Film Reviews

NON-FICTION: HOLLYWOOD’S FEMME FATALES

Written by Omair Alavi

Omair Alavi|Published May 13, 2018

Photos from the book

American actor Robert Wagner has had one of the lengthiest careers when it comes to films and television; the veteran has been around since the 1950s and has worked with nearly every legendary actor — male and female — imaginable. In the past he penned two successful books — Pieces of My Heart: A Life and You Must Remember This: The Life and Style of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He is now back with his third book, I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses. With regular collaborator Scott Eyman, Wagner talks at length in this book about the wonderful actresses he worked or interacted with during his life, as well as those he admired as a star-struck young boy sitting in the audience of a film theatre.

With a career spanning six decades and a memory that shows no sign of fading, Wagner’s memoir has value, especially when he talks about beautiful starlets such as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and his own wife Natalie Wood. However, instead of just casually rambling about them, he categorises the actresses by decade, beginning with the ’30s, followed by the ’40s, ’50s and so on. In his opinion, not many actresses have made it big in the last 20 years and that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t include many current actresses. But when he does talk about women, he knows exactly what the readers want to read.

Before we move ahead with the drop-dead gorgeous ladies, let’s first check the credentials of the man himself. Born in 1930, Wagner made his film debut with The Happy Years in 1950. He became hugely popular, particularly in Europe, during the ’60s. His stardom reached its peak after he moved to television and took on leading roles in the series It Takes a Thief, Switch and Hart to Hart, all three of which aired between 1968 and 1984. A more contemporary audience will recognise him as Number 2, Dr Evil’s henchman in the Austin Powers films. He is also remembered in Hollywood circles for his marriages to Wood — they married twice, once in 1957 when he was 27 years old and she was 19, then again in 1972 — and, later, to Jill St John, who played Tiffany Case in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. In short, he is the perfect candidate to discuss legendary actresses with whom he shared the screen or had interactions with for a considerable amount of time.

Call it a tribute or a memoir, this book tells you more about the changing times of Hollywood than any history book might be able to

At first look, I Loved Her in the Movies seems like an intimate account about Hollywood divas. In fact, it is a trip down memory lane as Wagner reminiscences about the actresses’ struggles in their initial years before going on to become stars when their talents were finally noticed. He writes about their relationships with their audiences, their emotional states after their falls from stardom, and how they kept themselves busy after retiring from the world of films.

The book also provides a snapshot into how Hollywood used to be, how it used to work, and how the mechanisms have changed now. In his “love letters” to the women he admired on and off the screen, he describes how these women — many of whom, he notes, lived in the chaperoned dormitory called The Hollywood Studio Club which was in operation from 1916 to 1975 — defied the odds to become icons in male-dominated Hollywood, carving out careers that won them admiration from all over the world.

Some of the more prominent names Wagner mentions are Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Raquel Welch, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, besides of course his wives Wood and St John. In his commentary, he also talks about the strange relationship between an actress and a camera, because some of these actresses were able to look stunning simply because of their amazing chemistry with the cameras. He discusses the rise of the more sexually-confident actresses in the latter half of the century who took over the beauties of yore who had just hinted at seduction, rather than perform the action on screen. On-screen and off-screen romances, bad career moves and having to adapt to television after a failed film career — Wagner is forthright and unsparing in his analysis.

Just as it used to happen in the old films, Wagner takes a break at ‘Intermission I’ and ‘Intermission II’. He then goes on to discuss character actresses who made their careers on playing roles other than that of the leading lady, and also discusses those individuals — be they public relations agents, cameramen or even writers — who helped establish many a star. He gives himself some credit as well, disclosing that he had a hand in the casting of Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart when the television executives were against it.

Wagner reminiscences about the actresses’ struggles, their emotional states after their falls from stardom, and how they kept themselves busy after retiring from the world of films.

A most appealing aspect of the book is the abundance of photographs, showing the actresses at their best and helping readers see them through the eyes of an audience, as well as through Wagner’s perception of them as colleagues. There is plenty of gossip as well and, in getting to know about the women, we also learn much about the men in Hollywood. The narrative never goes below the belt, however, although Wagner could have written a lot about the way Errol Flynn treated his female co-stars or how Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart behaved off-screen. But it is somewhat surprising to learn, no doubt, that male actors also faced criticism because of various issues; some damaged their careers by fathering illegitimate children and not acknowledging them, some turned out to be gay and, for a few, stardom was the last nail in the coffin because they simply didn’t know how to cope with the fame, fortune and adulation.

Of course, the recollection would be incomplete without mention of Wood’s death. The actress drowned on a weekend boat trip in 1981 and her husband — Wagner — was named a ‘person of interest’ in her death. Wagner devotes a separate chapter to Wood as well as his current wife, discussing what makes both women special for him.

Call it a tribute or a memoir, I Loved Her in the Movies tells you more about the changing times of Hollywood than any history book might be able to. Wagner writes from the perspective of both an audience member (when talking about the ’30s and ’40s) and a fellow actor (’50s onwards) and his descriptions are evocative. He manages to create an immersive atmosphere of the various eras, such as when he talks about the shift from silent films to ‘talkies’. The advent of sound affected the careers of many actresses, as did the arrival of colour, and some of them chose to retire rather than compete with newcomers who sounded — and looked — better on screen.

The reviewer writes about film, television and popular culture

I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of
Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses
By Robert Wagner and Scott Eyman
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0525429111
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 13th, 2018

About the author

Omair Alavi