The Zed Talks: To kick off the countdown to the Oscars, we speak with Austin Mutti-Mewse, co-author of I Used to Be in Pictures, who discusses how he and his brother Howard became confidantes to the stars of Old Hollywood.
For Zed Talks this issue, we spoke with Austin about the start of his correspondance with Hollywood royalty of yesteryear, who inspired him and how he feels the culture of Hollywood has, or hasn’t changed.
What and when was the first letter you wrote? What inspired you to do this?
We’d seen a movie whilst at our Grandmother’s house – The Wind, with Lillian Gish. It was unlike anything we’d seen before and nothing at all like those our pals were watching. The Wind was silent, black and white and impossibly ancient – Howard and I were hooked. It was around this time (1984) our History master at school set a project, to write and hopefully receive a response from an iconic figure of the 20th Century… after watching The Wind, we decided upon Lillian Gish.
Did you have any idea what would happen from that?
When three weeks later a letter arrived in the mail and on opening it, we discovered it was a note from Lillian Gish. We were both amazed and tremendously pleased. It was a standing joke in the family that our grandmother Violet demanded that one had to write thank you letters almost before opening one’s gift. We did, Lillian wrote another letter and so it was that a correspondence was born. She then put us in touch with her friends like Blanche Sweet and Colleen More and so the snowball effect began.
Out of the Hollywood celebrities you met, who maintained their onstage presence off stage as well. How did this manifest itself?
Ginger Rogers was the most almighty movie star I ever met. She was magnificent and yet not really in-tune with what was going on around her. She brushed off any conversation regarding anyone but herself. Asked about Fred Astaire she said, “He was a dancer – I was an actress.” Patsy Ruth Miller, the leading lady in the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was living as one might expect, a faded silent siren to live. Her house resembled that of Dorothy gale’s when it crash-landed in Oz. A banana tree grew from its very foundations. Inside there was a very aged butler. She’d sold most of the furniture and lived in her bedroom, smoking cigarettes atop a gargantuan bed; the bed-throw ermine. She watched her old silent movies on an old TV set. Her phone book filled with names of stars long-forgotten and in some cases long dead. Patsy asked that Howard and I add our name into the book and sandwiched “Howard and Austin” between Harold Lloyd and the silent screen star Hope Hampton.
Mildred Shay, the 1930s ingénue, who has an entire chapter ‘Cocks & Cocktails” in ‘I Used to be in Pictures’ retained an agent. My wife Joanna and I remember when after probably many years, June Epstein her London agent called and said there was a part for her in the stage revival of “When Harry Met Sally”. Mildred prepared days in advance, going so far as to invest in some MAC make-up as she’d heard that “the kids” wore this new brand. A taxi was sent to collect a coiffured and mink-clad Mildred from her Belgravia apartment. Joanna and I waved her off. She returned jubilant telephoning all her friends (Zsa Zsa Gabor, Glenn Ford included) to say the part was hers. The only problem being it was an audition and there were others going for the small part. Mildred, the daughter of US High Supreme Court Judge Joseph A. Shay (one of the richest men in New York, possibly the U.S. during the mid-1920s), had never auditioned. She’d called her Daddy in 1931 from the family holiday home in West Palm Beach and told him she wanted to be a movie star. Joseph called MGM Mogul LB Mayer and said “make it happen”. Mildred was without hesitation the only starlet under contract to be driven to MGM in her own chauffeur driven limousine. Fast forward to 2001 and Mildred was living in reduced circumstances in a grace-and-favour apartment provided by her last husband’s Eton school chum Robert Grosvenor, The Duke of Westminster (1910-79). Three days after the audition and the very morning Mildred was due to host a lunch at her club (Cavalry and Guards Club), to celebrate her ‘comeback’, June Epstein rang to say the part had gone to someone else (sometime afterwards June told me that Mildred hadn’t been able to remember her three lines and had held up proceedings informing everyone at the audition who’d she’d been and who she’d known from Howard Hughes to the Shah of Iran). I can only compare the anguish on Mildred’s face to that of my 7 year old son Nathan, when he has a temper-tantrum. Mildred ripped the phone from the wall and threw it across the room, she screamed “no, no, no” over and over and in the spare bedroom we rechristened her “make-up” room, she smashed bottles and threw face powder across the room. I was asked to cancel the lunch. For the next week she languished in her recliner dressed in baby-blue dressing gown; her hair atop her head under a Hermes scarf. She then telephoned her friends telling them she’d decided to pull out of the production. It was awesome, quite tragic and pitiful. Mildred like so many of the other stars Howard and I knew longed for that “one more role” that never came.Do you think ageism, especially amongst women in Hollywood is changing for the better?
Its good to see Michael Gambon and Tom Courtney in the big-screen version of Dad’s Army, and Sir Michael Caine at 84 still enjoys a prolific film career. For women its not always that easy. I’m delighted for Lily Tomlin and the positive responses she is receiving for her performance as the Grandmother in Grandma. The screen (and this occurs universally not just in Hollywood) does have this bizarre stereotypical way and rather dated of portraying older people. Take for example the comedy (I use the term loosely) Boomers (BBC). I watched one episode where a perfectly good sixty-something cast including Paula Wilcox and Philip Jackson, are reduced to arguing as to whom would take ‘mother’ (played by June Whitfield) in their car as old ladies tend to wet themselves. Is this the best older actors can expect? I was alarmed that June Whitfield would demean herself to such a low. Thankfully there are a few gems, but sadly all too infrequent and especially amongst actresses (The Straight Story one of my all-time gems).
Did you meet former Hollywood stars who successfully created a further career for themselves and happily left their screen career behind?
Many of the former stars Howard and I knew married very well and became the toast of Tinsel town in the capacity of adoring wife and hostess. Thinking of Mary Duncan who on her marriage to polo player Stephen ‘Laddie’ Sanford, became the toast of Palm Beach (even in her late 90s) and 1950s starlet Karen Sharpe who appeared in Jungle Girl with Johnny Sheffield, who married prolific movie director Stanley Kramer known for tackling racism with The Defiant Ones, the nuclear war drama On the Beach and High Noon). As for a working life, Baby Marie Osborne a child star of the 1910s at the famed Balboa Studios in Hollywood was forced to quit the screen when audiences fell out of love with her as she matured. She left the screen for school and came back as an extra and when that didn’t go anywhere, she decided upon a career the other side of the camera working in the costume department. She worked on Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes for Cleopatra and on films Around the World in 80 Days and The Godfather: II.
Was there ever a competitive edge between you and Howard?
I think some of the actress figured out pretty early on that Howard was gay and I’m straight. In some rare cases and still believing themselves as sex-kittens, I did find myself in a situation that mirrored Ann Bancroft seducing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, so in a sense I got alittle more attention than Howard. He was always the super polite, attentive twin though and in other situations he was the favourite…. he wore a yellow Mulberry suit to a garden party at Bob Hope’s once and because Bob Hope was able to identify the brightness of the yellow in a sea of black evening wear he singled out Howard. I watched them get on like a house on fire – I was a tad jealous!
The book has received superb reviews, do you have any plans to make it into a film?
The net has been cast far and wide. A photographer/producer here in the UK has read the treatment, loves the story and the book and likened Howard and my ‘story’ to being like “Billy Elliott without the ballet”. A now retired Sir Alan Parker likes the book very much but wondered if a film without “sex, seduction and expositions” would be picked up by anyone. “Austin” he said, “it ain’t no Blockbuster!” I argued that I never saw it as such… there are others too including a BIG Hollywood producer who I’m told will react very positively if he likes it…
9. Who were the most intimidating stars you met and why?
Frank Sinatra because he is ‘Old Blue eyes’, Bette Davis was very frosty. Howard and I were just boys when we met her whilst she was in London in 1987… the attached ‘TREATMENT’ rather amusingly tells of that encounter!
Tell us about some of the lesser known veterans you met in the industry retirement home, The Motion Picture and Television Country House in Los Angeles.
The Motion Picture Home was extraordinary. If one googles the Motion Picture Fund now its almost unrecognisable – modern with its own TV station run on the most part by residents. When Howard and I knew the Motion Picture Home it was where screen goddess Norma Shearer had ended up, crawling along its corridors asking anyone she encountered if they were her long-dead producer husband Irving Thalberg. Its where Elsa Lanchester once The Bride of Frankenstein lived, where two of The Three Stooges ended their days, Johnny ‘Tarzan’ Weissmuller and The Maltese Falcon’s Mary Astor. One of the most fascinating people Howard and I met was make-up man John Chambers who was later brought to the fore in Ben Afleck’s ARGO. I got chills watching John Goodman played Chambers and realising the part he played during the Canadian/Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and the subsequent recognition he received from the CIA for his work. When Howard and I visited John in his room we’d hold his Oscar for Planet of the Apes and talk Tinsel Town… he really was a great surprise. The character actors Regis Toomey and Douglas Fowley were residents at The Motion Picture Home. If you don’t know the names you’ll know their faces. Talking of faces, Mae Clarke was at the Home, she was the gal who got the grapefruit shoved into her face by James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931).