Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Who needs Kevin Bacon?

It has been one of those summers when we seem to have been losing famous movie (and other entertainment) people in droves. Over the past eleven weeks, the world has seen the passing of David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Karl Malden, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes. And those are just the most famous ones.

As we take the occasion to remember each of these artists and perhaps learn some new things about them, it is also an excuse to take a mental trip back in time. One thing that gets emphasized, when we revisit actors’ and filmmakers’ biographies, is how much “Hollywood” (i.e. the American movie industry) seems like an over-active small town. Everybody seems to have some relation to everybody else, whether through bloodlines or through marriage or through work. These tangled inter-relations seem exaggerated in Hollywood, not only because of nepotism but also because film people seem to get married so darn often.

While there is truth to the fabled Hollywood revolving door marriages, it is worth remembering that, for every Elizabeth Taylor or Mickey Rooney, there is also someone like actor Karl Malden, who died on July 1 and who celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary last December.

A more typical Hollywood marriage history, in our imagination anyway, is that of screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who died on August 5. He was married four times during his 95 years on the planet. When I heard that Schulberg had passed on, it felt strangely as though it had happened to someone I knew slightly. That is because he was a minor, off-screen character in an on-going story that I lived with, off and on, for a year or two. I don’t get as much time to read as I like, but at least these days I am getting a bit more now that a few time-consuming family situations are behind us and, perhaps more importantly, my eyes have been fixed. But one book I kept picking up and working my way through during the past many months was screenwriter Peter Viertel’s memoir Dangerous Friends. The life of the very well-connected Viertel illustrates perfectly the tangled friendships, marriages and relationships among not only Tinseltown’s glitterati during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s but also among the virtual community of artists who migrated between the U.S. and Europe.

So, let’s play a game of “six degrees of Budd Schulberg.” Schulberg’s first wife was a woman named Virginia Ray, familiarly called Jigee. They divorced in 1942 and she subsequently married another screenwriter, Viertel. Jigee and her daughter (by Schulberg) Vicky figure prominently in the first part of Viertel’s autobiography, in which the couple become close friends with Ernest and Mary Hemingway and with John and Evie Huston and, later, with Huston and his next wife, Ricki. Evie was the actor Evelyn Keyes, who died last year. She appeared in quite a few movies and TV shows but is best remembered for one of her earliest roles, as Scarlett O’Hara’s sister Suellen in Gone with the Wind. Before Huston, Keyes had been married to director Charles Vidor and, after Huston, she married bandleader Artie Shaw. Her other liaisons included Michael Todd, Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Kirk Douglas. Shaw’s previous wives included Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Kathleen Winsor (author of Forever Amber) and actor Doris Dowling.

Before we forget about Budd Schulberg, he married three more times, including a 13-year marriage to the actor Geraldine Brooks, who died in 1977. But back to Peter and Jigee. The first Mrs. Viertel had a history of leftist politics, and there has been speculation that the characters played by Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were were based on the Viertels. While not an exact match, Viertel does recount how Jigee’s political associations got the two of them in a bit of difficulty during the Red Scare. To his husbandly discredit, Viertel did not treat his first wife well but, to his writerly credit, he did not shy away from the fact in his book. Based in Paris, he met and fell in love with the model Bettina Graziani. His marriage to Jigee was already in difficulty and they were already drifting apart when she discovered she was pregnant. Still, he chose to move in with Bettina. Their respective careers, however, caused Peter and Bettina to spend long periods apart and, perhaps inevitably, she left him for someone else, racehorse owner and United Nations honcho Prince Aly Khan. Aly Khan had previously been married to Rita Hayworth, who herself was also married to Orson Welles, the actor and singer Dick Haymes and the writer and producer James Hill. Aly Khan was also involved with a number of other women, including an apparent dalliance with Ricki Huston. His relationship with Bettina ended sadly. Returning home from a party, they were in a car accident in a Paris suburb. Aly Khan was killed, and Bettina subsequently lost their child in a miscarriage. Jigee and Ricki also had sad ends. The former descended into heavy drinking and, before her divorce to Viertel became final, she was burned to death when a cigarette she was lighting ignited her nightgown. Ricki Huston (mother of Anjelica and Tony) died, like Aly Khan, in a car accident in France.

Six months after Jigee’s death, Viertel married the actor Deborah Kerr in Switzerland. Her divorce from Anthony C. Bartley had become final the day before. Viertel and Kerr had met in Vienna during the filming of Anatole Litvak’s The Journey, in which Kerr was starring with Yul Brynner. Viertel was brought in to do some work on the screenplay, which was credited to George Tabori. During a dinner for the cast and crew, the two became acquainted and fell in love. They were married in 1960 and—dividing their time between homes in Klosters, Switzerland, and Marbella, Spain—were together until Kerr’s death in 2007 at the age of 86. Viertel died less than three weeks later, just shy of his 87th birthday.

Viertel’s book, which was published in 1992, is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in American movie history or even just a voyeuristic penchant for gossip of the famous and celebrated. While much of it deals with the Hemingways and the Hustons, there is an endless parade of famous actors who get mentioned casually, the way or your or I would talk about the neighbors. Couples like Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall and Mel Ferrer/Audrey Hepburn come and go in the narrative. He became good friends with Orson Welles, during his later years, and gives a depressingly sad account of the last time he saw the great man in Paris before he returned to the U.S. to die. And rather long sections detail his relationship with the legendary Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín. In the latter passages, Viertel tells of casually dropping in (with his friend and agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar) on Greta Garbo at the villa where she was staying on the French Riviera. Viertel’s mother and Garbo had worked together for years and were close friends. Indeed, they were rumored to be more than friends.

A fair amount of time is also spent on his strange relationship with Ava Gardner who became somewhat dependent on him during filming in Mexico of The Sun Also Rises, which Viertel adapted from Hemingway’s novel. Gardner, had previously been involved with Dominguín and was currently involved with an Italian actor named Walter Chiari. Her husbands, of course, had included Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. During this section of book, Viertel also tells how he objected to the actor that producer Darryl Zanuck had found to play the bullfighter Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. The young American, whom Zanuck and his wife had spotted in a nightclub, was all wrong for the part, as far as the Viertel, Hemingway and much of the cast were concerned.

Pressured to recast, Zanuck put his foot down and sent the message, “The kid stays in the picture.” The young actor would later use that line as a title of his own autobiography, which would be made into a documentary. And that brings us to the producer Robert Evans, whose wives have included the actors Sharon Hugueny, Camilla Sparv, Ali McGraw, Phyllis George and Catherine Oxenberg (for all of ten days) and who has been romantically linked with Ava Gardner (who was one of the few stars of The Sun Also Rises who did not object to his casting), Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Margaux Hemingway (take that, gramps!) and Cheryl Tiegs.

Does your head hurt yet?

-S.L., 20 August 2009

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