A few weeks ago, I went with a friend to see Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend on the big screen. I had previously seen the movie a few years ago, and recalled it being a solid film, but hadn’t really thought much more about it. Seeing it the second time was a revelation to me. Who was this magnificent actor, this Ray Milland? The friend I went with recommended Easy Living, so I went home and promptly watched that. I’ve been living in a state of Ray Milland enchantment for the weeks since.
Milland wrote an autobiography in 1974 called Wide-Eyed In Babylon. The book, at 264 pages, is a fast read and Milland himself is a good writer, making the tales he tells engaging. The book begins with Milland in present day, recalling a career that at that point wasn’t over, but as far as playing leading men in A-list films, was. The actor then jumps back to the beginning, where he was born Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones in Wales in 1907. He recalls growing up in a household that his mother ended up leaving, learning how to ride horses at his aunt’s, and then a short-lived attempt at being a ship’s hand in his teens.
One of my favorite parts of the book came next, where Milland recounted his service in the Household Calvary. An expert horseman, he honed his skill as a marksman as well, winning several shooting contests. There’s also a great story about a time when he was drunk during a procession for the king of Afghanistan. Try and imagine a young, inebriated Ray Milland in full cavalry dress trying to ride a difficult horse in an official procession. It’s a pretty hilarious story.
Milland works his way through his introduction to acting in Britain, his move to Hollywood and his long career as a contract player at Paramount. While he isn’t methodical about chronologically going through each of his films, he picks and chooses certain ones to tell stories about and has little anecdotes about many of the cast and crew he’s worked with. He does go in depth into his preparation for The Lost Weekend, and the experience of winning the Academy Award for Best Actor. In a full-circle moment, Milland recounts the feeling of being the king of Hollywood on that night, something he couldn’t have dreamed about when he first came to town:
I thought of the sixteen years since I had first seen Sunset Boulevard, in 1930, when all I had was curiosity and not much purpose, when the world seemed one big candy box, and suddlenly I hit the chauffeur on the shoulder an told him to go on out Sunset to the bridlepath and stop near Hillcrest. We would come back to La Rue’s later.
“But, darling,” cried my wife, “you mustn’t. They’re all waiting for you back there!”
“It’s all right dear,” I replied. “There’s something I want to do first. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.”
When the car stopped at Hillcrest I got out, and with the golden Oscar in my hand, I walked to the edge of Sunset and looked down at the lights. They seemed very bright that night. After a few moments I quietly said, “Mr. Novarro. Tonight they belong to me!” (p. 227).
While Milland’s book for most intents and purposes stops after The Lost Weekend, he uses the last few chapters to touch upon some of his later roles, his turn as a director, and ends on the note of still wanting to work, to keep busy as an actor. For a man that did end up working pretty much until his death in 1986, the ending seems fitting. Ray Milland has somewhat faded as a household name, and it’s a great shame. I’ve found great delight in “discovering” his career, and I would recommend Wide-Eyed In Babylon to anyone interested not only in Ray Milland, but Hollywood at the time. You’d be hard pressed to find a better storyteller.
Milland, Ray. Wide-Eyed in Babylon; An Autobiography. New York: Morrow, 1974.
[Book is out of print. I bought a used copy off of Amazon, and there seem to be plenty floating around there and on eBay.]