Harrison Rex

Carey Harrison

  • Conversations with Marlon Brando by Lawrence Grobel
    Bloomsbury, 177 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0816 X
  • George Sanders: An Exhausted Life by Richard Vanderbeets
    Robson, 271 pp, £15.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 86051 749 7
  • Rex Harrison: A Biography by Nicholas Wapshott
    Chatto, 331 pp, £16.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3764 9
  • Me: Stories of my Life by Katharine Hepburn
    Viking, 418 pp, £16.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83974 4

Famous faces. Anyone at home behind them? Let’s begin with Brando, now a famously corpulent body beneath the spoiltangel head. The magnificently instinctual film performer belongs to a past when the man felt able to take acting seriously. By Last Tango in Paris, brooding power had turned to blubbery narcissism, and self-parody, it seemed, had come to stay. More recently, though having agreed to do a pastiche of his Godfather performance for The Freshman, a negligible vehicle, he responded with a largely unlooked-for sophistication – charming, precise, delieiously funny. No more than a witty footnote to his career, perhaps, but one that warns us not to patronise him. Contempt for Hollywood, exile to the South Seas, espousal of the Native American cause, have meanwhile directed attention towards the existence of another Brando.

The bulk of Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations derives from a 1978 Playboy interview (accorded after Hugh Hefner put up $50,000 to bail out the Indian activist Russell Means) and is presumably being published now as a kind of hors d’oeuvre to Brando’s autobiography, for which Random House have reputedly paid him a million pound advance. Since 1978, aside from his rare film appearances, Brando-watchers have had to make do with the Chinese American broadcaster Connie Chung’s televised visit to his island hideaway, a queasy piece of film which features the actor in a fully ballooned state, rambling dreamily as he tries to evade Chung’s winsome and predictable questions Grobel’s Brando is both slimmer and sharper. As expected, he is scathingly sane about acting – ‘I don’t put it down ... but I resent other people putting it up’ – and the film-star celebrity cult: ‘Ask young kids who Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable was. “Didn’t he play for the Yankees?” “No, no, he was a tailbacker at Cincinnati.” ’ On the subject of the American Indian he is notably eloquent and concise – as he is, less predictably, on certain other subjects. His conversation ranges over literary and political history, not only American and European: a discussion of Aldo Moro’s murder is well-informed and politically acute. After a few hours in this Brando’s company, his references to Kafka and Kierkegaard, Baudelaire and Epictetus, seem thoroughly, unostentatiously appropriate. The man is widely read and witty on an impressive variety of topics. He is wise, charming, at ease with himself and with the world.

Why shouldn’t he be? Shoe-horned into Grobel’s slightly breathless introduction and postscript, comments by friends and employees give glimpses of a less temperate Brando, and restore to us some of the screen persona, the murmuring hulk promising childish storms of violence and tenderness. Which is the real Brando? Both, no doubt. It’s not uncommon for someone to combine elements of the tartar and the sage. For an intelligent actor who becomes an idol, it’s almost unavoidable. Adulation brings a shocking vertigo, rending the self into megolomania and shame. Shame is the saner part; and yet self-disgust is as corrosive as egotism. We know we aren’t worthy, indeed that the adulation isn’t really meant for us but for the idolised image. Brando’s sell-exile is one response to this, to the recognition of what has happened, that we have disappeared.

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course, but slowly and painfully, as these biographies of George Sanders and Rex Harrison confirm, amid binges of mingled self-seeking and self-obliteration. Along the way, idolatry brings out the bully in us all, and provokes rage at so much unbridled permission – which isn’t love, which isn’t the love we were after. We are more invisible than ever, in the very overestimation of fans and friends alike. To try and redress the balance we turn childish and arbitrary – another way of expressing anger at misprision, but also a way of seeking who it is we are, or were, in tantrums of vacillation. It’s too late. All we are is the raging and regretful tyrant we have become. Yet our intelligence, our loathing of cant and slavery, remains alive, teasing us, and teasing others, with an image of what celebrity is supposed to bring: heroic freedom.

George Sanders, the silver screen’s leading cad, was a match for Brando in his disenchantment with this freedom. Little wonder, since his life, pleasingly chronicled by Richard Vanderbeets, began in St Petersburg amid aristocratic Anglo-Russian relatives whose licensed eccentricities would have spoiled anyone for Hollywood. ‘From his great carved bed’ – this was a favourite uncle at play – ‘a .22 calibre pistol in his hand, he would shoot flies that had gathered to eat the jam he had smeared on the ceiling. Liveried footmen stood by with champagne, extra rounds of ammunition, orange marmalade and strawberry jam.’ By all accounts a casually brilliant pianist, Sanders drifted into the acting profession as though by mistake. At a London party a producer heard the young man singing and playing, and offered him a job in a revue. ‘I promptly accepted,’ Sanders commented, ‘and never looked forwards again.’

At a time when no Hollywood studio could survive without an English rake on its books, such a handsome, elegant, sardonic figure was bound to attract attention in America. He sneered and purred his way to a supporting actor’s Oscar in All about Eve and repeated the role, in costumes ancient and modern, until he was sick of it. ‘Acting is for children,’ he said, speaking for a host of self-flagellating stars: ‘who else can take this posturing seriously?’ And even as he cultivated his offscreen reputation as a charming, cynical seducer, he kept his distance from colleagues, famously falling asleep – a likeable trait – in their company. At last, severe depression emptied his life of all remaining purpose, though he hid it with typical panache, and nothing in his life became him more than his leaving of it. ‘Because I am bored,’ his suicide note declared, ‘I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.’

Vanderbeets’s book indulges its subject’s conviction that only the shortsightedness of studio bosses deprived him of a more varied acting career. As a result, his biographer leaves underexplored the question that haunts Sanders’s life: why he never became, say, Rex Harrison. The only reference to his more subtle contemporary comes when Sanders accepts a screen role turned down by Harrison. The mention is telling. Perhaps Sanders was never sufficiently in love with himself.

Which brings me to dear old Dad. Rex Harrison A Biography by Nicholas Wapshott is the latest of a number of attempts over the years (including several inconclusive ones by the subject himself with ghost-writerly assistance) to capture the slippery old eel in a net of words. More mask than face, the earlier biographical portraits that emerged under Rex’s name begged the question: who was the ghost and who was the writer? On this occasion Carmen Callil has had the acumen to commission not a theatrical but a political journalist, a literate and perceptive writer little awed by tinsel yet well versed in the mutual contamination of public and private worlds.

Haste to publish the book in time for Christmas has resulted in a number of errors, along with stories already distorted in the telling and retelling to which the author has sometimes added his own warp. In some cases, se non e vero, e ben trovato; in others, rash statements are made and hurt will be caused. Wapshott draws largely on others’ reports, some previously published and some not, but where his own voice takes command and assesses his central figure directly, he is rarely off the mark. Often witty, always clear-eyed, neither waspish not ingratiating, this is a convincing portrait of the artist as a tyrannical child, so bewildered by his own history that his only recourse is to forget it. ‘The master of amnesia,’ Wapshott splendidly calls him, adding slyly: ‘he had filled his life with such incident that total recall might have proved traumatic.’ It is by no means a flattering likeness, but always a sharply recognisable one – and one that often left me helpless with rueful glee. At times Wapshott is positively psychic, ‘Explain Rex Harrison!’ a London cabbie once moaned to me, over and over, in exasperated admiration. None of us entirely submits to explanation, but at least this portrait is Rex Harrison to the life.

Indeed, if injustice is sometimes done to members of the supporting cast, the book thereby acquires an undeniable congruity with its subject’s ways on and off-stage. Many actors have been spectacularly self-centred – only Rex, opening on Broadway, could have given a first-night party without inviting a single member of the cast, an achievement for which his wife Elizabeth offered to nominate him to the Guinness Book of Records. One remark I feel obliged to challenge concerns both my parents. Lilli Palmer, Wapshott alleges, ‘always said’ that her husband was homosexual. I am amply familiar with what my mother ‘always said’, and told the biographer what this was. Lilli was as quick to see in Rex a ‘latent’ homosexuality as, reasonably enough, others have been, and Wapshott himself proceeds to just such an assessment, in terms with which my mother would entirely have concurred – but would not have aired with the frequency the author reports. It casts a misleading light on their marriage, especially since the author is elsewhere at pains to give this its due as a major landfall in his subject’s often rudderless private life.

Chance, producer’s whim or the defection of another actor tends to dictate a film actor’s career, and Harrison marriage follows upon Harrison marriage in a similar arbitrary-seeming fashion. Wapshott notes the unnerving way in which his subject rarely failed to charm women, indeed to evoke adoration, while never managing to like them very much. And he notes the toll it took on his partners. So did Rex. A friend once described to him the terminally depressed state of Rex’s current wife: ‘I have never seen anybody like this.’ ‘Oh, I have,’ Rex is said to have replied. ‘All my other wives.’

This candour, the one side of his subject which Wapshott sets in insufficient relief helps a little to explain why they still adored him. It helps to explain his power over an audience, too. Much is always made of his exquisitely disguised artifice, the craft, the timing. But his real appeal, less often noticed, was a quality altogether more profound, winning and dangerous, one that his technique, and his famed irascibility, camouflaged and enhanced: this was a kind of molten adolescent truthfulness, producing an uncertainty both sexual and emotional. In costume he was able to raise the mask a little more often and more bravely than he did in life, revealing in a quick hooded glance a pain and confusion that had never entirely succumbed to cynicism and self-loathing, and to speak directly to the heart.

Much virtue in honesty: yet Me (subtitled Stories of My Life) provides an uneasy title for Katharine Hepburn’s memoirs, not least grammatically, since although ‘I’ seems even less viable an alternative, ‘me’ is after all the done-to rather than the doer, and Hepburn, a great doer, is never knowingly done-to. Many are the occasions in her story when, finding herself wronged by an employer, she vows that he (less often, she) will regret it, invariably adding: ‘And he did.’ Hepburn is not someone you’d slight twice, but she is just as fierce in her loyalty to her many long-standing friends, is admirably funny, brave, dedicated to her work, without ever blinding herself to the narcissism it entails along with the self-criticism, or to the demands which such single-minded self-concern can make on those closest. Without apology she terms herself ‘a me me me person’. This would scarcely be disarming were it not for the humour and the triumphant substance of the lady’s ‘me’. Triple homage seems, by the end of her story, barely sufficient. She actually makes you like actors.

Those to whom Hepburn’s brisk and sporty manner has seemed more of an invitation to a golfing foursome than the boudoir will not find her prose self any more enticing: a hearty ‘so we did it’ provides a typical description of a sexual encounter. No question of a ghostwriter here (though some authentic memoirs make you yearn for one). The style is un mistakable: sentiment punctuated by thorns. And very brief sentences. An eighty-year-old ‘movie queen’ – the term she uses, with a characteristic mixture of pride and self-mockery – is entitled to a foreshortened, synoptic view. As with the screen Hepburn, however, the clipped tones take a little getting used to.

Hepburn’s ace in the hole has always been that first impressions deceive, that beneath the angular features and the schoolmarm manner may, perhaps, lie a less mannish sweetness, denied to the camera in scene after scene. So bony is her prose style that the same tantalising process is visited on the reader, and as on screen, alternating the terse and the yielding, she seduces us. Over the erotic she draws the curtain swiftly – as she does with mortality: a New England frost descends, most chillingly in the account of her brother’s teenage suicide, which is not allowed to threaten her account of a family united in ideal happiness. But the romantic Hepburn tames us with its greater candour and conviction. She makes the reader wail for Spencer Tracy (‘I did too,’ she points out), her most celebrated amour, that ‘baked potato’, as she calls him, in a phrase that evokes them both. Tough outside, soft within. The portrait of Tracy, when it comes, is loving, acute, supremely tender – as indeed are the portraits of other partners, Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes among them.