Miriam Hopkins: Belle on wheels
MIRIAM HOPKINS: LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL by Allan R. Ellenberger. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 424 pages. $45 retail.
University Press of Kentucky’s stellar string of show-biz biographies – which have included such recent releases as Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly and Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film – continues with Allan R. Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel, the first full-length volume devoted to the actress, as much remembered for such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Old Acquaintance (1943), as her reputation – which preceded her, was not particularly positive, and was so well-known that the Harvard Lampoon once selected her as being “least desirable companion on a desert island.”
Call Hopkins a diva, a grande dame, or worse – and many did – this dyed-in-the-wool Southern belle (born in Savannah, no less) was no shrinking violet. Her frequent demands to producers and screenwriters to enhance (i.e. enlarge) her characters famously cost her the role that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar in It Happened One Night (1934). Despite a good relationship with filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny took it upon himself to convince producer Alexander Korda to instead hire Carole Lombard for To Be or Not to Be (1942), a resounding flop in its day but now considered a classic. Quite simply, Benny didn’t want to deal with Hopkins.
Once on the set, whether by concession or contractual obligation, Hopkins boasted an arsenal of tricks to flummox or upstage her fellow actors. Some, such as Joel McCrea (with whom she made five films and had a good rapport), took it in stride. Filmmakers Lubitsch, William Wyler (These Three) and Rouben Mamoulian (Jekyll and Hyde, Becky Sharp) sung her praises, as well.
Others, such as Edward G. Robinson (Barbary Coast), most definitely did not. On Jekyll and Hyde, in which Hopkins played the sultry barmaid Ivy, she repeatedly infuriated co-star Fredric March, who was playing both title roles, because she constantly tried to dominate their scenes. (March, however, could console himself with the Oscar he’d win for his performance.)
Ironically, some years later Hopkins and Robinson would share an unfortunate brush with the Hollywood Blacklist, although it didn’t hurt her career as much as his.
In Bette Davis, however, Hopkins met her match. Never mind Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; the real feud was Davis and Hopkins. That both were bypassed for the role of Scarlett O’Hara was perhaps the only instance in which they were simpatico (Hopkins, being a native Southerner, thought she had an edge on the role). Hopkins had starred in Owen Davis’ drama Jezebel on stage in 1933 and expected to reprise the role onscreen. She didn’t, Davis did, and won an Oscar.
They made two films together, The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance, and on both the battle lines were drawn early. They didn’t so much co-star as collide, with respective directors Edmund Goulding and Vincent Sherman acting as de-facto referees. In her later years, Davis took great delight in recounting how, during a performance of her one-woman show on the day Hopkins died, she said: “God has been good to us. He’s taken Miriam Hopkins.”
That few in the audience even remembered Hopkins was, undoubtedly, a further delight for Davis.
Perhaps that was a catalyst for author Ellenberger, who provides a well-written and well-researched account of Hopkins’ sometimes triumphant, sometimes troubled life. This is no hatchet job. The book is dedicated to Hopkins’ only child Michael and Michael’s wife Christiane (both deceased), and it’s clear that they opened the proverbial vault, providing Ellenberger – and the readers – with a clearer insight into Hopkins’ life, which included a contentious relationship with her mother Ellen and, oddly enough, a firm belief in astrology and mysticism. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hopkins would consult psychic before making important decisions. It’s also no exaggeration to say that she was wildly incorrect in some instances.
Despite being blessed with beauty, determination and talent, Hopkins’s career was undoubtedly curtailed by her behavior, yet in interviews, she always remained circumspect. Such behind-the-scenes gossip was not meant for public consumption, as she deemed it.
Ellenberger, whose specialty is vintage cinema – he co-authored The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol (2005) with Edoardo Ballerini and went solo with Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle (2013) – evinces a clear affection and respect for Hopkins, and no small measure of sympathy. She was clearly a difficult woman and temperamental actress, and career-wise she was frequently her own worst enemy, but that doesn’t diminish the work. Hers was a fascinating life and career, and it’s all to be found in the pages of Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel.
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