Friday, August 31

A Sad Gig

Life started sad for him, most of his 64 years were sad and the ending... well, yes, the ending... couldn't have been sadder had it been produced by Hollywood.  And of course in some ways it had been.  I am not sure why some studio hasn't grabbed a good writer to scribble down Gig Young's story.  It would be a tragic yet memorable story.  Here is how it unfolded:

He was ultra-sensitive, sickly, very shy and more and more complicated as he got older.  There was an awkwardness to him as a kid that did not serve him well in his own home or at school.  He was often taunted.  Personally, I thought it showed in his acting as well.  Gig Young just never looked comfortable to me.

Born into a Minnesota family that was as cold as their winters.  Both of his parents were distant people.  He sought love and approval and comfort from his father who favored an older son who could never do any wrong.  Then he turned to his mother who was even less welcoming. Young could never do much anything right as far as his folks were concerned.  It has been written about Young that it is this remoteness of his mother and more than likely some sexual razzing by a live-in nanny that sent him on a downward spiral for the rest of his life.

As a result of having little confidence, three things of considerable importance wrapped themselves up in Young's life.  First and foremost he took to the bottle at an early age.  He would be a lifelong alcoholic and by some reports, a very damaged one.  Second was a decision to give acting a try.  Like a lot of actors, the ability to hide within a character was uplifting.  Young could breathe again.  Lastly, that lack of confidence put him at odds with most women he ever knew... including many girlfriends and five wives.

Acting itself was not all a bed of roses for Young.  More than anything he never received the star status he longed for. He was destined to a lifetime of second leads, often in lightweight, utterly forgettable fare, commonly losing the girl to the top-billed actor and usually befuddled about it.  The good news is that he was handsome as all get-out and immensely likeable.

How I will always remember Gig Young

He once said, "You can't tell about people from the outside because they've spent a lifetime covering their fears."  In his middle years he would take part in hospital-supervised LSD experiments to get to the bottom of these fears.  The darkness was to come.

He probably started his career at the wrong studio for him, Warner Brothers.  With its rough and tumble roster of high-minded gangsters and smart-mouthed babes, Young seemed out of place.  He would eventually land a contract at MGM where he was imminently more suited.  Before he left Warner Bros, he would work with some of the best and he is one of the few actors to be able to say he worked with all four of some of the most dynamic actresses of the time... Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck and later Hepburn.  He was particularly drawn to women older than he and in later years, of course, this would be changed to a love of younger women.  He and Bette Davis had a laison that lasted for years, through a series of marriages to others.

An amusing aside to his years at Warners,  Young was born Byron Barr and used that name in a number of his early pictures.  In 1942, when he appeared with Barbara Stanwyck in The Gay Sisters, his character's name was Gig Young and he adopted it from then on.

By the 1950s and 60s (his best decades for movies), he had learned to mask his true feelings behind a beguiling, happy-go-lucky demeanor.  He scratched at the throne of Cary Grant while never moving from junior varsity to varsity.  In films he is very well known for smiling... quite an engaging, occasionally come hither sort of crooked smile.  He made a whole lot of patently silly films, four with Doris Day, just so you know what we're talking about.

He was rarely the top-billed star but there were times when he would really shine.  He was great as a cop in a little 1953 film noir called City That Never Sleeps and equally rousing in his following film, Arena, as a rodeo cowboy.  Two years earlier he was memorable playing Jimmy Cagney's drunken nephew in Come Fill the Cup, but then the bottle was something of which he was well-acquainted.  He would receive an Oscar nomination for this role and would again be nominated in 1958 for the best of his Doris Day films, Teacher's Pet.

In 1955 he had little to do in the dramatic Desperate Hours but he was again teamed with some great actors, Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March and Arthur Kennedy (a posting on him soon).  In 1959 he did a bang-up job in The Story on Page One, where he stood trial with his lover Rita Hayworth after her husband is killed.

Stars of The Story on Page One

I think Young did better work when he did darker stuff.  The bottom line is that behind all those winning smiles he splashed across the screen, he was a troubled alcoholic who had a seriously dark side.  When actors call upon things deep within them, it oftens result in some stunning work.

That leads us to 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Someone saw that dark side of Young and knew he would be fantastic as the bombastic, boozy, loud-mouthed emcee and promoter of marathon dances.  In one of the grimmest films I think I have ever seen, it was about a whacko craze in the insufferable 1930s where people danced around and around, racing against the clock, to win (they hoped... if they didn't collapse and die first) a paltry monetary prize.  Young's character sort of held the entire affair together... after a fashion. 

When lightweight or comic actors suddenly turn on the weighty drama, they often win awards.  Young's co-star in Horses, Red Buttons, had done that very thing with his Oscar win for Sayonara.  The same good fortune was to sprinkle over for Horses and he would richly win a best supporting Oscar.  Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah.

In his most deserved Oscar-winning role

Let's get darker.  It's time to discuss those five marriages.  We know it's our relationships that get the juices and the craziness flowing.  When he was attending Pasadena Playhouse, he met a young actress Sheila Stapler.  Their marriage lasted a few years but was over shortly after he'd made a few of those Warner Bros. pictures.  She had adored him and likely wanted the marriage more than he did.  His drinking and womanizing doomed the marriage. 

Next came Sophie Rosenstein, who was an acting coach and older than Young.  They say she was like a mother to him.  That would have pleased him since he was looking for one.  Unfortunately Sophie died of cancer.  He flew into serial dating and of course would fill the pages of Modern Screen and Photoplay squiring this or that actress to Mocambo and the Trocadero.

But he gave it all up for actress Elizabeth Montgomery (who would come into your consciousness after her divorce from Young when she starred in TV's Bewitched.  Bewitching she apparently wasn't and she and Young, chiefly because they were both actors, made the headlines with their bitter fights.  There was much drinking and philandering on both sides and their union ended acrimoniously.

Liz Montgomery learned to hate him

But not as acrimoniously as his divorce from Hollywood realtor Elaine Whitman who was the easiest on the eyes of all his wives.  She is the only wife to give him a child, a daughter, whom he tried to deny as his own in heated court battles in an effort to get out of child support payments and such.  It was a snakey thing to do but things were not looking up for the Oscar winner.

A lifetime of Olympian drinking was taking its toll.  It could be seen on his face, never a good thing for a star of the silver screen.  He did more television.  He had always done plays but had recently had a dreadful time in the dialogue-laden A Long Day's Journey into Night.  He was getting a reputation for being unreliable which would lead to crappier work.  He was fired from the film Blazing Saddles, which further added to his woes.  He unwisely turned down the offer to star in the television series It Takes a Thief, which rejuvenated Robert Wagner's sagging career.

Some genre of films you may want to do for the easy money but you may want to leave them off your resumé or polish off another bottle to ward off the pain.  Such a genre, at least for established stars down on their luck, is martial arts films.  In 1977 he flew to Hong Kong to appear in The Game of Death, a heavily patchworked film starring Bruce Lee who had actually died five years earlier.   As it turned out, it would be Gig Young's final screen appearance.

What is worth noting about The Game of Death is that Gig Young met Kim Schmidt who was the script girl.  No one seems too sure why they married or what she saw in him.  If it was a meal ticket, she was too late.  Perhaps she did it to get her American citizenship (she was German).  No one doubted what Young saw in her.  She was hot, blonde and 33 years younger and bore more than a passing resemblance to Liz Montgomery.  Their relationship was frought with arguments and separations when suddenly they upped and married. 

Three weeks later, in their New York apartment, Gig Young killed his bride of three weeks and put the gun in his mouth, pointed upward, and shot out his brains.

Sad as all that is, adding to the mystery is the fact that Young left no suicide note so we'll never know what provoked this horror.  So we wonder, we guess.  Certainly his alcoholism and a crippling insecurity, both at their worst on the final day, couldn't have done anything but exacerbate the drama of the moment.  Young was known to have had serious issues with impotence.  Could that have played a role?  Could she have laughed at him or put him down the way his mother did?  Could she have withdrawn love somehow as he felt his mother did?

Gay actors in his day married and married and married and despite five marriages, maybe he was gay.  He did once say, "I've never been a homosexual and it's amazing I'm not."  Perhaps he never acted upon it but maybe somehow the subject came up that last day and he was forced to look at something that he spent his life trying to avoid.  Maybe on the heel of impotence, she made a crack about his manhood, calling him a pansy actor.  Unwanted sexual humiliation heaped upon a fragile older man may have sealed the deal.  Bang.  Bang.

It would be wrong at this point to not tell you of a 1991 part biography, part murder-mystery written by George Eels called Final Gig (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich).  It is rich in detail in providing an understanding of this complicated and damaged man.  I highly recommend.

NEXT POSTING:  The Girl from the Black Lagoon 

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