Tuesday, November 18

Zanuck's Mistresses

He really was a piece of work.  I have mentioned Darryl F. Zanuck more times than any other studio mogul, perhaps due to the fact that he ran my favorite studio, 20th Century Fox.  I have probably covered his contract stars more than any other studio as well... with more to come.  He seemed to have an unerring instinct for what the public wanted, in terms of stories, directors and performers, and he saw to it that we got it.  But his legacy doesn't stop there.

Like the other moguls, he ran his studio with an iron hand.  Never mind that he was short and stocky, he was frequently found wearing jodhpurs, carrying a riding crop, a big fat cigar in his mouth and he could be ruthless, arrogant and punishing when need be.

Every week day at 3 o'clock, some not-always-so-eager starlet under contract to him would pop into his gargantuan office for an afternoon session. Some continued it long after the starlet days were over and they were bona fide stars... Linda Darnell, to name one.  But there were others who won his heart.  Despite being married to Virginia Fox for 55 years, he treated her shabbily with his obsessive, very public philandering.  Several of his mistresses he brought home to live with him and his wife.  They were women he was totally obsessed with, way beyond sex.  He thought they were goddesses and kept them on pedestals.  And with each successive one, he was determined to make her a movie star.  How odd that he failed in this regard.

There were more than these three to make the cut, but the following are his most famous.  All Europeans, I refer to them as The Tragic, The Talented and The Beautiful.  All three had very short-lived careers in the States.

Bella Darvi was herself a piece of work.  She first snuggled up to Zanuck at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival where she prowled the grounds like a panther.  Her pouty lips, easy manner and lowcut gowns made her a main attraction despite not being an actress.  She would lock arms with some influential producer and often have a late supper (they called it) on his yacht.  She was attractive without being beautiful and when she flashed her wide-mouthed smile, one immediately understood that she was calling to you.  That alone would have appealed to Zanuck.  

She was born in Poland in 1928 but moved with her parents to France when she was quite young.  During the war she would spend some time in a concentration camp and when she got out, she was tough and hard.  The family was always very poor and Bella always hated that.  Money is the only thing that matters in the world, she once said.  Her greed led her to the gaming tables and she would have a lifelong obsession with gambling.  A casino is where she would meet Zanuck and once she knew exactly who he was, by profession and reputation, she was determined to have him.

He began sleeping with her and told most everyone who would listen that she made him feel like a young man again (he was 50).  Ironically it was not her suggestion that she become a movie star but his.  He saw great potential in her when no one else did.  In fact others saw so little in her that they thought the Great Zanuck had lost his mind.  He brought her to California and to his home and she acquired the bedroom next to one of the Zanuck daughters.

Virginia suggested they change Bella's last name (from Wegier) to Darvi... the Dar for Darryl and the Vi from Virginia.  Soon Richard Widmark objected politely when she became his leading lady in Hell and High Water (1954) and Kirk Douglas may not have been as polite for his turn in The Racers (1955).  Zanuck was thrilled with her work but she didn't seem to be noticed much by the public or critics or studio personnel.  Those who saw her work called her seductive but wooden and those who knew her said seductive and cynical.

The boss plunged ahead and put her into The Egyptian (1954) which was a disaster from the beginning.  Marlon Brando couldn't stand Darvi and walked off the picture.  Jean Simmons, an English rose with a blistering mouth, verbally attacked Darvi for her incompetence and volatile director, Michael Curtiz, thought he was going to lose his mind.

Zanuck continued to support her in more ways than one but found her no more work.  Frustrated, she left for France.  Zanuck would fly over for a quickie now and then.  But then she told Zanuck she was having affairs with women and he could not abide that and ended their affair.  She made a few cheapie European films but her temperamental ways and no discernible talent left her bitter and disillusioned.  She still gambled like crazy, sometimes ending up homeless.  She died at age 47 in 1971 in Monte Carlo, a victim of suicide.

Juliette Greco was introduced to Zanuck by his friends Audrey Hepburn and then-husband Mel Ferrer.  He was looking for someone to play a cafe singer in his upcoming film, The Sun Also Rises (1957).  Greco was singing at some funky little cabaret they frequented when in Paris.  Zanuck fell under her spell at the get-go probably because she paid him little mind.  He was not used to that.  When she left him a few years later, he was also not used to that.  He liked to boast he left all his mistresses.

She was born in France in 1927 and suffered terrible indignities because of the war but she came out of it much stronger, more resilient.  The experience didn't break her in the way it did Darvi.  Where Darvi was also more gimme, gimme, gimme, Greco was indifferent to the many perks Zanuck tried to woo her with.  Even though they had started sleeping together, she took her time in becoming impressed.  It has been said that very thing made him go over the moon.

She was shunned by her Existentialist pals in Paris because she had taken up with an American, something they found abhorrent and the truth is that Greco herself always found her relationship with him as beneath her.  That's not to say she didn't eventually accept diamonds and blank checks and a movie career (she had actually done some acting in Europe), but she was a tough sale.  She was strong, fiercely independent, outspoken and was generally blas√© about his enthusiasm in turning her into a 20th Century Fox movie queen. 

I was attracted to her presumably because she was French but I honestly saw some talent.  She actually reminded me somewhat of Garbo... mysterious, elusive, remote... and this was true in her acting and her singing.  I applauded her efforts in The Sun Also Rises, which I also quite liked, although it was not successful.

The sad thing is that none of her films for Zanuck were successful.  That entire body of work involves The Roots of Heaven (1958) and Crack in the Mirror (1960), both with Orson Welles, and The Big Gamble (1961), an African saga with Stephen Boyd, which might have been my favorite Greco movie.  No one could see what Zanuck saw in her.

Most of their tempestuous relationship was conducted outside the United States and for the most part, Zanuck was separated from his wife.  But the Greco affair finally ended because Zanuck felt he could never get the best of her and it greatly frustrated him.  When he began smacking her around, she elected to bring it all to a close.  She would still make some European films but did more singing than acting.  She still lives in France.

Irina Demick was someone we first saw as a sexy French Resistance fighter riding a bicycle in Zanuck's war masterpiece, The Longest Day (1962).  This is without question the film he most cherished among all those his studio produced or that he personally produced.  It meant everything to him.  It also helped restore some of the financial losses the studio suffered as a result of Cleopatra.  I thought she was gorgeous and by far the best-looking of all Zanuck's mistresses... who were getting younger as he got older.

Demick was born in France in 1936 of Russian parents.  Her good looks got her into modeling as a teenager.  Despite having a small part in one European film, she never gave movies much of a thought.  Zanuck would change that.  A Parisian acquaintance of his told him about Demick after the mogul was frustrated that Brigitte Bardot turned down the part in The Longest Day.  Not only did Zanuck feel Demick was perfect for the small role but he was sleeping with her within a day or two.

And it was but a romp or two more that Zanuck knew he had a new mistress.  Demick was not at all like Darvi and certainly a far cry from Greco as well.  Demick was more of a lady than they were, another new thing for Zanuck.  She was not at all a feminist and would, in fact, say she loved being with a man who bossed her around.  Well, she hit the bullseye here.  It was all Zanuck needed to know to completely take over her life.

Irina Demick was soft and feminine, generous and compliant.  She hung on every word he uttered.  Couples they dined with would comment on that.  She thought he was a genius in the movie world, as had a great many before her.  She got more of his time than Darvi or Greco did in terms of their living together in Paris.  By Demick's time, Zanuck had actually been ousted (for the time being) from Fox and supplanted by his son Richard.  The old man was
still on board as an independent producer.  But the fact remains that he pretty much stayed put in Paris and in the loving arms of his beautiful, young lover for quite some time.

He saw to it that she got work in Fox films, but not ones that he was so closely involved in.  She would have a large role alongside Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in The Visit (1964), a good film.  She would appear in Up from the Beach (1965), with Cliff Robertson, still another film about the invasion of Normandy.  In 1965 she would play seven  roles, all of a different ethnicity, in the supremely silly Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

In 1968 she was decorative opposite Deborah Kerr and David Niven in an unsuccessful sex comedy, Prudence and the Pill.  It would be the last Fox film she would make. 

Zanuck began tiring of her, his main complaint being that she had become too motherly toward him.  They stopped living together but still saw one another occasionally.  He still paid many of her expenses and bought her lavish gifts for awhile after their relationship evaporated.  And evaporate it really did... no scenes, no histrionics, no discussions really.  She went on to do a few European movies and then quit acting altogether.  She never really caught on with the public and was far more famous as Zanuck's latest mistress than anything else.  She would die in 2004, eight days short of her 68th birthday in, of all places, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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1 comment:

  1. These little known tidbits are some of my faves. A dose of Hollywood background never hurts the memory bank. Thanks boy.