'Don't Stare at Me, Baby. You Can See Me in the Movies.'

By Langella, Frank | Newsweek, March 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Don't Stare at Me, Baby. You Can See Me in the Movies.'


Langella, Frank, Newsweek


Byline: Frank Langella

It is 2 a.m. and I am alone in the dark with her again.

On my television set tonight, in the black-and-white movie Gilda, Rita Hayworth is seducing Glenn Ford, heartbreakingly refuting the old adage "the camera never lies." It is close to 40 years now since last we were together, and the woman I had known in real life is, for me, still the single most tragic example of how far from the real person an image can be.

She was a Goddess on screen, about as desirable a woman as any man could want--perfection in feminine allure. From the moment I saw her, she haunted my imagination. And from the moment we met in the lobby of a small hotel in the tiny town of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1972, until her death from Alzheimer's disease 15 years later, she continued to haunt it, eliciting a far more profound emotion than lust.

My agent at that time, David Begelman, had talked me into a Western titled The Wrath of God--aptly named--to be shot entirely in Mexico. It would star Robert Mitchum, with Rita in the "and" position, set off in a billing box at the end of the actor credits. She was by then finished in pictures and the word was that Mitch had insisted on her, possibly for old times' sake, the rumor being they had once had a tumble or two.

Mitch would play a runaway priest. I would be the town's despot, who swears revenge on all priests for murdering my father, and Rita would be my mother, a God-fearing matron who never lets go of a set of rosary beads. What was I thinking? Well ... I was thinking: Rita/Gilda.

And there she is, tiny and scattered, standing in front of me, a rain hat on her head. She shoots out her hand and smiles. "Hey, I know you," she says. "I've seen ya in the movies. You're gonna be my son." I spout all the cliches: how excited I am to meet her and work with her, etc.

She tears off the rain hat, frantically runs her fingers through the once-lustrous auburn hair, now shorter and more sparse, shakes it out, pulls at it, and whips her head back and forth in an exaggerated "no," flailing her hands in the air as if shooing away an army of flies.

"Oh, cut it out. Cut it out," she says in a high-pitched, impatient tone, jamming the hat back on and fleeing the lobby.

Once on the set she is a total pro. Ready to go, eager to do her best. But the lines won't come. No matter how hard she tries, she can't retain the simplest phrase. In our first scene together, I approach her at prayer in a church and ask, "Why are you here?" Her line is "Because God is here." But she can't do it. Take after take she is unable to retain those four words. Oblivious to the rising tension and unkind remarks from the crew, she presses on. "Let's do it again," she says. "I'll get it."

Finally a man is laid down on the floor at her feet. Action is called. I ask, "Why are you here?" He whispers, "Because God is here." Then immediately Rita says, "Because God is here."

"Cut. Print. We got it," slurs Ralph Nelson, our director, and the crew bursts into cheers and applause. Rita beams like a little girl who's just been crowned Miss Snow Queen, completely unaware the cheers are jeers. At lunch, as she rests in her trailer, the jokes about her are lewd and cruel, and for years after, I too would be guilty of reenacting the scene for friends at her expense.

At about 5 p.m. on our first day off, the phone rings in my room. "Hey, it's Rita. Do you wanna eat?" Thirty minutes later we are sitting in the hotel's tiny restaurant. "We'll be friends to start, OK? Dutch treat on dinners. One night you, one night me. Deal. Let's have red wine. Just two glasses each." After the first one she asks me how old I am. I tell her: 34.

When dinner is over, we walk through the chilly, dirty streets and she gathers her black-fringed shawl close around her shoulders, slips her arm into mine, and forgets my name. "Oh, yeah, yeah, Frank," she says. …

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