Sometime in the mid-1950s Alan Ladd stopped being beautiful. Before that, in a cinematic era that emphasized glossy splendor and a glacial physical perfection, Ladd had been right up there with the best. He was, said Richard Schickel, “the first male star to achieve fame by combining beauty and somnambulism like the female of the species.” That may be the Ladd image that endures: the tough-guy actor whose clean, hard facial lines were as finely cut, polished, and set as King Tut’s funeral mask.
Maybe movie tough guys shouldn’t be pretty, though many are. Snarling lovelies like Richard Widmark and Lawrence Tierney come to mind. But Ladd didn’t even curl the lip. He really kept it flat, still, and mysterious, like the images in an Egyptian tomb. His frozen, unemotive beauty has been preserved in a series of silvery noirs and gaudy Technicolor Westerns that made him a huge star for over ten years. Audiences were hooked on those smooth, rigorous lines of face and body, as if carved on his slight frame with an X-Acto knife. Who cared whether he acted or not? Beauty is its own reason. And the terrifically photogenic Ladd only had to stand there, with his straight mouth, his drawn cheeks, and his steady, unblinking, cat’s-eye stare, for us to gorge ourselves. Which is what I do when watching him in Shane or This Gun For Hire or The Great Gatsby. He’s so sleek and cool, so damn-all gorgeous, that I marvel at his perfection. There’s a kind of pleasure that’s so intense it gives pain; and the sight of Ladd is like that. He’s so beautiful to look at, it hurts.
But that changed in the mid-50s. That was when all the hype, the success, the seemingly perfect life, aggressively promoted by his second wife (and former agent) in an unending campaign of interviews, photo ops, magazine spreads, and cozy celebrity chatter, collapsed, as if some careless god had jerked a string and let it all fall. Stick Tut’s golden mask in a blazing furnace and watch it melt; that became Ladd onscreen.
That slow oozing apart was no doubt due, in part, to middle age and a stalled career. Ladd hit 40 the year Shane, probably his best film, was released, his lean, cut-diamond physique already blurring at its edges. Some aging action stars, like Gary Cooper or John Wayne, ease into gravity’s pull with parts that give them gravitas. Think of Wayne in The Searchers or Coop in Man of the West. Ladd wasn’t so lucky. Per his biographer, Beverly Linet, the actor had cut himself loose from his home studio Paramount, fed up with the routine product it was giving him in service of his carefully crafted image; but his succeeding films, after the critically praised Shane, were equally routine: programmers like The Red Beret or Saskatchewan; or embarrassments like the medieval-set The Black Knight, in which a miscast Ladd, marcelled-haired and doublet-clad, was clamped into some of the oddest headgear since Welles’s Macbeth.
More was happening to Ladd, though. He was increasingly addicted to drink and pills, sinking into the classic cycle of depression: hooked on uppers and downers, unable to sleep or relax or even feel alive. An underlying sadness always permeated Ladd’s performances; in This Gun For Hire the melancholy of his hired killer seeps through the sculpted porcelain of his features, like tears said to drip from the eyes of religious statues. It wasn’t just acting. Ladd’s early life is something imagined by Thomas Hardy: he grew up, undernourished and undersized, in extreme poverty, his father having literally dropped dead in front of his son’s eyes when Ladd was only four. Years later, during Ladd’s first marriage, his mother killed herself by swallowing poison; she collapsed, vomiting, in Ladd’s living room. Such endured horrors can’t be expunged by the slickest studio publicity. The past is always said to return; and maybe the mounting weight of such terrible memories is why Ladd seems so death-haunted in his last films.
Two other disappointments, one each in the professional and personal realm, affected Ladd: his turning down the part that eventually went to James Dean in Giant (angering its director, George Stevens, who had guided Ladd’s Shane performance), and a failed love affair with June Allyson, his co-star in The McConnell Story. Maybe a liaison with Allyson sounds like a joke, but she was sympathetic to him, understanding what it’s like to live within a controlled, and controlling environment. And Linet notes that Allyson resembled Ladd’s first wife, the proverbial high-school sweetheart, whose entire existence had been purged, like an old sin, from Ladd’s life in the constant press onslaught issued by his second.
Something in these two episodes, a confluence of past and future (after refusing Giant, Ladd probably realized he’d never have another shot at a great role), seems to have reached into Ladd and sucked out his vital juices. And it showed. I was shocked by his flabby appearance in his 1958 film The Proud Rebel; his formerly lean, hard face, with its spreading jawlines, looks like a gourd. In 13 West Street, he looked sick and dispirited in a sick and dispiriting role, a middle-aged urbanite attacked by a street gang and unable to fight back. Ladd had always been a doer in his films, the one who got the task done; here he hobbles with a cane, his body sagging like uncooked dough, his eyes deep, flat slits of impotent pain. I felt sick watching him. In spite of a fine performance from Rod Steiger as a detective, 13 West Street is a film I don’t care to see again. Ladd’s decline is too visible and degrading. I wanted somehow to help him out of there, out of the film itself, and into a clean, safe place.
His initial entrance in what turned out to be his final film role, Joseph Levine’s 1964 production of The Carpetbaggers, also shocked me. He strolls across a porch and then stops to lean against a post, resting his weight on one leg.
A walk and then a pose: classically simple, classically Western. What’s there to shock? Maybe it’s Ladd’s own cinematic past, the images I recalled as I watched him here. In Shane, he had the perfect gunslinger’s walk; smooth, exact, controlled, each step weighted and emphatically even, but pronounced with a dancer’s flow and grace. Action stars will age, and will sag as they do so, but John Wayne at least kept his walk. Ladd here ambles slowly, as if his feet hurt; standing, his torso sinks into his hips, his belly hangs over his belt. His eyes droop, his cheeks, chin, hair, all droop. Even his clothes droop. Oh, Laddie. In one scene his rumpled suit is one-buttoned too tightly over his bulging paunch, his tie straggling as if it forgot how to knot. Ladd, who in The Great Gatsby wore tailored suits razor-cut to fit his slim shoulders and nipped waist—now he’s dressed like Harry Langdon. What happened to the clean, cool, precise Alan Ladd? Was the movie trying to be mean to him?
Actually, I think The Carpetbaggers was trying to be mean to everyone. It’s an equal-opportunity sneerfest. The story’s a look at Old Hollywood as seen through New Hollywood eyes—a post-Confidential view of the studio era as a dirty, horny, boozing, and wheeler-dealing sinkhole, as raunchy as a whore’s backyard. The film cannily mixes Old-Hollywood hands such as Bob Cummings, Lew Ayres, Leif Erickson, and Audrey Totter, with the Bright Young Things of the early 1960s—George Peppard, Elizabeth Ashley, and Carroll Baker, who’s looks slutty and alluring and is dressed like a tart. Her first entrance is in a floating negligee that gleams like tooth enamel, generously displaying her pulled-up bust and long, muscled legs. Baker made her mark as the panty-displaying virgin sexpot of Baby Doll, but she was a serious actress, and I doubt if The Carpetbaggers bolstered that reputation. She’s costumed here as scantily as a pre-Code-era actress, but her character is not given any of the warmth, humor, or likability of such early-30s stars as Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, or Barbara Stanwyck. Mostly she does simulated passion, scrunching up her face like a crying infant’s to indicate crazy-itch arousal in her sex scenes.
Or perhaps I should say non-sex scenes. The film hints at a great deal but, other than Baker’s legs, shows little. Though made in a more relaxed late-Code environment, it’s mostly suggestion; a nude scene’s supposed to be in there, but I couldn’t find it. (I haven’t read the overheated Harold Robbins best-seller it’s based on, which I gather leaves nothing to the imagination.) To its credit, the film does bustle with energy. It’s long but it will hold your interest, following its carpetbagging hero, an adventurer, womanizer, and unscrupulous bastard, as he struts and ruts his way through some twenty years of capitalist enterprise. The film itself is pure capitalist venture. It was hugely expensive for its time ($3.3 million), and its grosses were even huger (over $40 million). I don’t blame the actors for being in it; why turn down such exposure? Levine displays his money as generously as he does Baker’s assets; one of its major sets, a mansion’s lavish interior done up in Santa-suit red, looks like a high-class brothel that caters to the Jordan Belfort crowd. The movie is a product of money, it’s about money, and was meant to make money. To call it vulgar or trashy is to miss its point. It’s an expertly constructed machine, achieving its own kind of peculiar perfection. It does what it was meant to do.
Much of its tawdry fun, as with the novel, is guessing which character represents what historical Hollywood figure. Peppard’s business-buying, airplane-flying, starlet-chasing, movie-making millionaire is based on You Know Who; Baker is a Harlowish screen siren; Martin Balsam is a Laemmle-cum-Mayer-like studio head; Martha Hyer’s ex-hooker-turned-actress might be modeled on Crawford. Or might not. Robbins coyly claimed that his protagonist was based on Bill Lear, designer of the eponymous jet. Except Lear never designed movies.
Ladd’s own character is Nevada Smith, an ex-stuntman and circus rider who becomes a big Western movie star. This Wikipedia article speculates that Smith was based possibly on either Ken Maynard or Tom Mix. (My own preference is for Mix; not because of any historical parallels, but because Mix, like Ladd, possessed a clean, severe beauty, as if sculpted by a fasting saint.) I do wonder, though, at a line Peppard’s character says about Nevada: “He’s on the booze and his days are numbered.” That could also apply to Ladd—a faded Western star known to be a drunk (Baker wrote in her autobiography that Ladd’s hands visibly trembled during filming). Was the film playing its own name-the-names game by dishing on a cast member? An ugly gag to play on a floundering man.
Ladd’s part was also cut down from the novel, my guess to leave more time for the rising Peppard. Peppard’s not bad here. He has a long part but he sustains interest in a nasty, one-note character. He talks low, stays cool, looks at actors steadily, keeps his gestures neat and controlled. He is uncannily like Alan Ladd.
He’s not in Ladd’s league, though. There’s something petulant and whiny about Peppard’s tough-guy strutting. It’s a seventeen-year-old’s version of toughness; he conveys no undertones. Ladd was never an adolescent in his films. Even young, he was a hard-bitten adult, experience shaping his gaze, gestures, walk. Within his contained figure were reserves of a life kept back, held in check, not meant for outer expression. He was the screen’s essential loner, one of the most private of actors in the vast, public forum of the Hollywood screen.
He carries that privacy into The Carpetbaggers, biting off his words as he speaks them, not giving too much away, his eyes, wary and detached, always watching. Even when stuck in the background of a shot (where director Edward Dmytryk frequently places him), you see him, behind all those new Hollywood stars as sleek and shiny as eels, his weary, beaten face watching and waiting. But the fatigue, the hollowed-out sorrow, is also there. In a scene in which Baker is supposed to be vamping him, Ladd looks at her sadly, almost with compassion, as if sorry that he can no longer respond like the he-men of yore. Ladd always seemed to carve out his space and hold it as a separate domain. Now he draws it around him like a sheath, like the last bastion, the final, flimsy protection against bruising exposure.
Only in the film’s penultimate scene does Ladd get his big number, the I’m-gonna-teach-you-a-lesson fistfight with Peppard. Shades, perhaps, of the bar fight in Shane (only Dmytryk, rather cruelly, doesn’t bother to hide Ladd’s lack of height in relation to his co-star). Ladd goes at it gamely, crouched low over his center of gravity, bleeding and losing wind as he gives Peppard his much-deserved licking, each actor letting loose punches that send the stuntmen flying. It ends with the usual psychobabble explanation—the family secret, the fear of insanity, the cold father, the inability to love—dime-store Freud delivered in under 30 seconds. “What can I do?” Peppard cries. “Junior, I haven’t the faintest idea,” replies Ladd. Those are his last words spoken onscreen.
Maybe I make too much of that line. You can obviously read loads into in it: Old Hollywood taking its leave of the New. Ladd summoning up his lost life. Somebody not giving a damn. The interpretations are too pat; and Ladd was only reading a script, of course. But he never got to watch himself speaking it onscreen. A few months before the movie’s release, he was dead, a lethal mix of liquor and meds doing him in. Gossip hinted at suicide; Ladd had already tried to shoot himself the year before he began work on The Carpetbaggers. (In another cruelty, David Shipman writes that audiences didn’t take much note of Ladd’s presence in the film anyway.) I don’t know if it was suicide or not. Maybe it didn’t matter; Ladd already seemed to have left us, washed out like a chalk drawing in the rain, right in front of our eyes.
Today The Carpetbaggers is considered a guilty pleasure, its story a joke, its heavy-breathing lines and situations snigger-worthy. I like a guilty pleasure as much as anyone, but I can’t find the heart to laugh at The Carpetbaggers. Not for the film itself but for Ladd. Linet tells of a heartbreaking incident happening a few days before Ladd started work on the movie, when, seeing his youngest son off on a trip, he broke down and wept. I think of that private scene when watching Ladd in his final public ones, trying to imagine the burden of depression this once-beautiful man was living under. He’s dead tired, resigned, stolid even, his pale face sagging like an old moon, watching, as he always did, detached yet present in the scene. But he’s still a pro, the one who gets it done; he holds his space, he carves it out and fills it up. He’s still Alan Ladd. I find it all too much to watch. It’s heartrending, painful, and so godawful sad—
And damn it. It still hurts to look.