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Robert Wagner on Hollywood style, movies and 'Titanic'

"Moral conduct is imperative; it causes the least problem and leaves fewer regrets," said Jacques Barzun. I think he was quoting the Stoics.

SOME OF us had a really high old time at the Y on Lexington at 92 Street this past week. We gathered to hear actor R.J. Wagner talk with me about his new book "You Must Remember This," out from Viking.

It is a bit daunting to offer questions about love, life, romance, tragedy and acting to someone who has been a star almost since he was first discovered by Darryl Zanuck. This was in just a few moments onscreen back in 1952. (R.J. didn't have any lines in the Susan Hayward movie "With a Song in My Heart," about the life of singer Jane Froman, but he put on such an empathetic and sympathetic face that Zanuck knew immediately he should sign him up.)

R.J. has gone on to make more than 40 feature films and he has starred in three separate successful TV series. He keeps up with the times as well, recently appearing in the last of Charlie Sheen's episodes of "Two and a Half Men," the Mike Myers "Austin Powers" extravaganzas and currently as a recurring character in the popular CBS drama "NCIS."

He co-starred (and more!) with the great actress Barbara Stanwyck in 1953's "Titanic." They kept their romance under wraps because she was twice his age and they didn't want to cause talk. At the Y when I asked about this, R.J. noted that indeed Stanwyck was one of the greats of her time and that he (like me) preferred his "Titanic" to James Cameron's special-effects color epic. He also praised Victoria Wilson's massive book on Stanwyck's life, which had a first volume published recently.

I remarked on R.J.'s way with women (he made love to most of his leading ladies) and married the adorable Natalie Wood -- twice! I was careful, however, because in the audience was Wagner's wife of more than 20 years, Jill St. John. How has Wagner survived, personally and professionally? Well, he is a real gentleman that's how -- intelligent, wise, charming, open and with open arms. He wrote his memoir several years back and he now follows with the story of Hollywood and how it came to be and came to change with the years.

Scott Eyman worked with him on this and he is a specialist in, of all lives, Louis B. Mayer's. And while describing what great stars and figures have lived in L.A. in its show biz days, R.J. punctuates all this history with colorful, priceless anecdotes about stars he has hung out with -- Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant -- and all the ladies, beginning with Joan Crawford.

R.J. looks great. He will celebrate his 85th birthday next February. The audience loved him!

DESPITE WHAT some say in despair, the culture hasn't coarsened beyond all recognition. For example, the most eagerly awaited film, opening soon, is "The Muppets: Most Wanted." IMDB places interest at 196 percent.

The least anticipated? "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" Interest in that sex-fest is a paltry 9 percent. So there! Oh, and "Need for Speed" starring "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul (aka Jesse Pinkman) scores at a healthy 88 percent.

IT CAME as something of a surprise the other day to hear from conservative pundits that Beyonce is a "bad influence" on young girls. This is because of her latest video, "Partition," in which she acts out making love (to her husband, Jay-Z) in a car. First of all, she's a pop star, not a politician, and she is a full-grown woman, whose image has always been provocative. Although her songs generally stress romance and monogamy.

Second, she has been married once, to Jay-Z. He has been married once, to Beyonce. They have a child they are raising together. Neither has ever been involved in scandal. Or an acrimonious divorce. This is more than I can say for some of the people criticizing Beyonce.

As a role model for girls, I'll take Beyonce over Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber.

LIKE ALL comics, late-night fixture/author/actress Chelsea Handler can sometimes go too far. But in general, she's a riot. And she won herself a legion of new fans by taking down CNN's Piers Morgan the other night. Winding up her interview with Morgan, she let loose about what she considered his lack of interest. He responded that she wasn't that interesting.

She said it was his job to make it all interesting. Back and forth and finally it came to Chelsea handing Piers his head: "Well, this is why you're losing your show!"

Even folks who don't like Chelsea got online and cheered. Piers Morgan, alas, has not made himself a beloved figure on the troubled CNN.

The problems plaguing that once-shining news channel seem to multiply day by day, including overly emphatic, dramatic anchors who take everything "personally," an emphasis on court cases nobody really care about and difficulty finding that fair middle ground CNN used to stand for. (FOX and MSNBC are blatantly partisan, preaching only to their choir. That's fine, but where does it really get us? The news or an argument for a point of view?)

I'd love to know what CNN's founder, Ted Turner, honestly thinks these days. I have always admired this titan. He can seem erratic, but he loves history and is very smart!

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)

(c)2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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