Friday, July 3

Anthony Franciosa

I admit that writing about Richard Harris made me think about Anthony Franciosa because both were royal pains on movie sets.  I thought each was a good actor and utterly watchable.  In Tony's case, he fired up my imagination as I watched that combustible magnetism explode on the screen.  Unfortunately he tore into directors, actors, cameramen and whoever else was handy and ultimately Hollywood stopped thinking of him for important films.

What was the difference between the two actors who behaved similarly at work?  Harris' career dimmed a bit in the 70s and 80s but it had a resurgence in the 90s.  When Franciosa's went down, and it did so quicker than Harris's, it never lit up again.  Harris never really took movie-making seriously, mocking it and his fellow actors at every opportunity.  Franciosa thought acting shared the limelight with brain surgery.  Harris's antics came largely as a result of drunkenness and although he was a mean drunk, is that worse than mean and sober?  Franciosa, sober and vicious, was not someone most folks wanted to take on.

His ego was huge, of course.  He thought he was Lord Laurence Franciosa, handsome and personable, talented and wanted, and that his contribution to the thespian world was such that nobody else need apply.  He couldn't understand why he wasn't regarded in the same lofty reaches as Brando, Clift, Newman or McQueen.  His wondrous sense of self was so entrenched that he could not betray it.  Temperament would come to hijack common sense.

In his first year in Hollywood and four films of some distinction, he was already a Hollywood bad boy and I carried a spark for him just as I did my smart-mouthed actresses.  I quite liked Tony Franciosa because what I saw on the screen electrified me.  He was hard to contain.  The passion overflowed and sometimes drowned his costars. 

He was born a hot-blooded Scorpio in 1928 East Harlem.  His parents divorced shortly after he was born although he would occasionally see his father when the boy was sent to him to collect the monthly $8 child support.  Young Tony lived with his mother and two aunts and was admittedly spoiled.  It has been said their relationship gave him his sense of entitlement and a great insecurity that it could all end.

As a bit of a lark after high school graduation, while he was on his way to get a free mambo lesson, he saw a sign for auditions for a play and he not only did a cold reading but got the part.  Perhaps it came too easily for him.  For a few years most of his work would come just about as easily.

He took a host of menial jobs while he studied his new craft and he married.  In no time at all he was acting on Broadway and became a member of the prestigious Actors Studio, where he met Shelley Winters.   Soon they were both working in A Hatful of Rain, in which he played Polo, the beleaguered brother of Ben Gazzara's junkie.  In the play Winters was married to Gazzara.  In real life, she would marry Franciosa.  He would receive a Tony nomination for Rain in 1956.

He took his acting and the rest of his life so seriously... too seriously.  All his buddies and coworkers said he needed to chill.  He had crying jags when things wouldn't work out as he expected and eventually he had a nervous breakdown when all his demons came-a-visiting.  Despite not being divorced, he begged Winters to marry him.  She would say to some of her girlfriends that after being married to one volatile Italian (Vittorio Gassman), she wasn't sure she was ready to try on another. 

Winters did speak to her friend Elia Kazan about whether or not there would be a role for Franciosa in the director's upcoming film, A Face in the Crowd (1957).  It would be not only the film debut of Franciosa but also Andy Griffith and Lee Remick.  Griffith played an aw-shucks hillbilly who becomes a Satan-ish media sensation and Franciosa is the sleazy personal manager who helps get him there.  It was a helluva film with gutsy acting from the entire cast, which included Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.

Made after A Face in the Crowd but released before it was the charming comedy This Could Be the Night.  I saw it because it starred an actress whose films I never missed, Jean Simmons.  She played a teacher who takes a part-time job at a nightclub, which she doesn't know is run by gangsters.  One of those is Franciosa in what would be a rare comedy role and he turned in one of his best performances.  It's on TV occasionally.  Put it on your movies-to- watch list.  You have been taking notes all along, haven't you?

There was more good news for Franciosa in 1957.  He was awarded his own Broadway role for the film version of A Hatful of Rain and we know that doesn't always happen.  He copped a supporting Oscar nomination and the damage was done.  Now he became unable to get his cashmere sweaters on over his swelled head.  In later years he would claim that this is the time that ruined him because he was not ready for the success that came so easily.  He might have early on claimed he was a victim of the Hollywood system but we know there was way more to it than that.  To his credit and a final fourth marriage, he finally took personal responsibility for his life and the choices he made.

His final film of the year was Wild Is the Wind, a sultry tale of love and betrayal with Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn (no strangers themselves to bad on-set behavior) as newlyweds and Franciosa as a hand on their farm.  In the film he has an affair with Magnani and off the film he did, too.  Winters caught them fully-dressed on a couch making out but they told her they were rehearsing for their big scene.  Problem is this happened just days after Winters and Franciosa had married.  Ooops.

It was not a happy marriage

He did some jail time somewhere in here for beating up a photographer.  It was a 10-month stretch and he went to the same honor farm that Mitchum went to for his 1948 marijuana puffing.  It certainly did harm to Franciosa's brand.  Now when he misbehaved on sets, people were concerned it would turn physical.  Lesser actors, after this behavior in the first year, would have been packing the bags and returning to their one-horse hometowns. 

In 1958 he made two films... one very popular and the other a fairly poor one that involved another touch of adultery.  The Long, Hot Summer was one of those steamy southern tales for which William Faulkner had such a fondness.  I just mentioned it in my piece on its director, Martin Ritt.  It concerned a wealthy, brooding family headed by a bombastic war lord... no surprise that Orson Welles got the part.  Franciosa was his weak, jealous, out-of-control son.  Something about his carrying on in this film that made me wonder what the actor was like in real life.  In the future, when I heard things, I thought back to this movie.  I suspect, too, that he thought he should have had the lead role which Paul Newman assumed.

The dud was The Naked Maja where he played Goya.  MGM Technicolored it to death, including some of the truth.  Ava Gardner was the Duchess of Alba who drove Goya mad with desire as did Gardner to Franciosa.  Winters got wind of an affair and apparently threatened the gorgeous brunette with facial restructuring if she didn't back off. (I think I would have put my money on Ava.)  Gardner found herself a bullfighter.

He made two wonderful movies in 1959.  He was nothing short of magnificent in Career.  Costarring Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine and Carolyn Jones, Franciosa was not top-billed but his was the starring role.  He played someone he was most familiar with... a young hopeful trying to make it on Broadway.  The only difference is this character had a difficult time getting there.  But he certainly brought every nuance, trait and characteristic in his arsenal to the role.  I was spellbound but the black and white-filmed story was a downer and went largely unseen.

With Rita Hayworth in "The Story on Page One"

The Story on Page One was a great choice for him and his costar, Rita Hayworth.  Largely a courtroom drama, Franciosa was a lawyer defending Hayworth on charges that she and her lover, Gig Young, murdered her husband.  Franciosa showed his most tender side in his scenes with Hayworth, looking forlorn, and yet his firecracker emotions easily sprang forth as he was cross-examining.

I hate to say it but this was the last of his best films.  Gee, maybe I should have included him in my 1950s piece.  Damn you, Richard Harris.  In 1960 he and Winters were divorced and the following year he married Judy Balaban Kanter.  Who?  She had a Hollywood pedigree (I suspect Franciosa was not opposed to marrying up).  She would one day write a book about being one of Grace Kelly's bridesmaids.  Her husband had been Jay Kanter, a big mucky-muck agent and her father, Barney Balaban, was a former head of Paramount Pictures, where Franciosa did some of his best work.  Balaban opposed his daughter's marriage to Franciosa and it's been said he helped sabotage his son-in-law's career.  Of course, helped is the operative word.

With some of his Actors Studios pals, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, among them, he attended Civil Rights events and marched in the south.  He was as passionate about it as he was about acting.  This was one of the few things he and Shelley Winters had in common.

He became very frustrated with Gina Lollobrigida on the 1961 film Go Naked in the World.  Ernest Borgnine, only 11 years older and playing his father, echoed Franciosa's sentiments.  He was more light-hearted in Period of Adjustment, a manic romp about a fighting newlywed couple (Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton) who stay with and seek advice from a friend (Franciosa) whose marriage (to Lois Nettleton) is coming apart.  I liked both of these films but neither was particularly successful.

He had done television previously but by this time it picked up momentum, a sure sign that the movie star luster was fading.  In 1964 he appeared in a western I enjoyed, Rio Conchos, along with Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman and Jim Brown.  But Franciosa, masquerading as a Mexican, had the smallest role and was bumped off before the exciting finale. 

He began appearing as the older man in movies designed for younger audiences, like The Sweet Ride and two with Ann-Margret, The Pleasure Seekers and The Swinger.  In James Garner's autobiography, which I reviewed, he said that when they appeared in 1966's A Man Could Get Killed, Garner told Franciosa he was hitting the stunt people too hard and when Franciosa ignored him, Garner punched him.

He made 20 more movies before his death, most of which aren't worth mentioning.  He also starred in five television series.  From the most famous, The Name of the Game, where he rotated starring weeks with Robert Stack and Gene Barry, he was fired.  He made the news during his Matt Helm series when he got into a fistfight with a director.

He provided me with a lot of pleasurable hours watching him on the big screen and I wish his early magic would have lasted.  Acting meant a great deal to him.  He was most unhappy in between pictures but unfortunately too problematic for a career to have mileage.

On the day Shelley Winters died, Franciosa had a stroke and five days later he was dead at age 77 in 2006 in Los Angeles.  On hearing of his death, his pal and two-time costar, Paul Newman, said: Tony was as good as it gets... smart, probing, explosive, and he had it all at his fingertips.

Next posting:
Another James Dean

1 comment:

  1. I hoped You wouldn't mention Go Naked In The World. It's perhaps the worst movie for the three stars.