Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 2, 2013
Earlier this week I was writing up for TCM a movie starring Ramon Novarro, the former MGM top draw, to be broadcast during August’s “Summer Under the Stars.” I tend to be a little anally comprehensive in my programming articles, widening the scope of the discussion to broach the broader lives and careers of the subjects involved; I enjoyed writing about Novarro’s Mexican childhood and relocation to Los Angeles during the revolution there, of how he worked his way up through the ranks at MGM and pestered his way into Rex Ingram’s THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922) through a winning combination of persistence and physical beauty. When I got to the end of the piece, I stalled when I had to — as is my wont, not because it was a requirement of the assignment — talk about how Novarro died. If you are unfamiliar with the grisly details, I’ll let you in on the known facts: a gay man active and unapologetic even at the height of his career (though MGM had tried to connect him in the gossip rags to Myrna Loy, which delighted neither actor), Novarro was murdered in October 1968 by two young men, brothers, whom he had invited into his Laurel Canyon home. Whether Novarro was killed because of his sexual nature or because of a robbery gone wrong remain old bones of contention (you can read an account of the story here) but the sad fact remains that Novarro’s work in films (and lucrative sideline as a touring tenor) are rarely discussed without dragging in the details of his murder. And so I didn’t.
You could fill in that blank with other names. When Sharon Tate was murdered in August 1969 by Charles Manson’s brood, I knew of her only from VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and so her horrifically cruel death was my intro to her career and life. I saw all of her other films through a jaundiced scrim of true crime and horror (and not the good, cleansing, cathartic horror either) and I’m afraid I may have been, at an early age, a little too impressed with and too excited by all that. I read Kenneth Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABYLON at an impressionable age and learned within its exploitative (and, I learned only many years after the fact, entirely suspect) page count of the specifics related to the sad fates of such familiar Hollywood faces as Jayne Mansfield (decapitated in a car crash), Lewis Stone (Ramon Novarro’s PRISONER OF ZENDA costar, dead of a heart attack while chasing vandals off his Hancock Park property), Lupe Velez (alleged by author Kenneth Anger to have committed suicide by Seconal as part of an artfully designed Goodbye Cruel World tableau), Albert Dekker’s (“kinky suicide”) … and so on. (Like a galloping infection, gossip mutates into something even worse, adding increasingly more scandalous bullet points to already tragic circumstances: Lupe Velez is alleged in some circles to have died with her head in her toilet, to have drowned in her toilet, and to have been pregnant when she drowned herself in her toilet; Ramon Navarro is alleged to have chocked to death on a dildo that had been forced down his throat… and so it goes.) There were a number of highly-publicized celebrity demises of my youth: REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE costar Sal Mineo stabbed to death in West Hollywood in 1976, HOGAN’S HEROES’ star Bob Crane bludgeoned to death in his Scottsdale, Arizona, home in June 1978, the twin bludgeoning murders in the spring of 1979 of character actors Charles Wagenheim (the turnkey whom imprisoned mad scientist Boris Karloff chokes for a piece of chalk in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and Victor Killian (Albert Dekker’s DR. CYCLOPS costar), the drowning of Natalie Wood in November 1981, the heroin-and-cocaine overdose of John Belushi in March 1982, the decapitation death of Hollywood tough guy Vic Morrow the following July while filming TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), and tons of other industry-centered tragedies leading right up to (and, sadly, beyond) the November 2006 murder of my friend, filmmaker Adrienne Shelley.
One of my favorite Euro-cult actors is Frank Wolff, an American who worked a lot for Roger Corman early in his career but made his mark abroad. He’s probably most famous for playing the doomed rancher whose mail order widow (Claudia Cardinale) turns his American dream into destiny in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968). Wolff was so impishly handsome (with and without whiskers) and such a delightful and usually buoyant screen presence (even in such downer fare as Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE ) that I was shocked to learn, only over the past few years, that he committed suicide in his suite at the Rome Hilton in December 1971, despondent over a career (or so the story goes) that he felt was going nowhere. I have heard that Wolff suffered from depression and I have heard other details about his suicide — truly ghastly and horrific details — that I won’t impart here but which threatened at first to cling to his legacy as I continued to watch him in films. I didn’t want that to be, so I made the executive decision to let him live. To not dwell on his death. To not piggyback the facts and rumors about his suicide to his performances, his legacy. And having made that simple decision, I enjoy watching him in films still, having “forgotten” all that other stuff. It’s a tack that comes easier to me as I grow older, to become childlike again, to not judge a person’s career on the terrible or sordid or deserving or even grimly comical particulars of his or her demise.
And it doesn’t even have to be all homicide and suicide and death-by-misadventure. Take Lon Chaney, Jr., son of silent film star Lon Chaney. Daunted by his father’s estimable legacy and feeling undervalued in Hollywood, Chaney developed a king-sized inferiority complex and an alcohol dependency to go with it and smoked and drank himself into a relatively early grave in 1973 at the age of 67 (point of comparison: Harrison Ford is 71). I knew nothing of Chaney, Jr’s personal problems when I was a boy but he was a hero — I connected to his often sad, fate-scarred characters — particularly the ill-starred Larry Talbot of Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941) and its sequels. Chaney was big, like me — a lug, as I was even at the age of 12. I remember scrapbooking his obituary in the summer of 1973. The cause of death was cancer, no mention of alcoholism, and it wasn’t until years later, as I parlayed my love of monster movies into a study of the horror genre in all of its manifestations that I found out about his drinking, that he sneaked alcohol onto the set of his later movies and qot quietly toasted between takes, and of his sad decline, and the specifics of his cancer, which robbed him of his voice. It became routine in my internet circle of horror geeks from the 90s onward to bust jokes on Chaney’s drinking, to blame some of his career choices (HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, anyone? DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN?) as being attributable to his being drunk. And after a while I got tired of that, tired because it seemed you couldn’t mention Chaney, Jr.’s name without somebody piping in about the booze. “Hey, Chaney was really good in STRANGE CONFESSION, wasn’t he?” “Yeah, I guess he was only drinking light beer then!, HAW HAW HAW HAW.”
I’ve known both straight and gay friends to bust on a queer actor long dead. Raymond Burr takes a lot of posthumous heat because he cooked up an entire fake autobiography for himself to camouflage his homosexuality: a war record and a dead wife and son, among other things. Somewhere along the line Burr acquired the nickname — and I don’t know if it was his nickname or one foisted upon him after death — Queen B. Either way, I get tired of hearing it when all I want to do is talk about RAW DEAL (1948) or RED LIGHT (1949), or GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956). Of course, an actor’s biography can’t help but enter into a discussion of his or her films but there comes a point in the conversation where an unwholesome cynicism takes on a life of its own and I think that tendency, that compulsion, needs to be challenged and checked. We can talk about Rock Hudson without dragging in his tragic dessication by AIDS, we can talk about Winona Ryder and her films without cracking jokes about her arrest for shoplifting, we can enjoy the better parts played by David Carradine without going to the awkward particulars of his accidental death in 2009 and I think we’ll be better off for that discipline. At my age I appreciate that there is only so much time left to talk about things that matter, so I want to spend that time talking about things that matter. Who knows what fates await any of us down the long and twisty road of life? And who among us wouldn’t prefer to have people remember us for how we lived rather than how we died?
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