience sat through a long speech from Charlton Heston that was effectively a homage to himself, Frank Langella looked down to find his dinner companion, Maggie Smith, was squeezing his hand so hard her knuckles were white.
When Tony Curtis said out loud to their table: “Doesn’t Chuck make great speeches?”, Maggie Smith replied with true Downton Abbey acidness: “Oh yes. He should never be allowed to do anything else.”
Frank Langella knew Tony Curtis for 30 years, and aside from “the absurdity of his desperate attempts to look cool, hip and young”, he admired a ruthless honesty that once prompted him to lament at a dinner party at Julie Andrews’s home how his one-time idol Cary Grant was a “f***ing bore” who “sucked the air out of any room he was in”. Apparently, plenty of people in Hollywood agreed.
According to Frank Langella, Paul Newman – long regarded as one of Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guys – was a frightful bore, too. “After dirty-sexy jokes, shop talk, cars or politics were exhausted, Paul was a pretty dull companion,” Frank Langella recalls.
“Never rude or unkind, just dull.” In awe of his good looks, companions would instinctively think it their fault when he suddenly went quiet.
The reality, says Frank Langella, was that he had simply run out of anything to say. Like the statue of David, Paul Newman was “physically perfect but emotionally vacant”.
Little was previously known about Frank Langella’s own private life other than the fact he was married to magazine editor Ruth Weil for 18 years until the mid-Nineties, producing two children, and then had a five-year relationship with the actress and Ghost star Whoopi Goldberg. His memoir reveals a lingering attraction to older women.
Bette Davis was well into her 60’s when, having seen Frank Langella’s films, she ordered their mutual agent to put them in touch. Though – as with his affair with Rita Hayworth – they had “a number of racy conversations, not quite phone sex but certainly rife with foreplay”, he says.
But nothing more ever happened as Bette Davis always cancelled their dinner dates. Years later, he ran into her at a hotel and – enraged, he believes, that her privacy had somehow been invaded – Bette Davis froze him out when he identified himself.
Frank Langella had more luck with Elizabeth Taylor. Put in touch in 2001 by a mutual friend who said the Hollywood icon was desperately lonely, Frank Langella reveals that their second date culminated in Elizabeth Taylor – then 69 – urging him: “Come on, baby, and put me to sleep.” After having to help her upstairs rather indecorously by pushing on her backside, Frank Langella was taken aback by the clutter in her bedroom.
Elizabeth Taylor’s bedroom was filled with pictures of her dead ex-husbands, “dozens and dozens” of bottles of witch hazel which she used to remove her make-up and a giant open box of chocolates on the bed.
Despite knowing that a relationship with Elizabeth Taylor was “quicksand”, Frank Langella began a brief affair.
Frank Langella says Elizabeth Taylor was: “A small, sweet woman who wanted a man to be with her, protect her and fill a void as deep as the deepest ocean.” At one stage, Elizabeth Taylor told him she wanted to leave Los Angeles and move with him to the East Coast of America to “find a place that’s normal”, but Frank Langella told her a relationship would never work because she would “have him for lunch”.
Frank Langella is vague about the extent of his relationships with other famous women who crossed his path, notably Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the first woman he knew “for whom money is an aphrodisiac”.
Contrary to her image as shy and fragile, Jackie Kennedy Onassis “relished” her fame and knew exactly how to market it, he says. Frank Langella has yet to reveal why, after so many years, he has decided to scratch away the veneer that still coats so many famous names, but perhaps he wants to prove that even the brightest stars have human foibles like the rest of us.
As Laurence Olivier put it when he grabbed Frank Langella by the arm following a Dracula photocall at which both refused to play second fiddle: “You know, Frankie, dear. You’re a monster. So am I. It’s what you need to be a star.”
Dropped Names: Famous Men And Women As I Knew Them by Frank Langella is published by Harper and available from amazon.com.