NEW YORK — "When in Doubt, Act Like Myrna Loy." This was the title of an unusual tribute to the legendary actress held Thursday at the American Place Theater to celebrate the publication of her autobiography, "Myrna Loy--Being and Becoming."
Also the title of a recent play by Cynthia Heimel, "When in Doubt, Act Like Myrna Loy" contains lines that were recited by actress Debra Jo Rupp as an introduction to the evening of reminiscences and that perhaps describe the 81-year-old actress best: "She was self-possessed, adventurous . . . and she wore great hats--a perfect role model for these perilous times."
Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Sidney, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Joanne Woodward were among those in attendance who have shared some of Loy's Hollywood history, which spans six decades and includes 124 films. They spoke of her as a role model, on and off-screen. Loy listened attentively, along with several hundred invited guests who included Joan Bennett and Gloria de Haven--others from Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age."
"We all learned a lot about what we do, watching Myrna," said Woodward, referring to the Saturday afternoons she spent as a child in rural Georgia, "watching Myrna in the movies . . . .We had a lot of bad role models too, but Myrna certainly was not one of them."
"Once you know what the supreme Loy would do, you have an answer to every problem on Earth," said actress Anne Jackson, who, billed as "The High Priestess of the Myrnaphiles," appeared on stage in a Loy-like studded velvet hat to introduce film clips demonstrating how Loy's characters coolly and gracefully coped with life--and especially men. She was seen coping with William Powell in "The Thin Man" films; sparring with Clark Gable in "Test Pilot" and fending off Boris Karloff in "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Later in life she was also seen coming to terms with growing older, appearing in such films as "From the Terrace" with Paul Newman, who played her son.
"She's also provided a role model for those of us who have graduated into playing mother roles, in a business which has so much prejudice against older actresses," said Woodward, who played Newman's on-screen wife in "From the Terrace" and who is now playing a mother in "The Glass Menagerie."
The ceremonies were largely tongue-in-cheek, in keeping with the theater's tradition of annually honoring an American "humorist" (Loy serves on the board of the theater). But there were serious moments too, reflecting her active association with liberal causes.
"She combined beauty, charm--and conviction," said Harry Belafonte, who then spoke of Loy's work--"long before it became fashionable"--on behalf of racial equality, both in New York, where she long has made her home, and in California. Belafonte cited Loy's appeals in the 1930s to her own film studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to portray blacks as businessmen in films, rather than always as servants.
Loy, who has been in frail health for several years and who walked with the aid of a cane Thursday, declined to address her appreciative audience at the conclusion of the 90-minute tribute. But in a brief, private interview before the formal program, she acknowledged that she aimed to write a book about her professional and "political" life, rather than about the private life of a movie star.
"It's not got any of the things they probably want to hear," Loy said, "but I did feel I owed a book."