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When Stars Walk Off The Set

The real Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jones.

Joan Crawford, who starred with Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, rivaled Davis in temperament. When they were matched again in Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the stars clashed over the size of their roles, the Pepsi cooler Crawford placed on the set (Crawford’s husband was chairman of Pepsi) and the temperature of the studio’s air conditioning.

Crawford developed what her doctor said was “an upper-respiratory viral infection.” She checked into the hospital, where she would only eat meals catered by the Brown Derby.

It was “an indefinite kind of illness,” Davis later wrote, and finally she was replaced with Olivia De Havilland.

With some walk-offs, though, it was hard to tell if the actor walked away or got shoved. Rosebud was such a case. This chaotic 1974 United Artists production was one of legendary autocrat Otto Preminger’s last films. Robert Mitchum had agreed to do it on a whim, telling director Preminger, “Why not?”

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During production in Europe, however, Mitchum’s drinking and Preminger’s temper produced a series of screaming matches. The last one ended with Mitchum saying, “That’s it! That’s fine! Okay! Goodbye! Bon voyage!” Peter O’Toole finished the picture, which turned out to be a colossal flop.

When Judy Garland walked off films, it wasn’t a power play, it was emotional instability. Unwilling or unable to perform because of her drug addictions, she sabotaged her own career at MGM.

In 1948, Garland got a doctor’s note to excuse her walk-off from The Barkleys of Broadway during rehearsals: “Having to report every morning would cause such a mental disturbance within her,” her doctor wrote, that MGM should get someone else to star with Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers, maybe.

The following year, Garland gobbled so many Nembutals and amphetamines, she needed shock treatment while preparing Annie Get Your Gun. Production of the film moved at a snail’s pace because of her chronic lateness and clashes with the director, Busby Berkeley.

When the studio sent her a letter complaining about “infractions of your obligations,” she went into a rage, screaming, “Make those sons of bitches treat me like they do Greer Garson.” She went into her dressing room, and Betty Hutton wound up finishing the movie.

Marilyn Monroe, also drug dependent, made a habit of walking off. After telling husband-to-be Arthur Miller, “I can’t work this way,” she interrupted Bus Stop for two weeks of rehab, because of what the studio politely termed “viral infection, exhaustion, overwork and acute bronchitis.”

After splitting with Miller during shooting of The Misfits, Monroe took 10 days off in a Los Angeles hospital because of “acute exhaustion.” When she argued with Prince and the Showgirl costar and director Laurence Olivier, Monroe absented herself from the set for a week because of “colitis.”

As often as she indulged in tactical walk-offs, Monroe also knew how to make the strategy work. After she finished The Seven-Year Itch in 1954, she refused demands from 20th Century Fox that she make How to Be Very, Very Popular.

She left Hollywood and went to New York, where she called a press conference and announced, “I’m tired of sex roles. I’m going to broaden my scope.”

Fox, of course, put her on suspension. But when Itch opened very, very big, and Sheree North in How to Be Very, Very Popular opened very, very small, the studio came crawling back with a new contract that gave her greater choice and more money. A few years later, the studio fired her from her never-completed last picture, Something’s Got to Give.

Money can be a handy excuse when an actor wishes to avoid making a film. In 1975, Roman Polanski thought he had Jack Nicholson’s agreement to star in Pirates. The film was set at Paramount but “they grew tired of the way Jack Nicholson kept upping his fee,” Polanski says. “The fact that we had a deal didn’t mean that negotiations were concluded.”

Nicholson’s salary demand rose from $1 million to $1.5 million while Polanski tried to shop the project to other studios. Asked what he really wanted, “Nicholson said, ‘I want more.’ ” Pirates walked the plank–though it did resurface in 1986, only to sink like a stone with Walter Matthau in the Nicholson role.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando was a two-time loser at the walk-off. Right after he made On the Waterfront, he owed Fox a picture, and the studio tried to force him into The Egyptian. He went to Hollywood for rehearsals but quickly returned to New York after arguing with director Michael Curtiz.

Fox replaced Brando with Edmund Purdom and sued him for $2 million. Under that duress, Brando agreed to play Napoleon in Desiree. Desiree was the first of Brando’s many commercial films in which he wasted his talents, but it did have the distinction of out-grossing On the Waterfront.

By 1968, Brando had made 10 consecutive flops, and the best job he could get was making Burn! for Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. After shooting 40 takes in the blazing Colombia sun, Brando, suffering from a tropical facial rash, began accusing Pontecorvo of exploiting the natives and left for the airport. He pleaded illness.

The production shut down while the lawyers dickered. Several months later, Brando returned and finished the film, but he needn’t have bothered. When it came out, Burn! beame his 11th consecutive flop.





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