When the editors of Variety ‘s Centennial Issue first told me of their plan to select the icons of show business, their quest resonated with me. When I first came to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s, I, too, decided to embark on my own Icon Quest.
I had never been to the West Coast before the New York Times anointed me its West Coast correspondent. The Times had decided it no longer wanted a dedicated correspondent to cover Hollywood. Instead, my role was to cover general news for what was then called the national desk and dip into movies only when a major story presented itself.
My days were therefore consumed with events like the Watts Riots or political campaigns, but, having not been an ardent filmgoer growing up, I decided to launch into a crash education on the film business. What better way than to make my own list of Hollywood icons and selectively seek out their wisdom? Given the fact that an entire generation of filmdom’s elder statesmen were already of advanced years, this surely would be a good time — indeed, the last time — to meet them. Besides, it would be a lot more interesting than having rocks thrown at me in race riots up and down the West Coast.
I made my list, then I made my calls. To my delight, everyone I called agreed to a meeting. Indeed, almost all threw in a lunch. Clearly, the access of the Times came in handy. Moreover, no one from the Times apparently had requested an interview for some years. The reporters assigned to the Hollywood beat were diligent and hard-working, but they’d apparently been so focused on day-to-day production news that they hadn’t paid court to moguldom.
Since I wasn’t as yet schooled in the nuances of Hollywood, my icon list was rather rudimentary. I had sought the advice of various parties — producers, talent agents, publicists and the like. Everyone had a suggestion, but they also had an admonition: If you’re going to do this thing, do it fast, because your list comprises an endangered species. In short, these are old guys.
And so my quest began: Walt Disney, Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick were first in line. Then came directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, then actors like William Holden, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn. The visits were bunched together within one frantic month, as though I were on some sort of Death Watch. The month turned out to be akin to a theme-park ride, at once entertaining, educational and intense. By its end, the personalities tended to blend together, as did their aphorisms.
To describe each meeting would take too much space, and to generalize about the encounters would not do justice to each icon. Hence some surface observations about my journey to Iconville:
Contrary to legend, Walt Disney was in many ways the most intriguing character, a quirky iconoclast who ran a studio but also talked with enormous passion about its creative product. He also seemed the most isolated — an artist who drew upon his own instincts and inner resources but didn’t seem to connect that much with the outside community.
Sam Goldwyn was perhaps the most vivid, an eccentric and very thoughtful man who loved reminiscing about his great risks — surely “The Best Years of Our Lives” was one of the most remarkable — but also relished the fact that neither the industry nor the filmgoing public could ever quite figure him out. When I prepared to leave, he even asked me if I had picked up any new “Goldwynisms” — his famous malaprops and non sequitors. I told him I couldn’t recall any, so he offered up a few stray ones. He told me of a quarrel he’d had in recent years with director William Wyler, adding, “That’s all forgotten, of course. … I’ve passed a lot of water since then.”
David O. Selznick was surely the most bitter of the group. He’d achieved his great success while still a relatively young man, to be sure, and the years after “Gone With the Wind” had been difficult ones. We had a glass of wine together on the terrace of his extraordinary home, but there was not a single smile during our talk.
Jack Warner, at this point in his life, had lost his edge and knew it. His intent was to be remembered not only as a prolific studio czar, but also as a stand-up comedian, which was unfortunate because his sense of humor was marginal at best. Here was a man who not only turned out a consistently eclectic slate of films, but also withstood the political pressures of his era far more courageously than had Louis B. Mayer, yet his memory of the pre-wars years had become fuzzy. Warner still had the bombast, but not the lucidity.
By contrast, a meeting with Billy Wilder provided the chance to hold forth on issues that concerned him: It was getting ever tougher to take serious risks in filmmaking, audience tastes were in a state of transition, the studios were falling apart. Wilder reveled in chaos, but the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that had suddenly dawned left him in confusion. This was a difficult epoch for an aging satirist.
Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, felt that the best way to deal with change was to ignore it. He now understood that he was a brand; rather than fearing the ever-growing hole of television, Hitchcock used it to advance and embellish his unique genre. And he was delighted to explain Hitchcockian theories of filmmaking, all the while serving up a gourmet lunch in his dressing room at Universal. While his visitor feasted on superb filet of sole and white wine, the portly, red-faced Hitchcock himself was compelled to settle for greens, sneaking in a quick nip of wine when no one was looking.
The stars on my icon list predictably were less consistent in their willingness to volunteer their feelings about the state of Hollywood. William Holden and Spencer Tracy had their own private demons; neither was a good-spirited drinker, yet both had keen intellects buried under surly exteriors. Katharine Hepburn was the model of quirky civility; Henry Fonda was edgy and petulant, while his friend James Stewart, by contrast, was the epitome of courtly conservatism. And, consistent with legend, Fred Astaire was at once expressive and receptive — for every question asked him, he would have three or four in return. He, in particular, resisted being sealed off in the cocoon of stardom.
Iconville was, as expected, an unforgettable journey. I wish they were all still around to contribute their sage perspectives to this issue.