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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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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Oct 26th, 2008
2008
Oct 26

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR

ROUBEN MAMOULIAN

by David Del Valle

 

This edited interview was conducted in 1983, when Rouben Mamoulian and writer David Del Valle met as a result of their appearance on the PBS special The Horror of it All.

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DDV: Mr. Mamoulian, could you tell us how your version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came together back in 1931?

 

RM: Part of the question you ask is relevant to the year you just mentioned, 1931. Universal had galvanized show business with their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. Mr. Adolph Zukor, being a very astute businessman, decided to make his own horror thriller for Paramount. Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde had not been filmed since the John Barrymore version, and there was much about the Stevenson novel that could really be enhanced by talking pictures. You have to realize Frankenstein changed forever the notion that no matter how unfilmable a novel may be, if the subject matter is profound or powerful enough, it’s going to get to the screen.

 

Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rouben Mamoulian (Allan R. Ellenberger Collection)

 

DDV: Why was this your only horror film?

 

RM: You may consider this a horror film, and perhaps Stevenson’s novel was a horror story. I don’t know if you’ve read the novel, but Dr. Jekyll was a rather fat fellow of 55 who was trying to see how far he could go within the restrictions of morality. He would like to indulge in every kind of debauchery, but he could not do this as Dr. Jekyll. And for Mr. Hyde, I did not want to make him a monster or a caricature of the John Barrymore performance. Referring to the performance which won Fredric March an Academy Award, the studio originally wanted a character named Irving Pichel. I’m sure this actor is unknown to a young man like you…

 

DDV: On the contrary, I’m quite aware that Mr. Pichel played a leading role in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and directed Destination Moon (1950).

 

RM: Well, you are a film buff, so I suppose these facts are important to you. In any case, Irving Pichel might have been suited to the doctor as he was written in the novel, but I knew he was completely inappropriate for the film. The studio definitely wanted him to play the part; they kept telling me what a wonderful Mr. Hyde he would make. But my concept all along for the character of Hyde was that of a Neanderthal man, not a monster, because it is the animal side of human nature that attracted me to the piece. At the time I was offered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had seen Freddie March in some comedy, and I knew he would be perfect. Now I had never met this actor before in my life, but I took a risk and told Paramount that I would not make the film without Fredric March. And he gave an inspired and dazzling performance!

 

Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll (Allan R. Ellenberger Collection)

 

DDV: Let’s discuss the sound techniques you used in both the transformation sequences. The two instances I remember best are the heartbeat used during the first transformation scene, and another sequence in which Jekyll listens to a nightingale in a park, and turns into Hyde when a cat pounces on the bird.

 

RM: It’s no longer the mystery it was a few years ago. Regarding the nightingale sequence, it was impossible to find a real nightingale, so I thought we might have to import one from England or something. As the search continued, this enormous Englishwoman came into my office and explained to me that she could imitate the sound of any bird. So I asked her to do a nightingale for me, to which she asked, “Do you want a Welsh nightingale or a Northern nightingale?” I said, “Whichever one you wish.” And she was perfect; it was her voice that you hear in the film.

 

The heartbeat used in the transformation sequence was my own heartbeat. I ran up and down a flight of stairs and had a sound man record my own heartbeat. We had tried drums of all kind and nothing worked. The playwright Edward Albee wrote me a fan letter informing me that the heartbeat sequence in my film stayed in his imagination as a kid and he used the same effect in his play, Tiny Alice.

 

Miriam Hopkins as Ivy (Allan R. Ellenberger Collection)

 

DDV: Fredric March notwithstanding, Miriam Hopkins is the scene-stealer of the film. Was there any truth to her notoriety?

 

RM: All of the stories I hear about Miriam Hopkins, her temper tantrums, and her demonic ego were not in play at the time we were filming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For me, as a director, Miriam was a very gifted and talented actress who could play comedy (as she did for Lubitsch) or a tragic figure such as Ivy. Originally, Miriam wanted to play Muriel, the Rose Hobart role, and I told her that it would be very dull for her, and that I knew she could play this Ivy character like no one else. Her scenes were considered very erotic for 1931. In fact, we filmed her bed sequence when she first encounters Dr. Jekyll with her removing her clothes under the sheets. Not much of this remained, I am told. Miriam wanted to work with me and I think she sensed how disappointed I would have been, had she played the other role. Directing her performance is one of my fondest memories of the picture. And if anything, she was Bette Davis’ equal!

 

DDV: Considering that you don’t see yourself as a specialist in the horror genre, do you feel out of place in this documentary?

 

RM: I am very proud of my work on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I agreed to appear in the documentary because it was being addressed in a respectful way. Even though I never mad another picture in that genre, I certainly do not mind being spoken of in such glowing terms! Who wouldn’t? My opinion of the finished product is quite enthusiastic.

 

Watch a clip from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

 

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