Farley Granger and Troy Donahue were born Farley Granger and Merle Johnson, Jr. They were both coached and shaped to be Movie Stars by the Studio System. They were not encouraged to garner mug shots and they were not permitted to declare their half-baked personal opinions (This is how it became known as “Old Hollywood Glamor.”).
Granger and Donahue were not expected to select roles against their type either. They always played a definite part—Hollywood Idols. Granger was a Matinee Idol; Donahue was a Teen Idol. I guess there is still some variety of these Idols in the movies today, even if handsome save-the-day heroes (Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman) have gone out of style with audiences. Today we have that endless parade of buff-beyond-endurance comic book heroes flashing six packs and superpowers. We also have last generation’s male superstars who keep turning out aimless comedies. Although decades separate these “movie icons” from their glory days, now they make inane movies that we forgive so they can further feather their nests. Although let’s face it, these guys have already done their share of heavy nest-feathering…isn’t Jack Nicholson soon expected to make a come-back in a remake (Sorry, Norma, I mean making a “return!”) of the German comedy Toni Erdmann (2016)?
Farley Granger lived one version of Hollywood celebrity. Sam Goldwyn signed Granger as a contract player after he discovered the stage-struck high-school senior in a local theater production. Tall, dark, and classically handsome, Granger made films to appeal to young viewers in the audience. This was the 1940s heading into World War II and the studios reigned supreme. After Granger came home from the duty-end of war, Granger’s youth fare films included the delayed release of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948). Alfred Hitchcock then starred him in Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951).
Hitchcock’s Rope is probably the most famous exercise in filmmaking that did not work while Strangers on a Train is among the canon of Hitchcock masterpieces. Granger is a handsome, homosexual thrill murderer in the first and a handsome elitist tennis pro stalked by a sexually ambiguous, psychopathic murderer in the second. After international genius auteur, Luchino Visconti, saw Rope, he starred Granger in his choreographed masterpiece Senso (1954). Never comfortable with movie stardom, upon his return from the shoot in Europe, Granger boycotted Hollywood and starred in four Broadway productions, won the Obie off Broadway, and was a founding member touring the country both seasons with the aborted American National Theater. He also acted in The 20th Century Fox Hour, The Bell Telephone Hour and Playhouse 90 during TV’s classic era of live television drama, working on television right up to and including a stint on a daily soap opera.
Troy Donahue who was addicted to alcohol and pills and died unsung and washed-up, lived another version of Hollywood celebrity. After being groomed in small parts, Donahue became a featured Warner’s contract player. He stands out as Frankie, Susan Kohner’s abusive, racist boy friend, in a small role in the Lana Turner masterpiece Imitation of Life (1959). Last gasp of the Studio System moving into the swinging 60s. Blonde, blue-eyed, and All-American handsome, Donahue made the kind of films that earned him a young fan base, his films were not only made for teens but were geared to make him into a teen idol. He starred with Sandra Dee in A Summer Place (1959) as the handsome young heartthrob and into the following decade in Susan Slade (1961), Rome Adventure (1962), and Palm Springs Weekend (1963). He was the Handsome Young Heartthrob in the stable in the first, on tour in Italy in the second, and on spring break in the third. Among his other titles on the big screen during the decade, in Parrish (1961) he stopped adolescent lovemaking long enough to go into the Coast Guard and grow up. Then Donahue guested on everything on the small screen including Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and The Patty Duke Show, finally starring as the handsome young heart throb in two popular TV crime series, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6. Donahue would later appear in Godfather II (1974) as a character named Merle Johnson and work for John Waters in Cry-Baby (1990).
In the off-Broadway play, Mr. Goldwyn, a running joke is a series of phone calls from Farley Granger trying to break his movie contract to free himself to do “serious” theater. Troy Donahue became the co-inspiration for the Simpson’s character, Troy McClure, and is celebrated as the quintessential teen star in songs from both Broadway’s Grease and A Chorus Line.