He spoke in a hoarse monotonous tone that was authoritative yet menacing. Howard Strickling was officially MGM’s public relations boss in its heyday, but his real responsibility, he explained, was protection more than publicity.
Strickling’s mission was to nurture the roster of stars under studio contract. If he were here today, he might even have a few things to say to Brad Pitt or George Clooney.
He’d probably be suspicious, for example, of Pitt’s decision to play silent star John Gilbert in the next period piece. Babylon. Gilbert’s career ended abruptly in the 1920s due to his stormy personal relationships with other stars, so Strickling would advise Pitt to avoid references to his litigation with ex-wife Angelina Jolie.
Gilbert has had some high-profile conflicts with his unstable co-star and fiancée Greta Garbo. Louis B. Mayer objected to the marriage, and in a deadly moment Gilbert pushed the MGM czar against a wall, causing him to lose his glasses and yell, “I’m going to destroy you.”
Strickling would therefore likely warn reporters to avoid personal questions to Pitt who, unlike Gilbert, is normally tactful and sympathetic in his encounters with the media. He also has a loud voice unlike Gilbert’s falsetto, which hurt his career in the brave new world of walkie-talkies.
Strickling had the studio muscle to change casting decisions and reinvent the stories of actors like Tab Hunter or Guy Madison (Gilbert was originally called Cecil Pringle.)
Damien Chazel, Babylonthe director (he also shot The Earth) has carefully studied this moment in the 1920s when the careers of stars were turned upside down by the introduction of sound. He believes Hollywood is facing a similar moment of transformation today as streamers replace theatrical exposure, robbing stars of their red carpet openings and festival exposure.
Hollywood History student Clooney smartly moved between streamers, like The midnight skyand theatrical films, such as ticket to paradise. His new film is doing well worldwide (approaching $100 million) and defying critics’ dire forecasts by enticing US ticket buyers.
Still, Strickling could have come up with a platform version for ticket to paradiseand urged its director to provide a more romantic and visually protective setting for its Ticket stars. Clooney, 61, and Julia Roberts, 57, look pale under the scorching Bali sun.
By contrast, 61-year-old Cary Grant starred alongside Audrey Hepburn in the sophisticated and elegantly lit comedy thriller titled Charade in 1963. Its setting was Paris – no sun glare.
Still, the Clooney-Roberts team won loving praise from older audiences as well as the media. The New York Times suggested that “Clooney and Roberts have quietly become the Spencer Tracys and Katherine Hepburns of our time.”
Tracy was 67 and Hepburn 60 when they last appeared together on Guess who’s coming to dinner in 1967, and by then the two were sick and their exchanges were thorny. Both also hated the media – journalists were excluded from the set.
I got to know Strickling in his later years (he died in 1982) and enjoyed the gossip from him, which wasn’t easy. He worked with a thuggish ex-bouncer named Eddie Mannix to protect the stars’ bad behavior from heavy drinking who also dabbled in opium and “morphine,” as it was then known.
There are no studio executives like Strickling in Hollywood today, but stars like Will Smith or Johnny Depp would probably have coveted their support. Strickling could cause police reports to disappear and magically change the contents of column items.
He is said to have greatly admired stars like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio who have shown a knack for sustaining their long careers during a time of change.
In return, those stars would have appreciated Strickling’s talents. “The stars didn’t like me, but they needed me,” Strickling once told me. “It was more important to me to be needed.”