Joseph Cotten was one of those players who shaped movies the way they are now.
You don’t know who Joseph Cotten is? Let’s fix that straight away. Joseph Cheshire Cotten (1905–1994) was an actor who started his film career with his very good friend Orson Welles, with whom he made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, nothing less; Cotten co-starred with him in a glorious Carol Reed film named The Third Man (if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?); Alfred Hitchcock directed him three times (two in movies –Shadow of a Doubt & Under Capricorn– plus one in TV); he played theatre with Katherine Hepburn.
A leading man
He was a star, but not a megastar, he was “just” an excellent leading man and actor. His résumé is simply astonishing. Most actors these days would like to have experienced a little part of what Cotten did. To hear how things went for him in his own words would be a privilege. We are lucky. He wrote a deeply felt autobiography, with the great title Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.
Vanity will get you somewhere
But the attraction of this book doesn’t rely only on Cotten’s career, impressive as it is, but on the way he tells his own story, his sense of irony, his brutal honesty (when he tells about the ups and downs of his marriages, for instance). Some professional episodes he reflects are priceless, they make you feel like you are peeping into the room where things really happened in those days: the way the last scene of the Third Man was conceived; the first scene he shot in Citizen Kane, playing an old version of himself without any pre-planning at all…
“Nobody seems to like the play except the audience”
His sense of irony floats all over the book. What follows is an excerpt of a chapter where he recalls the poor reaction of the San Francisco critics to a play where he was acting in 1962 named “Rx: Murder”*. Here is how he describes it:
Our first curtain rose in the Curran Theatre during one of San Francisco’s infrequent snow flurries. The auditorium was filled with a dressy audience who made us feel welcome to the Golden Gate. The next day’s review made us feel like hurling ourselves off it. Constant lines of ticket buyers at the box office, however, quickly discouraged this emotional reaction. It is said that the phrase “Nobody seems to like the play except the audience” is anonymous. This I believe not to be true. An unqualified, completely impeachable source, “The Listener”, assures us that it is a paraphrase of Harry Truman’s “Nobody voted for me except the people”.
Before our final curtain in San Francisco, the press warmed up. Herb Caen of the Chronicle said, “I hear the play isn’t as bad as I hear it is”.
If you are curious at what the title is about, I’m afraid you will have to read the book. But it has to do partly with his mum, partly with something that happened while he was playing on Broadway.
For an overview of Cotten’s amazing career, just click here.
If you are interested in screen acting, please check our post On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter)
*This play was the first appearance of a character named Columbo, a police lieutenant. Sometime later, actor Peter Falk made this character worldwide famous in a television series. One of the first directors of Columbo was a beginner named Steven Spielberg.