Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Frank Langella

Dropped Names – Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them

I just finished this gossipy, entrancing memoir from stage and screen actor Frank Langella (b. 1938), best known for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in both the play and film versions of Frost/Nixon, and for his performance of the title role in Dracula, again both on stage and screen.

For years there has been speculation about Frank Langella’s likely bisexuality, and his recent memoir does little to dispel the rumors. The entire thing reads like a worldly, mannered gay man dishing the dirt – albeit a guilty pleasure of a book that is extraordinarily well written. All but one of his subjects is deceased, and the one still alive is 102 years old – Bunny Mellon, a fabulously wealthy, cultured and well-connected woman whose acquaintance changed his life (she lives about 30 miles from me on a 4,000 acre Virginia estate with a private jet strip). Frank was working at the bottom of the totem pole alongside Bunny’s 19-year-old daughter Liza in 1961 painting scenery at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Mrs. Mellon met Frank when she came by to pick up her daughter for a picnic, and she immediately took him into her privileged circle, acting as his private tutor into the world of the rich and famous.

Not only did Langella meet Noel Coward, JFK and Jackie – even the Queen of England and the Queen Mother – through Mrs. Mellon, she taught him how to be comfortable among such luminaries. Her advice on how to handle himself at cocktail parties with people he didn’t know: “It’s very simple. Just repeat the last few words of whatever has just been said to you in the form of a question, and you’ll have no trouble. For instance, if someone has just said to you, ‘I just went to an art show and saw the most fascinating painting’, you then say,  ‘Oh really, the most fascinating painting?’, and you’ll be off and running.”

When Frank once mispronounced the last name of French philosopher Descartes as “Dess-cart-tees”, Mrs. Mellon said, “Frank, would you read that passage again? It was so interesting, particularly the part that refers to Descartes” (correctly pronouncing the name as Day-KAHRT). Of that incident, Frank writes: “She had found a way to correct my ignorance and preserve my dignity as casually as if she were opening a packet of sugar. What she had done, of course, was open my mind. And into it, she began to pour generous granules of knowledge in all the arenas I needed it most.”

Langella relates that when Bunny Mellon was at the White House redesigning the rose garden for JFK and Jackie (Mellon was and still is an authority on gardening), Bunny and Jackie were waiting for a White House elevator. When the door opened, Bunny stepped back to let Jackie enter first.

“What are you doing?” Jackie asked.

“Well, you’re the First Lady.”

“Oh stop that nonsense and get in,” replied Mrs. Kennedy.

Several years ago, a theater writer was granted an interview with Langella. His publicist laid down the rule that "You will not ask Mr. Langella ANYTHING about his personal life!" Langella is known for being pathologically secretive about his private life, and I interpret that as meaning he has a lot to hide. He may guard his own privacy, but he certainly spills the beans on dozens of actors and actresses, both gay and straight, in this juicy memoir. A review by Michael Ladenson stated, "As several of the memoir's gay characters circle around his charismatic young self, Mr. Langella flirtatiously leaves open the possibility that he played both sides of the street. As he basks in Noel Coward's attentions, feeds shrimp to Roddy McDowall, and commiserates with Dominick Dunne about the agonies of being a closeted gay man, Langella hides coquettishly behind his fan in a way that seems rather archaic in 2012."

Langella adored Jill Clayburgh and Raul Julia, who starred with him on stage in Noel Coward’s Design For Living. Also a friend of Al Hirschfeld, Langella is among the three actors  depicted in this illustration of their Design for Living roles. Of Raul Julia, Langella writes, “In this era when young male stars seem a sexless set of store-bought muscles set below interchangeable screw-top heads with faces of epic blandness – sheep trying to look like bulls – Raul defined real masculinity.” It’s obvious Langella and Julia had huge crushes on each other. Describing one such "homoerotic moment" (Langella’s words), Frank writes about the night, when it was just Raul and Frank in the room, that Raul dropped trou to show Frank his new kind of ultra-comfortable underwear – boxer briefs – which Frank had not seen before.

“I want us to be friends,” said Raul.

“Me too,” replied Frank.

Raul got drunk, Frank stayed sober. When it became late and Frank walked to the door to leave, Frank recalls Raul’s send off:

“Good night, Frank. I love you – you are my boyfriend.”

Well, there you have it.

During the run of Design for Living, as Raul was changing his shirt, Clayburgh rushed over and started clawing at his chest, and soon they were involved in passionate embraces. Feeling somewhat left out, Langella insinuated himself into the mix: "We became a pulsating Oreo cookie with nothing remotely chaste about where our hands and mouths wandered. It was fast, hot and dirty."

Let me pause right now to state that I read every page of this book.

This memoir lays bare the outsized egos, eccentricities, crushing insecurities and unflattering habits of household name stars, as only an insider can do. Now 74 years old, Langella also counterbalances these stinging reminiscences with charming, poignant tales of affection and love for those worthy of it. When JFK jumped onto Bunny Mellon’s coffee table in Cape Cod to dance as Noel Coward played his songs on the piano, Jackie sang along, knowing all the lyrics by heart. Before boarding his helicopter, President Kennedy turned to Langella and asked, “What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”

For younger readers, this memoir will be a great introduction to all the famous stage and screen icons every gay man should know about. Among the things I like about this book is the fact that Langella is not reticent in telling unflattering tales about himself, and it is surprisingly bereft of the author’s own ego. He can also be charmingly coy at times. Writing about Roddy McDowall: "This was a man who, no matter what the occasion, clearly always wanted a return invitation." McDowall once came over to Frank's table at a restaurant and said, "Hello, darling Frank. Look at that face! I've just got to photograph it." In wrapping up that story, Langella writes, "He never did. I'd had my picture taken enough times by then to satisfy my curiosity about what might develop."

Well, then.

Dropped Names is so well written, that I wonder if Langella employed a ghost writer. Whichever – you will not be bored.

Dropped Names – Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, by Frank Langella, was published last month. Available in hard cover and e-reader formats.

Frank Langella in Dracula (1979 film version)

1 comment:

  1. Got the Nook version yesterday.. fascinating stuff for a gossip queen like me and even a few unpleasant reveals about the private personas of some of the 'icons' we all think we know.

    Love your site, thank you so much !!