For his third book delving into his life in Hollywood, actor Robert Wagner chose to focus on his feelings about many of Hollywood’s leading ladies. Some he knew casually, some he knew intimately, some he knew professionally, some he knew by reputation. In most of his tributes, he looks at major actresses as we knew them from their work, his experiences with many of them, as well as his thoughts on how they lived their lives off-screen.
Wagner’s personal memories begin with a brief encounter in 1938 with Norma Shearer who happened to be the mother of one of Wagner’s childhood friends. So his introduction to famous actresses began seeing one of them at home and not up on the silver screen. Then he offers his analysis of films of the 1930s with quick hit-and run overviews of actresses like Shirley Temple with more in-depth discussions of figures like Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Irene Dunn. Wagner was surprised to learn Dunn was Cary Grant’s personal pick as his favorite co-star in comedies.
Then Wagner moves on to the films of the 1940s and his memories of Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Katherine Hepbern. In the case of Colbert, Wagner remains grateful the veteran actress was kind to him when they worked together on 1951’s Let’s Make It Legal when she was a long-time movie veteran and he was a rookie continually flubbing his lines. As he has said before, much of the style of his TV series Hart to Hart was meant to imitate the relationship Loy and William Powell shared in The Thin Man detective films.
But to attempt to review Wagner’s roll call of Hollywood’s most significant actresses just isn’t possible in a short book review. Yes, he discusses the most famous of them, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, and Debbie Reynolds among them. Some were figures well-known in past decades and largely forgotten now like June Allison and Dorothy Lamour. Of course, he touches on the ladies he knew most intimately of all, his wives Natalie Wood and Jill St. John.
Along the way, Wagner uses nearly every complimentary adjective possible as he found much to admire in the character and professionalism of the actresses he profiles. He also describes much of the context in which the stars operated, including a long section on the Studio Club, essentially a large private dormitory for poor, aspiring actresses bunking in a supportive sanctuary. Successful actresses, Wagner claims, had to be independent, determined, and blessed with luck and timing especially in the era of the big studios. He praises those who were professional with a strong work ethic, supportive of their peers, were simply good people to be around, and likeable both on and off-screen. Very, very few names get negative profiles, notably the often late to work Raquel Welch and the disruptive Shelley Winters.
In the main, Wagner’s profiles nearly glow with positive appreciation of a gender Wagner feels has a more difficult time in their craft than their male counterparts. He notes much has changed and women now have much more personal clout than they once did. He points out, for women, reaching 40 is often the death knell for their careers as moviegoers prefer younger faces and less so mature women. There was a time when the actresses had the names that sold tickets; starting with the ‘60s, that changed dramatically with male stars taking over as the principal draws.
I’ll add, the warmth of Wagner is even more present listening to the audiobook edition as the author reads his own book for us. This isn’t a book to read for fresh revelations but rather an opportunity to explore the behind-the-scenes stories of strong women from an insider’s perspective. Perhaps you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the figures you also love and now have even more reason to do so.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Feb. 6, 2017