Monday, February 13, 2012

Unsung Movie Star Romances

Ick, Valentine's Day, am I right? Aside from the potential for candy, it's an icky, icky holiday. Love. Gross.

Once again, classic cinema in all its shiny glory makes love and romance so much more appealing than in reality. No saliva or holding back bodily functions for dear life up on the silver screen! 

As for real-life movie star love stories, lots has deservedly been said of Gable and Lombard, Olivier and Leigh, Burton and Taylor, Sinatra and Gardner, Newman and Woodward, Harpo and that picture of a horse he carries around in Animal Crackers. 

However, there are two great tear-jerk romances in celebrity history that always gut me but don't seem to be talked about that much. 

The first is Charles Boyer and Pat Paterson.

It was the classic opposites attract situation, apparently. He was the rising star with a liquid French accent and brooding eyes; she a tiny, piquant B-Movie actress. In private life, he was withdrawn and bookish, she sociable and energetic. "British, self-deprecating, and merry, the vivacious Paterson offered the stick-in-the-mud Boyer a contrast of mood and a stable home environment" is the way Dan Callahan at Bright Lights Film Journal puts it. They met at one of the reserved Boyer's rare appearances at a Hollywood party in the early 1930s, and married a few weeks later in 1934. 

Boyer, though known onscreen as that vaguely sinister lover who inspired Pepe Le Pew's amorous antics, became better known among his co-workers as one of those rare monogamous husbands, preferring a quiet night in with his Pat to wild drug orgies with Buddy Ebsen and Margaret Hamilton (neither of those actors actually took part in any drug orgy that I'm aware of. I just thought it would be gross and hilarious to have their names and "drug orgies" in the same sentence).

Boyer and Paterson's relationship was a happy, functioning marriage until a true tragedy struck them in 1965. Their son Michael, who apparently inherited the volatile passionate streak that Boyer projected on camera, took his own life in a game of Russian Roulette after his fiancee left him. The death of their only child predictably shook the heartbroken parents, and though their love for each other never waned as sadly often happens in relationships where children are lost, they never again had that easygoing gaiety that made their marriage so delightful. Callahan quotes one of her friends as saying, "Pat, who was always winking and beaming and laughing, and flashing those pretty teeth. Now years could pass and she wouldn't smile." She became as naturally withdrawn as her husband, and through their mutual tragedy they probably grew even closer.

Then in the late '70s Pat became terminally ill with cancer. Boyer acted the chivalrous cavalier up to the end. He told her doctor never to let her know how seriously she was ill, and never let on himself, joking with her and pampering her on her deathbed. When she passed away in 1978, he quietly and calmly saw to the details of her funeral, contacting the necessary people, all the while genial and collected.

Then two days later he killed himself, overdosing on barbituates.

Many actors will laugh off their screen image, saying something along the lines of, "Everyone wishes they were Cary Grant. I wish I was Cary Grant." But more often than not, you get the impression that if an actor is inspiring and convincing enough in a consistent character type, well, maybe there's some truth there after all. Boyer was no Lothario in the traditional sense depicted in many of his movies, but his devotion to Pat and final desperate act speaks volumes about the rich, deep passion he had.

Less overtly tragic but still deeply sad and bittersweet is the relationship between Peter Cushing and Violet Helene Beck, known as Helen.

Married from 1943 until, again, her death in 1971, theirs was a remarkably beautiful, spiritual love. They met while Cushing was still a struggling actor on the London stage and was called in as a replacement for another actor. Beck, one of the cast members, recalled "a vision...I had never met him, yet I knew, deep in my deepest heart, we had been together before...and when he bent over one of [my hands] to kiss it, a faint and quite delightful waft of tobacco and lavender-water hung upon the air. I knew I would love him for the rest of my days--and beyond." (Remembering Helen)

Cushing, too, later spoke of that eerie sensation of feeling like he'd met her before, and was equally and immediately convinced as she that he loved her, and would always love her. From that moment on they were inseparable. Working his way up the stage ladder to movies, Cushing always had Helen by his side, encouraging and coaching him, helping him memorize lines and prepare for his various characters. "I owe it all to Helen. She was an actress and gave up her career for me. She made me what I am. She gave me a confidence I could never have found on my own" (Planet Paul). But the relationship was not a one-way street. Foreshadowing her fatal illness many years later, Beck was always of fragile health throughout their marriage, and Cushing (like Boyer with Pat) would be right there tending to her cheerfully through numerous bed-ridden days.

But their luck ran out in 1971, when Beck succumbed to emphysema, Peter by her side. So mad with grief was he that he confessed later to running up and down the stairs that night, trying to induce a heart attack. He was stopped from following Boyer's path of suicide only by a letter he found that Helen had written him before she died, telling him to keep on living and assuring him they would meet again when the time was right.

And so Cushing continued. He acted for many years to come, including his infamous role as one of the baddies in Star Wars. But still, until his death in 1994, he never felt complete again, and claimed he truly died with Helen.

Unlike Boyer, Cushing never exactly projected the romantic in his numerous Hammer and horror roles. Yet just like Boyer's passionate streak was obvious onscreen, there was always a delicate gentleness to Cushing's work, a gentleness and tenderness that obviously existed in his own character when you read what he had to say about his beloved wife:

"Since Helen passed on I can't find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable, and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be united again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition. You have my permission to publish that...really, you know, dear boy, it's all just killing time. Please say that." (Radio Times 1972, IMDb)


Well. Now that I've thoroughly depressed myself (and if I'm lucky, you, dear reader!), why don't we cheer things up with my favorite HAPPY love scene of all time? The movie is The Right Stuff, and the scene where John Glenn's wife Annie refuses to meet with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on TV after her husband's launch in the spacecraft is cancelled--because she's nervous about her stutter. Johnson, enraged, gets them to "turn up the juice" on Glenn to talk his wife into playing ball. Johnson is head of the space program, after all, and Glenn is a highly patriotic man who looks up to his superiors and follows orders. So this is what he tells his rebellious wife, starting at 22:54--

Both John and Annie Glenn are still alive, by the way! And still married! And in love! And her stutter has improved! See? My blog can be a fun place to hang out!


  1. Don't forget the potential for chocolate on Valentine's day. Really nice post, esp. about Boyer & Pat. I knew none of that.

  2. Thank you, esco! Yeah, chocolate is basically the only saving grace of many given holidays. Boyer and Pat just break the ol' heart, don't they? Lovely couple.

  3. "He told her doctor never to let her know how seriously she was ill"

    OK, that's insane and horrible but everything else made me feel warm and gooey and less misanthropic. D'aww, love.

  4. Well, okay, who knows what really went down. Depending on the circumstance it was maybe not so control-freak as I make it sound. Maybe she had told him beforehand she didn't want to know. Or something. Makes me feel a little bit better about it, so I'm willing to play the denial game a bit.

    1. It could very well be the recent visit from Aunt Flo talking, but your post nearly brought me to tears. In a good way. Sometimes tears just need to be. Admittedly, I did not watch the clip from The Right Stuff because you can't turn off Tears for Fears just like that. (How appropriate that the current song is Tears Roll Down. No joke.) I'm a tad late to the game, but what a wonderful Valentine's post:)

  5. By the way, both scenarios here reminded me instantly of Kay Kendall's terribly premature cancer, in which Rex Harrison convinced her doctors never to tell her what was going on. I used to think this was a rather cheesy romantic dramedy plotline, but, alas, it seems it happened way too often back in the day.

  6. Aw, dang! I totally should have included Rex and Kay! I love that whenever he sang, "Accustomed to Her Face," he thought of her. Sob. They'll get a mention next year, for sure!

    Thank you for the lovely comments, Ms.Zebra! I feel awkward saying I'm glad I brought you almost to tears, so I'll just say I'm glad you found my post touching.