I read a number of show-business books and enjoy quite a few, but every now and then I fall in love with one of them. The last was Tom Mankiewicz’s My Life as a Mankiewicz. The latest is Frank Langella’s Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them (Harper Collins). I know I’m late to this party—the book was published in late March—but if there was ever a page-turner to brighten your summer, this is it. One couldn’t call it an autobiography, as the talented actor provides only fleeting references to growing up in an Italian-American family in New Jersey and making his way in the theater world. While he has slept with many women, some of them famous, he is resolutely discreet and refers to some of them namelessly in passing as “my girlfriend at the time” or “my wife.”
Dropped Names is a collection of character portraits, observations, and anecdotes. You may have read Langella’s bittersweet recollection of Rita Hayworth when it was excerpted in Vanity Fair, around the time of the book’s publication earlier this year. Other chapters deal with people as diverse as Laurence Olivier, Loretta Young, The Queen Mother, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Like Christopher Plummer, who wrote an equally compelling memoir not long ago, Langella started out in summer stock and got to work with show-business veterans who toured the straw hat circuit in the 1950s and ’60s. One of his first chapters provides a charming snapshot of Billie Burke; how many people can offer a first-hand memory of a golden-age figure like that? (There’s an equally wonderful story about Dolores Del Rio and, from a later period on a movie location, Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo.)
He also tells a poignant account of working with Ida Lupino, whom he greatly admired, on a TV movie where the producers and director didn’t have the patience to deal with her quite-reasonable questions about her character—and how she dealt with it.
Langella grew up loving movies, and has great stories to tell from his decades of experience with various costars and directors, but his greatest affection is reserved for people of the theater. He writes with warmth and often acid-tongued wit about Yul Brynner, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison, Stella Adler, Colleen Dewhurst, Raul Julia, Jo Van Fleet, Al Hirschfeld, Elia Kazan, Alan Bates, Arthur Miller, Anne Bancroft, Maureen Stapleton, William Gibson, and Jill Clayburgh. He paints a vivid picture of backstage life and the camaraderie of colleagues during the run of a play.
These are not all praiseworthy pieces. Langella makes no secret of his dislikes, prejudices, and grudges; he also admits, more than once, that he was no picnic to deal with in his younger days.
I am a longtime admirer of his work on stage and screen, but I couldn’t have known that he was a master storyteller and a graceful writer. I was sorry to see this book come to an end, and that’s the highest compliment I could pay Frank Langella and his Dropped Names.