Tuesday, November 8

Character Actors: Woolley & Gomez

It's not a stretch to conclude that Monty Woolley and Thomas Gomez had a few things in common.  Both were born in New York City around the turn of the last century, both were accomplished stage actors before becoming movie performers, they were character actors who were highly-skilled scene-stealers, they were on the round side and both were gay although they conducted their lives far differently.

There were certainly differences between the two men as well. Woolley made few films but rose to leading man status a number of times and certainly made films in which his character was the central focus.  Gomez made many more films and as a result may be more recognizable to today's filmgoers but he was almost never in particularly prominent roles. 

He was nicknamed The Beard

I loved Monty Woolley.  I got the biggest smile when he was on screen.  I suppose he could have been my favorite male character actor.  One day I saw him in a film with my decidedly favorite character actress, Thelma Ritter, and I practically needed oxygen. Wooley was so full of himself, both as an actor and a person.  It was obvious  He was bright, quick, humorous, biting, imperious and condescending.  If he didn't think he was better than other people, he certainly would never have said is there is a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?  He always reminded me of his friend Clifton Webb-- that caustic conceit--  and they could easily have changed roles. Woolley would have made a superb Waldo Lydecker in Laura and Webb would have given some razzle-dazzle to Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, although I'm glad it worked out as it did.

He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth in 1888.  His father was a fancy hotel owner on Broadway.  Woolley was aware his family was well-connected from day one and he had no trouble fulfilling his privileged role.  

He studied at both Yale and Harvard and was known on both campuses for being a snooty raconteur.  At the former he met songwriter Cole Porter who became a lifelong friend.  Woolley would one day return to Yale and teach English and drama. Among his students were up-and-coming writers Stephen Vincent Benet and Thornton Wilder.

Woolley never really came out but he wasn't always secretive either.  He and Porter were known to troll the dark streets and docks in search of anonymous sex.  When he visited his pal Noel Coward in London, Woolley would live a wilder life and then would return to New York and regale an eager Webb with all the salacious details.

Woolley and Porter got involved in Broadway productions around the same time and collaborated on several.  Woolley directed both plays and musicals.  In 1936, at the ripe old age of 47, he gave up teaching and began a stage actor.  Hollywood came calling and soon he had supporting roles in several films, most notable being the Margaret Sullavan weepie, Three Comrades and the Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy songfest, The Girl of the Golden West, both 1938.  Few paid much attention to Woolley and he moseyed back to the snob appeal of Manhattan when he could.  He became a Broadway sensation in the1939 comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, as the insufferably bombastic theater critic who is holed-up with a broken hip with a family he doesn't know but on whose front steps he has slipped.  His too-long presence upsets everyone.

Bette Davis & Ann Sheridan with The Man Who Came to Dinner

To be sure, it was a role he was born to play and Hollywood came calling again in 1942 for him to repeat the role in the film version of Dinner.  If you've never seen this witty comedy, you should correct that as soon as possible.  It is unquestionably his most famous role and he played variations of it for the remainder of his career.

The same year he copped an Oscar nomination for The Pied Piper. It concerned a Brit who is in France when the Germans invade and he unexpectedly finds himself in charge of sheltering two children and all endure one hardship after another before film's end.  Also in 1942 was Life Begins at 8:30, a sentimental look at a dried up old boozy actor who lives a dreary life with his crippled daughter (Ida Lupino) in New York. This was three good films in a row.

He essentially played Sheridan Whiteside again in 1944s superb Since You Went Away and got another Oscar nomination for his efforts.  He played a cantankerous boarder in a home of women during the war.  You may recall an earlier posting on this one.

He played himself in the highly-fictionalized and heterosexualized Cole Porter biography, Night and Day, in 1946, with Cary Grant as Porter.  The tunes were great fun.  He appeared as a professor (typecasting) in another Grant film, The Bishop's Wife, a troubled production, the following year.  

Woolley and Thelma Ritter were excellent in the 1951 comedy, As Young As You Feel, one of the better scripts on aging.  He is forced to retire from his job as a printer and all sorts of complications ensue.  These two should have done more films together, so perfect together they were.   

In his last film, Kismet (1955), he played Omar Khayyam.  I have never regarded the Howard Keel-Ann Blyth-starrer as one of the better musicals of the time, but I know there are opinions to the contrary.

In 2004, the Woolley-Porter friendship, presented much more honestly, was featured in De-Lovely.  Kevin Kline played Porter and Allan Corduner was Woolley.  In reality the Woolley-Porter friendship suffered a setback later in life when Porter learned that Woolley's black manservant was a bit more than that.

Monty Woolley floated in and out of various illnesses in the last eight years of his life and eventually died in 1963 in New York of kidney and heart ailments.  He was 74 years old.

I was aware of Thomas Gomez long before I knew who Monty Woolley was.  Gomez played ill-tempered bandidos or corrupt police officials, it seemed, in film after film from my earliest days as a moviegoer. I got to know him well and quickly.  He scared me, too, but I liked it and it didn't take long to become a fan. I knew I could always count on him to deliver the goods.

He didn't come to films until he was in his 30s and his scowl alone guaranteed him countless roles as a villain.  He had his share of playing priests and peasants, kings and victims.  But that icy stare, greasy hair, food-laden jowls and girth aided in escalating him to the top of character actor villainy.

The family had come to the states from Spain shortly before Gomez's birth in 1905. Apparently he never spent a moment in his childhood considering becoming an actor. After high school he answered an ad for some production position in the theater and wound up attracting the attention of Broadway royalty, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  He would wind up spending the majority of the thirties criss-crossing the country in plays with them.  He also managed to win an acting scholarship that put him on the road to a life-long profession.

He was proud of his Hispanic heritage and was determined to play sympathetic characters who showed humanity.  We know that didn't work out so well and we're happy. In his first film, he not only played someone with no humanity, he wasn't Hispanic either. He was a nasty Nazi spy in 1942s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

He made a number of forgettable films in the early 1940s but things picked up with his good cop role in the noir Phantom Lady (1944), a crooked gambling house owner in Johnny O'Clock (1947) and a priest in the same year's Captain from Castile.  Also in 1947 he played Pancho, a sleazy merry-go-round operator who helps the hero in a decent noir, Ride the Pink Horse.  The role would earn him a supporting Oscar nomination, the first Hispanic actor to be so honored.

He had two wonderful roles in 1948.  First was as Edward G. Robinson's thug-lackey in the marvelous Key Largo and was even better as John Garfield's small-time numbers racket brother in Force of Evil.  I would consider it the man's best performance.

He was a great Blackbeard the pirate opposite Jean Peters in 1951 Anne of the Indies.  I first saw him as the patsy-cop in Macao (1952).  I think I saw it about a half dozen times because I loved Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Gloria Grahame. He was a delightfully comedic Indian scout in the Tyrone Power Canadian western, Pony Soldier (1952) and Pier Angeli's over-protective father in Sombrero (1953).  

He was a perfect fit in those sand and sandal epics, usually as a friend of the hero. Casbah (1948), Kim (1950), The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954) and The Conqueror (1956) are but a few.  The same year he had a small but effective role as a tough circus owner in Trapeze.  

Giving Gina Lollobrigida a hard time in Trapeze

The movie career, for some reason, began to slip at this point and Gomez did what all actors did in that position at that time... they hightailed it to television and he did tons of it. He managed a modern-day role as a money man to Clark Gable's Broadway producer in 1958s But Not for Me and was excellent as Rita Moreno's lowlife father in Summer and Smoke (1962).

From the time Gomez came to Hollywood, he lived a very quiet life.  A great deal of it was spent in hotels and while eschewing a social life, he spent most of his time reading. He was as closeted as a gay man could be. Always.  Looking at him, one might certainly guess he was not gay and that's just as he liked it.

As a movie fan and a budding young gay guy, I combed any written document I could find on what actors were gay and I still remember the surprise I felt at reading Thomas Gomez was part of the tribe. Really?  Thomas Gomez?   But at a Hollywood Hills party about a year later and just a few doors from his home, I heard Gomez offer to pay a hot, young bartender big bucks for a few minutes of his time.  I just assumed it wasn't to learn how to make a Rusty Nail.

He was a well-known gourmand and known to frequent the best restaurants in L.A. and New York.  He got so heavy, however, that a doctor placed him on a strict diet and he lost over 100 pounds. He was pleased with the results although it was short-lived.  In May, 1971, he was injured in a car accident and never came out of a coma and died three weeks later in Santa Monica at age 65.

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Movie review

1 comment:

  1. I covered Gomez in my own selection: http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/characters-we-like.html