Leslie Howard on Walter Winchell’s Column (1937)
Leslie Howard is Walter Winchell’s guest columnist today.
I remember hearing myself say, not long ago, during an interview, that an actor isn’t as important to motion pictures as he thinks he is.
“The producer uses him,” I said–and at the time I meant it–“as a medium to sell his product. A motion picture player,” I added, needs to have 70 percent personality, 20 percent photographic quality and 10 percent ability as an actor.”
That sounded daring and different and was, I believe, something near the truth. I think the interviewer felt that he had had his money’s worth–because it didn’t cost anything to get to see me and hear me talk. I felt quite smug about having sait it.
It occurs to me that perhaps a columnist isn’t as important to his newspaper as he thins he is. That goes for me, your today’s substitute, and just between us columnists, that goes for you, too, Walter. Where would you be if it weren’t for your “Girl Friday,” and the numerous people who tell you chit-chat quietly and I must say, effectively?
Perhaps we all take ourselves too seriously, Walter, in our new professions, you as an actor and I as a writer and vice versa. We both know so damned much about everything that we probably miss a lot. A life spent peering near-sightedly across the footlights or into a pretty young thing’s eyes before the camera or with an ear, even figuratively, posted at a bedroom door, may, in the long run, prove to have been a rather empty life after all.
You remember John Barrymore wrote in his first “Autobiography of an Actor,” his amazing discovery that “fishing is, after all, a much more interesting business.”
Of course, nothing I can say, Walter, will ever discourage you from continuing to be an actor. Nothing will keep me from trying to writer, either, I suppose, as this effort–ghost-written though it is–will prove. The other fellow’s house and yard, even though it is a backyard, will always be more interesting than your own–or my own.
In all honesty, I don’t see why you can’t be as good a movie actor as anyone else–all the established stars particularly included. I doubt if stage training or theater experience or even acting ability is of any great value to a man or woman who has determined to become a motion picture star. An established personality, and no one will deny that, and the ability to speak English, are the most necessary things. It is a matter of record that you not only speak English–you manufacture it. That is something you and Shakespeare have in very common.
Before I get an exaggerated idea of my importance as a writer, I should remember that Laura Jean Libbey and E.P. Roe were writers, too, and before you buy new vests as an actor, it would be well to recall that Bull Montana and Corse Payton have been successful actors before you and that an ice skater has been made a motion picture star and that the current “sensations of the screen” are that because of the accident of birth which brought all five of them into the world together. The Golden Gate bridge is being dramatized, too, although its acting ability is probably less than either yours or mine.
Your first serious screen offering is, I believe, called “Wake Up and Live.” In my first, “Outward Bound,” I played a dead man. I think you had the advantage of me there. But in your first column you had to be clever. In mine I can be critical. It’s much easier to be critical than it is to be clever. I’ve got you there!
I am sure your readers and admirers are anxious that you do not become such a great actor that you will forget how to write a great column. Acting is really a lazy man’s job and you might become spoiled. So I feel like wishing you only moderate success as a profile and a happy return to your own pasture. The clover in mine has already been gnawed short.
The great tragedy of pictures to an actor trained on the stage is that, when he finally sees himself on the screen and notes the mistakes he has made, there is nothing he can do about it. His bad performance, his careless speech, has been embalmed in celluloid for the duration of the run. Even the leading lady can’t be changed–which may or may not be a misfortune.
In your line you can write a poor column one day–you have, at times, I suppose, but the memory of it can be erased by a succession of other columns more carefully done. It’s not so with a bad performance on the screen. I urge you to consider all this before you move permanently to Hollywood and become the victim of autograph collectors.
As for me–if I am to assume you are interested–I don’t intend to give up acting for columning until I have better evidence than this that I’m equipped for such work. I have one more picture to do for Warner Brothers before leaving for England. I do hope to produce pictures, plan them in advance and then act in them if necessary. I would like to direct because I think the director’s part in a good picture is generally and generously underestimated. But I have no intention of acting, directing and producing any picture at one and the same time, any more than I expect to continue this column any further today or tomorrow or ever.
(Syracuse Journal, July 3, 1937)