DROPPED NAMES: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them, by Frank Langella, Harper, 356 pp., $25.99.
Much has been written about Frank Langella's voice -- a sonorous, plummy seducer that suggests both sophistication and unnerving ambiguity.
So we shouldn't be surprised, perhaps, that the actor writes with a voice just as distinctive and sure of itself in "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them." What's likely to surprise, however, is the content of this memoir -- a gossipy, candid and occasionally creepy succession of brief, addictively entertaining chapters about intimate encounters (often sexual) with famous people (both genders, he implies, and all dead) through 50 years in theater and film.
If America had an old-time classical theater, Langella would be up there with the master thespians, a grand and gutsy performer of serious -- if sometimes self-serious -- majesty and an appetite for tasty slabs of scenery. At 74, he has three Tony Awards and much less hair than the beautiful escapee from Bayonne, N.J., who romanced late '70s Broadway as a matinee idol in a Dracula cape.
It makes sense that the people who attracted him have been the glamorous, oversized stars of a style that few, alas, will soon remember. Elsa Lanchester showed him the corner of the pool where husband Charles Laughton encouraged handsome young men to swim nude. At a small party in Cape Cod in 1961, Langella watched John F. Kennedy laugh so hard at Noël Coward's one-liners that the president pounded the table and begged him "to wait while he caught his breath."
But the stories destined to make news, or at least raise eyebrows, come from less liberated times, when "famous older men in the closet had secret evenings to which all the young meat in New York was invited." There also was the exclusive "private time" in Antigua and the Cape with Jackie Kennedy before she became an Onassis.
She was just nine years his senior, a rarity for the dashing fellow recounting his lust, often consummated, for much -- really, for the time, much -- older women. There was Rita Hayworth, 56 to his 34, on location in Mexico. Yvonne de Carlo, 52 to his 36, "treated me like a pretty girl in the backseat of a convertible on a hot summer night." Brooke Astor, at 95, was "still vital, still available."
In 2001, there were nights with Elizabeth Taylor after her divorce from Larry Fortensky. Langella, in one of his less invasive memories of that relationship, describes her as "a small, sweet woman who wanted a man to be with her, protect her, and fill a void as deep as the deepest ocean."
Around this time, late in the book, one wishes Langella had stopped a few chapters earlier. By the end, his nasty charm turns cruel and his revelations about others feel too private. Until then, however, sex scenes have the passionate mystery of the wind-on-the-curtain shots in the old movies he grew up adoring. And when he drops names, they bounce.