Sunday, June 5, 2011

Screen Tests and Testimonials: Garbo Smiles!

Not long ago, I was in the Motion Picture and Television reading room at the Library of Congress, visiting my books (what a thrill!), and getting expert advice on how to do research in this fabulous archive. The LOC, I learned, does not merely collect films and books about filmmaking. Its vast holdings include scripts, one-sheets, lobby cards, and a wide array of memorabilia. By way of illustration, reference librarian Josie Walters-Johnston pulled out a vintage scrapbook in which a movie buff from the 1930s had lovingly pasted photos of her screen idols. Greta Garbo was this fan’s special favorite, and her enigmatic beauty shown forth on almost every page.

Josie had also prepared a treat: she had cued up some rare footage of Garbo from the late Forties. In that era, Garbo’s great films (Anna Christie, Queen Christina, Camille, Ninotchka) were long behind her. She was attempting a comeback, and an Italian company was interested, but wanted to be sure of its investment. That’s why the legendary Swedish actress had to stoop to the indignity of a screen test. The soundtrack is lost, but I watched her (in a variety of outfits) silently emote for the camera, smiling, looking grave, turning her head in response to some director whose voice I couldn’t hear. As she moved through this humiliating exercise, a faint look of distaste seemed to flicker across her lovely features. A postscript: the financing fell through, and Garbo’s comeback was not to be.

Watching that brief film clip, I remembered an audition tape that had recently thrilled me to the marrow. I was interviewing Scott Wilson, widely regarded in Hollywood as an “actor’s actor.” Which means that he’s always been better known for losing himself in a role than for becoming a star. We were discussing the films of 1967, and Wilson pulled out a forty-year-old tape of himself auditioning for the role of Dick Hickock, one of the two feckless, ruthless killers at the heart of the screen adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For his audition, the then-unknown Wilson chose to present Danny’s monologue from Night Must Fall, a thriller by playwright Emlyn Williams in which a charming drifter is gradually revealed to be a psychopath. Speaking quietly in a midwestern drawl rather than in Danny’s traditional Irish brogue, breaking into a chuckle at the oddest moments, Scott was both fascinating and terrifying. No wonder he got the part.

Scott Wilson’s audition for director Richard Brooks is a rare example of Hollywood at its kindest. When the casting process for In Cold Blood began, Scott was acting in his very first movie, In the Heat of the Night. As a small-town Southern kid arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, he played key scenes opposite the movie’s stars, Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. It was Poitier who first alerted him that the role of Dick Hickock might be a good fit. He and Quincy Jones ( who was to write memorable jazz scores for both films) personally lobbied Brooks on Scott’s behalf. Next, director Norman Jewison gave Brooks a peek at dailies from In the Heat of the Night to help validate Scott’s acting creds. Perhaps most valuable to Scott was the pep talk from Poitier just before his big moment: “After he left I was like Godzilla, and I walked into that meeting with Brooks feeling very confident, having no self-doubt.” And nailed the audition. How refreshing to hear about show people looking after one of their own.


  1. Wow, Beverly, you should write another chapter in the Hollywood Babylon series or maybe a book about actors/actresses that were huge, but did movies they wouldn't normally do, or actors/actresses that were never huge stars, but amassed a resume of extraordinary roles. I say that because you have a vast amount of information from having mingled with seemingly everyone, or had such wonderful stories passed down to you. Great stuff! Even though I've never been a Garbo fan, reading such things is nonetheless fascinating.

    I didn't realize the LOC had movie memorabilia, too. Incidentally, I did notice on a lot of my lobby sets it states that the sets are to be destroyed or returned to the distributor after said film has run its course. I submitted two scripts with the LOC a few years ago, actually.

  2. The Library of Congress is a fabulous place, full of wonderful items and (equally important) knowledgeable librarians who love helping people find what they want to know. AND I could visit my books there. Who could ask for anything more?

  3. Garbo. Wow. Just wow.

    I have always enjoyed Scott Wilson's work - and he is one of those utter professionals who never become household names - but turn in solid work every time they step on set. Gary Cole is one of those actors working now.

    Is that kind of interaction at the Library of Congress available for any Joe Blow walking in off the street, or do you need some cred of some kind?

    1. Scott is a true pro, and an interesting guy. My interview with him lasted at least three hours, because he truly gets wound up when he talks. In the early days, he was honestly not much concerned with celebrity, but I think he's sorry now he didn't work harder to get his name out. He's a little resentful that Richard Brooks, director of "In Cold Blood," liked to imply that "the boys" (Scott and Robert Blake, who played the two killers) were the real thing, not trained actors. Scott feels that if Brooks had pushed a bit, the two might have gotten some major awards consideration -- and a huge boost to their careers. Instead, they languished in near-anonymity after the film was released. Blake, of course, had had an earlier career as a child actor, and certainly went on to some celebrity, thanks to a hit TV show and (much later) a murder rap of his own.

  4. Craig, you'd asked about the use of the Library of Congress reading rooms. I wrote to a LOC librarian I know, Josie Walters-Johnson, and she was kind enough to spell out the rules, as follows:

    The Motion Picture and Television Reading Room is open to anyone that holds a researcher ID card. The card can be obtained through Reader Registration Services. Please click the link below for additional information:

    Reader Registration Services

    However, the viewing of the films and videos in our collection is restricted to those doing research of a specific nature leading toward a publicly available work such as a dissertation, publication, or film/television production. We regret that the facilities may not be used for purely personal study or appreciation. If your member feels that his research qualifies, he will need to schedule any viewing appointment at least ten (10) days in advance.

    Please feel free to pass on my contact information!


    Josie Walters-Johnston
    Reference Librarian
    Moving Image Section
    Library of Congress
    Washington, DC 20540
    Phone: (202) 707-9835
    Fax: (202) 707-2371