- American Prince: A Memoir
- Harmony, 384 pp.
- Rage and Glory: The Volatile Life and Career of George C. Scott
- Applause Books, 430 pp.
Stars of “celluloid puffballs”
If it is a commonplace that in the U.S. movie stars are as revered as deities, reading their biographies and autobiographies can facilitate fast swan dives from the Olympian heights, and help us to see them as mere mortals. While such books rarely qualify as anything approaching literature, they are often captivating. The lives of movie stars are almost always good stories and have enormous gossip quotients. What’s more, the scandals they describe are of the old-fashioned variety: actual anecdotes that at least partially reveal the character of their subjects, rather than the dross that passes for gossip today (usually the sighting of famous people in a restaurant or pushing their baby carriages down Rodeo Drive).
Both of the books under review – a memoir by Tony Curtis and a biography of George C. Scott – have strengths and weaknesses. Neither of them is essential reading, except for those who are members of their protagonists’ fan clubs, or who have insatiable appetites for reading about Hollywood. Yet each offers a vivid glimpse into its subject.
Curtis and Scott appeared in two films together, in 1963 in John Huston’s forgettable The List of Adrian Messenger (in which the actors played no scenes jointly), and again in 1966 in the even less remarkable Not With My Wife, You Don’t! The exclamation point at the end of the title probably says all one needs to know about that film, which tells the story of a lieutenant colonel in the Army, played by Curtis, who is constantly traveling at the beck and call of the general he serves. As such, a womanizing Air Force pilot, played by Scott, seizes the opportunity to try to seduce Curtis’s wife (Virna Lisi).
The way that Not With My Wife, You Don’t! is described in each of the books is emblematic of their differences. In American Prince, Curtis’s memoir, the actor summarily dismisses the film, ruminating that it might have been marginally better if he and Scott had switched roles. With what can be interpreted as regret he also confesses that he did not have an affair with the married Lisi during the shoot of the film, placing her in the minority of the actresses with whom he played opposite (at least to hear Curtis tell it).
Meanwhile, in Rage and Glory, Scott’s biographer David Sheward first refers to Not With My Wife, You Don’t! as a “celluloid puffball,” and then proceeds to outline the careers of the director and the screenwriters, and how the film was meant to fit into their oeuvre. Sheward follows this with a detailed description of the plot and the movie’s stylistic devices (such as they were), Curtis’s description of how he and Scott worked together (from a previous book by Curtis), and a summation by the film critic from The New York Times.
So, while Sheward’s book is doubtlessly the more dutiful and exhaustive effort, Curtis’s is greater fun to read.
Born Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in 1925, Curtis was raised alternately in Manhattan and the Bronx during the Depression. He did not apply himself to his studies. Indeed, he proudly relates that while at P.S. 80, his English teacher pointed out that in a homework assignment Curtis spelled his own last name incorrectly. Clearly, this is not promising raw material for a writer; still, in American Prince, which was written with Peter Golenbeck, you can always hear the actor’s voice. Further, he at least partially makes up for his lack of literary skill with an engagingly vulgar prose style.
He refers to the films in which he got his start – cheapie adventures he made while under contract to Universal Studios, such as The Prince Who Was a Thief and Son of Ali Baba – as “sand-and-tits movies.” A memorable chapter title is “Fuck ‘Em And Feed ‘Em Fish” (which turns out to be a variation on “let them eat cake,” voiced by a chief quartermaster when Curtis was in the Navy). There is a belabored anecdote about how, when Joan Collins delayed a day’s shooting for what Curtis felt were frivolous reasons, he referred to her in earshot of the cast and crew, utilizing a four-letter word connoting a woman’s sexual organ. (Curtis adds that, although he publicly apologized to Collins for the insult, he believes his assessment of her was accurate.)
Curtis’s father was a tailor, who he describes as perennially weak and economically behind the eight ball. His mother is painted as monstrously overbearing, selfish and egotistical. Things got so bad that when he was ten and his brother Julius was six, their parents placed them in an orphanage for a couple of weeks. If this wasn’t sufficient misery, one afternoon when Curtis was 13, Julius approached him while he was playing with friends on the street. After Curtis told Julius to go find his own friends, the younger sibling was run over by a truck, and died as a consequence of the accident.
Escaping from such unhappy beginnings is the subtext – and sometimes the text – of Curtis’s life story. In the 1970s, his career on the skids, the actor arrived in England to shoot a television series. At the airport, customs agents discovered a bag of marijuana and a handgun inside his baggage. After surrendering to the authorities, Curtis writes that he thought, “Whatever happens, it won’t be as bad as my childhood.” At age 50 – after he had been a movie star for a quarter of a century – he got to the door of the hospital room where his mother was dying from heart disease. He heard her calling his name, but could not bring himself to go inside.
For younger readers, it might be hard to fathom just how huge a movie star Curtis was in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of his “sand-and-tits movies,” the young and handsome actor became a national heartthrob, provoking legions of screaming teenage girls at public appearances comparable to those triggered by the Beatles only a few years later. Today, his reputation rests on a couple of great films – Some Like it Hot and Sweet Smell of Success – and a few others that, while far short of great, were at least vivid and memorable (Trapeze, Spartacus, The Defiant Ones).
Yet after reading Curtis’s accounts of the movies he made, it is evident that most of them were disposable junk, and as such how fragile and temporal stardom is. Still, his account of his adventures in Hollywood is at the very least entertaining. As famous and beloved as he was, he confesses that he always felt like an outsider, in part because he was Jewish. As a result of his unpromising beginnings, he was exuberantly eager to please and needy of love and admiration.
Hence, he sought constant validation in the arms of his costars and colleagues; American Prince is chock-a-block with boastful, and sometimes rueful, yarns about his encounters with actresses, from Marilyn Monroe (with whom he claims to have had an affair before either became famous), Grace Kelly (who he says necked with him at a party) and Yvonne De Carlo (he screamed his conquest of her out the window of a limousine). Marlon Brando refers to Curtis as the only man who ever took a girl away from him – again, according to Curtis.
The book is not all boastful chest-thumping. Curtis confesses to being an inattentive husband and an absent father, emotionally fragile and, during a crucial part of his life, a cocaine addict. (In one squalid scene, down the hall from his coke dealer, a woman opens an apartment door and offers him oral sex for half a gram.) He was a champion philanderer, and it is not difficult to feel he got his just deserts when he describes some of his various wives (I lost count) cuckolding him.
The weaknesses of Curtis’s career – and to a certain extent of his book – are summed up in the following not-quite-grammatical sentences, which he refers to as his “Hollywood philosophy”: “Make as many movies as you can. If a movie’s a hit, great. If it isn’t, so what? You get paid either way, and, more important, you never knew whether a movie will be good or bad until after you’ve made it.”
This “philosophy” is perhaps what led the actor in the 1960s to make fluff like Paris When it Sizzles, The Great Race, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? and Arrivederci, Baby! (Perhaps Curtis’s innate enthusiasm lent itself to pictures whose titles ended in punctuation marks.) Things went from bad to worse; by the 1970s and 1980s he could add to his resumé Casanova and Co., The Bad News Bears Go to Japan and Lobster Man from Mars.
Curtis makes little distinction between his best and worst movies, and instead tends to focus on whether or not they did anything to further his career. Similarly, he does not reflect very much about his shortcomings as a man. For example, as certain as he is that his cocaine habit had nothing to do with the decline of his career, even his slowest readers might think it is only common sense that it would have. Clearly, he still smarts that the children he fathered with Janet Leigh (including the actress Jamie Lee Curtis) resent his lack of parenting and maintain a distance from him. Yet he never considers whether they might have a right to such feelings about him.
Still, there is no reason why a movie star should espouse a sophisticated philosophy. Their talents do not necessarily rely on contemplative intelligence. The charm that Curtis displayed as an actor is evident in American Prince, even if deeper reflection is missing.
Although he was only two years younger than Tony Curtis, George C. Scott represents a generational split in Hollywood history. Curtis was among the last of the contract players, who virtually sold their souls to the studios, grinding out several films a year, earning comparatively low weekly salaries, until they had proven themselves popular and could command more money. By the time that Scott became a star – after his performance in the title role of the 1970 film Patton, playing one of World War II’s most controversial generals – the era of the studio system was over. Actors by then were hired guns, under contract to no one, who negotiated their sometimes extravagant salaries on a film-by-film basis, the same way stars do today.
In his heyday in the early 1970s, Scott’s films earned more than any other male actor’s, except for Clint Eastwood. He was, according to critic Stanley Kauffmann, “an authentic actor star.” The designation, as opposed to a mere movie star like Tony Curtis, was important. Scott, who had been a stage actor before he worked in films, could maintain a legitimate, artistic imprimatur, whereas someone like Curtis was seen as more frivolous in the eyes of those who measure artistic enterprise.
However, Curtis at least appeared in two great movies. Looking over the list of Scott’s films it is notable how reliably good he is in even the worst of them, but how poorly most of them have withstood the test of time. Early in his career, he made his mark in supporting roles in three distinguished films, Anatomy of a Murder, The Hustler and Doctor Strangelove. But many of the ones in which he starred are completely forgotten. Patton (for which he famously refused an Academy Award) was a profoundly conventional war film, today rarely seen. But does anyone even remember, let alone watch, The New Centurions? Rage? Oklahoma Crude? The Day of the Dolphin, in which Scott co-starred with Trish Van Devere, one of his wives, and a number of marine mammals? Or The Formula, in which he was paired with Marlon Brando, also famous for turning down an Oscar?
Scott’s story – at least as told by Sheward – is not exactly riveting. A mere chapter is devoted to his childhood. His father, an executive with a Michigan milk distributor, was a hard case, and his mother died when he was only eight. When his father remarried and started a new family, Scott felt unwanted. After a stint of a few years in the Marines, in which he saw no action, Scott became an actor, first at college and then in theatre in Michigan. Upon arrival in New York, there were some lean years, but once Scott achieved success on the stage – at age 30 in a memorable production as Richard III – his triumph was meteoric. Within a couple of years he was also appearing in films and television.
However, far from appeasing him, success did nothing to calm Scott’s torment. According to Sheward – who gathered his information from printed matter (mostly journalism) and interviews with dozens of people who knew the actor – Scott was, to say the least, a piece of work. A hardcore alcoholic, he confessed to a fellow actor that he downed a quart of vodka a day, washed down by beer. He would frequently go into drunken rages and get into fights. In the early chapters of the book it is almost comical how many of these fights end up with the actor’s nose getting broken. (So many fractures gave him, to say the least, a distinctive mask.) His violent episodes were so numerous that at a certain point, Scott hired bodyguards – not to protect him, but to protect other people from him.
After a while the anecdotes are no longer funny, particularly when they involve beating women. Ava Gardner suffered a broken arm and collarbone, and had a hank of her hair torn out by the actor, and actress Marian Seldes says that Scott tried to strangle her while drunk, apparently mistaking her for a random demon. Scott was one of those actors who drank while he worked, and often functioned, except for those binges in which he would disappear during three days’ shooting of a film (costing the producers hundreds of thousands of dollars) or miss a week’s worth of shows (to the disappointment of theatergoers who paid good money to see him).
His contempt for audiences was notable. The producer Theodore Mann recalls that he had to promise Scott there would be no “blue haired ladies” in the stalls of the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York before the actor would agree to perform there. During one performance, Scott literally jumped off the stage and ran after a woman who had been snapping photographs. Some male colleagues tended to find Scott cordial, while many of the actresses who worked with him felt he was cold and distant. (Lee Grant remembers that he asked her not to touch him after she innocently put her arm around him in one scene.)
Although there are 350 pages of text to Sheward’s book, as well as numerous appendices and indices, Scott remains something of a shadowy figure. While the author is exhaustive when recounting the various triumphs and failures of the actor’s life and career, he offers no overarching reflections about Scott as a man or an actor, and no cohesive narrative drive. There is no contemplation of the actor’s technique, only fragments of what the critics said about him. There is no greater context to the description of Scott’s films, only reports of how much money they made or lost. His relationships to various mistreated wives and mistresses, and ignored children, are accounted for, but we don’t have any idea what they may have meant to the actor.
Readers may find Rage and Glory further marred by Sheward’s style. The author is the executive editor and theatre critic for Back Stage, an entertainment-industry trade weekly, and much of the prose is written with the breathless buzz that marks such publications. A film director is referred to as a “helmer,” while screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky is called a “scribe.” Scott and director John Huston are reported as being “palsy walsy” on a film set, and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is described as a “Southern fried scorcher.” It is hard not to be irritated by Sheward’s description of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as “a character study of melancholy Russians, lamenting their unrealized selves between sips of the samovar.” Or for that matter with his characterization of columnist Suzy as a “single-monikered gossip reporter.” Did he think we might mistake her for a double- or triple-monikered gossip reporter?
As I read Rage and Glory I wondered how Scott’s life might have played out in the hands of another author. If any affinity exists between Scott and Sheward, it isn’t evident in the pages of the book. The fact that a man is insufferable doesn’t mean he isn’t interesting, and even worthy of our sympathy. But Scott is neither in Sheward’s hands. One wonders if the author felt battered by so much accumulated material – readers may very well. When Scott dies in the last chapter – in part for refusing surgery for an aneurysm after various heart attacks, because it meant he would have had to quit drinking – I felt a sense of relief. I wondered whether Sheward, and even the actor himself, felt similarly at the end of the road.