“In the Company of Legends” (Beaufort), by Joan Kramer and David Heeley
It sounds so easy in the age of YouTube and Meerkat. Just put a camera in front of a couple of people and cue them to talk. Bang! You’ve got a documentary.
Yeah, right. Making a documentary is about as effortless as Fred Astaire’s dance across the ceiling, a deceptively complicated bit of movie magic. For documentary filmmakers, the magic largely happens when they make production obstacles disappear, conjure up intriguing facts from hours of research and cast their spell on people not inclined to participate.
“In the Company of Legends” pulls back the curtain on documentary projects from Joan Kramer and David Heeley beginning with an Astaire profile in 1980. Hollywood actors are the focus - Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland among them. The secret to the duo’s success can be boiled down to good work and an ability to gain and keep the trust of their wary subjects.
That trust allows them to coax people into offering painful as well as pleasant memories. Former agent and MCA boss Lew Wasserman tells them he dropped Bette Davis as a client because the actress was impossible to please. Olivia de Havilland speaks with surprising frankness about co-star Errol Flynn’s love for her, and hers for him. Deirdre Flynn recalls how she found out about her father’s death: A reporter rang her doorbell and asked the 14-year-old if she’d like to make a statement.
That Kramer and Heeley knew how to assemble a crew and tap their own talents is almost beside the point. The real test came in raising money and securing a broadcast venue. For “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn” (1986), the major commercial networks turned them down and it took three years to get the funding for what became a PBS show. They couldn’t sell anyone on backing a profile of Cary Grant, one of the movies’ most popular stars.
Even if the money was there, gaining the rights to movie clips and other material crucial to an entertaining profile could be a problem. One lesson from their experience: Don’t take the first “no” too seriously. Studios and stars alike had to be wooed into providing time and material, even in exchange for a fee or a distribution deal. However, a centennial program about songwriters George and Ira Gershwin fell apart when gaining the rights to their music proved too expensive.
Another lesson Kramer and Heeley learned along the way: Ask everyone about home movies and other memorabilia. People, studios and even major archives often didn’t know or had simply forgotten that they had certain treasures. Costume designer Walter Plunkett poked around his closet at their request and discovered color footage of actor Charles Laughton from 1939’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Actress Joanne Woodard didn’t realize that out in the barn at her country home was a copy of an early TV performance by her husband, Paul Newman.
Some of the celebrities recalled in the book appear just as you might think - Jimmy Stewart kind and self-effacing, Bette Davis curt and dismissive, Harvey Keitel testy and irritable - while others are surprising in their off-camera moments. Johnny Carson turns out to be much warmer than his reputation might suggest. On the fridge at Elizabeth Taylor’s home is a photo of the actress at her heaviest - “She keeps it there as a reminder,” her housekeeper explains.
If there is a star shining brighter than all others in this memoir, it’s Katharine Hepburn. The four-time Oscar winner thinks nothing of bursting unannounced into the office of MGM’s chairman to show the filmmakers the conference table where she and Greta Garbo had failed to convince studio boss Louis B. Mayer to make a movie of Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play “Mourning Becomes Electra.”
Similarly, Hepburn breezes past a housekeeper at a Los Angeles home where she had once lived to give an impromptu tour, surprising the current owner upon her return from the grocery store. And Hepburn recounts over lunch the time, while making “On Golden Pond” (1981) in New Hampshire, that she took her weekend guest, pampered pop star Michael Jackson, to a coin-operated laundry to show him how to wash his clothes.
For fans of Hollywood’s Golden Era, “In the Company of Legends” is a delight, full of anecdotes and observations about the movie business and its movie people in unscripted moments.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.