Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Look at Hollywood from Robert Wagner’s Eyes

By James Colt Harrison

No-one exudes as much classic movie star charm than screen actor and bon vivant Robert Wagner. He comes from an era when actors were under contract to studios, and they were trained in every aspect of manners, comportment, and élan. He brings this well-pampered background to the pages of his new memoir, You Must Remember This, written with Scott Eyman, from Viking Penguin Publishers.

Wagner, or “R.J.” as his friends call him, apparently knew everybody who was anybody in Hollywood over the past five or six decades he has been in the movie arena. He has seen the movie industry---and the surrounding Los Angeles area--- grow, blossom, flourish and decline, right before his sparkling blue big-screen eyes.

You might be slightly disappointed that his is not a Hollywood gossip book, but one of a history of the Los Angeles-Hollywood basin, it’s quirky architecture, its fabulous hotels, the sparkling nightclubs, the elite dinners in the mansions of the moguls, the famous architects, designers, chefs, costume designers and non-stars who helped make L.A. the major city it is today. All of this has been done with meticulous research and an eye to detail. If his acting career doesn’t work out, Wagner can always become an historian! Movie fans may yearn for Hollywood in the Golden Years, but it is a new time, a new place.

Oh, yes, the book is liberally sprinkled with major names of movie stars. Stars that Wagner knew as a boy growing up while working as a horse groomer. Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford all took him under their wings. He met them all at various times either taking care of their horses when he was a strapping teen of 17 or when he was a caddy at the golf course. In his young years, beauty was a highly regarded commodity in the film community, and it was only a matter of time before he, too, would be discovered and ushered onto a sound stage for a screen test. Now, at 84 and still knock-out handsome, Wagner can look back and tell us how all of it happened to him and how the city where it happened came about historically.

Wagner grew with the city as his film career took off. Put under exclusive contract to 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s, his workdays sometimes included making screen tests with various actresses, including Marilyn Monroe. His career developed because his fresh-faced handsomeness appealed to movie-goers at the time. It was the era of Rock Hudson, Guy Madison, Troy Donohue, John Derek and Jeffrey Hunter. They all had their own unique looks, but Wagner had the natural charm that has lasted to this day.

Wagner laments the loss of many of the iconic film star watering holes, but accepts change as inevitable and the natural evolution of  things over time. But that doesn’t mean he has forgotten the wide-open spaces of Los Angeles, the unspoiled beaches, the smell of orange groves, and the glittering parties that made early Hollywood so fascinating. He knows; he was there.

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