I Loved Her at the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (Viking, 2016)

 

I Loved Her at the Movies, by veteran actor Robert J. Wagner, begins with his first encounter with a major screen star, Norma Shearer. At the age of eight, Wagner was a school mate of Irving Thalberg, Jr., Shearer’s son. One notable weekend Thalberg invited Wagner to his home to meet his mother. Until young Irving told Wagner that his mother was in the movies, Wagner had been unaware of her profession.

 Still struggling with the death of her husband, the famous movie producer, Irving Thalberg, Sr., Shearer greeted the boys in her boudoir. “The butler showed us into her bedroom, which didn’t surprise me, because I had already gotten the distinct feeling from Irving that his mother spent a great deal of time there.” (p. 8) On that afternoon Shearer presented Wagner with an exquisite autographed picture of herself, which he treasures to this day.

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When he grew up, Wagner conversed occasionally with Shearer who spoke about her ambitions to become a star, and her acceptance of retirement from the business. Wagner’s fascination with Norma Shearer paved the way for his interest and understanding of the many wonderful actresses in I Loved Her at the Movies.

Wagner structures the book by revealing vignettes about the actresses whom he knew and admired by decades, starting with the 1930s and finishing with the modern day. The remembrances of his relationships with the women he writes about are almost completely positive. Even for those women who fell upon hard luck, Wagner is kind in his revelations about them --- with one interesting exception.

Wagner states, “I began this book by saying it wouldn’t be a procession of negativity, but honesty compels me to say that Shelley (Winters) was a difficult woman on the best of days, and a massive pain in the ass on the worst of them. She was one of those people who enjoyed conflict.” (p. 193) In her youth Winters made dozens of films, playing the part of a sexy blonde. Winters was awarded two Oscars for Best Supporting Actress in The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue, but the role in which she was most outstanding and which garnered her another Oscar nomination was that of Belle Rosen in The Poseidon Adventure. Although Winters was bossy and difficult, her performances showed strong acting skills.

Wagner speaks lovingly of many of the great ladies of the silver screen. Of Elizabeth Taylor he says, “Elizabeth had spectacular looks, but she also had a strong internal compass.” (p.195) Of Loretta Young, Wagner reveals, “We all heard the story of Loretta’s illegitimate child from her brief affair with Clark Gable.” (p.54) Young, a devout Catholic, had the baby, “Stashed her in an orphanage, and then doubled back and adopted her, naming her Judy. It was a neat end around, and it wasn’t the first time that gambit was pulled.” (p.54) Young raised her daughter and managed to keep her career going by transitioning from motion pictures into television in the 1950s.

Wagner describes the stunning Audrey Hepburn as “a magical presence,” (p. 216), Maureen Stapleton as “totally uninhibited,” (p.134), Lucille Ball as “a joy,” (p.191), and of the gorgeous Sophia Loren, Wagner states, “I loved her as a woman and adored her as a person.” (p.182)

Towards the end of the book Wagner does write about his two real life wives, the ill-fated and stunning Natalie Wood, and the lovely Jill St. John. Of Wood, Wagner reveals, “She was a complicated woman, which is just one of the reasons I loved her,” (p. 210) and of St. John, he says, “We’ve been together for more than thirty years, and I still have a sense of discovery with her every single day that accompanies an underlying feeling of security and contentment---the best of both worlds. I owe her everything.” (p.209)

Wagner clearly appreciates beautiful women, but his respect for them becomes clear in the Epilogue of the book. He contemplates the fates of so many talented actresses who have disappeared from the movie scene once they hit the age of forty. He muses, “Writing this book has forced me to think long and hard about several key questions. One of them is: Do actresses have it harder than actors. . . I believe the answer is a resounding yes.” (p.231) The supremely talented women, like  Meryl Streep or  Maggie Smith, manage to hang on as long as they want to continue to work, but most actresses simply fade away into anonymity or get to play the background parts of someone’s grandmother. Interestingly, Wagner predicts that Helen Hunt and Julia Roberts of this current generation of actresses will have staying power.

There are two other features of Wagner’s book that are noteworthy. First, included after a discussion of each performer is a portrait of the actress, taken in her dreamy prime. The pictures evoke the feminine mystique and are both stunning and evoke a sense of nostalgia for the great ladies of Hollywood. The other feature that makes this volume worth reading is Wagner’s recommendations of films that have faded from the public’s modern consciousness. He repeatedly mentions that viewers can catch classics such as Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson, The Mudlark with Irene Dunne, and Cheaper by the Dozen, featuring Myrna Loy. The list of forgotten films is endless and exciting, and will send any movie buff tuning into Turner Classics.

A fun and fascinating read, especially for those who adore the history of movies in America, I Loved Her in the Movies is a wonderful read.