Vanity Will Get You Somewhere
Cotten’s story of his life is anecdotal rather than comprehensive, and he often skips quickly from one incident to another. On one page he tells, in evocative detail, of his early childhood in Virginia, and on the next he is already eighteen years old, beginning elocution lessons, dancing and romancing with a variety of young women, and supporting himself during the Florida boom by attempting to become the potato salad tycoon of Miami.
In a sense, though, Cotten’s story truly begins with his introduction to acting, and the incidents he includes in the book are earthy and fascinating: For example, he must surely be one of the only men to have kicked Hedda Hopper in the rear end for invading his privacy. He describes acting not as a mystical craft but as downright work, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes draining, but always done in the company of men and women worth teasing, challenging, arguing with, and loving.
Despite the title, Cotton appears to be the least vain of actors and autobiographers. In fact, one of the main purposes of this book seems to be to tell stories about other people instead of himself. Many of his quick portraits are powerful: of Orson Welles as vain and talented in equal measure, of Alfred Hitchcock as timid but dictatorial, and, most movingly, of Marilyn Monroe as fluttering into an outer space of insecurity.
The book is sometimes rambling and superficial, moving rapidly from descriptions of parties to reminiscences about Cotten’s infidelities to stories about films he made on various continents. There are also, however, some deeply moving passages: on the death of his first wife and of his close friend David Selznick, on his love for his second wife, Patricia Medina, and on his recovery from a recent heart attack and stroke. The reader may wish that Cotten had said more about his artistic experiences, especially in some of the great films of the modern era, but will be more than satisfied by this intriguing self-portrait.