GL: In the Ď50s, when you were living in New York, you first met someone whoís now one of the great legends, Louise Brooks.
RM: Louise had been forgotten for many years because the two films Pabst made in Germany, in which she did her best work, were only nominally released here. They were on the cusp of talkies and got lost in the shuffle. I saw Pandoraís Box and Diary of a Lost Girl in London and was bowled over by her originality. It was John Springer, the publicist, who rediscovered her in New York, at the lowest point of her life. After World War II she was broke, even panhandling in the streets. I wanted to photograph her, and John arranged it. By then she was living in Rochester. We became instant friends. One of the most powerful personalities Iíve ever met--her intelligence, her humor, the sound of her voice, and the aura of melancholia behind it all.
GL: Didnít you arrange for Kenneth Tynan to meet her, which resulted in his article for The New Yorker?
RM: Ken told me he wanted to meet her, and I said it was impossible. She was such a recluse, she didnít want to be interviewed. Then he read me something heíd written about her in his journal, and it was so ravishing, so eloquent, that I told Louise about it on the phone. I said he understood her in a way she would appreciate enormously--if she were another person. [laughs] She was reluctant at first, but finally agreed to meet him.
GL: Many years later you had an encounter with another great recluse when George Cukor gave that legendary party at which Garbo and Mae West met.
RM: George used to delight in inviting me to situations where he hoped Iíd have a household accident. Iíd known Mae West for about five years--a total original, a deliciously improbable creature, with that great sly humor. George invited me to dinner; I got there early, and we had a little chat. Then the doorbell rang, and he asked me to answer it. It was Mae, in all her regalia, and alone, which was very unusual. She never traveled anywhere alone; there was always Paul Novak and a couple of others. When the doorbell rang again, George went to answer it. "Roddy doesnít know who else is coming," he said. In that voice that undulated all over the place, Mae asked, "Ya donít know whoís cominí?" Then she said, "Garbo." My stomach turned over, because you hardly ever get to meet Garbo. "Thank you so much for telling me," I said. And Mae replied, "Well, dear, the only reason Iím telling ya is because if ya didnít recognize her, it would be simply awful!" During the evening, Mae never drew breath. Poor Garbo--who looked ravishing, in an orange wool sweater and pants--couldnít get a word in. Finally she said, "I have to leave. I have an early-morning appointment with the dentist." And Mae said, "But Iím not through yet!"
GL: Did the two of them make any real contact?
RM: From Maeís point of view, yes. After Garbo left, George asked Mae, "Whatever possessed you to kiss Garbo when she arrived? Nobody ever kisses Garbo who hasnít met her before." And Mae said, "Well, dear, I heard she was moody. So I kissed her, and didnít you notice it relaxed her? She sat at my feet Ö" That was Maeís point of view. She was the empress. Everyone wanted to meet her. What the dear lady didnít quite understand was that the evening wasnít supposed to concentrate 100 percent on herself. But she was an extraordinary creature, with incredible cornflower-blue eyes and a very soft, feminine side. She didnít become a movie star until she was forty, which defies the law of gravity. And she changed the face of comedy for women. Overnight.
GL: Her attitude toward men was the comic side of the Garbo coin.
RM: She should have been given a special Academy Award. I asked here once, "What have you never wanted to be?" And she told me, "Two things. The first is vulgar." Which she never was--any vulgarity was in the mind of the person translating her innuendo. Then she said, "The other thing I never wanted to be is a mother." She always remained herself. So much so that, toward the end of her life, when she made Sextette, the premise was still that she had to end up with a man. She always insisted on that, which is why she didnít make more movies later. Wouldnít you love to have seen her in Hello Dolly?
GL: Did you make any contact with Garbo that night?
RM: I was too much in awe. I donít know that I could ever have made a connection with her. I wasnít bowled over by her mystique, the fact that she wanted to be private, but by the magic of her acting and the way that she often elevated, single-handedly, material that was so mediocre. I would have liked to have talked to her about how, four years after she made her final move, Two-Faced Woman, she was going to make a new picture in Europe, and they couldnít raise the money. Sheíd fallen off the cliff of remembrance in four years.
GL: I knew the man who was going to direct that film, Max Ophuls. He told me they got as far as making a costume test, and in the close-up there was a kind of panic in Garboís eyes, as if she feared the original impact might not be there.
RM: James Mason told me the same thing. He was going to be in it with her. Itís so unfair. When youíve been gone for a certain length of time, you know people are going to judge you for what you were.
GL: Do you think thatís why Ava Gardner, whom you directed in Tam-Lin, has stayed away from the screen for some time?
RM: Sheís one of the most elegant ladies Iíve ever encountered, with great sensitivity, but she has absolutely no security about her abilities.
GL: George Cukor told me the same thing. The part in Bhowani Junction was something quite new for her, and she told him, "I donít think I can do it." George said, "Of course you can." And of course she could.
RM: It was sad about Tam-Lin--the film entered a no-manís-land of bankruptcy after it was finished. But there were a lot of good things in it. You know, I was petrified when I made a film after being away from the screen for eight years. I came back to Hollywood in 1960 to make The Subterraneans. And I was only in my early thirties. The Subterraneans was supposedly going to be a big movie, but it bit the dust. It was wide-screen and in color, and Joe Ruttenberg, that wonderful man--
GL: One of the best MGM cameramen Ö
RM: He said, "CinemaScope is only good for photographing snakes and cathedrals." He saw I was nervous and took me aside one day. "Youíve got to understand, youíre in a different medium," he said. "And itís very subtle." Itís a huge challenge having to go back. I hadnít done a stage play for eight years when I went back to do Harvey in 1980. If the machinery hasnít been used all that time, youíve got to chip all the rust off.
GL: Did it take long to recover your nerve?
RM: No, once I got inside the part, hit the main artery, I loved it. Itís a wonderful play, and Elwood P. Dowdís a wonderful character. Usually you get to play people who are good by nature, not by choice. Elwood makes the choice to do the higher thing.
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