GL: Let’s talk about your other life--as a photographer. Tell me how that started.
RM: Way back, although I realized it only later. My father was an extraordinarily good photographer. And my family, like all the English, always took cameras around and kept snapping. I’ve got all my family albums. They even used to photograph the dead--like my Uncle Eddie, who died in 1897, when he was nine; there’s a photograph of the poor boy with all the flowers around.
I’d always taken snappy snaps, and when I went to live in New York and was trying to find my center and all that, I thought I would like to see if I could do something else. I took more snappy snaps and sent them to a laboratory to be developed, and a guy called me from there and said, "You shouldn’t have your material processed here. You’re talented; you have an eye." I went to meet him, and he took me to a darkroom, which I hated--I have a terrible reaction to chemicals. But I worked in a darkroom for six months, and he encouraged me.
Of course, it took about eight years for anyone to take me seriously; you’re not supposed to do anything else apart from what you’re known for. But then the kindness of Avedon and Eliot Elisofon was phenomenal. I learned a great deal by talking to them. And suddenly people wanted to print my pictures because I was an actor. I began to do pieces for Life magazine, on Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, and Chaplin. In 1966 I did a book called Double Exposure, and I’ve just finished Double Exposure, Take Two.
GL: Will it have the same format as the first, with one person appearing in a photograph and another equally famous person writing about him?
RM: Right. Laurence Olivier writing about Bette Midler, Ava Gardner about Elizabeth Taylor, Lillian Gish about Ester Williams, Paul Newman about Tom Cruise--118 of these combinations.
GL: The first Double Exposure was not confined entirely to show biz. It had a great range and included Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood …
RM: This one has Agnes De Mille and Andre Previn. Fortunately, for the first book, three people understood completely what I wanted to do. They were Noel Coward, David Selznick, and Moss Hart. David Selznich was like a child about it. He said, "Henry Miller has got to write about Jennifer Jones," and he set it up for me. He also said, "Get Alfred Hitchcock to write about Shirley Temple," but unfortunately that didn’t happen … I conceived of the project when I heard that John Gielgud had written something about Ethel Merman, and it struck me how people can be deeply impressed by someone who’s their complete opposite. Like Olivier on Bette Midler. He has such an astute admiration, and it’s glowing.
Initially I wanted Noel Coward to do all the texts. But as he pointed out, people would get very suspicious if he was glowing about everybody. Of course, he did have an insatiable admiration for many kinds of talent.
GL: Not always. There’s a wonderful moment. He was rehearsing Claudette Colbert in the TV version of Blithe Spirit. He got enormously impatient with her and said, "Claudette, I would wring your neck--if I could find it."
RM: The great thing about Coward, when I met him, was his genuine interest in others. It wasn’t sentimental. He wouldn’t take any rubbish. But if he thought you were talented, he would read or see everything you were involved in. He was a great lesson to me in another way as well. After World War II he went through years of rejections, being continually diminished by critics. Sometime in the ‘60s we had dinner together in New York. He’d just been made a member of some terrible dinner club--the place was a giant failure and nobody was there, but it was great because we were alone. At one point I asked him, "How did you survive that time when all the critics attacked you?" He answered, "My dear boy, I knew they were wrong."
GL: There’s a great phrase that recurs in his diary every time he has a failure in the theater: "I shall rise above it."
RM: That’s the great thing about English performers. Gladys Cooper always used to say, "My dear, if you don’t like the role, leave it!"
GL: What have all the different things you’ve done in your life meant to you? What have you looked for in, and got out of, your work?
RM: I want to survive. As I get older, it seems to me that those who’ve kept working have had the most rewarding careers: Claude Rains, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Noel Coward. What mattered to them was the accumulation of work. People are so often overpraised or overdamned at the moment they’re doing something. But what really matters is the long run.
GL: And nobody’s good all the time--unless he’s boring.
RM: Yes. That’s why film is so great. You get a permanent record; you can see the whole career in perspective. The actors who survive are not just examples of tricks and behaviorism; they’re the real thing. Peter Sellers got all the notices when Lolita first came out. You see it again today, and the real thing is James Mason. He always was. There are two things about a career: one is to be fortunate enough to keep getting employment, and the other is to develop a volume of work that adds up, that survives beyond the moment. And you hope that will be your legacy.
I remember, sometime in the late ‘40s, going to see another great British actress, Dame May Whitty. I asked if she thought I had any real talent, if I could be an actor. She wanted me to do a scene for her, so I corralled my sister and we did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Dame May said, "Your sister is very talented." This led to Virginia working for Margaret Webster, Dame May’s daughter, in a tour of Hamlet. I was very uptight, and I said to Dame May, "I want to be a great actor, like Laurence Olivier." She told me, "That’s rubbish." She had appeared in Romeo and Juliet with Vivien and Larry, and she said, "Larry is capable of being a tremendously bad actor. You know, he was a very bad actor at first." I couldn’t accept this. But then she said, "He had the greatest gift anyone can have: he never stopped learning." I was so impressed, I wrote this down, and I often think about it.
You have to be allowed to be raw and young. What matters is whom you learn from. I was so lucky in the people I learned from when I was young. In The White Cliffs of Dover I played with Irene Dunne. If I’d had the choice of whom to pick for my mother, it would have been Irene, and there she was, playing my mother in the film. When she started playing the scene where I’m going off to America, tears dancing in her eyes, she made me cry. I lost it, I just absolutely lost it.
That was only for a moment. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I lost it for much longer. I look at the movies I made then, and I was just awful. But the kid was trying. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. And I kept working, and later I was very fortunate to find opportunities to be productive in a number of areas. So keep trying, right? And keep learning--bring in my wheelchair and we’ll go out to the next performance.
INTERVIEW Magazine September 1989
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