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The Washington Post (17/Jun/1987) - Joseph Cotten, on the High Road



Joseph Cotten, on the High Road

Fighting Back From a Stroke, the Actor Promotes a Gentle Memoir

Joseph Cotten never met a script he didn't like.

"The Abominable Dr. Phibes"; "Tora! Tora! Tora!"; "Airport '77"; "Guyana, Crime of the Century." Give it to Joey. Joey will do anything.

"I was in a lot of junk," he growls, reaching for the bottle of white Bordeaux. He is 82, supremely dapper in a three-piece charcoal suit with gold pocket watch and chain, gold cuff links and other accoutrements befitting a cane-carrying film star of Cotten's stature.

He is so tall he nearly has to duck to enter the restaurant, where he is greeted warmly by the maitre d'. He could be a diplomat, or an ambassador. Or maybe he's just playing the part, for today he meets the media to natter on about his newly penned autobiography, "Vanity Will Get You Somewhere."

It's a difficult venture, mainly because in 1981 Cotten suffered a stroke. He had to learn to talk all over again. His gravelly baritone is now a strangled, guttural drawl and he fights to put sentences together, often forgetting the word or what he's started to say.

Mrs. Joseph Cotten, the former actress Patricia Medina, acts as her husband's voice box, finishing sentences, offering the right word, summoning waiters and waving her hands, bedecked with two knuckle-size rings. She is a handsome woman of 67, with sharp features and a low, Patricia Neal-like voice. Her make-up is expertly applied and there's a row of tiny aquamarine dots, like ants, marching under each lower eyelid. She was once married to the actor Richard Greene, who played Robin Hood on the series of the same name, and her film credits include "Phantom of the Rue Morgue," "Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion" and "Buckskin Lady."

He calls her "dahhrling." She calls him "Yo Yo," affectionately picking lint off his jacket.

His once golden hair, rippled and crimped like a French poodle's, has turned a metallic gray. The blue eyes are large and watery, the eyes of a matinee idol, a lover of starlets and pool-side lunches where picture deals were struck mid-backrub and pronounced, no doubt, to be "marrrvelous."

He smells of sweet after-shave.

"I get nervous if I don't work, I suppose," he says, explaining how he hates to turn down a role, against the advice of men who warned him to start saying no or end up on "The Love Boat."

Which he also did.

Cotten's remarkable film career, spanning 41 years, could probably be charted on a graph and used by UCLA film students to explain Whatever Happened to Movies: His first film was the colossal classic "Citizen Kane" by boy genius Orson Welles and his last, the colossal flop "Heaven's Gate" by failed boy genius Michael Cimino (whose name does not appear in Cotten's candy-sweet, highly complimentary memoir). In between came several well-made, popular vehicles: "Lydia," "Gaslight," "Duel in the Sun," "Portrait of Jennie," "Shadow of a Doubt," "The Third Man" and "Niagara."

He was discovered by Orson Welles and was a member of the infamous Mercury Theater. But the promise that began with "Citizen Kane" (Cotten had the role of a lifetime as critic Jedediah Leland) and "The Magnificent Ambersons" was never fulfilled. He failed to become a giant of his generation, gradually sliding into a steady diet of cinematic fast food: "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "The Oscar," "The Money Trap," "Soylent Green."

His book could have been subtitled "What I Did for Money," because Virginia-born Jo Cotten spent it as fast as he made it-on clothes, women, houses, jewelry, travel.

It was lovely and tropical in Acapulco. Of course, that meant a different wardrobe and that meant more bags-more bags to pack untidily in Mexico, to unpack untidily in California, to repack almost immediately in California and set off again for England, which thank God, there will always be an!

There were Broadway shows and autograph seekers, dinners at Sardi's and the Brown Derby. Exotic locations, and bags to pack. "I was an actor," he writes. "A roamer. A lover. I made pictures. I made love, and I made martinis."

It was close friend Welles who once told Cotten, rather bluntly: "I'm afraid you'll never make it as an actor. But as a star, I think you might well hit the jackpot."

Does he agree with that assessment?

"Oh sure," Cotten says.

He never was a great actor?

"I don't think so, really."

"Oh Jo,"says Patricia Cotten, waving her hands, "you said to these producers the other day, `I was a great actor.' "

She tears off a piece of roll, dips one end in her wine glass, and pops it into her mouth. "Why is it taking so long for him to find the menu?" she says with dramatic gusto, looking for the waiter. "We're all dying for something."

Maybe Cotten was simply too polite to emerge from the rather large shadow cast by Welles. Someone once gave Cotten a button. It read: Assistant Genius.

But Cotten won't go into all that. He is too casual, too blase' to dwell on motivation or psychological baggage. He does go into some unpleasant details in the book: how he was unfaithful to his first wife Leonore, who tried to commit suicide after discovering his infidelity. (She later died of leukemia.)

Of his philandering he writes:

It was very easy. I was a young, healthy, full-blooded American and had achieved a certain amount of fame, which of course made it easier.

He doesn't name names, but hints at liaisons during several films, leaving the location to dine with someone "kind, pretty and warm."

There are a few interesting tidbits, but many of Cotten's peers have written more candidly and more eloquently of the era. Yes, there's Dolores Del Rio eating gardenias for dinner and David O. Selznick throwing parties until dawn, drinks and croquet with Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power and Noel Coward. But Cotten was never much of a player. He comes across as a charming observer, a man whose own life was pleasant, if unremarkable.

Why did he write the book?

"He wanted to be taken as an author," says Patricia, lashes fluttering. It was she who edited the book. In fact, she says, after her husband's stroke he was unable to work, so she cut 500 pages from the manuscript.

What's left is an index somewhat short on references to Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe, just a few of the luminaries Cotten worked closely with. Instead, we find information on Patricia herself: "Medina, Patricia: beauty described ... as card player ... courting of ... See also Cotten, Patricia Medina ... appreciation for ... care during illnesses ... as coach ... early medical aspirations ... honeymoon with ... meeting with Hepburn ... orthopedic problems ... photographic memory ... remodeling recommendations ... after Selznick's death ... in Venice ... willingness to travel."

Is Cotten that coy about his colleagues, or did his wife of 26 years edit them out?

"I don't like dirt, really, " he explains.

He takes another sip of wine. After the stroke, the first word he uttered was an expletive. He can't explain it. It's a word he has never used. But there was the actor, robbed of his instrument, so frustrated he lost his reserve. "It was a terrible name. Of course I don't like dirty names."

Patricia interrupts. "That was the first word he said after two years, and he'd never said it in 26 years."

"Well, I think ..." begins Cotten slowly.

"He's gone," says Patricia, spying the waiter disappearing across the room. He reappears with menus. Cotten orders, and says, "Can we have it right now?"

How does the actor like the book tour? He growls. She throws her head back, imitating fatuous television personalities and their interviewing techniques. " `What was it like with Marilyn MON-roe, Mr. Cotten?' and `How did you enjoy working with Ingrid Bergman, Mr. Cotten?' Oh by the way, he's written a book."

The discussion turns to movie-making. Cotten and his wife have appeared in one film together. "I was in Cesar Romero's arms, dying my head off," says Patricia with a laugh.

There are more stories. Opening night stories. Exits and entrances and a long, rambling anecdote about Robert Montgomery. Stage fright, too.

Cotten is asked about the key word in his book's title. Did he, like other actors, need constant approval?

"Oh, I suppose so."

Did he feel insecure?

"Oh, my Lord, yes."

He clears his throat. Then a long pause. "When I went to Hollywood to do movies," he says slowly, "I wouldn't do anything but big, big roles. Star roles. Otherwise, I'd go back to the stage."

The waiter is summoned once again. The check is presented. The reporter picks it up. "My, my," says Cotten brightly. "This is the first time I've ever been taken to lunch by a reporter. They all make a slight show, you know, of reaching for their wallet, but they never object when I say, `Let me.' "

Then he leans over, wife out of earshot, and sums up:

"I didn't really care about the movies, really," he says. "I was tall. I had curly hair. I could talk. It was easy to do."