Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Women he has known


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Actor Robert J. Wagner (b. 1930) has had a longer career than almost anyone would have imagined when he made his uncredited film debut in 1950. He is still working. For decades, he was the quintessential leading man, appearing in countless films, enjoying considerable success on television, yet never taken seriously by critics. David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film, for example, has no entry for him. Wagner may best be remembered for his two marriages to Natalie Wood (1938-91) and for being her widower.

He has known and worked with many of the most celebrated women in motion picture history. He recalls them in I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses (Viking, $27). He was eight when he met his first movie star, Norma Shearer. Her son, Irving Thalberg, Jr., was a classmate, and brought him home to meet mother.

Wagner got his break in 1952's With a Song in My Heart, a biopic of singer Jane Froman starring Susan Hayward. He played an exceptionally handsome, shell-shocked soldier. His part was small, but Hayward made sure he got noticed. He writes appreciatively of her kindness, talent, and personality.

Next year, he had star billing behind Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic. His admiration for her led to an affair, even though she was 23 years older. They remained friends until her death. He also had a brief fling with Joan Crawford, 24 years his senior. His assessment of her is nuanced and balanced. He worked with Bette Davis, whom he admired but admits could be very difficult, and offers a fresh insight into the differences between the two women. "Crawford wanted to be a star, and acting was the vehicle that got her there." Davis, however, "wanted to be an actress," and stardom brought her the roles she sought.

Stanwyck, Crawford, and Davis aren't the only stars of a generation before his whom he admires. Others include Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Ann Sheridan, Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour, and Claire Trevor. Lucille Ball was a neighbor in Palm Springs and was crazy about one his daughters. His discussion of them is free of hagiography – they were, after all, individuals with flaws. But for the most part, he writes with no meanness, and focuses on their best qualities. His discussion of how the gifted Betty Hutton's nastiness caused her career to end after a decade is candid but sympathetic. She wound up broke and forgotten, living on Social Security in a small Palm Springs apartment.

He's excellent at assessing why critics often miss what audiences see. Lana Turner is a good example. Wagner is under no illusions about her acting skills, although he cites some good work she did, but he understands why she was a star for so long.

He made films with Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren (whom he adored) and television movies with Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. He writes astutely about them as actresses, friends (and, in the case of Taylor, romantic partner) and stars. But working with Raquel Welch was trying. Yet he's gracious enough to say he was sufficiently impressed by her autobiography Beyond the Cleavage to give a copy to one of his daughters to read. Welch had, he says, clearly matured and changed.

He understands the pressures of fame and the extra burden placed on women during and immediately after the demise of the classic studio system. It was hard for them to remain stars as they aged. This became especially true, he writes, with the widespread use of color photography in movies. Previously, skilled cinematographers used black-and-white lighting to hide Shearer's inward-facing eye, the tenseness in Dunne's chin that made it look dark, or the bump on one side of Colbert's nose. Crawford and Stanwyck were carefully lit, allowing them to play romantic leads well into their 40s.

His insights into the vagaries of onscreen chemistry are revealing. He and Stephanie Powers, his co-star on television's long-running Hart to Hart, got along very well but led completely different and independent lives. William Powell and Myrna Loy were classic Hollywood's ideal married couple thanks to playing Nick and Nora Charles in movies based on Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, but off-screen they were simply colleagues. He neglects to mention that Crawford and Clark Gable, paired eight times, lit up the screen and were real-life lovers.

He writes movingly about the pressures Wood faced from her family as a lauded child performer, as a teenage actress, and as an adult star. He admires her talent, her ambition, but says nothing made her as happy as motherhood. He cites many friends and colleagues, including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and David Niven, for helping him move on after her death by drowning.

He has been happily married to Jill St. John for 26 years, and writes touchingly about her. Acting and stardom don't consume her. She would, he guesses, accept a great part if it came along, but she's happy with a myriad of other interests.

Clearly, Wagner was more than a pretty-boy teen idol. He learned as he went along. He may never have given an Oscar-winning performances, but he has usually been a welcome screen presence. He has also produced many successful television series, including Hart to Hart and Charlie's Angels, as well as pictures he made with Taylor and Hepburn. But what comes across most emphatically in this rewarding book is his tremendous love and respect for women, for their minds as well as their physical attributes. The movie business is misogynistic, so it's refreshing to read a sympathetic, well-informed account of what women have faced and continue to endure. Filmgoers who read Wagner's recollection of these celebrated actresses will gain an appreciation of the price they often paid to make audiences happy.

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