Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Musings on Hollywood History

I'm going to go slightly off-topic today-- hey, it's my blog so I can write whatever I want-- but I had to pay a little tribute to Farley Granger, who passed away on Sunday.

The timing seems a little ironic, since I just wrote a piece about the Leopold and Loeb murder.  (You can read it at the Chicago History Journal here and here.)  If you're a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, you probably know that Farley Granger got his big break in Rope, which was Hitchcock's version of the story.  Granger played the Leopold role, although the movie was so heavily fictionalized that his character's name was changed to "Phillip Morgan," and the plot only vaguely resembles the true story.  He went on to star in Strangers on a Train, which is one of Hitchcock's most famous pictures and one of my personal favorites.

As any of my close friends can tell you, I have a special place in my heart for the stars of the forties and fifties.  That's especially true for the ones I've been met in person, and I'm glad to say Granger was one of them.

To be honest, I've crossed paths with a lot of people who were more famous or glamorous or whatever you like.  After all, I live in Toluca Lake, which is sandwiched between the studio lots of Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, ABC, NBC, and CBS.  Not to mention the fact that I graduated from USC, where people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas show up on a regular basis.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to name-drop-- on the contrary, I think star sightings are a dime a dozen, and I'm frankly not impressed with any of that stuff. 

Even so, I have especially fond memories of Granger, to the point where I'd call him one of the most charming people I've met.

The first time was in 2003, when he gave a Q&A at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  He'd been living in New York doing theater and T.V., and it was his first time back in L.A. in about 40 years.  He kept marveling about how the city had gotten so built-up, and how much more congestion there was on the freeways.

The part I remember the most was when he told the same story twice, in almost the exact same words, and nobody had the heart to tell him he was repeating himself.  The story was classic Hitchcock, because at some point Granger had made the mistake of asking for his character's motivation.  Hitchcock was notorious for not giving his actors much direction, to the point where he supposedly said "actors are cattle."  The way Granger told the story, Hitchcock basically blew him off; he just shook his head and said "it's only a movie."  Which is pretty rich, coming from one of the most respected filmmakers of all time.

In the years since, I crossed paths with Granger a couple more times.  I won't pretend that I was friends with him or anything, but I did get to see his personality, and he always came across as friendly, unpretentious, and an all-around nice guy.  That's rare in show business.

I don't know if it's a generational thing, but it may very well be.  After all, Granger got his start under the old studio system, where the moguls could cast you and craft your public image however they wanted.   I don't envy any of that, because I would've hated working under those conditions.  But I do think that system kept a lot of egos in check, even if performers sometimes had to fight for their careers (and Granger was no exception).

One way or another, classic movie stars are a dying breed these days.  I'm not just talking about Elizabeth Taylor, although I guess she fits the bill too.  (I never met her myself, so all I know about her is what I've read.)

I'm talking more about people like Gloria Stuart, who passed away in September at the age of 100.  Her life story was so intertwined with history, she was like a smart and feisty Forrest Gump.  Among other things, she started her career alongside Olivia DeHavilland and Shirley Temple, who were both ingenues at the time and who remained her lifelong friends; she sailed around the world just days before World War II broke out; she dated Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb; she fought against the Hollywood blacklist and became such an outspoken liberal that John Ford called her "comrade"; she partied with guys like Groucho Marx and Humphrey Bogart; and she capped off her career with an Oscar nomination for Titanic.  (In fact, if you ever met her, you know that her character in Titanic was basically a tamer version of herself.  She never swore in the movie, but in real life she was a self-described "potty mouth" who could put any sailor to shame.)

I realize life expectancy has to take its course.  But pretty soon classic Hollywood will be gone from living memory; and as both a history buff and a movie buff, I can't help but feel wistful about it.  I guess I should count my blessings for getting to see so much of it up close.

So here's to Farley Granger and all the other stars of yesteryear.  I hope you guys are lighting up the big screen in the sky.

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