There are many things in actor Frank Langella’s compulsively readable Dropped Names that grabbed me, and not always in a good way. But I’ll say up front that I found the book – and especially Langella’s own audio narration – absolutely irresistible. I took long walks just so I could listen to more. The nine or so hours of it flew by, and I felt almost bereft when it was over.
For theatre lovers, especially, I’d say it’s a must. You may not agree with everything Langella has to say – you might even be outraged by some of it – but it’s impossible to put down.
The title really says it all. Dropped Names may be a kind of memoir, but only indirectly. What it is is a collection of observations/reminiscences/anecdotes about other people. Most of them are in the theatre; all of them are famous. (Among the things we learn early on about Langella himself – he worships the theatre, and he’s attracted to fame and wealth.). The stories are mostly short, fascinating, and enlivened by the author’s unflinching insights and elegant prose. It seems almost like he’s confiding in us.
Not all, but many, involve romantic trysts. Some of the stories are heartbreaking (Rita Hayworth, at the end of her career, and deeply fragile). Some are hilarious (Oliver Reed, ranting about his penis). Langella is especially good at capturing older actresses – delightful accounts of Billie Burke and Celia Johnson, for example. He loves their charm, talent (more Johnson than Burke, in this context), and the now-disappearing theatrical world they embody. Not that he loves everybody – Langella’s take-down of Lee Strasberg is pointed, unsparing – and to me, so deliciously deserved that I listened to it no less than three times before reluctantly moving on.
I found the sections on non-theatrical figures – including Bunny Mellon, Jackie and John F. Kennedy, and Brooke Astor – less compelling, though they made me wonder how a boy from a middle-class family gained access to the top echelon of society. Langella’s a distinguished actor, but this level still seems out of reach. Maybe he is just that good a listener…
At the beginning of Dropped Names, Langella gives us a couple of caveats – that these are personal recollections, and he may have embellished them in the telling. In a sense, he’s indemnifying himself against criticism, but I’m going to offer some anyway.
Even without his warning, I’d wonder about the veracity of some of his stories. (Can it be mere accident that nearly everybody Langella writes about is dead?) It’s obvious that individual chapters were written in fits and starts, and there’s no attempt to edit for cohesiveness.
More problematic, he’s unapologetically contrary. Elia Kazan is praised as a great director for using the same shoddy psychological tactics that Langella excoriates from Lee Strasberg. (Though Kazan’s talent was infinitely greater than Strasberg’s, I’ll bet both were miserable shits – and I’ll bet Langella thinks so, too.)
Worse, Langella shares a major flaw with one of his favorite playwrights, Noel Coward – he’s too easily besotted by superficial glamour. One of America’s greatest actors, Maureen Stapleton – who was not soignée, and could be almost defiantly crude – is too quickly dismissed, while he’s bewitched by Norris Church, a person of few accomplishments, apart from marrying Norman Mailer (if that can be counted as any kind of achievement), and being physically lovely.
But I have to admit (with some guilt) that these annoyances were momentary, and for me didn’t tarnish the shiny brilliance of Langella’s anecdotes, or the charm of the telling.
Which brings me to his audio performance, which really is the icing on the cake. Part of it is simply the cultivated beauty of his speaking voice, which caresses the ear.
But Langella is a fine actor, and that plays out here in a couple of important ways. His mimicry is marvelous – he captures Gielgud, Olivier, Raul Julia – even Billie Burke! – with accuracy. And he manages to recount conversations in a way that feels so present that you think it’s happening in the moment!
I hope the above gives you enough of a sense to decide for yourselves if you want to read Dropped Names. Even with my reservations, I wish I could read it again for the first time!