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Langella lets loose; Actor holds nothing back in his juicy memoir on some of Hollywood's biggest stars

You never know where the great showbiz memoirs are going to come from.

You can usually give the film geniuses and genuine titans a pass. When it came time for Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn to autobiographize, for instance, the results were idiosyncratic and undeniably interesting to cognoscenti but far from great reads.

For those, you can usually be happier with figures on a less Parnassian level -- David Niven, say, or Shelley Winters, both of whom produced great and wildly readable showbiz memoirs full of wit, shrewdness and enough confessional indiscretion for five lesser mortals. (Winters was happy to "tell all" long before others.)

To the ranks of Niven, Shelley Winters and Tony Curtis -- and, indeed, perhaps ahead of all three -- the world now adds one of the truly great, compulsively readable theatrical memoirs from a suitably exceptional theatrical and film figure of the second rank, Frank Langella.

Here is the book you want to read to find how much of a witch Anne Bancroft was and how much of a bore Richard Burton and Lee Strasberg were. If you ever suspected Charlton Heston really believed the universe revolved around him, Langella, rather hilariously, will confirm it for you anecdotally.

Langella is, assuredly, no film genius. His greatest strength all through the aptly named "Dropped Names" is that he knows that full well. He's a consistently superb actor -- a little arch sometimes and over-the-top in the camp department, but no one can deny how exceptional he is in "Starting Out in the Evening" (one of the truest films about writers ever made), how dandy he is as Richard Nixon in "Nixon/Frost," how game he is in "Dave," and how good Adrian Lyne's remake of "Lolita" might have been if Lyne had had the guts to defy HBO and switch the roles of his two lead actors, making Langella his tormented and erotically obsessed aristocrat Humbert Humbert and Jeremy Irons Humbert's flamboyant and sinister tormentor, Claire Quilty. (Humbert, of course, is the bigger role, which is why Irons, the bigger name, played him.)

But now at the age of 74, Langella has found a place to be one of the greats, with his deliciously anecdotal memoir -- no matter what Ada Calhoun's sniggering, cutesy-poo, slightly sex-obsessed (like being "flirted with by the hottest person in the room," she concludes) and rather shamefully dismissive review of it maintained in last week's New York Times Book Review.

Langella is, to be sure, sexually frank and, right from the outset, AC/DC in his tone and subject matter, but then no one who has ever spent a backstage evening around a group of professional stage actors will be the slightest bit put-off by the pan-sexuality of a world where casting couches are legendarily bi. He'll have Olivier in an adjoining suite and forget to wear clothes on the way to the bathroom, but his companions are always girlfriends.

What Langella has between covers that others don't are stories -- the juicy kind full of shrewd, even harsh judgments suitable for telling during after-hours carousing during long runs of dull plays. And he's got a virtually perfect strategy for writing a book about it.

"Dropped Names" is a wonderfully indiscreet collection of thumbnail portraits of famous people Langella has known. All of them are safely dead, so he could write anything he pleased without having to be sheepish about it if he ran into them in an L.A. drugstore. (Even so, I'd love to read an essay a year from now about all the fallout from his subjects' friends and families.)

The book is arranged chronologically by order of death, from Marilyn Monroe (glimpsed emerging from fame's limo in all her radiant, unearthly blondness by a teen Langella) to Elizabeth Taylor (with whom Langella had one of many flirtations, leaving, in one unexplained four-hour period in his otherwise punctilious narrative, plenty of time for late-life intimacies. The unusual discretion of it indicates residual affection, no matter how candid he is about the fragrances of her bedroom and her apparent constant need for cans of Red Bull).

Langella is, above all, one shrewd cookie. And a thoroughly credible one. Any man who so freely admits not knowing how to pronounce "Descartes" in intellectually fancy company has my readerly allegiance -- especially because he does so to tell us how his gaffe was so graciously corrected in public by Rachel "Bunny" Mellon (a friend of Jackie Kennedy and the one living subject of his portraiture).

Langella is no writer. He's capable of tossing off a phrase like "melancholy sadness" (to distinguish it from "celebratory" and "gymnastic" sadness, I suppose). But he's got a writer's ease with dialogue and fiendishly observant eye.

A selection of Frank Langella in the act of being shockingly frank about famous people in a fame-obsessed era:

On Sir John Gielgud: " 'Sonorous' is the word often used to describe his voice, and indeed it was. But his mellifluous drone eventually sent me into a heavy-lidded coma and I prayed he would not focus on my nodding head and blinking eyes He was, I thought, an old man of fifty-eight then and probably beginning to lose his marbles. Well, they bounced around merrily for another thirty-eight years, finally rolling to a stop and shutting him down at the age of ninety-six in 2000."

On Jackie Kennedy Onassis: "Jackie was the first but not the only woman I've known for whom money is an aphrodisiac. I rarely, if ever, saw her carrying multiple shopping bags or taking things off racks or shelves, but I witnessed her quietly point, indicate, and say 'there' about sweaters in all colors, pots and pans, candles, pillows, dishes, and furniture when we went shopping. I once calculated $50,000 worth of purchases in twenty minutes, but Jackie signed nothing and left empty-handed."

On entertaining Richard Burton and his wife in his "Dracula" dressing room: "As the level of liquor lowered in the bottle, [Burton] began a series of reminiscences about Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud and other theatrical luminaries, and then launched into reciting lengthy sections of Dylan Thomas. By the time the bottle was near empty, so was my brain. The sonorous voice, now slurring its words, had succeeded in numbing and stunning me. Could anyone, I wondered, be so unaware of what a crashing bore he had become? There sat a man approximately fifty-two years of age looking ten years older, dressed in black mink, with heavily applied pancake, under a tortured, balding helmet of jet-black dyed hair, grandly reciting tiresome poetry."

On waiting at his agent's house for the arrival of fellow guest Rex Harrison: "The last to arrive, [Harrison] entered with his newest wife and was standing in the foyer, removing his hat, scarf and coat. I decided that before he was inundated with well-wishers, I would approach and pay my respects 'Mr. Harrison, it is a great honor to meet you. I----' 'Thank you' he said, cutting me dead, flinging his and his wife's coat across my arm and making his entrance. I doubt that had I waited at the door all evening to say good night it would have been worth it. He didn't seem the type to tip."

On his old friend Anne Bancroft: "I knew of no baby angrier than little Anna Maria Italiano, known to the world as Anne Bancroft; an elegant moniker about as suited to her as Cuddles would have been to Adolf Hitler."

Who else gets irresistibly "Langella'ed"?

Besides the above: Charles Laughton, John F. Kennedy, Montgomery Clift, Billie Burke, Noel Coward, Lee Strasberg, Celia Johnson, Dolores Del Rio, James Mason, Yul Brynner, Elsa Lanchester, Rita Hayworth, Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Coral Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, Anthony Perkins, Stella Adler, Cameron Mitchell, Tip O'Neill, Dinah Shore, Gilbert Roland, Jessica Tandy, Raul Julia, Ida Lupino, David Begelman, Jo Van Fleet, Robert Mitchum, Princess Diana, Roddy McDowall, Paul Mellon, Oliver Reed, George C. Scott, Loretta Young, Roger Vadim, Anthony Quinn, John Frankenheimer, the Queen Mother, Al Hirschfeld, Hume Cronyn, Elia Kazan, Alan Bates, Arthur Miller, Maureen Stapleton, William Styron, Yvonne de Carlo, Brooke Astor, Deborah Kerr, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, William Gibson, Ricardo Montalban, Dominick Dunne, Tony Curtis, Jill Clayburgh, Norris Church and Susannah York.

Should there be enough for a "Son of Dropped Names" or a "Dropped Names II," I'm there.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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"Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them"

By Frank Langella

Harper

356 pages, $25.99