Saturday, June 15, 2013

Frank Langella & Stephen Fry – Takes on the Celebrity Memoir

The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography

Stephen Fry in Jeeves & Wooster
     Stephen Fry is probably best known to PBS audiences for his performance as Jeeves with Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in Jeeves & Wooster and rarefied roles in various movies like Peter’s Friends and V for Vendetta and as Oscar Wilde in Wilde.  He’s also
written some very funny novels.  The Liar actually captures exactly what goes on in a British boarding school and that is not learning magic spells.  The Hippopotamus has a country house party setting and some very bad behavior by a hilarious cast of characters.

     I haven’t read his first memoir, which was about his childhood through his release from a juvenile detention center.  The Fry Chronicles, his second volume, covers his undergraduate years at Cambridge through his first successes on stage, on British television, and his updating of the book for the musical Me and My Girl, which left him comfortably off
Broadway Poster from
Me and My Girl
(basically the late 1970s to the late 1980s).  In writing about himself, Fry is self-deprecating to a point where I wondered if he was falsely modest or self-effacing to the point of self-abnegation. Although written with humor and great detail, it also made me think, “Well!  Lucky you!”   I wondered at the vast system of serendipitous meetings, friends of friends looking out for each other, and the good fortune of being allowed to succeed or fail in what was basically a closed system stemming from Cambridge.  I’m looking forward to his next volume since, in the ‘90s, he went through a well-publicized breakdown and achieved great success in a variety of media, but I hope it isn’t as precious as this book.  

Dropped Names

     Frank Langella’s Dropped Names is his first book and it’s a corker.  The title is double-edged.  He’s dropping names of people with whom he has come into contact but who, except for one notable exception, have also died.  Langella suavely reveals himself indirectly while writing the equivalent of Elizabethan miniature paintings about three dozen people, most of whom had some connection to or were active participants in show business.  

Dexter Visits Frank Langella
     His takes on people he didn’t know very well such as Paul Newman and Susannah York are like X-rays.  They’re bare bones portraits coupled with the shadows of poignant aging.  He captures Maureen Stapleton’s earthiness – sober and drunk – and Tony Curtis’s enthusiasm, admiring both these performers' major characteristics as well as their acting talent.  Those he knew really well are presented warts and all, but he never retreats from finding something positive to hold on to
Anne Bancroft and Frank Langella
in A Cry of Players
about them.  The richest portraits are of his closest or longest-term friends such as Anne Bancroft or the sole living person, Bunny Mellon.  

     Since it’s not told in chronological order, shards of Langella’s personality glisten from his withholding, arrogant youth (Elia Kazan had his number while Deborah Kerr showered him with her unfailing grace) through his growing stage success (he adored Raul Julia, Alan Bates, and Jill Clayburgh) and his later film career.  I’d argue that he’s had one of the great post-55 year old careers of any actor and that it might not have been possible if he’d been a major star earlier because we wouldn’t be so surprised by him now.  

     I couldn’t decide if I disliked him or his character more in Diary of a Mad Housewife, though I thought he did admirable work with mediocre material in Dracula.  It was his supporting role as the proud, scheming chief of staff in Dave that I really took notice of his honesty.  Has there been another actor that’s better captured a White House staffer in a movie?  I wish he’d played Nixon in Nixon instead of Anthony Hopkins, but he did get a chance and took it beautifully in Frost/Nixon.

Lauren Ambrose with Langella in Starting Out in the Evening
However, the performance of his that deserved greater attention was his novelist in Starting Out in the Evening.  Admired, self-reflective, not certain he’s lived up to his early promise, but drawn to youth and still willing for a third act try at success, it’s a character to make a viewer admire, chuckle with, and ultimately ache for.  Dropped Names is a perfect book (end) to that performance.  I think he’s got a couple of other great performances in him.  I don’t know if he has another gem of a book in him or not.  It doesn’t matter since we have this one.  I’m a slow, conscientious reader usually, but I burned through this in a day and I’ve gone back to re-read particular pieces and wonder at his wit, style, and mesmerizing ability to summon up the essence of another’s life in brief scenes, exact details, and dialogue that cuts to the quick.

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