In ‘Dropped Names,’ Langella examines character — and characters

Dropped Names
Famous Men and Woman As I Knew Them 
A Memoir By Frank Langella
Harper. 356 pp. $25.99


When Frank Langella drops a name, it bounces, all the better for observers to see its vitality and arc.

Dropped Names, the actor’s keenly drawn gallery of cohorts, costars, and paramours from more than half a century on stage and screen, is an unalloyed delight. It turns out that this shadowy figure with the well-deep eyes and sepulchral voice is a shrewd observer of character — and characters.

Individually, his brief sketches of actors, playwrights, and other luminaries (who include John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy and Paul and Bunny Mellon) capture a telling detail of each subject. In the aggregate, the stories say a great deal about their storyteller, a diamond in the rough from Bayonne, N.J. In one colorful story after another, Langella reveals how he acquired social polish and no small amount of sparkle from rubbing up against the likes of Laurence Olivier, Raul Julia, Rita Hayworth, Arthur Miller, Tony Curtis, and Alan Bates.

As anyone who has seen Langella on stage as Dracula can attest, the guy oozes sexual magnetism. From Olivier to Jackie Kennedy to Elizabeth Taylor, they were drawn to him like iron filings. And while he discreetly alludes to intimacies with Hayworth, Kennedy, and Taylor, among others, Dropped Names is not a not a kiss-and-tell. It’s more like prelude-to-a-kiss-and-afterglow.

He has two aims. One is to understand the component parts of magnetism, his own and those of the figures he remembers. The other is a gratitude project. Langella gives his thanks to those who taught him how to behave graciously, beginning with Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz), who gently told him as he elbowed into her spotlight during curtain call, "Mustn’t be greedy, dear. Your time will come."

He also gives examples of how not to behave. Many of these vignettes — Anne Bancroft’s rage, Elia Kazan’s mind games, Paul Newman’s dullness, Yul Brynner’s boorishness, Langella’s own sexual, social, and professional competitiveness — do not show their subjects in the most flattering light. Because Langella doesn’t spare himself, I didn’t read these examples as bitchy, but rather as cautionary tales of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

On the happier side: Langella remembers JFK’s sunny yellow trousers and the president’s joy in joining Adele Astaire in an impromptu soft-shoe. He evokes Noel Coward’s gift of listening: "Nothing is as sexy as rapt attention to your every word." When Langella describes James Mason’s "androgynous sex appeal that made him seem languorously available to both genders," he might be speaking of himself. While he flirts affectionately with his theater costars Raul Julia and Alan Bates, and talks about how he used that sexual energy with them onstage, Langella presents himself as a raging heterosexual.

And a courtly one to boot. With women and actresses of a certain age, that is to say, his elders, he is a gallant. Dolores del Rio’s "radiance," Deborah Kerr’s "milky skin," Jessica Tandy’s intelligence, and Loretta Young’s "aura" come alive as he describes their various vibes.

Only when I finished the book, which alternately had me roaring with laughter and quietly weeping, did I detect its subtext. These are portraits of the two kinds of people in the world, those that age gracefully and those that age disgracefully. Like most of us, Langella aspires to the former while exhibiting tendencies of the latter. But he’s so entertaining you forgive him everything, even his failure to talk about his 18-year marriage to Ruth Weil and five-year liaison with Whoopi Goldberg.

 

Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com. Follow her at http://www.carrierickey.com.