Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner, Looking Backward

Rob Lowe’s second book of memoirs, Love Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014), has an affable rambling quality. He told his story in a linear fashion in his earlier book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and this time he elects to linger on a few select items loosely gathered around the title, which he translates broadly. Much of the book focuses on the things he loves: his wife of nearly a quarter of a century, Cheryl; his two sons, Matthew and John Owen; acting. But he also talks about sex, and about alcoholism, as a way, both for him and for the people he met when he went into treatment, of recovering lost life. (Lowe stopped drinking in 1990.) It’s a lovely little book – much better, I think, than the conventional Stories I Only Tell My Friends, which isn’t terrible by any means but has a sanctimonious side and (perhaps inevitably) a starry side, and practically drowns in superlatives. Love Life feels more relaxed, and the qualities in Lowe that come through in the first volume – his intelligence, his down-to-earth-ness, and his willingness to own up to his own follies – anchor the second one. Liking and trusting the author’s voice are key when you settle down with a memoir; I was utterly charmed by Diane Keaton’s in Then Again, and I became very fond of Lowe’s in Love Life, though God knows he’s not the person I’d consult for movie or TV recommendations. (In both Lowe’s and Keaton’s books the process was underscored by the fact that I listened to them on CD read by the authors.)

Love Life is anecdotal, and some of the stories are memorably funny, like the one about the night Lowe spent at the Playboy Mansion when he was eighteen, in the first blush of movie stardom, and the one about dressing up as Bigfoot on a camping trip to provide both his kids and his nephews with an unforgettable scary experience. (It simultaneously backfired – though in completely unexpected ways – and had the desired effect.) In one section he talks about the challenge of eating food on camera – a difficulty to which, apparently, only Danny Glover is immune – and then moves on to the tiny and devastating ways in which actors can steal scenes. Here he is on his West Wing co-star Richard Schiff:

“Schiff . . . would routinely enter what was ostensibly someone else’s scene, carrying seventeen files, a briefcase, a thermos and a half-eaten sandwich . . . If he dropped a file and picked it up, you could have been delivering the Gettysburg Address and no one would have been looking at you.”

Rob Lowe and family.
He reports with pride that when he got to play opposite Maggie Smith, who, famously, can steal a scene by arching an eyebrow, in a television production of Suddenly, Last Summer – where, moreover, he was stuck playing a one-note character whose dull lines were dropped unceremoniously between her long, poetic Tennessee Williams speeches – he succeeded in grabbing the camera’s attention for a single coveted moment by trying and failing to light a cigarette.

One of his tales, about an unidentified sports figure who broke down in rehab over a horrifying childhood memory, is harrowing; several are touching, including his tribute to his late agent Bernie Brillstein and his rumination over the anguish of sending his elder son off to college. Lowe is a talented actor who, having survived his years as a teen crush in Hollywood, opted to raise his own children in Santa Barbara so they could grow up outside the movieland fishbowl, with a chance at a normal life. (Also, unlike him, they were raised under the canopy of a happy marriage.) I’m sure that most dads, even movie-star dads, experience their children’s growth in similar ways. But though there are unique touches in, say, the Bigfoot story (Lowe acknowledges that his profession gave him access to any sort of costume he might ever have desired) and the college-drop-off story (his son wants him to accompany him and his new friends to a local club but then both Lowe and Matthew realize that he’s far too well known to make an appearance there with impunity), Lowe’s insistence on giving the boys as ordinary a childhood and adolescence as possible underscores the universality of these father-son reminiscences.

In You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age (Penguin, 2014), another, older actor, Robert Wagner – writing as Robert J. Wagner and with the collaboration of Scott Eyman – establishes the credibility of his voice at the beginning with a story about a nutty celebrity nuptial. His rationale for including it is in the opening sentence: “I first noticed that show business had gone crazy in 2002, when my wife Jill St. John and I were guests at the wedding of Liza Minnelli and David Gest.” Wagner’s book is a valedictory to Hollywood in the last days of the big-studio era, after the Second World War, when he became an actor, and he argues convincingly in the final pages that, by comparison, it was a time when you could be a celebrity and still lead a relatively sane life in the company town of Los Angeles, safe from continual stalking and often protected from scandal. (In striking contrast is the life Lowe gives us glimpses of in Stories I Only Tell My Friends, where teenagers break into his grandparents’ house and into his own to sleep in his bed while he’s off on a shoot.) But the way in which Wagner talks about the moment when he goes in search of Michael Jackson – who has been sent to round up Elizabeth Taylor (one of the bridesmaids) after she’s held up the wedding for a good hour while securing the right shoes – and finds him kneeling before her, gazing up at her, has the additional effect of securing our trust in the writer:

“Talking to Michael when he was in one of his reveries was exactly like talking to a six-year-old waiting up for Santa Claus: you didn’t want to disabuse him of his fantasy, but you had to firmly lead him away from the Christmas tree so that the presents could be put out.

‘I love her, too, Michael,’ I said. ‘We all love her. But we have to go ahead with the wedding. There’s a church full of people out there, and they’re getting restless. You can spend all the time you want with Elizabeth after the wedding.’

Full disclosure: I was angry, so I might have said all this a little . . . brusquely. By this time I was heartily sick of the wedding, even though it hadn’t even taken place yet. What I wanted to do was have a drink with [Wagner’s friend, the Turner Classic Movies host] Bob Osborne and not be bothered by infantile bullshit.”

Robert Wagner & Natalie Wood.
The wry, no-nonsense tone of this excerpt doesn't prepare us for the controlled effusiveness or the unbridled affection of Wagner’s tribute to the L.A. of his youth, some of which he discovered as a boy when his family relocated from Detroit in 1937 and much of which he claimed squatter’s rights to when he broke into movies about a decade later. The book isn’t an autobiography; Wagner has already written one of those, Pieces of My Heart (also with Eyman, in 2009). It’s an unconventional combination of a carefully researched history of Hollywood’s golden age – the architecture, the night life, the parties, the eateries and bars, the relationship between the studios and the press – and a personalized one, since Wagner knew so many of the significant personages in the late years of the big-studio period and frequented so many of the hot spots. So, for instance, he can write this about Bob Cobb’s Brown Derby: “I was told that Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard at the Derby, and I’d like to think it’s true. Certainly, my own connection with the Brown Derby was momentous. Right before Natalie Wood and I were married on December 28, 1957, we had dinner there . . . There’s even a picture of us there that was taken very close to that night. I’m on the phone (sorry!), sitting under artwork of Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland. Natalie is looking at me like a woman in love, which, God knows, we were.” He can provide a rundown on the major L.A. restaurants and flavor it with his memories of their most delicious dishes. His sketches of the great restauranteurs, like Mike Romanoff of Romanoff’s and Jean Leon of La Scala, includes his own anecdotes and in some cases his debts of gratitude to them – Leon ran a tab for Wagner when, in the worst years of his career, he couldn’t afford to pay his bill.

Romanoff, who pretended to be a White Russian, was one of the glittering personalities of those days, along with the hostess Edie Goetz (wife of producer Bill Goetz), who displayed original Impressionist canvases on her walls, the interior decorator William Haines (who began his career as the only openly gay actor under contract at MGM) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who was sharp-witted and relentlessly right-wing. (Her opposite number, Louella Parsons, was, in Wagner’s description, “a sweet, vague creature who lived for scoops and had only the dimmest idea of anything that went on outside of Hollywood. In April 1939, just after the Italians invaded Albania, and war was clearly looming on the horizon, she wrote, ‘The deadly dullness of the last week was lifted today when Darryl Zanuck admitted he had bought all rights to Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird.’”) And, of course, the studio heads and the stars, beginning with Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who invented movie stardom as well as Hollywood’s flamboyant version of gracious living when they built Pickfair. You Must Remember This is dotted with Wagner’s reminiscences of some of his fellow actors, though he doesn’t make a big deal about those friendships; he talks about Jimmy Stewart, whom he adored, the way any of us might recall a lost companion of our younger days.

The title of the book implies the necessity of memorializing the places and people of this vanished age because though the movies are still around, of course, the settings of the lives of the women and men who made them are almost all gone. You Must Remember This is an unabashed piece of nostalgia that can make the reader nostalgic, too, for a place in a time he or she has never known. “My intent,” Wagner writes in the foreword, “is for you to experience the same thrill I did, one night at Clifton Webb’s house. It was a dinner party, thrown with all of Clifton’s impeccable taste. And then it became something more. Roger Edens, the associate producer for the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, began to play the piano and Judy Garland got up to sing for the better part of an hour – Gershwin, Porter, Harry Warren. While she serenaded us with that great golden trumpet of a voice, Clifton’s small poodles wandered around the room . . . looking for food and affection. I also saw Judy sing at the Palace in New York, but . . . [w]atching her sing to a crowded theater paled in comparison to being in a room with her by the piano and fifteen people gathered around . . . [I]t was a complete thrill that I’ve never forgotten.” Wagner’s ineffably sweet book is a genuine one-of-a-kind souvenir.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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