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Langella drops some 'Names'

"I admit my stories are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionist, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of events as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories."

That is the great actor Frank Langella, writing in the preface of his new book, "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them."

Frank continues: "Don't turn the page if you like your stories spoon-fed or sugar-spread. I didn't always like some of my subjects, and I'm quite certain some of them found me less than sympathetic. There will be a fair amount of forks to the eye and knives to the throat." Oh, Mr. Langella, do you really think after such a tempting introduction anybody would forgo turning the page? I sure didn't!

"Dropped Names" is a sizzling platter of stellar vignettes -- pungent, for sure, but poignant, too. He opens telling of a chance Manhattan encounter with Marilyn Monroe in 1953, and ends with the wealthy Bunny Mellon, whose motto was "Nothing should be noticed." Well, I guess Bunny wouldn't approve of this book. It screams to be noticed!

Langella is a skillful, often brutal observer, but he doesn't spare himself, either. He's not afraid to be what most actors are to some extent: vain and self-absorbed.

The author offers something startling on every page. The reader might disagree with, disbelieve or dislike the delicious carvings, but just try to put "Dropped Names" down. A few samples:

Lee Strasberg: "Of all the short men I've known, the guru of the Actors Studio stood tallest on the list of the arrogant and insufferable a pompous pygmy."

Richard Burton: "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?"

Yul Brynner: "No one smoldered or walked across a stage or a screen like him. He was a one-of-a-kind-star, singular in appearance and original in voice. Never far from a full-length mirror, he maintained his aura assiduously."

Rita Hayworth: "A 54-year-old courageous and gentle woman named Margarita Carmen Cansino, one of God's lost souls, clinging in the night to a man whose name she could not remember."

Jackie Kennedy Onassis: "At the Cape she was lovely. Clean scrubbed face in the mornings, barefoot, simple shift dresses, shorts and halters, a large straw carry-all always holding a book, a scarf and some bare essentials. Mostly, though, she carried nothing."

These snippets don't nearly do the book justice. From Raul Julia to Billie Burke to James Mason to Dinah Shore, Loretta Young, Colleen Dewhurst, Arthur Miller, Ida Lupino, Tip O'Neill, Anne Bancroft, Deborah Kerr, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, the Queen Mother, Paul Newman and more, Mr. Langella is surgically precise, and eloquent. Some of these were dear friends, some were lovers, some he met only once, charmed, or quite the opposite. Some he regretted meeting in his careless, self-loving youth. The human condition in most of its vagaries is beautifully rendered between these pages.

Frank is never graphic, never quite specific as to certain matters. He draws the curtain, the ocean crashes, the scene fades before the clinch. I like that.

"Dropped Names," which comes from Harper Collins on March 27, is worth the price. It's like the best steak dinner you'll ever have -- meat a bit bloody! -- with a creamy, comforting side dish.