Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers


On October 25th my wife and I took in Strangers on a Train at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a great experience to see it on the big screen for the first time after having seen it so many times on the small screen exclusively. Once again it was a wonderful audience who laughed and gasped at all the right places and once again the film historian introducing it went on a little too long and offered up a little too much elementary interpretation for what we were about to see. But when he asked how many of us had already seen it (it was a sold out show) I was happy to see that you could count on one hand the number of hands that didn't go up. This was an audience of film lovers waiting to see the film again on the big screen, many of us, as stated above, for the very first time.

But the real treat of seeing this showing of Strangers on a Train was the fact that Farley Granger was there and spoke with the audience after the show and signed autographs after that. Sometimes Hollywood stars disappoint in person but this was not one of those times. Granger was entertaining, honest and kind in every way imaginable. When I met him after the show and shook his hand he seemed genuinely friendly. I asked him to sign the program to my wife and he happily obliged. The interview he did on stage with the film historian, whose name I can't remember and who is not listed on the AFI site or the program (maybe he just wandered in off the street), was illuminating and delightful. Granger's bluntly honest response to several questions was refreshing but my favorite was:

Interviewer: "Did Hitchcock discuss the psychological motivations of the character with you before shooting?"

Granger: "No, no. He wasn't big on bullshit."

Granger was so endearing that even when he spoke of his love of the stage over film (something we've all heard from Hollywood stars at one point or another) he sounded like he actually meant it, not like so many stars sound where they think saying that will give them instant credibility. And he discussed his other works as well. Rope he said was a chore. "You do eight minutes and something falls on the set and you gotta do the whole goddamn scene over." And "Jimmy (Stewart) wasn't right for the part and Hitch knew it and Jimmy knew it and Jimmy felt he had to struggle with it. The part is a snooty, elitist professor and Jimmy just doesn't project snooty elitism. Someone like James Mason would've been better suited for the part."

On Nicholas Ray: "He had such a feel for gritty personal films and then he started doing a bunch of glitzy crap. I said, 'Nick what's with all the glitzy crap' and by that point he didn't care what he was making anymore."

On Shelley Winters: "We were at this hotel that had pictures of the stars and she says to the manager, 'You should have my picture up there' and the manager didn't even know who she was and wouldn't put her picture up (Granger laughs). I just told her to shut up about it. She was a great lady to work with but you know, these stars sometimes, they get a little big headed." Amazingly he pulled that last statement off without a hint of irony. He really didn't have that "Star" mentality about him so he could talk about "stars" as if he wasn't one.

And then there was Samuel Goldwyn who he didn't like at all. Goldwyn had demanded Granger pay him all the money on the contract that he had received because Granger wanted to quit working with Goldwyn after Hans Christian Anderson. Granger paid back the money and left. The thing is, aside from relaying those facts, he didn't elaborate any further on what problems he and Goldwyn had and when asked about the book he had written he said he had contacted everyone or their relatives before writing it and told them what he wanted to write. If they objected to anything he left it out. He even called Goldwyn's children and asked if it was okay to recount the stories of the troubles he had with Goldwyn. They said it was okay. Geez louise, what a guy. I don't have the book myself, but I'm told it has the same "blunt honesty without being mean spirited" attitude that came off in the interview. And it mainly concerns his life in the theatre which he enjoyed much more than film.

Of course, for me, the highlight of the interview was when he spoke about Robert Walker during the course of making Strangers on a Train. I've written about Walker here before and prior to that Sheila O'Malley had an excellent write-up on Strangers on a Train so I won't rehash the story of Walker's life or his excellent performance in the film. Rather I'll let Farley Granger have the final word from this video I shot of the interview (I was in the back lower balcony area, the best place to sit at the theatre. The seats back there are bigger, more like recliners, and have tables between them for your refreshments and at least four feet of room before the next seat in front of you or behind you but you have to get there early for those seats - which I always do). In the clip Granger describes the first night he, Hitchcock and Walker got together in Washington, D.C. before the first day of shooting. They went out to dinner downtown before retiring to their rooms at the hotel, at which point Walker started to panic. The rest I'll leave to Granger but from this story I was reminded of how fragile was Robert Walker, and how gracious and sympathetic was Granger. Walker must have sensed that to let himself go in front of him like he did, and Granger didn't let him down. They had just met but Granger treated him like a brother. It's a great story and it was a great experience seeing and meeting Farley Granger. Enjoy the clip.



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