Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Loved Her in the Movies

I Loved Her In the Movies
Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses
by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman
9780525429111 -272 pages
November 2016
Viking Books

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"There's something in the nature of the movie-going experience itself that approximates the reverie that overtakes you when you're in love with a beautiful woman." - Robert J. Wagner

Who captivated you? Was it Gloria Swanson? Lana Turner? Rita Hayworth? Ginger Rogers? Gene Tierney? What was it about the actress that mesmerized you? Was it her beauty, her charm, her fierceness, her poise, her humor or her intelligence? Or all of the above? In I Loved Her in the Movies, actor Robert J. Wagner, in collaboration with biographer and film historian Scott Eyman, takes a closer look at the actresses of the golden age of Hollywood and beyond. Wagner narrates and takes us on a journey as he discovers each star, many of whom he worked with and loved.

The story starts with Wagner as a young boy. He befriends Irving Thalberg Jr. and encounters his very first movie star, actress Norma Shearer. Each chapter focuses on one decade starting with the 1930s and ending with the present day and a spotlight on Glenn Close. Many actresses fill the pages within including Gloria Swanson, Jean Arthur, Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Betty Hutton, Linda Darnell, Lana Turner, Joan Blondell, Claire Trevor, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Rosalind Russell, Jennifer Jones, Ida Lupino, Janet Leigh, Lucille Ball, Stefanie Powers, Angie Dickinson and the list goes on and on. There are brief intermissions chapters that spotlight character actresses as well as close friends of Wagner. Pretty much every actress featured Wagner knew in some respect. In many cases, as was with Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and some others, he had affairs with them as well. Two chapters highlights the great loves of his life: Natalie Wood and his current wife Jill St. John. (Note: If you're looking for any new details on Natalie Wood's mysterious death, you won't find them here.)

Jill St. John and Robert J. Wagner
As the title suggests, the tone of this book is a positive one. Almost every actress is spotlighted at their best but with a keen eye on their personality traits both good and bad. A couple exceptions to the rule include Shelley Winters and Raquel Welch but eventually Wagner finds something good to say about both ladies or he wouldn't have included them. The narrative explores what made each actress special, examines her career, what made her succeed and what made her fail. One major theme in the book is aging and how that affects a woman's career. Meryl Streep is brought up numerous times as an exception to the rule but many of the actresses discussed suffered career slumps due to getting older.

Bits of gossip are strewn throughout the text. One piece of gossip caught me off guard. Wagner claims that Fred MacMurray's first wife Lillian Lamont committed suicide. I hadn't heard of this so I did some research but couldn't find any sources to corroborate the claim. All I could find was that Lamont was very sick in the final years of her life. Wagner's claim is either hearsay or a bit of insider information.

"In so many ways, acting is a strange business. You work had with another actor, and you become entirely open to each other. You give more than the lines; you give them yourself at that moment in time. That kind of emotional openness has to be accompanied by a great deal of trust and mutual respect, so neither of you will be tempted to take advantage of that privileged connection, either professionally or personally." - Robert J. Wagner

Wagner, i.e. Robert Osborne's brother from another mother, has much love for Turner Classic Movies and the channel is mentioned several times throughout the text. There is some of the "good old days" nostalgia and some mourning of the loss of a bygone era. He does have a somewhat positive but rather mixed outlook on the future. While he does admire young actresses willingness to try anything he does criticize loss of mystique in today's paparazzi and over-sharing culture.

I Loved Her in the Movies is the follow up to Wagner and Eyman's previous collaborations, You Must Remember This and Pieces of My Heart. This is the first one of these I've read and I enjoyed it. It's a light read, perfect for someone who needs a palate cleanser after a hefty tome or for those who are intimidated by in-depth biographies. I don't usually comment on book covers but this one is exceptionally beautiful. The cover image above doesn't do it justice. You have to see it in person. The gorgeous image of Lana Turner with the author's name in gold makes it one you'll want to display face out. I don't even keep this book on my bookshelves. Instead I keep it on my vanity next to my framed portrait of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg on their wedding day and my autographed copy of Conversations with Robert Osborne DVD.

I Loved Her in the Movies by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman is a delightful collection of insights and anecdotes on the actresses who've charmed us on the big screen.

Thank you to Viking Books for an opportunity to review this title!

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