Oct 16, 2013

Book Review--Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad

Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad
Ronald L. Davis
University Press of Mississippi, 2006

Zachary Scott came from money. He was pampered, even a little spoiled, though he was always pleasant and grateful for his parent's generosity. His biography answers the question: what happens to a movie star in decline when survival is not an issue? The result is predictable; money doesn't solve everything, but it certainly helps. Still, Scott's story is fascinating, partly because of the man we get to know, but also because of the parts of his life that remain a mystery.

Though superstars get the bulk of attention when it comes to actor biographies, they only represent a small part of the Hollywood experience. We can't be blamed for wanting to admire the glitter of those who became movie legends, but the people who supported them, and those who grabbed the odd leading role and managed to keep working, are more numerous and they represent a more commonly shared view of acting life.

Zachary Scott was that kind of star. He's well known to people who love classic film, his performance as Joan Crawford's straying husband in Mildred Pierce (1946) ensured that, but he never ascended to the widespread, enduring fame enjoyed by actors like James Cagney and Cary Grant.

He was one of the gems of early Hollywood, unhappily typecast as a villain, but always memorable. An actor with some demons who nevertheless managed to maintain a reputation as an elegant, generous and talented performer. In films like Flamingo Road (1949), Ruthless (1948) and The Southerner (1945) (where he played beautifully against type as a struggling farmer), he demonstrated consistent ability and intense magnetism.

Though Scott often struggled to stay active in his profession, he never hit the lower depths, most likely due to his solid background. He came from a loving, wealthy Texas family. His attentive parents raised their son to be a gentlemen and they maintained close ties throughout his life. Though many who knew him said he had the manner of a rather precious prince, he was never a snob. This was a guy who could make fast friends with a garbage man. He saw the value in everyone he met.

While Scott's upbringing helped him to navigate life with grace and confidence, his parent's money both saved him and held him back. He rose to fame during World War II as a replacement leading man for established stars who had gone overseas. When these men returned home, and a new crop of actors bloomed post-war, Hollywood lost interest in Scott. Increasing absences and troubles with alcohol, primarily brought on by his frustration at the monotony of his roles, didn't help his reputation.

Scott turned to the stage, which offered better variety, but the money was not as good as with film. Still, he insisted on maintaining his lavish lifestyle of fancy clothes, expensive dinner parties and collecting art. Where many actors would have slid into poverty, Scott simply relied on his parents, often asking for loans or outright gifts of money. They seem to have always been willing to help their son and he never loafed, always finding work on television, in regional theater or traveling with summer tours.

Scott may have suffered another significant torment. Rumors of his being homosexual followed him throughout his adult life. His insistence on wearing a single gold hoop earring must have done much to inspire whispers, though he always had an explanation for this eccentricity. If he did have these yearnings, he kept them hidden well.

Davis speculates that Scott may have had one or more homosexual experiences as a young man, when he went to London to study acting. There he met several influential men who warmed to him quickly upon his arrival on the Continent. His relationship with producer Edward Laurillard was especially close, and his classmates were alarmed when he was chauffeured to class in the older man's Rolls Royce. It's probable that Scott had opportunities to try same-sex relations and possible that he gave sex with men a try. Many of his loved ones noticed a mysterious change in his manner when he returned from his trip, but as it was his first time abroad alone, any number of things could have affected him. As intriguing as it all is, Davis wisely keeps the speculation light.

Scott married twice, both times to actresses. Unusually for a star in his position, he was scrupulously faithful to both. His first wife Elaine left him, after fourteen years of turbulent, but essentially happy marriage, when she fell for John Steinbeck. Second wife Ruth Ford was more devoted and the two remained happily together for the rest of Scott's life. Though often absent from their lives, he seemed to be loving in his way to his daughter Waverly from his first marriage and his adoptive daughter Shelley from his second.

It's the tension between Scott's essentially stable family life and the inherently turbulent profession of acting that keeps Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad lively. So many things came to the actor easily, and when he did work hard, he thrived, and yet he was tormented. Perhaps because he felt he had to live up to the legacy created by his wealthy father, maybe there was something else. Whatever the case, this talented, charming man made his mark in a brutal profession and without sacrificing his dignity. He was unique in his field and in the way he lived. Davis has explored this complex man with compassion and solid storytelling.

Many thanks to the University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. I had no idea there was a Zachary Scott bio -- he sounds like a fascinating character. When I saw the title of your post (on Speakeasy), I realized I knew next to nothing about Scott. Thanks for sharing this info! :)

  2. That's just why I agreed to review Scott's bio--of which I also wasn't aware before I heard from the publisher--though it's been around a while. I've enjoyed so many of his performances, it surprised me that I hadn't attempted to learn more about him before. It's a beautifully written book, well worth the read.

  3. It's nice to see the Zachary Scott book in paperback. Ronald Davis was the first consulting editor for the Hollywood Legends series. He taught at Southern Methodist University there and established an archive of interviews with Hollywood figures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also has copies of interview transcripts. I succeeded Davis as consulting editor. One of the first things I did was read his fine biography of Scott.

  4. Good to hear about this book. I've always liked Zachary especially in Mildred Pierce and The Unfaithful.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  5. It is an exceptional biography Carl. I hope that it gets more attention now that it is in paperback, because it truly deserves the praise.

    Vienna--Zachary Scott always made an impression, didn't he? I think you would like the book. There's so much more to him than what you see on the screen. He was a fascinating guy.

  6. I read this bio and it is wonderful...thank you...
    dr. k. vermillion