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The Movie Star and Me
or, Beauty and the Geek

by Rose Madeline Mula

(Rose's new book, The Stranger in My Mirror and Other Reflections is available by special order from most book stores, or on the web at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com)

The year, 1940. The place, the Embassy Theater, a movie house in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Unlike the sterile, stark cubicles that serve as screening rooms today, the spacious Embassy was a fantasyland. It boasted a ceiling of twinkling stars against a midnight-blue sky, a huge screen draped in lush, red velvet; gilded, highly-ornamented walls; uniformed (and cute!) ushers; and a richly-carpeted, imposing lobby with a grand staircase curving upward to the balcony seats. In short, the Embassy was an enchanting oasis in a dreary former mill town that had morphed into a nondescript watch manufacturing city.

I was twelve years old, painfully shy, self-conscious, gawky, and near-sighted. In that pre-contact lenses era, I was condemned to wearing glasses and enduring the "Four Eyes!" taunts of mean-spirited classmates, which did not inspire confidence.

But at the Embassy I forgot my insecurities as I got lost in the wonderful world of the silver screen. One day in 1940 a memorable movie mesmerized me — Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. He was handsome, wealthy, aloof. She was awkward, timid, withdrawn. She was me! Except she was lovely. But she didn't think so. Hey! Could it be that maybe I, too, was pretty behind my glasses but just didn't realize it? I have never identified so strongly with a character in a movie. And when she implausibly won the heart of the brooding Maxim de Winter (Olivier), I was as ecstatic as if he were carrying me off to be his wife and the mistress of his mansion, Manderlay — which was even more magnificent than the Embassy Theater.

The only scenario that was even more incredible was that the woman on that screen would one day become my friend — we would correspond, chat on the phone, and even visit each other's homes. No way! Man would walk on the moon before that happened!

Well, of course, man did eventually walk on the moon; and, equally miraculously, the glamorous Joan Fontaine of Hollywood, California, did meet and befriend the shrinking violet from Waltham, Massachusetts. Both events occurred many years after that day in 1940 when Rebecca captured my soul and took up permanent residence there as my favorite movie of all time. Surprisingly, it is the least loved work of its beautiful star, even though it had won her an Oscar nomination. I learned of Joan's aversion to Rebecca when I first met her in 1975. After years of slaving as Susie Steno in a series of companies, I had landed my dream job as Operations Manager of the Chateau de Ville, a chain of five theaters in New England, where I had the privilege of working with many of the idols of my youth — including the fabled Joan Fontaine, who had come to star in our production of Cactus Flower. What's more, I even got paid!

The Chateau's shows played each of our five theaters for a month, and my responsibilities included overseeing housing for the casts in each location — spartan furnished apartments for supporting players and more luxurious digs for our stars. For the first leg of Joan's Cactus Flower tour with us, I had found a lovely apartment for her on Boston's Beacon Hill, overlooking the Charles River.

As soon as she was settled there, I was dispatched to pick her up and drive her to Connecticut, Cactus Flower's next venue, so she could inspect some housing choices I had lined up for her there. I hadn't yet met her and was both excited and extremely nervous. When she opened the door, I gushed, "It's such a pleasure to meet you, Miss Fontaine! I absolutely loved Rebecca!" I expected a "Thank you!" or at least a smile. Instead, my compliment was greeted with a frown and disconcerting silence. Huh? What was that about? I feared I was going to have to carry on a one-sided dialogue all the way to Connecticut and back. Fortunately, however, as we started down the highway, she began to relax, and conversation became very easy. She was witty, friendly and warm. Soon I felt comfortable enough to ask her who had been her favorite leading man.

"Charles Boyer," she responded immediately. "He was a true gentleman. Working with him was a joy."

"And dare I ask who was your least favorite co-star?" I dared to ask.

Again, not a moment's hesitation. "Laurence Olivier," she replied emphatically.

Aha! A clue as to her reaction to my mention of Rebecca.

"The first four-letter words I ever heard were from the mouth of that man!" she added. Though the curses were not directed at her, his general surliness definitely was. Displeased because Vivien Leigh, his fiance at the time, had not been chosen for the co-starring role, he made his resentment of Joan obvious and even belittled her brand new husband, Brian Aherne, which had a devastating effect on the impressionable 22-year-old bride. How then, I asked, could her and Laurence's onscreen tenderness have been so convincing?

"It's called acting, Darling," she laughed.

That day trip to Connecticut was the start of a remarkable friendship, which was cemented in the months that followed by my admiration and respect for Joan's strong work ethic and professionalism during the run of Cactus Flower, and later the Chatueau de Ville's production of Forty Carats in which she also starred. Not once did she pull rank or indulge in any of the tantrums thrown by some of our other stars, despite personal difficulties that were plaguing her.

Joan was then living in a gorgeous Manhattan townhouse to which she subsequently invited me several times. She was a charming, generous, considerate hostess and incredibly unpretentious. She never fussed with hair, makeup, or clothes, yet she always looked lovely. On a rainy night when we were going to the theatre, she insisted I stay under her building's canopy while she stepped out in the downpour, sans umbrella, to hail a cab. "I don't want you to get wet, Dear," she said when I protested.

One evening, during one of my stays, Joan apologized that she had another engagement she couldn't break, so she called a friend to escort me to the opera. On a different occasion another of her friends took me to dinner and a Broadway show. I sure do miss that great Dial-A-Date service.

But it wasn't just the nights on the town that I enjoyed. My fondest memories of my visits include a quiet evening munching sandwiches in her cozy library where we gossiped and laughed until after midnight.an impromptu brunch of silver gin fizzes and eggs benedict, whipped up by my hostess on the spur of the moment after she had urged me to cancel my early plane home and take a later flight.an evening when a friend dropped by and, for some reason, we all adopted the personas and Cockney accents of the servants in Upstairs, Downstairs, a popular British PBS show at the time. Joan was Mrs. Bridges, the cook; her friend was Hudson, the butler; and I didn't even have to change my name to be Rose, the upstairs maid. It was hilarious. No, really. Well, maybe you had to be there. I'm glad I was.

My invitations to Joan's home included a couple of Thanksgiving weekends. A Cordon Bleu graduate, she always personally prepared the elaborate holiday feast for about a dozen guests. The first time I tried to help, she frustratingly endured my bumbling efforts for five minutes before banishing me to my room to write place cards instead. Since that day, she has never let me live down my lack of culinary skills, though she did bravely accept an invitation to my home one evening when she was visiting Boston on business. What's more, she actually ate the dinner I cooked. That's true friendship.

Not only is Joan an exceptional chef, she's also a licensed interior decorator, a prize fisherwoman, a hot air balloonist, and a hole-in-one golfer. "When you've had as many husbands as I've had, Love," says she, "you acquire a lot of their hobbies." Married and divorced four times, she reflects, "If I knew when I was younger what I know now, I would have had dogs instead of husbands. They're much more faithful."

Today, she and four loyal canines, large and small, share a lovely home overlooking the Pacific in Carmel, California, where she's enjoying still another hobby-horticulture. When I visited her there one September, her sprawling garden was ablaze with a staggering array of multi-colored roses, all planted and tended to by Joan herself. And it wasn't unusual to see her wielding a wrench to fix a balky faucet or disassembling an answering machine that had apparently gone on strike. Yes, this lovely lady has a multitude of talents and admirable attributes, not the least of which is her delightful, sometimes wicked sense of humor which has endured through many adversities. As she revealed in her autobiography, "No Bed of Roses," life has often been unkind to her, but she has never let it defeat her. A survivor, she manages to find humor in all but the direst situations. She loves to laugh. So do I. I think this has been one of our strongest bonds.

Every so often it strikes me that this woman I am talking with or writing to is Joan Fontaine! Movie Star! But most of the time, I completely forget all that, and she is simply Joan, my treasured friend.

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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