“I’m what they call a straight shooter. If you say to me, ‘How am I?,’ I don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you.’ I tell you how I am, whether you want to hear it or not.” Discussing everything from California’s air quality index to toothbrushing technique proves to be perfect icebreaker for this particular straight shooter, actress Nancy Olson Livingston, the last living star of Billy Wilder’s storied Hollywood fable “Sunset Boulevard.”
Such a range of topics is fitting for the conversation at hand, about the memoir the Oscar nominee has written: “A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood and the Age of Glamour.” Livingston, now approaching 95, is not one to hold back or hide her opinions; she’s equally candid about her own life as she is about politics and the environment.
Her frankness gives insight into why Billy Wilder cast her, over 70 years ago, in “Sunset Boulevard” as the feisty and whip-smart Betty Schaefer. In the film, young Betty is a script reader for a movie studio executive, but is bored by the screenplays she covers and instead craves to have her name on a title page as the writer. She sees down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis, played by the ever-charismatic William Holden, as her steppingstone, and like Livingston, is blunt about her aims. She tells Gillis straight to his face that she doesn’t think much of his work, except for six pages of a short story, which she believes could be turned into something better with her input as a co-writer.
Under normal circumstances, Gillis’ ego would have probably caused him to decline, but he’s desperate for a break — any break. Not only is he in dire financial straits, his life has been consumed by that fame-deprived vampiress of the silent era, Norma Desmond, portrayed delectably by Gloria Swanson. Gillis agrees to Betty’s proposal and the two start collaborating, though as the movie fates would have it, their creative coupling quickly turns into something more.
Livingston is completely convincing as Betty, batting one-liners back and forth with Holden like a pro, despite it being only her second film. Yet unlike her movie counterpart, she has never held any literary ambitions. Acting was her dream.
“I’m not a writer. I have never really written,” she said. “I had one writing experience when I was a freshman in college at the University of Wisconsin. In my English class, the first assignment that I had was to write a short made-up story. So I did, and I got an A+, with a comment from the professor saying that you are a very interesting and very good writer. And I never truly thought of it again. I never thought of myself as a writer.”
Nevertheless, a writer is what she’s become, and the story she tells is an incredible one. Her book, which she penned in longhand and then dictated to a typist, is far more than just another celebrity reminiscence of the glory days of old Hollywood. It is the testament of woman who finds herself in the crosswinds of American cultural history, dealing with personal struggles while interacting with many of the tastemakers of the twentieth century.
“What happened to me is astounding,” Livingston said of her life. “I thought, this is something I should do for the children, for Liza and Jenny, they should know some of the history of their parents and the extraordinary experiences we had — the successes, failures, everything.”
Livingston grew up in well-to-do circumstances as the daughter of a Milwaukee doctor, Henry Olson. She credits her mother Evelyn for training her to speak English with precision. “My mother, her parents, were born in Sweden. She spoke nothing but Swedish until she was five. Then she went to school. And she came home that first day, and said in Swedish, ‘I will never speak a word of Swedish in this house again, I want everyone now to learn English,’ which she did,” Livingston said. “And when I was a child, and she was listening to me and interpreting what I was saying, she would tell me that there was another, better way to express myself. A more complete way. And she was constantly critical. If I said, ‘you and me’ — are you kidding? I’d have to leave the house. It’s ‘you and I.’ I learned this when I was five years old.”
Her mastery of diction isn’t the only quality that helped Livingston become a sought-after actress. To this day, she exudes an aura of the utmost confidence. “When I tried out for something, I was surprised if I didn’t get it,” she said. “It isn’t because I thought so wonderfully about myself. It’s just that if I wanted that part, I had a sense that maybe I had something really interesting to make of it. And therefore, they will understand that and put me in it.”
In 1948, the head of Paramount Pictures’ talent division saw something in her when he watched her in a UCLA play. Afterwards, he offered her a seven-year studio contract at $300 a week. For a college girl from far-away Wisconsin, who had only just moved to Los Angeles the previous summer, it was a Hollywood dream come true.
She soon confronted the dark side of that dream. The men who ran the studios marked fresh female faces as prime targets for their sexual adventures. One of those men was Howard Hughes, who had an office on the Samuel Goldwyn Studios two miles from Paramount and had a history of dating actresses.
“The publicist on the lot was trying to please everybody,” Livingston said. “If he could bring Howard Hughes a gift, oh, fabulous, that would be a gold mark for him. So he said, ‘Nancy, I’m going to take you over at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ I said, ‘I’m going to drive myself.’ Because Howard Hughes had a reputation. We all knew about him.”
The publicist heeded Livingston’s demands, and she followed him in her car, parked across the street from the Goldwyn studio gate, and was taken into the office, where she was introduced to Howard Hughes. “His pale yellow shirt, I still remember it, and the instrument in his ear and his mustache. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Miss Olson, tell me about yourself.’ Well, what an opening,” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Have you ever been to Milwaukee? Have you ever been to Wisconsin? Have you ever been on one of the lakes in northern Wisconsin?’ I went on and on and the poor man was sitting there and I knew it but I just kept going. Then there was a moment when he said, ‘Excuse me, Miss Olson. I’m going to take you now to your car.'”
She continued, “There was an outside office for the secretary. He came through holding my arm and said to the secretary, ‘I’m taking Miss Olson to the gate.’ She was shocked. He never left his office. We went down the stairs out into one of the little alleys with the big soundstages on both sides. Out of one stage Sam Goldwyn Sr. came and saw Howard Hughes with me and said, ‘Howard, what are you doing out walking?’ Howard said, ‘Sam, this is Miss Olson. She grew up in a lake in Wisconsin.’ Was I insulted? Did I understand what was going on? Of course. And I smiled at Mr. Goldwyn and said, ‘It’s very nice to meet you.’ And Hughes took me to the gate, pressed the button so the gate would open, and I walked across the street to the parking lot. I turned around, the gate was closing, and I saw this male figure walking as fast as he could back to his office.”
Livingston’s prattling on about her Midwestern roots may have made Hughes want to turn off his hearing aid, but on the Paramount lot, another powerful man was interested in her because of her upbringing. The man was none other than Billy Wilder, the writer-director behind such instant classics as “The Major and the Minor,” “Double Indemnity,” and “The Lost Weekend.”
“We would walk to the cafeteria for lunch, or when he walked later in the day to look at dailies, we’d bump into each other,” she said. “He would say I want to talk to you and ask, ‘What was it like growing up in Wisconsin? What is it like being a student at UCLA? How do you how do you feel about being an actress?’ All these kinds of mundane questions. ‘What was the weather like in Milwaukee?’ ‘Terrible,’ I’d say.”
Wilder’s mundane questions had a purpose.
He was searching for a young actress to star in “Sunset Boulevard,” the motion picture he was making with his writing and producing partner Charles Brackett. The bright, no-nonsense Livingston seemed to fit the bill for a character he, Brackett, and fellow scribe D.M. Marshman Jr. had conceived. “I was told that I was going to play the part of Betty Schaefer and I read the script,” Livingston said. “It was about an aspiring young writer. And there were a lot of starlets on the lot, some who had finished high school and some who hadn’t, some who came from educated families, some who did not. I did, so that when I spoke, you could possibly believe that I wanted to be a writer.”
The urbane Brackett, however, was not happy with Wilder’s choice for Betty Schaefer, which Livingston only learned about years later. Brackett’s reason was simple. “He didn’t think I was beautiful,” Livingston said. “But I enjoyed him. I loved hearing his stories about his children and his family and he was a pleasure for me.”
“Sunset Boulevard” would be Livingston’s only second movie, after playing opposite Randolph Scott as a biracial indigenous-Canadian woman in “Canadian Pacific.” For the role of Betty Schaefer, her main preparation involved fashion. Costume designer Edith Head put together a wardrobe for her, yet it didn’t seem to suit Livingston’s character or please Wilder.
“He wanted me to wear my own clothes. He wanted me to be me. Period,” Livingston said, adding that Wilder gave minimal direction during the production. “He never sat down with me and said, ‘Now look, Betty Schaefer, da-da-da and this is what I meant—’ No, nothing. We would rehearse. He’d say, ready, shoot, off we’d go, cut. Finished.”
After making “Sunset Boulevard,” Livingston and Wilder maintained a friendship, often bumping into each other again, not in the studio commissary but at Christmas parties. “But he never put me in another movie,” she said. “And he used Shirley MacLaine several times.”
In truth, Livingston wanted out of the film industry when “Sunset Boulevard” was released in the fall of 1950. On her Paramount contract, she starred in four pictures — “Canadian Pacific,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Union Station” with Bill Holden, and “Mr. Music” with Bing Crosby — and was exhausted.
Her blossoming relationship with Alan Jay Lerner, the Oscar- and Tony-winning writer of such musicals as “An American in Paris,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Camelot,” seemed to give her a safe exit. “I was going to marry Alan Lerner and move to New York,” she said. “And I said to Paramount, ‘I don’t want to be a movie star. I don’t have to be a movie star.'”
One can’t help but ask why that was the case, since being a star is the goal of nearly every actor who comes to Hollywood. Livingston is quick with her response.
“I’m twenty-one years old and I’m sitting on a soundstage at the studio at seven in the morning. I have hair and makeup from seven to nine, and I’m on the set waiting in the dark with an assistant director, hairdresser, makeup man. I don’t get to leave until six o’clock and I go home and all I do is take off my makeup, take a shower, have a little dinner with my aunt and uncle and go to bed,” she said. “And in those days, it was six days a week. And my friends at UCLA are behaving oddly with me because I am a movie star. And I didn’t have time for friends. What time did I have? Plus I was making ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and I saw what I was: a commodity. Something the studio wanted to develop to sell.”
She continued, “They were going to exaggerate me, make me larger than life, more than who I was so they could sell films. And how many women, movie stars had successful marriages, families, children? Not many. Because if they marry an actor, he’s making love next week to somebody else. And that’s a physical attraction that happens.”
Livingston wanted to start a family, and the film industry was anathema to having a stable one. Yet she could not avoid the resounding success of “Sunset Boulevard” or her acclaimed performance in it, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.
As she recounts in the book, it would be previously twice-divorced Alan Lerner who undermined their family life. Only years later would she find the stability she desired when she married her second husband, Alan Livingston, the record and television executive who was the driving force behind NBC’s long-running show “Bonanza,” the revival of Frank Sinatra’s career, and the launch of The Beatles in America.
While there are gaps in her career, Livingston never totally departed from the acting profession. Her book details her work in “Pollyanna,” “The Absent-Minded Professor,” and other film, theater, and television productions. It also describes how she navigated through a world of American culture dominated by men.
She writes about attending industry parties with screen legends like Cary Grant (“Cary Grant was a lost soul,” she said in our interview) to her depression during her troubled marriage to Lerner, to receiving kindly advice from William Faulkner and finally finding love with Livingston. She even relates a harrowing incident involving Jack Kennedy, then a congressman from Massachusetts, demonstrating once again how men in positions of power treated women.
“There’s a lot of things and stories that I have not put in that book,” Livingston said, after mentioning her friendship with novelist Gore Vidal and how the square-pyramid ceiling in her living room was inspired from a hotel in the Italian village where Vidal had a house. “When you live, as long as I have, you’ve experienced so many things. First of all, with the wonderful pluses that I started out with — a wonderful family, mother, father, Midwestern environment at a time that there were not that many people in the world — life was easier. But when you live to be 94 years, you cannot escape — along with joy, success, and happiness — tragedy, sadness, failure, disappointment. You experience it all.”
Her honesty shines through the book. It’s what makes it a page-turner. Betty Schaefer would be proud.
“A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood and the Age of Glamour” by Nancy Olson Livingston is available now through University Press of Kentucky.