Moving Pictures
Jan 20, 2023, 06:31AM

It's Too Real

Gig Young, a fascinating and peculiar actor, played second fiddle all his life until he killed his wife and himself in 1978.

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“You’re completely useless... but beautiful.”

Joan Crawford says this to Gig Young’s face in Torch Song, a 1953 Technicolor MGM musical where Crawford herself appears in blackface. As with so many of his films, Young’s role is minor and his screen time is brief. Born Byron Ellsworth Barr, made a star when audiences mistook him for his character’s name—“Gig Young”—in 1942’s The Gay Sisters, he was cursed from the start. The next year, Young had a small role in Old Acquaintance as Bette Davis’ “beau,” 10 years her junior; and although he appeared in Howard Hawks’ Air Force the same year, among several other forgettable programmers, his service in World War II and the sudden interruption of his career left Young stranded when he returned to films in the late-1940s, destined forever to play the boss’ best friend (That Touch of Mink, Ask Any Girl) or the guy who doesn’t get the girl (Desk SetTeacher’s Pet).

In his time on screen, Gig Young kissed Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck, Elisabeth Fraser, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Phyllis Thaxter, Elizabeth Montgomery (his third wife), Carol Lynley, Shirley MacLaine, and Janice Rule. He acted alongside men like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Richard Widmark, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, George C. Scott, James Caan, Bruce Lee, and, via phone, James Stewart (he’s Stewart’s editor in Rear Window).

One of the most remarkable things about Young is his voice, instantly recognizable and completely unique—like most of the men just mentioned. John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and even James Cagney all sound like they come from countries of one, citizens of the world belonging to everyone but themselves. The pleasures of wealth, success, and admiration only go so far, even for the people who win big. What about someone like Gig Young, a man who was this close to stardom for decades and never quite made it? In 1970, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Rocky Gravo in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and eight years later, he shot Kim Schmidt, his fifth wife, in the back of the head and then shot himself in the mouth in their Manhattan apartment on the first floor of the Osborne Hotel.

As a child in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Young would stand outside of his house under the streetlamp, yelling “Is enny-bodee home? Is enny-bodee home?” He knew he was unwanted because he knew he was a mistake; his father introduced him to strangers as, “a little bit of a dumbbell, but he’s a good boy.” After a love/hate relationship with a teenage “aunt” named Jessie, young Gig started having convulsions and panic attacks. Paranoid before puberty, Young “was obsessed with ‘making it,’” according to Dave Hyatt, who acted with him at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1939 and 1940: “I felt, as I think others did, that he was so good-looking he would carve a place out in films. But he didn’t strike me as overly talented, so I was surprised by his eventual success on Broadway.” Just a few years earlier, he was fired from waiting tables because “he was trying too hard.” And that’s exactly what makes Young so compelling and often moving in so many unremarkable and outright bad films: he’s not a great actor, but he’s trying so hard, and most of the time, it’s not working. That’s what makes him thrilling to watch. Jeremy Strong has the same quality.

I first noticed Young in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where he plays one half of an ambiguously gay duo that show up a few times to get in the way of Warren Oates and Mr. Garcia’s head. They’re not in the movie much, but Young’s performance, brief as it is, is exhilarating, sensual, funny, a bit queer, and totally fucking evil. After Oates confers with Webber in code on the side of a rural Mexican road in front of a huge family, telling him that, “They’re going to have to take [the head from him],” Webber laughs and repeats it to Young, who looks at Webber with these huge, glistening eyes, a doomed delirium as he knows he might die. What’s under his coat?

Young takes out a submachine gun and mows down an entire family before getting shot by a gang member up above. It's Peckinpah's most underrated action sequence, a glorious montage of slow motion death that ends with Young and Webber in the dirt. But when they pull up, Young gets out and savors the open air—as if he knows it’ll be his last chance. Who knows what he looked like four years later in the Osborne? Like Peckinpah himself, Young’s character in this movie approaches his own death with the serenity and excitement of making love. It’s sensual, and the way Young looks at Webber after the latter says they’re “going to have to take it” has more lust and desire in it than in any of the films Young made during his playboy salad days, if he ever really had any.

Young doesn’t get to dance much in his movies, but according to George Eells’ out of print biography Final Gig, Young had a habit of breaking out into a loose, freeform dance after one too many cocktails or mixed emotions. But even when he walks in his movies, there’s something jaunty and off about his movement—not just feminine, but unpredictable, scary, damaged, like a broken doll. On a gut level, this is not someone you’d want around your kids, or even your friends. At least that’s my impression from the disparity between his violent death and his thoroughly sunny disposition on screen. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is really the only movie where Gig Young has a nuanced, complicated character to play; from the 1940s through the 1960s, he played cads, nice guys, fall guys, soldiers, and detectives in anonymous roles in movies considered mediocre in their time.

Although he won for Best Supporting Actor, Young is as much of a lead in the movie as Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin, and he has far more screen time than Susannah York, also nominated that year. It’s an astonishing performance, five and a half decades of an unremarkable life and an unremarkable career coming to a head in Rocky Gravo, the master of ceremonies for a dance marathon during the Great Depression. Exhausting themselves in a ring on the Santa Monica Pier, Fonda, Sarrazin, York, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons, and Bonnie Bedelia try to stay awake—or at least vertical—on the dance floor. Rocky gives them few, brief breaks and periodically switches up the activities: ballroom dancing, talent shows, and roller derbies (Buttons suffers a fatal heart attack during one).

Weeks into the contest, a contestant played by Jacquelyn Hyde has a nervous breakdown and wakes up screaming, convinced that there are bugs crawling all over her. Rocky rushes into the ratty barracks and asks her where the bugs are, and “wipes them off,” managing to calm her down. Fonda, condescending as ever, snaps from behind, “That’s quite a technique. I would’ve thought you’d put her on display and charge a little extra.” Rocky, clearly shaken, turns around, turns back, looks at the ground, and simply says, “No... it’s too real.” And then he walks away and gets back to work.

Rocky Gravo is the only real lead character Gig Young ever got to play.

After his career withered in the late 1940s, and his soulmate second wife Sophie Rosenstein died of cancer in 1952, Young was lost. First nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1952 for playing an alcoholic alongside James Cagney in Come Fill the Cup, Sophie was there for him when he lost, but she died mere months later. Elizabeth was there for him when he lost the same award in 1959 for Teacher’s Pet, and their marriage ended relatively simply in divorce, not untimely or violent death. Considering how small his roles are throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it’s remarkable how often it feels like he’s playing himself, or a parody of himself co-authored by screenwriters and directors who knew that Young was a nervous wreck glued to the bottle and piles of Valium and Seconal. In one of his best performances—Roger in 1962’s That Touch of Mink—Cary Grant asks Young why he’s in such a good mood. “I had a wonderful night's rest. You know the trouble I have sleeping? Well, I've solved it. Just before you go to bed you put three tranquilizers in a jigger of brandy and you drink it. You still can't sleep but you're so relaxed that you don't worry about it. It was exhilarating!”

"Whenever you play a second lead and lose the girl, you have to make your part interesting yet not compete with the leading man. There are few great second leads in this business. It's easier to play a lead—you can do whatever you want. If I'm good it always means the leading man has been generous.” That’s Young talking to the LA Times in 1966, after he had lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar twice. By the time he won for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, he told the press at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that he was happy he won “because with all the new pictures, I figured this was my last chance.” And it was: he never got a major starring role, and in every movie he made after 1970, he’s completely loaded. It helps. Young was terrified of betrayal, but by being so loyal, he showed that he was disposable: “They assured Gig that if the show went to Broadway, he’d go with it. In the end, the play went nowhere.”

Even after enthusiastic industry screenings for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Young couldn’t wait to stick the knife into people who let him down, like his press agent: “You’re fired. Don’t try to make me change my mind. I’ve already hired another press agent. You didn’t believe me when I told you I was doing a good job. That hurt. Because I’d never bragged about my work before. So now you’re fired.” After winning at the Oscars, he was hired and then fired by the debut production of Arthur Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling. Producer Roger Whitehead had to fire Young when he just couldn’t memorize his lines, and recalled that, “One felt he was both pathetic and yet capable of a kind of violence. There was something in his personality that embraced both qualities. Actually, most successful, gifted actors have that mix.” Young’s violent and semi-mysterious death re-contextualizes his entire body of work, turning a mediocre actor into a fascinating case study. The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is the only film I can think of that examines this level of mediocrity and simmering anger in a struggling professional artist: having zero aptitude might be less painful than being just okay and never anything more.

Young looked really different in the last decade of his life. Not just aging: it’s the plastic surgery, the caps, the toupees, the booze, the pills—this is a different actor. That LA Times quote is pretty sad, because pretty much every leading man and woman got there by upstaging and maneuvering around other people. Young played the game his whole life and ended up feeling like a failure after finally winning an Oscar. Hollywood was done with him: dependable Gig Young, unremarkable, unreliable, and unacclaimed in his time. Why bother putting him in movies now? Mel Brooks was forced to hire him for Blazing Saddles, but Young started convulsing and vomiting bile, "like an old alkie," according to Brooks. He was an easy actor to get rid of because a fit of delirium tremens in the first week of shooting is enough to fire anyone from a movie, especially a known alcoholic, but Brooks never wanted him in the role anyway—so he gave it to Gene Wilder. After 1973, Gig Young was basically done: he's wonderful in both Peckinpah films, The Hindenburg, and Game of Death, but he was often too wasted to work.

On his stage name: he had, “some hesitancy...but I weighed the disadvantages against the advantages of having it stick indelibly in the mind of audiences. There'd be no confusion with some other actor called Gig.” No wonder he started drinking so much.

I like Young a lot in That Touch of Mink and Teacher’s Pet, two of his favorite roles. He’s a bit more loose and has far more screen time (especially in That Touch of Mink), but it’s not until he starts drinking on the job that things get interesting. I don’t know how to explain it, but along with the alcoholic cheek drooping, his eyes get bigger, and in a movie like The Hindenburg from 1975, he’s got the same queer swagger that he had in Alfredo Garcia and The Killer Elite, a minor Peckinpah movie whose set was fueled by cocaine and gun running. Young’s final film, Game of Death, is a sleaze-fest, not only because of its hodgepodge posthumous Bruce Lee footage (and Colleen Camp’s theme song, ripped completely from the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony), but Young already looks like a dead man. The murder-suicide doesn’t seem surprising when you watch his 1970s movies, even Lovers and Other Strangers.

Sucking the gun, he’d made his own movie: a lifetime of stepping aside and expecting a favor in return, and like a fool, always falling for it. He was 64 when he died, but looked younger; he was better loaded (if he could stand up) and he could’ve made a few more movies and maybe died like William Holden, alone in his apartment with a gash on his head and an empty bottle by his side. But killing your fifth wife and then yourself three weeks after marrying her overshadows everything. All of his nice, sweet films with Day, Gable, Tracy, and Hepburn gained a patina of evil that day, and Peckinpah’s films grew stronger. That shootout in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is disturbing but so beautiful, too: this is the kind of movie Gig Young should’ve been making all along.


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