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Miriam Hopkins biography to be published by University Press of Kentucky

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Sep 25th, 2016
2016
Sep 25

 MIRIAM HOPKINS

Miriam Hopkins biography to be published by University Press of Kentucky

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Miriam Hopkins

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 By Allan R. Ellenberger

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After tens years of research, interviews and writing, on Friday, I was notified that my biography of actress Miriam Hopkins will be published by the University Press of Kentucky as part of their Screen Classics series. The people of UPK have been great and I look forward to working with them.

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Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972), a top star during Hollywood’s Golden Age, was a complex, independent-minded woman decades ahead of her time. A hard-working (and highly demanding) professional, Hopkins was also a sexually daring, self-educated intellectual, who happened to be a firm believer in liberal causes.

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She had a reputation as one of the screen’s most difficult and temperamental actresses. A close friend, Tennessee Williams, worked with Hopkins and after an initially difficult period, he accepted her extremes. He once described her extremes as “morning mail and morning coffee,” and at other times she was like “hat-pin jabbed in your stomach. The quintessence of the female, a really magnificent bitch.”

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Hopkins was exceptionally smart; one who never let anyone find out how smart she was until it was too late. After many years of research, I was amazed at her intellect and temperament, which would erupt unexpectedly and disappear as quickly. Sometimes her demanding mother would trigger it, but in most cases, she was fighting for her career—or so she thought.

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Throughout the 1930’s, the freewheeling Hopkins was a unique case, remaining a top Hollywood star at no less than four studios: Paramount, RKO, Goldwyn and Warner Bros. And no matter where she worked, in her quest for better opportunities, Hopkins fearlessly tackled the studios’ powers-that-be, from the venerated Samuel Goldwyn to the irascible Jack Warner.

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Hopkins’ biography offers numerous stories—some humorous, some ugly—about her countless battles with co-workers on the set of her plays and films. Whatever drove her—be it ambition, insecurity, or something altogether different, she created conflict with her fellow actors. She was either loved or hated; there was rarely anything in-between. And to say that Hopkins was “difficult and temperamental” would be an understatement. She was Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda rolled into one.

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Having said that, whenever she trusted the work of her director and co-stars, she was an ideal team player, but if she did not, life for them was not worth living. If rewriting screenplays, directing her fellow actors and her directors, fighting with producers and the studio’s front office was necessary, so be it.

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But in Hopkins’ mind, she was never temperamental. “Proof of that is that I made four pictures with Willie Wyler, who is a very demanding director,” she once said. “I made two with Rouben Mamoulian, who is the same. Three with Ernst Lubitsch, such a dear man. When you are asked to work again with such directors, you cannot be temperamental.”

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In 1940, she made theater history by starring in Tennessee Williams’ first produced play, Battle of Angels. In the beginning, there were problems, but they soon came to terms. “Difficult? I guess so,” Williams reasoned. “But not with me. She was every Southern divinity you could imagine. Smart and funny and elegant, and I kept looking for her in Joanne [Woodward], and Carrie Nye and Diane Ladd, but there was no one like her. No one. I will hear nothing bad of Miriam Hopkins.”

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Ironically, I started working on Miriam Hopkins’ life story because of Bette Davis, who was a favorite. I enjoyed watching Hopkins clash with the indomitable Warner Bros. star in their two films together: The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance. There are stories about their dynamic real-life feud, and years later, the image of a post-stroke Davis ranting on television on how demanding her former co-star could be. For her part, Hopkins denied the bad blood between them. That intrigued me. She would say, “Yes, I know the legend is that Bette Davis and I were supposed to have had a feud. Utter rubbish. Bette and I got along fine. I’d love to make another picture with her.” Even more rubbish!

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I began watching Hopkins’ other films: the ones in which she collaborated with directors, Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, and William Wyler, in addition to her lesser-known Paramount fare. It was then that I discovered Miriam Hopkins in command of her sexuality. Whether as a dance-hall prostitute in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), a participant in a ménage a trois in Design for Living (1933), or a rape victim in the scandalous The Story of Temple Drake (1933), she proved that sex was more than a three-letter word: at times, it could be raw and terrifying; at others, it could be sensual, sophisticated fun.

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In 1932, columnist Cal York chose Miriam Hopkins as the “best bet for stardom,” ranking her above Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Sylvia Sidney and Helen Hayes. York wasn’t off the mark. Still, Hopkins temperament would hinder her rise to “stardom.” My biography on the actress examines her career decline and her several attempts at a comeback.

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In 1935, she made motion picture history by starring in the title role of the first all-Technicolor feature film, Becky Sharp, based on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. For her performance, she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (she lost to—who else?—her future archrival Bette Davis).

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Chronicled will be Hopkins’ remarkable film career along with the importance of her lasting legacy on the Broadway stage. Regrettably, her widely acclaimed live performances survive only in the recollections of those who witnessed them. Thus, what remain of Hopkins’ art are her films.

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Eventually, Hopkins appeared in 36 films, 40 stage plays, guest appearances in the early days of television, and on countless radio shows. In these media, she worked with Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Jane Fonda, Edgar Bergen, Bing Crosby, William Powell, Sally Field, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Olivia de Havilland, Peter Lorre, Merle Oberon, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Elizabeth Montgomery, Coleen Dewhurst, Robert Redford and dozens more.

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Her friendships were as celebrated as well, but instead of actors, Hopkins hung around with writers and intellectuals such as writers Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and, of course, Tennessee Williams.

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In her love life, she was independent-minded and just as discriminating. She would have four husbands and dozens of lovers; most were writers including Bennett Cerf, William Saroyan, and John Gunther. Hopkins, once again ahead of her time, was a single mother. In 1932, she adopted a baby boy, being one of the first Hollywood stars to do so and starting a trend for such adoptions.

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She was an avid reader, sometimes a writer herself, a lover of poetry, and a patron of the arts. Over the years, her political beliefs vacillated from the far right to the far left. She held positions in political organizations that had the FBI tracking her actions for almost four decades, marking her as a perceived “communist sympathizer.”

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She was one of Hollywood’s brainiest women—yet, she was absurdly superstitious. A believer in the occult, she would not accept film or stage roles, move to a new home, or take long trips without consulting a psychic.

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Despite all her eccentricities, Hopkins proved that she was an accomplished performer who happened to have her own set of rules and her own personal demons. Although she was aware of being a part of film history—how could Margaret Mitchell’s personal choice to play Scarlet O’Hara not have been—she was not sentimental about her existence or her career. She kept no scrapbooks, clippings, or photographs. It was irrelevant to document or discuss her past.

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But no matter. This first-ever Hopkins biography will provide the real, complex, and at times a contradictory portrait of a woman who had her faults, and idiosyncrasies, but who was a major (and fearless) professional achiever—one who could be generous, gracious, and selfless.

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Once you read about the ambiguous, fascinatingly larger than life character that was Miriam Hopkins, you may agree with Tennessee Williams that she truly was a “magnificent bitch.”

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Why a Biography on Miriam Hopkins?

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jul 22nd, 2011
2011
Jul 22

 

 By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

I’m often asked, “Why a biography on Miriam Hopkins?” I confess that I get this question mostly from people who are not fans of the actress. They can’t understand why anyone would be interested. On the other hand, those who are fans seem thrilled that one is being prepared. It’s scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

 

A few reasons why Miriam Hopkins would make a good biographical subject:

 

  • Hopkins appeared in 35 films, 2 shorts, 18 Broadway plays, 20 plus summer stock plays and road tours, 20 television programs and multiple radio plays and appearances.

 

  • Hopkins made her first film, Fast and Loose (1930) during the day while performing on the Broadway stage in Lysistrata in the evenings.

 

  • Hopkins appeared in the very first Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935).

 

  • Hopkins starred in the first produced play written by Tennessee Williams, Battle of Angels (1941).

 

  • Hopkins appeared in a silent short film in 1928 with Humphrey Bogart.

 

  • Hopkins had a love-hate relationship with her mother.

 

  • Hopkins did not have contact with her father for more than twenty years — not until she became a Hollywood star.

 

  • Hopkins was indirectly descended from Revolutionary figures, Arthur Middleton and John Dickinson.

 

  • Hopkins was Margaret Mitchell’s choice to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).

 

  • Hopkins was nominated for an Academy Award (Becky Sharp) and a Golden Globe (The Heiress).

 

  • Hopkins bought and remodeled John Gilbert’s house after his death and sold it ten years later to David O. Selznick.

 

  • Hopkins costars include: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, George Raft, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis, Bing Crosby, Fay Wray, Joel McCrea, Edward G. Robinson, Merle Oberon, Gertrude Lawrence, Rex Harrison, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Olivia De Havilland, Gene Tierney, Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and of course, Bette Davis.

 

  • Hopkins was directed four times by William Wyler, three times by Ernst Lubitsch and twice by Rouben Mamoulian.

 

  • Hopkins was married four times and had numerous lovers.

 

  • Hopkins lived on Washington Square in New York during the late 1920s, the same place as her character in The Heiress (1949).

 

  • Hopkins was seriously interested in astrology and numerology.

 

  • Hopkins adopted a child as a single parent.

 

  • Hopkins was involved in political causes during her Hollywood years.

 

  • Hopkins was an authority at scene stealing.

 

  • Hopkins preferred writers, directors and intellectuals as friends and not Hollywood types.

 

  • Hopkins had an extensive book collection in her homes and was a voracious reader.

 

  • Hopkins actions were followed closely by the FBI for more than 15 years.

 

  • Hopkins never revealed her first marriage to her son

(he read about it in his mothers obituary)

 

  • Hopkins died nine days before her 70th birthday.

 

  • Hopkins feuded with Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Errol Flynn and numerous others and pissed off half of Hollywood.

 

What’s not interesting about that?

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