Frawley Becker C’50 has some very tasty stories about the film stars he coached: Audrey Hepburn standing up for him when he was being dissed by a grumpy, pixilated Hugh Griffith on the set of How to Steal a Million. Rex Harrison holding up a shoot for two hours to send out for silk socks because he thought his character’s feet should not be clad in a lesser fabriceven though they would be completely hidden from the camera. Peter O’Toole, delaying a shoot for several hours while he slept off the previous night’s drinking, then apologizing with heartfelt contrition to director Anatole Litvak. Peter Ostrum, the child star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, asking Becker if he would adopt him should his own parents die.
These and many others are told, with sensitive flair, in Becker’s And the Stars Spoke Back: A Dialogue Coach Remembers Hollywood Players of the Sixties in Paris (Scarecrow Press). During that time, Becker rehearsed with the actors, coached them on the nuances of their scripts, lent a sympathetic ear, and in some cases befriended them. He also learned some sobering truths about the difference between Hollywood and the European film industries.
Much of the book is set in Paris, “the only place to be if you were a romantic young man in 1955 who didn’t want to go into medicine,” writes Becker, a pre-med psychology major at Penn whose passion for theater first led him to the Penn Players and Mask & Wig. He brought his passion with him to Europe, where he studied set- and costume-design at the Ruskin School of Fine Arts in Oxford, started a theater company on an American military base at Saint-Germain-en-Laye; formed the first African-American theater company within the U.S. Army; and founded the Paris Playhouse, an English-speaking professional theater that opened in 1963 with two plays by Edward Albee.
In 1964, director Robert Parrish asked Becker to help Cliff Robertson and Irina Demick with their dialogue in Up From the Beach, a sequel to The Longest Day set in Normandy.
“Bob Parrish said to me, ‘I need someone who speaks French, and you do,’ because we were working in France and there were a lot of French actors in the film besides the American stars,” recalls Becker in a telephone interview. “And he said, ‘I need someone who’s accustomed to working with actors,’ and because of my background in the theater that was the case.”
Robertson and Demick may have been the movie’s romantic leads, but as the filming progressed they came to loathe each otherand insisted on speaking their close-up romantic dialogue not to one another but to Becker, who was slightly off-camera. There were other problems with that movie, including the alcoholism of another actor in the film, Broderick Crawford. Before one scene, Parrish told Becker:
“If he’s not steady on his feet, I’ll lean him up against the barrels and that will support him. I want you right behind this first barrel. If he misses a line, throw it to him right away. You’re not on camera, I’m framing right at the end of his body.”
And that’s how Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford got through his big scene that day, leaning against the barrels, with me whispering the words the moment I heard a pause that wasn’t rehearsed.
The gist of a dialogue coach’s job is to rehearse the actors and otherwise prepare them before the shooting begins, a job that requires not just a sensitivity to language and script but also to personalities and egos. In most cases, Becker quickly gained their confidence.
“With the Audrey Hepburns and Peter O’Tooles of the world, and Omar Sharifthey saw me as being very helpful to them,” he says. “They don’t always get a chance to discuss all these fine-tunings with the directors. The director has a million things to do. Of course he has sat with the stars way up front, and they’ve discussed the character and the thrust of the film, and the kind of tempo and mood that they want to set. But then you come into the nuts and bolts of working any particular scene with all of the lines, and that’s where the dialogue coach can pick up the slack from the director and help both the star and the director by working more specifically with the actor.”
Becker doesn’t grovel at the unwashed feet of the famous. Those who succumbed to their own egos and treated crew members badlythe preening Harrison, Griffith, the screaming director Mel Stuartcome across not as stars but boors.
Sometimes [Griffith] would start moaning when he saw me approaching him with the open script in my hand. That is exactly what happened during a camera rehearsal with Audrey [Hepburn] and him. He’d just made a garble of his lines and I started to approach him with the script.
“No, no!” he cried. “Not again! Go away! Go away!”
“Fine,” I answered casually. “If that’s what you want.” And I made an about-face to my spot with the script girl, just behind the director.
“He’s such an annoyance!” I heard Griffith say to Audrey.
“Well, you know, Hugh, it’s not easy, doing what he’s doing, correcting actors. It’s not easy at all.”
Griffith mumbled into his beard and I thought suddenly that I’d had the best defense attorney on the planet.
Hepburn and O’Toole (among others) emerge as the greater characters in part because of their greater humanity. Consider this scene from the set of How to Steal a Million:
After the first rehearsal, Audrey walked a few feet away, where Grazia and Alberto de Rossi freshened up her hair and makeup. She commented to them that the French woman who was standing next to her in rehearsal probably hadn’t bathed that day, because her body odor was strong. She said it in a matter-of-fact manner, not as a complaint. But Paul Feyder overheard her and changed the woman with another extra who, in the next rehearsal, was then standing next to Audrey. Audrey, of course, noticed the change and completed the rehearsal. Then she called Feyder over to her.
“What happened to that other woman who was next to me in the last rehearsal?”
“Well, Audrey,” replied Feyder, “I overheard your remark about her. I knew she was offending you, so I changed her.”
“She wasn’t offending me. There are a lot of people in Paris who still don’t have bathtubs and showers. She’s probably one of them. If she’s on camera next to me, she’ll get a bump in her salary, and I’m sure she can use it. Please put her back.”
Sometimes, even those stars who showed the greatest class and humanity, such as O’Toole, went a bit over the top, as the following scene during the filming of The Night of the Generals shows:
I knocked on Peter’s trailer and entered. He was sitting, being made up. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen!” I declaimed as I walked in, proud of finding a Shakespearean line that seemed appropriate to the weather. Peter stared at me as if he’d seen a disembodied spirit … [then] Peter started a moan that mounted and mounted into a yell, an actual yell.
“Do you not know that you must never quote the Scottish gentleman?” he shouted at me.
“You mean Mac?”
“The Scottish gentleman!” he cried in his most theatrical voice, correcting me before I could complete the name of Macbeth. “He must never be named! And never a line from that play may be spoken, except in the theater where it is being performed or rehearsed.”
“What happens if … the play … is quoted?”
“Great misfortune follows!” he thundered like an oracle. There was a long moment of silence during which all three men glowered at me. “I forgive you because you are an American, and as such I assume you do not know the traditions of the English stage!”
O’Toole not only forgave Becker but took him out drinking and presented him with a pair of engraved cufflinks for his help on How to Steal a Million, andafter the engraver misspelled his first nametook to calling him “Trawley luv.” One night during the filming of The Night of the Generals, O’Toole indulged in some after-hours drinkingthe only time, Becker emphasizes, that he ever saw drink affect his on-set performance in the eight months they worked together.
It would be three hours, not one, before Peter would be in any condition to see anyone. Repeatedly, I appeared at the dressing room door, and repeatedly, I was informed to come back. On the fourth visit, I was admitted … Naked as a jaybird, Peter stepped out of the shower, his fair skin as white as Irish linen, a skin the sun rarely touched. His wet hair plastered down on his forehead, he caught my eye. “Do I have any big speeches, Trawley luv?” I told him no, but that there was an exchange of dialogue nonetheless. “Then we shall have it!” he declaimed as he started into a pair of under shorts. I opened the script and began speaking Omar [Sharif]’s lines to him.
On the stage, [director Anatole] Litvak had filmed everything he could without Peter: Omar’s arrival and dialogue in the outer office, his entrance into General Tanz’s office, and Omar’s close shot getting shot to death. At three o’clock, the camera stopped turning, the crew drifted little by little to the bar and then casually returned. Litvak was strangling over the loss of time …
At five o’clock, Peter strode on the stage in his general’s uniform, his putty Aryan nose and every hair in place. Everyone went still as he walked right up to Litvak and said, in almost heart-breaking contrition, “Tola, I’m so sorry!” Four words, but they were the right ones for a sentimental Russian. Litvak’s anger dissolved instantly, his eyes went moist, and then the two of them, renowned director and actor alike, fell into each other’s arms and embraced. I swear they both were sniffling before Peter broke away and apologized to Omar and the crew. Litvak reached for a handkerchief.
Becker has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1972, a move driven by his decision to focus on his writing. (After being encouraged to write by the likes of director Nicholas Ray, Becker has written a number of plays, screenplays, and short stories, not to mention And the Stars Spoke Back). He also worked as a film location manager on such films as Steel Magnolias and Jerry Maguire. Yet one senses that he is still disturbed by the caste-driven social structure of Hollywood, where being on the “A List” or “B List” determines what parties one will be invited to and what hotel one stays in.
“In the French films that I was on, if we shot in Montreal or Romethe entire crew, from top producer and director, right on down to the gripeveryone would be in the same hotel,” he notes. “This never happens in a Hollywood film.
“It’s interesting that a country such as France, which is steeped in class differences, starting with the aristocracy going down to peasantand I don’t use that term derogatorilyis so much more bound as family,” he adds. “And here in the United States, a country of democracy, Hollywood has set up a system of Class A people, Class B people, Class A parties, Class B parties, and so on down the line.
“This country adulates certain heroes,” says Becker. “Rock stars, sports figures, movie stars. These three groups are placed on such a pedestal, because they represent something very Americanfame, money, celebrity status. And a lot of people, who are frustrated in their own lives or not doing the work they want to do, dream about this.”
The fame and adulation thus become a “test of character” for many actors and directors, some of whom take to drink, drugs, “snobbism,” or even suicide, Becker suggests. “On the other hand, if their background is strong, and they are brought up with solid principles, they see it as work, and they won’t be thrown by it.”
Becker, it’s clear, falls into the latter category. S.H.
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Left: Actor Tom Courtenay,