When I was an undergraduate in UCLA’s film school in 1973, I interviewed Curtis Harrington for the UCLA Daily Bruin about his masterful “The Killing Kind.” The filmmaker did not disappoint: He welcomed me into his gorgeous Art Nouveau-stuffed home in the Hollywood Hills and chatted openly and articulately about the unusual trajectory of his filmmaking career. He was at that time—and remained—one of the industry’s great near-misses, a man whose feature credits seemed to consist almost entirely of films maudits.
Driven by an unabashedly queer sensibility, one steeped in the decadence of such influences as Edgar Allan Poe, Josef von Sternberg, and Aleister Crowley, Harrington managed only a small feature filmography. He wasn’t what steak-eating Hollywood moguls were looking for, and he ran up against producers, distributors, and studio heads who had little respect for his vision. His feature films were butchered, bungled, in some cases barely released. He rarely complained about that; he kept his head down and kept working, even when his career hit what he referred to as “the slippery slope” of episodic television. Harrington spent most of the 1980s toiling in the TV salt mines, reliably directing episode after episode of “Dynasty,” “The Colbys,” and “Wonder Woman.” From there, he was never again able to climb back up that slope.
He saved his grousing for his memoir, published here posthumously by Drag City Books. Appropriately titled “Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business,” the book allows Harrington to finally tell his side of the story. He does so matter-of-factly, rarely descending into outright vitriol or condemnation. Harrington was simply a man who faced reality; he had seen his hopes dashed enough times to accept the inevitable. That his memoir is not a downer, despite the unsatisfying arc of his career, is testament to the winning personality of a man who was always a prized Hollywood dinner-party guest: his talent as a raconteur is evident on every page.
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Harrington’s writing style is essentially direct and straightforward, enough so that it comes as a surprise when he occasionally aspires to a Poe-like turn of phrase. In describing the aftershocks of an early sexual experience with a football-player crush in high school, he intones:
I knew immediately, with a horrible kind of prescience, that I was doomed to never again have such an intense experience of passion, and that I would feel an emptiness because of it for the rest of my life. Indeed, the bleakness I felt at the center of my heart thereafter was never to be relieved.
This, not surprisingly, was from a man whose first and last films were highly personal versions of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Harrington was nurtured in the burgeoning artistic sensibility of 1940s southern California, and his early films were ambitious avant-garde shorts he made alongside those of his friend Kenneth Anger. Not as widely known today as Anger’s films, the best of these—especially “Fragment of Seeking” (1946) and “On the Edge” (1949)—are treasures of early American independent cinema. Harrington’s memories of this fertile post-World War II L.A. milieu are fascinating. They’re also enlightening: anyone who is a fan of John Cage or Christopher Isherwood today will likely feel a bit disillusioned after reading Harrington’s descriptions of his shockingly unpleasant treatment at their hands.
His anecdotes about working with screen divas like Simone Signoret, Shelley Winters, Lana Turner, and Gloria Swanson are priceless. He was also lucky enough to have close encounters with such directors as René Clair, Gustav Machaty, Jean Cocteau, D.W Griffith, and Jean Renoir, and he claimed James Whale as a lifelong friend. His groundbreaking 1949 British Film Institute index to the films of Josef von Sternberg prompted that director’s long-overdue critical reassessment; that index is here in its entirety as part of an appendix which also includes “The Secrets of the Sea,” Harrington’s disturbing short story on which he would base his first feature, “Night Tide” (1961).
True success, as well as real artistic fulfillment, seemed to lie forever just out of Harrington’s reach. Fortunately, he left behind some films that were very fine, despite inevitable compromises. This engaging memoir fills in the chinks, and gives us an idea of the glories that might have been.