"I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses" (Viking), by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman
A love letter to actresses he admired on and off the screen, Robert J. Wagner's engaging memoir offers a warm embrace for the many women who helped him establish a successful career as a leading man or inspired him professionally and personally in their unforgiving business.
Take Claudette Colbert, an Oscar winner for "It Happened One Night." Wagner was a 20-year-old newbie when they made 1951's "Let's Make It Legal." He flubbed his way through 49 takes of one scene.
"She could easily have had me replaced by uttering a single sentence," Wagner recalls. "Not only did she not have me replaced, not once did she roll her eyes, not once did she sigh, not once did she betray any impatience or anger at my incompetence. It was an object lesson in the discipline necessary to be an actor, not to mention a star."
"I Loved Her in the Movies" is a delight in large part because Wagner can also see Colbert and other great female stars from a fan's perspective. They were his colleagues and friends — some were his lovers — but he never lost his admiration for the women who could move an audience to cheers and tears, among them:
Marilyn Monroe: "I thought she was a terrific woman and I liked her very much. When I knew her, she was a warm, fun girl. ... I never saw the Marilyn of the nightmare anecdotes — the terribly insecure woman who needed pills and champagne to anesthetize her from life, and who reached a place where she couldn't get out more than a couple of consecutive sentences in front of a camera."
Joan Crawford: "Joan had drive. She also had a quality of directness I've always liked. She was never a particularly nuanced actress, but she was open to the camera in a very touching way. Men came and went with Joan, but her devotion to the camera never waned, because the camera was her true love."
Barbara Stanwyck: "She loved to work and emotionally she needed to work. She had been very poor as a child and young woman, so money translated into security for her. Work always improved her mood. ... Whether it was a movie or TV show didn't seem to make much difference to her; she just wanted to keep acting."
What might be most surprising in the pages of "I Loved Her in the Movies," Wagner's third book with Scott Eyman, is the streak of feminism that runs through his reflections on stardom, the nature of talent and the demands of a Hollywood career. Actors had it tough in the studio system, but actresses endured even more in a business that, Wagner notes, was run by and for men who expected women to be submissive. Those who were not, like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, paid an even higher price for daring to rock the boat.
Looking back after 60-plus years, Wagner finds a characteristic common to the female stars that still shine.
"The truth is that the vast majority of those who came up during the studio system were well defined in their own minds," he writes. "They knew what they wanted, and if they didn't, they didn't last long. Almost all of them had endured hardships as kids, and as show business invariably presented its own kinds of hardships, they were by nature and necessity survivors."
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).