There is a special kind of ardor that exists in the professional who begins as a fan. When Robert Wagner became a contract player at Twentieth Century Fox in the ’50s, he had already spent his youth enamored of the movies and, from 1937, the year his family moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, intersecting with the people in them. “I met Norma Shearer when I was seven years old,” Wagner tells me during a recent conversation in New York. Wagner was a cadet in a local military school. His friend and classmate was Irving Thalberg, Jr., son of the then recently deceased MGM boss and Shearer. Irving invited his friend RJ (Wagner’s longtime nickname) home and there, ensconced in her bed, was Shearer. “I didn’t know who Norma Shearer was, for crissakes. There was something so . . . ethereal” — he pauses — “would that be a good word?” Shearer inscribed a glossy (which he still has) “To Cadet Wagner.” But what turned his head was a few months later when Marie Antoinette, the first film Shearer made as a widow, was screened at Wagner’s school. “They ran it for all the kids,” he remembers, “on a sixteen-millimeter projector. And I’m looking at the screen and I’m thinking, Wait a minute. That’s not her.” Seven-year-old Wagner couldn’t put together the woman on screen with the woman he had seen in her own home, his buddy’s mom. “It was a first,” he says.
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That sense of dumbfounded enchantment can be found in his new book, his third collaboration with film biographer Scott Eyman, I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses. Like his last book, the charming 2014 You Must Remember This, a reminiscence of the places where golden-age Hollywood played, dined, vacationed, I Loved Her at the Movies is a tender work of remembrance — in this case of the women Wagner admired and worked with in an acting career that has now spanned sixty-six years. In many cases, these were women he came to know as close friends, like Barbara Stanwyck. Among the subjects are actresses like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn (after whom Wagner named one of his daughters) whose fame has lasted, and others, like Greer Garson and Kay Francis, who are now well known only among lovers of classic Hollywood film. There are also quick sketches of women who were never leading ladies but who are indelible in character roles, women like Thelma Ritter and Ida Lupino. (Wagner rightfully praises Lupino’s performance in a terrific movie called The Hard Way, a tough and too-little-seen showbiz tale in which Lupino played a character based on Ginger Rogers’s notoriously driven mother, Lela.)
This is a book about what it feels like to come to understand as human beings larger-than-life women who, in Wagner’s words, were “not not made up, not playing a part. They were real.”
But the book is also an evocation and evaluation of the particular type of screen charisma embodied by each of the women he calls up out of memory. It’s frank without ever being gossipy, shrewd without ever being unsympathetic — a balancing act that cannot have been easy. At times, though without ever descending into cruelty, Wagner addresses what limited the careers of his subjects — and in some sad cases, what limited their lives.
Wagner suggests one of the reasons for his reserves of sympathy in the book’s preface. “I think women in general have it tougher than men, and I think actresses in particular have it tougher than actors.” When I ask him about that, he tells me, “I think women have a harder time all the way around. When you get into this profession it’s mostly run by men, and whenever a woman has a point of view or maybe a demand, they can be, ‘Jesus, what the hell does she want that for?’ Women want to be listened to and thought of. And I think it takes a great deal of courage to do that on their part. Hepburn knew what she wanted, and she believed in it. She had great self-confidence. Lots of them did in that era.” Wagner goes on to tell me it was sometimes different when men came into the lives of these women. “Was he really there for them?” he says many of these women wondered about their lovers and husbands. “Or was he there for her because of who she was?” One of the book’s consistent themes is the story of the actress who got burned because of an exploitive partner. The wonderful character actress Joan Blondell saw much of her money gambled away by the producer Michael Todd. Bandleader Harry James did much the same thing to Betty Grable.
Both in Wagner’s books and in the man himself, there is little false nostalgia. When we talk about how spectacle has overtaken craft and even coherence in most mainstream movies, he says, “That’s not comparing today to then. It’s just a fact of today. The characters and their behavior and what they meant to each other used to be the definitive thing.” And though we are used to hearing stories about how the studios controlled the lives of their stars, Wagner talks about the protection and grounding that actors lost with the demise of the studio system.
“If you were with them,” he says of the studios, “they took care of you. And you had a loyalty to them. I was so proud when the Twentieth Century Fox logo came on. When I was there I was there as a kid, a green kid off the streets and just lucky to be there. I was on the contract list. Everybody was willing to do anything for you to make you better.”
At one point in our conversation, going over the people he has known, Wagner tells me, “I live in gratitude.” If he hadn’t said that to me, the books would have. Reading them you feel you’re in the presence of a man who, even if he can’t believe it, is vey conscious of his luck, a man who genuinely likes his life and is thankful for it. It’s a feeling of the kind you might remember lingering when the lights come up after a thoroughly satisfying night at the movies.