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He spoke in a raspy monotone that was both authoritative and threatening. Howard Strickling was officially the head of public relations for MGM during its heyday, but his real responsibility, he would explain, was more protection than publicity.
Strickling’s mission was to nurture the roster of stars under studio contract. If she were around today, he might even have a few things to say to Brad Pitt or George Clooney.
He’s likely to be wary, for example, of Pitt’s decision to play silent star John Gilbert in the upcoming period film. Babylon. Gilbert’s career ended abruptly in the 1920s due to his stormy personal relationships with other stars, so Strickling would advise Pitt to avoid references to his litigation with his ex-wife Angelina Jolie.
Gilbert experienced highly publicized conflicts with his volatile co-star and fiancée Greta Garbo. Louis B. Mayer objected to the wedding, and in a lethal moment, Gilbert shoved the MGM czar into a wall, causing him to lose his glasses and scream, “I will destroy you.”
Thus, Strickling would likely be warning reporters to avoid asking personal questions of Pitt, who, unlike Gilbert, is normally tactful and personable in his media encounters. He also has a strong speaking voice in contrast to Gilbert’s falsetto, which hurt his career in the brave new world of sound films.
Strickling had the studio muscle to change casting decisions and reinvent the stories of actors like Tab Hunter or Guy Madison (Gilbert was originally called Cecil Pringle).
Damian Chazelle, Babylon‘s director (also filmed the earth) carefully studied that moment in the 1920s when the stars’ careers were interrupted by the introduction of sound. He believes Hollywood faces a similar moment of transformation today, as streamers supplant theatrical displays, depriving stars of their red carpet openings and festival exposure.
Clooney, a scholar of Hollywood history, has cleverly moved between streamers, such as the midnight skyand theatrical films, such as ticket to paradise. His new movie is doing well around the world (close to $100 million) and defying critics’ dire predictions by winning over ticket buyers in the United States.
Still, Strickling could have proposed a platform release for ticket to paradiseand urged his director to provide a visually more romantic and protective setting for his Ticket stars. Clooney, 61, and Julia Roberts, 57, appear to pale in the harsh Balinese sunlight.
By contrast, Cary Grant, at 61, starred opposite Audrey Hepburn in the elegantly lit, sophisticated comedy-thriller titled Farce in 1963. His setting was Paris, without the glare of the sun.
Still, the Clooney-Roberts team won warm praise from the larger public, as well as the media. the New York Times he suggested that “Clooney and Roberts have quietly become the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn of our time.”
Tracy was 67 and Hepburn was 60 when they last appeared together on Guess who’s coming to dinner in 1967, at which point they were both ill and their exchanges full of spikes. Both also hated the media: reporters were barred from the set.
I knew Strickling in his later years (he died in 1982) and enjoyed cajoling him with his gossip, which was not easy. He worked with a thuggish ex-janitor named Eddie Mannix to protect misbehaving stars who were heavy drinkers who also indulged in opium and “morphine,” as he was then called.
There are no studio enforcers like Strickling in Hollywood today, but stars like Will Smith or Johnny Depp probably would have coveted his support. Strickling could make police reports disappear and magically alter the content of column items.
I would have greatly admired stars like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have shown a talent for sustaining their long careers during a time of change.
In return, those stars would have appreciated Strickling’s talent. “The stars didn’t like me, but they needed me,” Strickling once confided to me. “It was more important to me that they needed me.”
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