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Review: Frank Langella's Dropped Names Is a Literary Debut to Savor

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Frank Langella's Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them offers shrewd and often poignant observations that linger in the mind long after each chapter ends--and there are 66 vignettes to savor. Published this week by Harper Collins, Langella's memoir is a tour-de-force debut that, in the proudest show-business tradition, leaves us wanting more.

Advance publicity led me to think Dropped Names would be a gossipy glimpse of Hollywood greats--from Elizabeth Taylor to Charlton Heston--filtered through the unsparing lens of a theater legend. (Langella may be best known to movie fans for his work in such films as Unknown and Frost/Nixon, but to me he'll always be the leading man I discovered in Williamstown Theatre Festival's Cyrano in 1971, the brilliant young actor I profiled for a magazine when he was starring as Broadway's Dracula.)

Having chatted with Langella for two hours in a Manhattan coffee shop in 1977, I knew he possessed traits that would help him as a writer: self-deprecating wit; a keen eye for the telling detail; and a willingness to make risky artistic choices. Even so, I was unprepared for the pleasure I found in his elegiac portrayals of three beloved colleagues: Raul Julia, and British actor Alan Bates, his costar in Fortune's Fool on Broadway, and playwright William Gibson, author of The Miracle Worker, Two for the Seesaw, and A Cry of Players. Gibson's latter work helped launch Langella's New York career when he played the young Will Shakespeare opposite Anne Bancroft's Ann Hathaway in 1968 and won the Drama Desk Award.

Although the actor is blunt when he goes on to describe Bancroft's toxic narcissism, Paul Newman's lack of one-on-one charisma, Roddy McDowall's gay opportunism, and Yul Brynner's dearth of humanity, Langella also doesn't stint on self-criticism. He shows his boorish behavior toward the ever-gracious Deborah Kerr, his costar in Edward Albee's Seascape, and his silly attempt to upstage actress Billie Burke in a summer stock production of The Solid Gold Cadillac.

Recalling a 1977 backstage visit with Richard Burton as the Welsh star consumed too much Scotch, Langella moans, "By the time the bottle was empty, so was my brain. The sonorous voice, now slurring its words, had succeeded in numbing and stunning. Could anyone, I wondered, be so unaware of what a crashing bore he had become?" While these words may seem unkind, reports from others during this period echo Langella's disgust. The actress Marian Seldes recoils from a similar episode in her 1984 memoir, The Bright Lights, during which she observed a very drunken Burton following an Equus performance in 1975.

Dropped Names is fueled by sexual exploits, innuendos, and invitations from both genders. Langella has a penchant for older women, and he can be surprisingly tender when he speaks about his lovers. His most wistful musings are reserved for Rita Hayworth when the star was showing signs of early dementia, a chapter so subtle I had to read it twice to discern whether the pair were merely comrades--they were more.

Early on the author pens an hilarious portrait of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie at a private Cape Cod party hosted by Paul and Bunny Mellon and attended by the incorrigibly ribald Noel Coward. Bunny, the mother of Langella's summer theatre pal, Eliza Lloyd, slowly evolved into a lifelong friend, and Langella's fond salute to Mrs. Mellon ends the book on an upbeat note.

Among the other stars he profiles are Montgomery Clift, Maureen Stapleton, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Colleen Dewhurst, Anthony Perkins, George C. Scott, Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, and Tony Curtis. Indeed, Dropped Names bristles with lively (and often foul-mouthed) ghosts, whom the author vividly resurrects with skill and humor.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who allegedly said, "There are no second acts in American lives," but that novelist never met Frank Langella who, at age 74, displays a shimmering gift for prose. He's the literary life of the party, and I hope he has enough material for a sequel, or some backstage fiction that's as clever as his delightful 1980 film, Those Lips, Those Eyes. There's no question that readers will be eagerly awaiting an encore.

Susan Dormady Eisenberg has written a novel about two aspiring Broadway singers: The Voice I Just Heard.