Book Review – Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel by Allan R Ellenberger

Apart from hardcore classic film fans, actress Miriam Hopkins is not often  mentioned, which is a great shame in my opinion. She was an electric screen presence who achieved her greatest film success during the Pre-Code era. As a fan of her work, I’ve always wanted to know more about her and after eyeballing her biography for several years, finally made the time.

Though I’ve never encountered any of Allan R Ellenberger’s work before, he has written a handful of books on other film celebrities. Using multiple source materials he fleshes out a full-bodied portrait of the actress that has been sorely needed. Right away he sets the tone for his subject in his title choice, naming Miriam the Hollywood rebel that she was. Ellenberger paints a portrait of a cunningly intelligent, often appealing woman whose independence and determination helped her succeed in a difficult business while also occasionally alienating people along the way.

Born of generations of strong women, Miriam’s grandmother was a writer and her mother was nothing if not strong-willed. They passed on those traits to her. From a young age, Miriam was a force of nature, mercurial, independent, very chatty and  determined to get her way, whether through charm, powers of persuasion or force of will.

Interested in natural talent, throughout her life she cultivated a circle of educated, artistic friends and acquaintances. Not one to shy away from conflict, she also didn’t balk at challenging convention and constantly pushed the moral boundaries in the material she accepted, although she would never have considered her choices avant-garde in any way.

Like many Hollywood stars, Miriam’s career was born on the stage; first in vaudeville and later on Broadway working with notables such as George M Cohan in Chicago and George Cukor’s Rochester, NY company. It was there that she would first meet Bette Davis. It was also on stage where she first worked with future co-star Fredric March. After several years of toil, her break-out role came in An American Tragedy, a story which would later be filmed as A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

When Hollywood came calling, Miriam found a home at Paramount for several years where she had her greatest onscreen successes before moving on to Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

Although she was almost always praised for her talented performances, Miriam had questionable judgement when making career choices which along with her temperamental reputation eventually led to a decline in the work she was offered. Lawrence Langer who co-founded the prestigious Theater Guild in New York claimed she was, “one of the more versatile actresses of the stage and screen, with a gift for rapid-fire dialogue, both on and off stage.”

Many people claimed Miriam was difficult on set, but she seemed to respond well to directors of strong personality and backbone who refused to let her run the show. According to director and friend Rouben Mamoulian, “She started out as a scene-stealer the first couple of days. She didn’t give it up because I told her to but because she felt she didn’t need to do that. She was one of the best troupers I ever worked with.”

In contrast, she was threatened by other strong performers and always worked to upstage them. However, Miriam got along great with some actors such as Maurice Chevalier, Bing Crosby and Joel McCrea and was often  generous with those who were no threat to her. Kitty Carlisle, who had a supporting part in one of Miriam’s films She Loves Me Not, confirmed this when she stated that Miriam was “the most generous of colleagues, offering to rehearse before each scene.”

One of the most interesting things Ellenberger explores in his book is the feud between Miriam and Bette Davis. Originally, the two were friendly acquaintances off screen.  But the origins for the feud started when Miriam felt Bette stole the lead in Jezebel, a role she had her eye on. In reality, she had been tricked into signing away her rights to it by Jack Warner who promised her the role when it was adapted for the screen. She also lost the leads in Dark Victory and Little Foxes to Bette. When a rumor made the rounds that Bette had a brief affair with her then husband Anatole Litvak, Miriam was livid and the rift between the two was complete. The true causes for the feud seem to be circumstantial with no apparent deliberate attempt by Bette to rile Hopkins. The problem was exacerbated by the wily Jack Warner who played hardball with Miriam over and over.  When it was a choice between Miriam and Bette, Warner always favored Bette whose own contract with Warner Brothers meant there was a vested interest in her success. In their two films together, The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, accounts indicate both actresses fought to upstage the other. It seems they were just two strong, independent women who clashed because their interests were at odds. Ellenberger makes a good point that the Hopkins-Davis feud has always been written about from Davis point of view. In fact, Bette often spoke disparagingly about her time working with Miriam, but Miriam never publicly uttered a negative word about Bette.

Offscreen Miriam was a real heart-breaker who “loved men”, flying through affairs, often without any emotional attachment when they ended. Many of the men felt much more for her than she did for them. Still she was often able to maintain good relationship with the men she dumped. Among her brief flings were F Scott Fitzgerald, director King Vidor, future Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, fellow actor Robert Montgomery and agent Leland Hayward. In fact Bennet Cerf once warned a friend, “You’re going to be crazy about Miriam because she’s fascinating. Don’t make one terrible mistake. Don’t fall in love with her. She’s great fun, but god help you if you fall in love with her.” In between affairs Miriam was married four times. But the real love of her life was her son Michael, whom she adopted as a single woman. Other interesting facts I learned about Miriam include:

  • Considered Kay Francis a good friend
  • Consulted psychics before making big decisions
  • Supported her mother and sister throughout their lives
  • She was accident prone, frequently injuring herself while working, which often delayed filming on her pictures
  • Mentored by film actress Nancy Carroll in the art of lights, makeup, camera angles. Miriam payed this investment forward helping others when she became successful.
  • Ended up on the FBI’s radar after becoming involved with liberal political causes.
  • Early supporter and friend of Tennessee Williams
  • Always considered New York home, preferring it over Los Angeles, just as she preferred the theater to films.
  • Part of a mutual admiration society with Ernst Lubitsch, who called Miriam his favorite actress. She claimed, “No he didn’t help my career, he made my career.”

After reading finishing Allenberger’s book, I am so very thankful that he took the time to write about a woman who is often overlooked when discussing film history. I’m even more fascinated by Miriam now that I know more and in many ways, I admire her more than before. I appreciate that Allenberger doesn’t sugarcoat her character and personality weaknesses.  She certainly was a dynamic woman and actress and Allenberger did a wonderful job capturing her in print.

Her sister Ruby sums her up best. “Miriam claimed that five things were needed to be a successful actress, talent, training, good luck, persistence and heart, but said that heart was the most important because, “if you have that, anything is possible.”  Ruby believed that Miriam “had all five qualities in large measure, but she had an enormous zest for living; she was the most alive person I have ever known. She also had more nerve than anyone I ever met.”

This is my first entry in this year’s Classic Film Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past.

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