‘I Loved Her in the Movies’

Robert Wagner on the women whose faces filled the screen

Dec. 1, 2016
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ilovedherinthemovies

Robert Wagner loved his work—how couldn’t he? According to his memoir of moviegoing and moviemaking, I Loved Her in the Movies, he practically lived in movie theaters as a boy before he commenced a career that included roles in The Pink Panther, The Longest Day and the Austin Powers flicks.

Written with Scott Eyman, author of prestigious biographies of John Wayne, Louis B. Meyer and Cecil B. DeMille, I Loved Her in the Movies focuses on one aspect of Wagner’s memories: the women who stared in the films he loved. He organizes his constellations of stars according to the decades they became famous, starting in the 1930s, specifically with Norma Shearer. She was the first movie star he met. Wagner, who had the good fortune to grow up in Hollywood, was eight. She presented him with an autographed photo he continues to treasure.

Although Wagner soon enough was in a position to gain his own fans, he remained a fan of many of the stars he encountered during his career and has written a fan’s book. And yet, he’s a fan with insight. “If the 1950s were the time of the teenager,” he writes, “the 1930s were the time of the adult.” He cites Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne as “women you could relate to on a human level. Unlike Garbo, you didn’t watch them from a distance.” From the ‘40s, he references Katharine Hepburn, cast six times as Spencer Tracy’s wife, five of them contentious marriages. “This was smart filmmaking, because it echoed their very real differences as people.”

After surveying everyone from Mae West through Glen Close, Wagner reflects that actresses have it harder than actors and generally enjoy shorter careers. “For every Meryl Streep there are ten Demi Moores and Meg Ryans… whose professional opportunities begin to dry up just about the time they hit forty.” Almost inevitably, “a fresh crop of hot young girls” replaces them.

And then, if an actress becomes too assertive, “there are hundreds of men all too willing to label her a bitch or worse, an attitude that is rarely the response when a male actor makes equivalent demands.” But then, he adds, the stars in his book became stars because they understood how to navigate the rough waters of an industry that can be all-consuming.”

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