All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

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All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by moira finnie »

Here's the spot to ask your questions about classic film actor Lew Ayres beginning tomorrow on Fri., Oct. 26th through-Mon., Oct. 29th as we welcome Lesley Coffin, the author of the upcoming biography, Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

This first full length biography of the Oscar-nominated actor was written by Ms. Coffin using previously untapped oral histories from the TCM Archives at The University of Georgia-Athens, the Hollywood Film Oral History Project at Columbia University in NYC, and the comments of friends of Mr. Ayres throughout his life. Perhaps best of all, the actor's unpublished autobiography and the memories of the actor's son, Dr. Justin Ayres, who practices medicine in Los Angeles, helped to fill in much of the story.

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Lew Ayres did it all during his long career. From silent film to classic sit-coms; he expressed his boyish passion for Greta Garbo in her last silent The Kiss (1929); played the doomed protagonist in the shattering film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), described as "a landmark of world cinema," did an unexpectedly brilliant, bittersweet turn in Holiday (1937); found great fame as Dr. Kildare; appeared in the outlandishly entertaining sci-fi, Donovan's Brain (1953); made a few movies that were barely "B's", and made two documentaries that reflected his lifelong search for spiritual values.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by moira finnie »

This thread is now open for questions to Lesley L. Coffin about Lew Ayres' life and career. I hope all our members will ask about this subject in the next few days!

Thanks in advance to all participants, in particular to Lesley for her generosity in coming here. To get things started, here are a couple of questions for her. BTW, Lesley Coffin is posting here under the name of filmbiographer.

How did you get interested in becoming a biographer and why did you choose to write about Lew Ayres? Was it his movies, his sometimes controversial life, or both these factors?
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by knitwit45 »

Welcome! I won't be able to ask any questions until later, but I'm sure you will be kept busy by our little band of enthusiasts. Thanks for being here!

Nancy
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The way we cope with it, is what makes the difference." ~ Virginia Satir
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by Rita Hayworth »

Please share your thoughts on All Quiet on the Western Front in General because I consider that movie one of my favorites ... This is one of my favorite "Pre" World War I Movies that go about the horrors of war and the "boys" hardship of deciding what is right and what is wrong in war.

I often moved by this movie and I always focus on the "boys" feelings rather the war itself. I also admired the performance of Beryl Mercer who played Paul's Mother and she was one of my favorite supporting characters ... I would like you to share your thoughts on her if you can! ... And Lew too ... His protrayal of Paul was marvelous in this movie ...

And, the performance of Louis Wolheim ... who played Kat and a Veteran Solider that befriended Paul in this movie.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

Thank you all for welcoming me. I'll try to answer questions as soon as possible.
moirafinnie
How did you get interested in becoming a biographer and why did you choose to write about Lew Ayres? Was it his movies, his sometimes controversial life, or both these factors?
I knew I wanted to be a biographer of film as early as high school and began studying it in college and graduate school. For any biographers out there (there might be a few out there), learning how to write a biography is an unusual challenge, because as many “life writing classes” as there are now (memoir writing is a huge academic focus), there are few opportunities to take classes or focus on biography. I worked as a research assistant to a biographer and studied it in graduate school. One of the most important things I learned is that the structure and style of your biography should fit the subject.
As an actor, Lew first came to my attention watching films such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Holiday, before hearing of the controversy, but I don’t think I wouldn’t have considered writing a biography without that information (although the story most people know isn’t exactly what I found in my research).
The thing which interests me about writing biography on “stars” as opposed to other notable historic figures, is you are writing about someone known for their persona mroe than their accomplishments. So the aspect that attracted audiences to them is essentially the same quality which needs to attract biographers and biography readers. Stars have to have an ethereal quality which draws people to them and represent something unique in society, which I feel Lew Ayres did.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by oscotto »

Welcome Leslie, and congratulations on completing Ayers compelling story. I've been reading Ralph Bellamy's autobiography and, I quote, "Lew Ayers ... had some difficulty with the draft board about being a conscientious objector." I was wondering what the difficulty was. Bellamy mentioned that Louis B. Mayer allegedly said, "Lew Ayers has some kind of phobia about killing people." Just how supportive was Hollywood regarding Ayers beliefs? Also, I've always found his marriage to Ginger Rogers rather odd. She hardly seems like the intellectual/spiritual type, and on talk shows she always came across as rather conservative. Details please. Thanks for visiting. Scott O'Brien
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

Kingme-
Please share your thoughts on All Quiet on the Western Front in General because I consider that movie one of my favorites ... This is one of my favorite "Pre" World War I Movies that go about the horrors of war and the "boys" hardship of deciding what is right and what is wrong in war.

I often moved by this movie and I always focus on the "boys" feelings rather the war itself. I also admired the performance of Beryl Mercer who played Paul's Mother and she was one of my favorite supporting characters ... I would like you to share your thoughts on her if you can! ... And Lew too ... His protrayal of Paul was marvelous in this movie ...

And, the performance of Louis Wolheim ... who played Kat and a Veteran Solider that befriended Paul in this movie.
I think All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the movies which should be required viewing for all high schoolers. IEvery time I've seen it presented in a classroom or theater, it ignites an emotional discussion about the way soldiers are essentially dehumanized during war. I recently moderated a discussion at the Gene Siskel Film Center and there were a number of veterans in attendance who had never seen the film, and they were so passionate and moved by the film.

I agree that the story of the boys is the heart of the film. Someone recently told me the beginning of the film, when they are in training, reminds them of the Bill Murray movie Stripes, which made me laugh. But when I thought of it, I can completely see what they were talking about. In a number of military films, there is a lighter period when the boys become comrades supporting each other and facing off against a tough (and unfair) drill instructor. But building that light hearted relationship between the boys, a brotherhood, makes their dehumanizing all the more heartbreaking to witness.

One of things which is easy to forget about the film is that the movie alternates between terrible tragedies and to small victories (getting the extra food, the night with the girls), small moments which seem all the more wonderful because of what they’ve been through. But when Paul finally goes home, a moment which should be the happiest, it is probably the saddest moment in the film.

Beryl Mercer, who replaced Zazu Pitts, is wonderfully warm as the mother of Paul and they do feel like mother and son. And the scenes when Paul so desperately wants to protect his mother from the horrors of war are heartbreaking. Coming in after the film was complete, is always difficult because the state of mind of the director and cast is always different. But I think she does a wonderful job.

As for Louis Wolheim, who I can say Lew Ayres thought gave the best performance in the film; the gruff, hardened performance is wonderful. And the strength of having experienced mature actors like Wolheim is that it elevated the performances of the younger, inexperienced actors. Although they are very good in their earlier scenes, the boys’ performances are on an entirely different level when working with Wolheim and Slim Summerville, and the best scene in the movie and best acting is towards the end when Wolheim and Ayres are reunited scrounging for food.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

oscotto
I've been reading Ralph Bellamy's autobiography and, I quote, "Lew Ayers ... had some difficulty with the draft board about being a conscientious objector." I was wondering what the difficulty was.
The difficulty Bellamy was likely mentioning was the law in place which stated only members of specific religions could claim conscientious objection status. In World War II, an individual couldn't simply say "I object to war or killing morally." Only those who could prove they were members of designated religions had that right. Lew was not a member of one of these pre-determined religions, but wasn't even a member of a religion and objected to joining one which could have offered him that kind of protection, claimin he had a religion of his own. He had to prove his objection was of sound mind and based on religious study.
Bellamy mentioned that Louis B. Mayer allegedly said, "Lew Ayers has some kind of phobia about killing people." Just how supportive was Hollywood regarding Ayers beliefs?
Over the years, the story claims Hollywood turned its back on Ayres, which wasn't exactly the case. MGM did fire him so he had no financial stake in the films being released at this time, but they ended up releasing them. There were a number of people who stood by and supported him (Lionel Barrymore, William Bakewell, Dona Reed, Robert Wagner) but said the majority turned against him. Humphrey Bogart, Olivia De Havilland, a number of other liberal minded individuals wrote a petition to Time Magazine at the time, stating they supported his right to declare himself a conscientious objector. It was many of the individuals who would later object to the Communist witchhunt.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

Also, I've always found his marriage to Ginger Rogers rather odd. She hardly seems like the intellectual/spiritual type, and on talk shows she always came across as rather conservative. Details please.


I have no doubt that his marriage to Ginger Rogers was out of geniune, mutual affection. Despite seperating, they even dated before divorcing, and she claims it was her one regret that she wasn't able to make that marriage succeed. They were simply two different personalities and while he became more introspective and serious minded, she was more extroverted. He also preferred to be alone, something impossible in marriage. He did act as a bit of a spirtual/intellectual guide to her early in their relationship, and they had a very unusual liberal marriage for the time.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by MissGoddess »

Welcome, Lesley! I know very little about Ayers and what you've revealed so far is fascinating. Can you tell us just a little about how Ayers came to his convictions that led to his conscientious objection? Were they formed prior to his involvement with All Quiet on the Western Front or was the film itself an influence...or was there some private, formative experience? I am particularly interested as my own religious beliefs preclude those of our faith from fighting in wars or conflicts.

Thanks again for joining us!
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by mongoII »

Hi Leslie and welcome to SSO. It,s a pleasure having you here.
When Lew was making "Johnny Belinda" did he actually have a romance with his co-star Jane Wyman?
If so, was it hot and heavy?
What did Lew think of his Oscar nomination for "Johnny Belinda".
And were the actors actually naked for the swimming scene in "All Quiet on the Western Front"?
I thank you.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

MissGoddess\
Can you tell us just a little about how Ayers came to his convictions that led to his conscientious objection? Were they formed prior to his involvement with All Quiet on the Western Front or was the film itself an influence...or was there some private, formative experience?
Although the press was quick to claim his convictions were formed by All Quiet on the Western Front, it was his more gradual, intellectual interests which informed his decisions. There were stories that an experience hunting informed his nonviolent convictions, but even that could be an example rather than the turning point in his life. He became more interested in studying religion and philosphy when his career was on a down swing and he had more time to pursue these interests. But his study of theology were lifelong and his opinons were never set in stone.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by filmbiographer »

mongoII
When Lew was making "Johnny Belinda" did he actually have a romance with his co-star Jane Wyman?
If so, was it hot and heavy?
Both always insisted that their romantic relationship didn't begin until after Wyman seperated from Ronald Reagan, but there chemistry off set was certainly noticed by cast and crew. At the very least however, they had an emotional affair Ronald Reagan was well aware of. After Wyman and Reagan seperated however, their was a period when they were a hot couple in Hollywood and Wyman particularly didn't keep her feelings or intentions to herself.
What did Lew think of his Oscar nomination for "Johnny Belinda".
He was always very pround of that performance and the film as a whole. Losing to Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet is nothing to be ashamed of, and the film was one he has a geniune interest because of its message. He was actually cast before Wyman (and suggested Teressa Wright for the role). It was also the first performance he had which he felt he gave a strong performance after the war.
And were the actors actually naked for the swimming scene in "All Quiet on the Western Front"?
I don't know if they were naked, but I can say, they hated filming that sequence. Of all the scenes in the film, it was the hardest to film because the water was icy cold and they started turning blue.
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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by Professional Tourist »

Speaking of Johnny Belinda, Lesley, have you come across any memories of Mr. Ayres' experiences working on that film as regards his co-star Agnes Moorehead? On a person level, since they were both students of religion, they may have found much to talk about.

Thanks in advance.

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Re: All About Ayres: The Q & A with Lew Ayres' Biographer

Post by Rita Hayworth »

Thanks filmbiographer for an excellent rundown ... and I like the reference to "Stripes" a movie that Bill Murray starred in ... I can see where you are getting at! ... And, that's cleverly put ... and welcome to our humble forum. :)
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