"You'll be much better equipped for a long life in pictures with good stage training - afterwards is too late"
By Irene Dunne
EVERY MONTH I receive innumerable letters from eager, ambitious young girls asking "How can I become a movie star?" I think it's regrettable that more of them do not ask how to become a movie actress, because most of those girls, I fear, are more intrigued with the idea of glamour, mink coats and swimming pools than interested in acting - fine acting.
Well, this editorial effort of mine may prove of some help to those girls, for as I talk of what I'd do, if I were tackling Hollywood today, I suppose I'm indirectly giving advice. It also gives me a wonderful opportunity for some second guessing, but in all truth I shall be speaking from accumulated experience of two decades in the profession which I love and which has been inseperable from my life.
If I were tackling Hollywood today, I think the first thing to be done is to decide exactly what one wants. If you are determined to be a top star regardless of everything - assuming of course that you have talent and training - you probably will reach that goal, but you must be prepared to make many sacrifices and probably hurt others on that relentless climb.
When I came out here I had no such selfish goal, and I'm glad I didn't. I wanted to prove I could be a success in a new medium - I had been on the musical stage in New York - but I did not tell myself, "I'll be a top star at any cost." I confess my success has been gratifying; I feel I've had a good batting average; some not-so-good pictures, but mostly good ones. But whatever sacrifices I've made have been minor in comparison to some others. I, for example, think a broken marriage is too high a price to pay for a career, and complete preoccupation with success in this business so often seems to lead to divorce.
If you know exactly what you want, you will necessarily recognize your own limitations and not try to exceed them. When I was quite young, I dreamed of someday singing grand opera at the Metropolitan, but finally realized that it was beyond my vocal talent and concentrated on what I could do, doing my very best.
If I began today, I'd want even more stage experience than I had, and I was on the Broadway stage several seaons in addition to a Summer season with the St. Louis Municipal Opera. The youngsters who beat unsuccessfully on the studio gates here are usually the one with inadequate training. More and more young actresses are recruited for pictures from the New York stage, from little theatres, from radion and television, rather than from the ranks of beauty contests.
You'll be much better equipped for a long life in pictures if you have a sound theatrical background. It's difficult to go back to the stage later, afterwards is too late; studio contracts usually don't allow enough time between pictures for a season on the stage. Or if you can get away, a studio's reaction may be that you're away too long.
In addition to actual dramatic training and experience, I'd want as much education as possible. No education is ever wasted and everything you learn is helpful in acting. Languages, literature, art, music, history: are all self-evident helps - and even mathematics and sciences, by training memory and demanding the analytical approach, are helpful by indirection.
If I were tackling Hollywood today, I wouldn't stop studying after my arrival. I continued my vocal studies, but I wish now that I'd taken some college courses too. Many of the younger players today take courses either in the evenings or between pictures and I admire them for their effort.
This is an amazing business, creative and mechanical at the same time, and there is so much for the newcomer to learn. I didn't realize this when I first arrived and for many years I tried to "go it alone." I managed all my own business affairs and believed the people who flatteringly said, "How smart you are to do that and save the 10 percent you'd have to pay a manager." Finally, I learned!
I had made a picture for MGM and they wanted me for another, but when I went up to Louis B. Mayer's office and told him I wanted twice as much salary for the second one, he laughed at me! (I can tell this because we've become good friends since.) I didn't do the picture and didn't go back to MGM for several years, but I did go right out and get a manager whose business is to know just how much more one can ask for one's talents!
So, if I began today, I'd want a good manager. I'd also want a term studio contract rather than trying to make good on freelance basis. A young actress needs the backing and the buildup an interested studio can give her. I was under contract for many years to RKO before I started freelancing.
If I were a newcomer here now, I'd try to look at the entire business more objectively than I did when I arrived. I was miserably lonely when I first arrived here, for, although my mother was with me, my husband had to remain in New York. So, perhaps as a compensation, I became to engrossed in unimportant details.
I made sure I saw the daily "rushes" - the screening of the film taken the day before - even if it meant breaking a leg to see them. I'd be elated by good scenes, depressed if I thought they were inferior. That was so much wasted emotion, for in many cases those scenes ended on the cutting room floor. I would drive miles to see sneak previews. I remember one time going all the way to San Bernardino and back, another time to Santa Barbara.
The latter trip I recall very vividly, for the preview was "Back Street." There were some sailors sitting behind me and they ridiculed the picture from start to fade out. I was so depressed by their comments that I wept all the hundred miles home. More wasted worry, for that turned out to be one of my greatest successes!
I wish now that I had sought the companionship and friendship of informed people more than I did, for they could have set me straight on some of those things. In the final analysis, one must always make one's own decisions, but it certainly helps to have the counsel of people who know the score! A newcomer can be shunted around into unimportant or even mediocre roles, unless one is given good advice.
I don't imply that one should use one's friends flagrantly; I do mean that it's wise to cultivate the friendship of some people who can be helpful. On the other hand, I feel very strongly that one should defenitely have other friends who have nothing at all to do with picture business. Constant "shop talk" not only is boring but makes you a bore! For added balance, I would suggest that any newcomer get out of town whenever possible into a completely different atmosphere, for comparison and for greater objectivity about our town. We're inclined to become quite one-track-minded here.
If I arrived in Hollywood today, I would keep reminding myself not to try to make a big impression. This town isn't impressionable! It has seen mountains rise and fall; the people here can size up a newcomer very, very quickly and are not awed with mink coats and expensive cars which a newcomer cannot afford. It's much, much wiser to start in a small way and begin a savings program. When I was first here, although I could have afforded a better car, I bought a small Ford convertible. And I am convinced that no one thought any the less of me.
Anyone tackling Hollywood, now or any time, should remember that it pays dividends to be courteous to the people with whom one works and to be appreciative of their efforts. I don't know how all the executives I've worked for feel about me, but I do know that I have many friends among the crews. I've always made a point of knowing them, chatting with them about their families; and in return they have made working conditions most pleasant for me. One time I was asked about the true "gentlemen" of Hollywood and I said the members of the crews I worked with were. Eyebrows went up to there when I said it, but I meant it.
A newcomer must also be appreciative of fans and their interest. Intelligent letters should be answered. Autographs should be given graciously, unless the request is ungracious. One of the great faults of Hollywood is to become rushed and forget such things. Or should I say, one of the great faults of our time, rather than of our town?
If I began today, I would certainly remember that by becoming a movie actress one automatically becomes vulnerable in the matter of gossip. For success, one's name must be kept before the public, but that in itself can sometimes be vexing. In the main the press has been very kind to me and I'm very grateful; in return I've always tried to be honest with the press.
It is possible in Hollywood to live a life as normal as anywhere else and I feel we managed it - without constant rumors of divorce and such. Even so, odd things can happen. Several years ago, when Mother was still here with me, a woman in Chicago had run up stacks of bills and demanded that her daughter, "Irene Dunne," pay them. That made nasty headlines. And of course the retractiong was just a tiny little news story. I suppose some people may still think I refused to pay my "mother's" bills!
If I began living in Hollywood today I would certainly one thing that I did when I arrived, and that is to be active in charity. If one is going to take something our of a community - any community - one must put something in, too.
When I was first here, I didn't have as much time between pictures as I've had recently; nevertheless I managed to help entertain children at the Orthopedic Hospital. More recently, I've worked with heart and cancer foundations, Red Cross and especially the St. John's Hospital for which our premiere of "The Mudlark" raised $137.000 for a new building wing. What is more gratifying than such work? And rewarding, too, for through it I've met some of my closest friends.
Just one more thing about Hollywood, today or any day. If one makes contracts, one must keep them, whether business or personal! And that of course it true in any town!
(Screenland, July 1951 - Thanks to the late Charles Huffer for this article!)