October 1, 1928– Laurence Harvey:
“We English have sex on the brain. Not the best place for it, actually.”
He was born Zvi Mosheh Hirsh Skikne in Lithuania. When he was five-years-old, his Jewish family traveled by ship to South Africa, where he went by the name Harry Skikne. During World War II, still in his teens, he served with the entertainment division of the South African Army, and then moved to England in 1946.
Thin, dry, enigmatic Harvey is one of film history’s strangest success stories. He was never a major star, or even the subject of some sort of a cult following. His films were rarely hits and those that were seemed to achieve their popularity in spite of him. A cold, remote actor, he proved highly unsuited for the majority of the roles in which he was cast and his performances were often the subject of critical dismissal, even his fellow actors derided his abilities. Yet, Harvey had a career much longer and more prolific than many of his contemporaries.
His resumé includes one important classic. There are many milestone films that I have not gotten around to seeing. I have never caught Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). I have only watched To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), The Women (1939), Casablanca (1942) and Double Indemnity (1944) in the past decade (all are now favorites). I don’t know why I feel embarrassed, but as a film fan who has taken Film History and Film Theory classes, I still had not seen one of the best election themed films of all-time, the original The Manchurian Candidate (1962), starring Harvey in his best role, until spring of 2014 while I was enjoying a little chemotherapy, yet somehow I had watched Drive (2011), Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) and Blue Valentine because Ryan Gosling appeared in them shirtless, plus I managed to see all four films in the Scream series (1996-2011). Oh well, who needs the classics?
In his late teens, Harvey became involved with actor Hermione Baddeley, who was twice his age. He was married three times, in 1957 to actor Margaret Leighton, a woman of style, but old enough to be his mother; to Joan Perry Cohn in 1968, the very rich widow of movie mogul Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures; and finally, to 1960s model Paulene Stone, a Vogue cover girl who embodied Swinging London in the 1960s.
In 1969, Stone gave birth to actor Harvey’s only child, Domino Harvey, while he was still married to Joan Perry. Stone eventually married Harvey in 1972.
Harvey had met Stone on the set of A Dandy In Aspic (1968) while she was still married to Cohn. Got that?
Shockingly, Harvey was bisexual. Very bisexual, it turns out. Frank Sinatra‘s assistant, George Jacobs, author of Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra (2001), recounts that Harvey often made passes at him while visiting Sinatra. According to Jacobs, Sinatra, who starred with Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, was aware of Harvey’s bisexuality and did not care. Sinatra charmingly joked:
“He has the three handicaps of being a homo, a Jew, and a Polack, so people should go easy on him.”
In his memoir Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales (2006), British actor John Fraser writes that Harvey was not really bi, but full-time gay, and that his longtime lover was his manager James Wolfe who had “discovered” Harvey in the 1950s.
Dame Judi Dench worked with Harvey in William Shakespeare‘s Henry V at The Old Vic in 1959. In her terrific memoir And Furthermore (2010), Dench tells of feeling flummoxed at how Harvey would never actually look at her during his speeches. Actor Joss Ackland who appeared with Dench and Harvey in Twelfth Night wrote:
“Americans seemed to think Harvey was some sort of great actor, which his colleagues certainly did not.”
In his autobiography Knight Errant (1995), actor Robert Stephens described Harvey:
“He was an appalling man and even more unforgivably, an appalling actor.”
Michael Craig who worked with Harvey in The Silent Enemy (1958) wrote that off-camera Harvey was relaxed and charming but in front of the camera he “became stiff and would start to ‘act'”.
Harvey was routinely dismissed by critics. He was often accused of being unprofessional, with cast and crew commenting on his chronic tardiness on the set.
Amazing then that Harvey received an Academy Award nomination for playing a conniving, ruthless, heartless social-climber (hardly a stretch) in Room At The Top (1959) with Simone Signoret and former beard Hermione Baddeley.
Darling (1965) was one of the first films to depict sympathetic gay characters, but on the set, the closets must have been full. Besides Harvey, the cast included the deeply closeted Dirk Bogarde, with both actors enjoying affairs with the director John Schlesinger, who was also having sex with cast member Roland Curram. I would not have wanted to work on wardrobe for that movie. Can you imagine?
Harvey played a de-gayed Christopher Isherwood in the film version of I Am A Camera (1955), which was later reimagined as the stage and screen musical Cabaret.
Harvey’s screen presence seemed to simply ooze arrogance, conceit and snobbery, although he also came across as suave and sophisticated too. Harvey’s career brings an important lesson for all aspiring actors: It is entirely possible to have real success without managing to gain much audience interest or sympathy, and despite critical antipathy and overwhelming public apathy. Remember that, kids.
He must have had something special because Elizabeth Taylor had a thing for him while they were filming Butterfield 8 (1960). But then, she also had big crushes on Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, and we all know how that worked out. Harvey and Taylor would work together again in Night Watch (1973), a sort of updated version of Gaslight.
Most of Harvey’s leading ladies are on record as saying they hated him, including Geraldine Page, Shirley MacLaine, Barbara Stanwyck, and Kim Novak. Oddly, the two actors that had good things to say about Harvey were Sinatra and John Wayne, who personally chose him to star in The Alamo (1960).
In the tawdry melodrama Walk On The Wild Side (1962), he was cast opposite Stanwyck (as a lesbian!), Anne Baxter and Jane Fonda. Fonda:
“There are actors and actors – and then there are the Laurence Harveys.”
Harvey plays himself in The Magic Christian (1969), where he recites one of Hamlet’s soliloquy that develops unexpectedly into a striptease. I think that’s right, I’m not sure; I was really high when I saw it.
I think he was rather perfect as Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, though the soulless quality of the character seems to echo his own emotionless core and his performance was more admired than liked.
In 1963, Harvey built a famed modernistic 9200 sq. ft. house in Beverly Hills that was later the home of gay Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman who sold it to openly gay Max Mutchnick, the co-creator of Will & Grace. The house was next owned by Ellen Degeneres who sold it to Ryan Seacrest. Make of that what you will.
Harvey took a final bow in 1973, taken by liver cancer at just 45 years old after decades of heavy drinking. Domino Harvey, his openly gay, disarmingly beautiful daughter (her mother was Stone), became a Beverly Hills socialite before launching a career as a model. She eventually became even more famous as a professional bounty hunter. For realz. Her life was highly fictionalized by director Tony Scott in Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley in the title role; Stone is played by Jacqueline Bisset. Domino Harvey died at an early age from a drug overdose. They are now together as a family in a Santa Barbara Cemetery.
I don’t know what it is about him that I find attractive. Possibly it’s the iciness, the arrogance, and the snobbery. There was also that Harvey look, all bared teeth and arched cheekbones.
“I’m a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn’t want to reveal his feelings. To bare your soul to the world, I find unutterably boring. I think part of our profession is to have a quixotic personality. Once someone asked me, ‘Why do so many people hate you?’ and I said, ‘Do they? How super! I’m really quite pleased about it.”