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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Hollywood's Best Friend

Man's Best Friend. Hint: it's actually the guy on the left.

Life in show business is and has always been a bit cut-throat. Or a lot cut-throat... Needless to say, while competitive artists are scrambling to get to the top, or even just to get a paycheck, a lot of back-stabbing and corporate manhandling manifests itself in typical, menacing fashion. They say keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but in Hollywood-- the land of superficial relationships-- when you find a "good egg," it always works to one's benefit to hold onto it. One such diamond in the rough during the final roar of the studio era was Roddy McDowall. Due to the length of his career in film-- which spanned 6 decades, from the age of 10 to the age of 70-- and his naturally generous nature, Roddy became the sort of go-to boy about town. During his reign as a Hollywood character actor and occasional, atypical leading man, he got to know and befriend some of Hollywood's brightest talents and tragediennes. As a result, until his death, he was too a major source of information for any historian, author, or documentarian looking to dig into the secrets of Movieland's past. Having starred in everything from Lassie Come Home to Planet of the Apes, his career was nothing to sniff at either. He was, in fact, issued an apology from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences when they failed to nominate him for his performance as "Octavian" in Cleopatra, beings that his contribution was one of the few bright, honest moments in an otherwise disastrous, albeit fascinating, experiment in cinematic gluttony. Everyone seemed to love Roddy, professionally and personally, though he is far less recognized than many of his heartthrob contemporaries. So, what was it that made this guy so darn swell? If you want to know the measure of a man, count his friends:

Montgomery Clift (left) had a slow start in entering the social stratosphere. Home schooled for the majority of his early life, his brief attempt at public school was cut short when he and his elder brother, Brooks, were mercilessly bullied and harassed by the other students-- not a promising indication of civilian life. As such, his childhood, while filled with intellectual and artistic pursuits, was bereft of friendships outside his family-- which included his super close twin sister, with whom he had a secret, collaborative language. It is thus surprising that Monty turned out as warm, curious, and friendly as he did. Nonetheless, despite his many friendships within and without the industry, he was not one prone to trust others and rarely forged relationships that made him comfortable enough to confide his own personal issues. He took Elizabeth Taylor to his heart, of course. Another pal he let into his inner circle was the always non-threatening, easy-going Roddy. In fact, it was Roddy's 'easy-goingness' that was so effective in the friendship. The duo became acquainted by running in the same circle of friends, often going to parties together. When Monty's sour side would reveal itself, Roddy could always be counted on to temper the stormy conditions. For example, Monty didn't take a liking to Merv Griffin at one particular party-- the reasons remain unknown-- and the two ended up having a friendly, but not really friendly, pie-throwing fight. Sensing trouble brewing, Roddy would step in on occasions such as these by offering up a joke or aside that rendered the antagonistic situation hilarious and ended the hostility. Blaine Waller recalled, "[Roddy] was one of the funniest people I've ever met... We would actually fall on the floor laughing at him."

This sense of humor would carry over into smaller social gatherings, most particularly in the Monty-Liz Taylor-Roddy trio. The pals once ran amok at the Plaza Hotel after Elizabeth was presented with an exorbitant bill. In retaliation, she called for back-up. Roddy and Monty appeared, and the three performers caused quite a ruckus by getting tipsy on martinis and engaging in over-the-top pranks. They started hanging all the pictures they could get their hands on upside down, unscrewing bathroom fixtures, and throwing toilet paper around like streamers on New Years! Monty also swiped some exclusive Plaza towels and subsequently set them out for Elizabeth whenever she came to visit him at his own home. Laughs aside, the skirmish got the three friends in trouble, because the charade landed in the press. But, friends that play together, stay together. Monty trusted Roddy implicitly, and Roddy was equally enchanted by Monty's vitality, passion, and talent. His empathy for Monty's personal torments made him an easy ear and reliable shoulder. Monty's various secretaries always screened his calls, but Roddy was one of few whose voice was able to go directly through to the troubled actor. Always curious and supportive of Monty's career, he became an even more reliable touchstone after Monty's devastating car accident. He was deeply grieved at his death, and thus he treasured a photo he had taken of him, which he placed in his notorious powder room, now on display at The Hollywood Museum. The two would collaborate on but one picture, Monty's last: The Defector. (Liz and Roddy frolic in younger days, right).

Roddy, having literally grown up within the industry, had a profound respect for both it and the artists who had endured, survived, and even thrived within it. He had a particular fascination with female stars of the past, whom he idolized. As such, he struck up many odd and unlikely bonds with some of the most evasive Queens of the silver screen. One of these was Jean Arthur (left). In fact, Jean must have sensed a like soul, for she actually pursued a friendship with Roddy, sending him a fan letter after seeing him perform in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production of Saint Joan. Having earlier performed in the role of Joan of Arc herself, she saw in Roddy the perfect cast mate that she'd never had. Roddy returned the favor by visiting Jean on the set of her new television show, which was unfortunately a quick flop. He was surprised to see such a huge starlet, known as a creme-de-la-creme comedienne, behaving as frightened, stressed, and insecure as Jean. For whatever reason, Jean took Roddy into her inner circle, and he remained a steadfast confidante until her death. He worked diligently, but ineffectually, at bolstering her self-esteem, and was able to maneuver the precarious mine-field of Jean's emotions and mistrust. Jean loved Roddy, but she had ground rules: for example, No Pictures! Yet, Roddy was able to sneak photos of her on his camera when she wasn't paying attention. She even acquiesced and let him publish two of her pictures in his celebrity picture book Double Exposure: Take Two. Roddy was both flabbergasted and honored. It was Jean's way of showing that, deep down, she recognized his support and wanted to return the favor. It was always clear that a relationship with Jean could be a one-way street. Despite her peculiarities, Roddy loved her anyway.

Louise Brooks (right) was equally indignant to scrutiny in her later years, although she became much more vocal about her Hollywood experiences through interviews with people such as Kenneth Tynan, in addition to her own writings. Yet, she let few into her inner circle, perhaps worried about how avid fans would react to her age and the loss of her famous beauty. It was a sentiment shared by many of the women who had once been held up in their youths for their physical perfections. Luckily, with Louise, it was always more about brains than body, so she could let her guard down when she felt appreciated for the former. Enter Roddy, who again would use his passion for photography to crack a tough cookie. Roddy approached Louise in 1965 about appearing in his first effort, Double Exposure, to which the actress surprisingly agreed and even offered a blurb about Buster Keaton. Already a 37-year-old man at the time, Roddy was still so moved by Louise's presence, voice, and personal power that he left her apartment moved beyond comprehension. He would recall how he had randomly begun crying in the elevator upon his departure, as if he had just stepped away from God himself! Of course, he had to endure the usual attacks of paranoia that Louise exhibited and even moments of cruelty, in which she blatantly trashed Planet of the Apes, for example-- a film of which Roddy had been a part. Of course, the latter insult was meant to be protective, for she thought he was "wasting his talent." Roddy was equally protective of Louise, and because she had entrusted him into her life, he honored the privilege by not "selling her out" to others. As with Jean, Roddy respected the actress enough to adhere to the stipulations of her odd behavior, perhaps understanding, as a survivor of the film world himself, that the effects are often hard to get over.

Ava Gardner (left) too became enchanted with Roddy when they worked together on his sole directorial effort Tam Lin (The Devil's Widow). The two had actually met in the forties, when Roddy was but a young boy and Ava a much more developed young woman, though a mere six years his senior. They saw each other at the MGM "school" for child stars, though a more social friendship would have to wait a few years. Another faded love goddess by 1969, Roddy's eager interest in Ava's life and career and his utmost respect for her as a person put her at ease during the shoot and allowed her to relax under the pressure of her role. Though only in her late forties, she felt like an ancient, old lady among the rest of the youthful cast. In the film, Ava was to play a "demonic godmother to a band of swinging, stoned young wastrels." More literally, she played a witch in a contemporary "horror fable." Ava didn't want to accept the project, as she had been enjoying time away from pressure-filled Hollywood, but Roddy coaxed her into it. He wanted to get her back to work, and she wanted to help him become a director. The project didn't wind up doing much for either professionally, but it did help them forge a strong bond. Roddy adored Ava, and vice versa. Ava wound up enjoying her time on the shoot for the most part, where she became den mother to the younger actors, who always called her "Big A." Roddy tried to get Ava to trust herself as an actress, but as she had never valued her own talent, his constant compliments and reassurances did little good, other than to warm her heart a bit. His attentions did provide a missing comfort from her life, and it was enough to make them friends for life.

Clearly, despite his own fame and reputation, Roddy could definitely "geek out" in the presence of celebrities whom he considered iconic, and who had in fact inspired his own childhood fascination with acting and cinema. For this reason, the fanatic in him would go out of his way to meet those personalities whom he had especially admired. He had a little help from George Cukor in arranging the following dream situation: a meeting between Greta Garbo and Mae West (right)! Roddy approached George with a kind of dare to get the two infamous and obviously different women together: "George, you're the only person who could get Greta Garbo and Mae West to your house for dinner together, and I want to be invited!" Challenge extended. Challenge accepted! If there were any man who got around more-- in a totally innocent sense-- than Roddy McDowall, it was George Cukor. Thus, a miracle occurred, and two polar opposites on the feminine, sexual spectrum met... and became thick as thieves for their brief meeting! Both were somewhat intimidated and definitely impressed by the opposing woman's talents and fame. Mae, when introduced, even gave the bashful Garbo a kiss, a moment that George noted was particularly unusual. After a bit of an awkward dinner, the two women found a quiet corner and talked all night long. The rest of the guests, Roddy included, sat salivating nearby and watched with rapt attention: What could they possibly be talking about!? Roddy could have used the moment to edge his way in, but somehow, what he was witnessing was too perfect to disrupt. He never became close with either woman as a result, but watching the sexually ambivalent Greta talking to the sexually luxurious Mae about the latter's surprisingly heavy shoes was enough for him. 

It is always interesting to witness a star who is just as starstruck as the Average Joe. Roddy definitely fit the bill, and it is perhaps his humble and genial nature that, not only made him an appealing presence on the screen, but allowed him to endear himself to so many big screen performers. His loyalty to the cinematic realm was very strong and equally devout. In fact, he is allegedly responsible for another particularly moving honor: bestowing Florence Lawrence with her headstone at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, for her grave had for a great many years remained unmarked. If true, it indicates indeed Roddy's passion and interest in the people that made the world of movies so grand. The respect he paid to others has certainly been paid back to him in the continued interest each generation shows in his work. Roddy, thank you for being a friend!