“If you’d talk a little, I wouldn’t have to talk so much!” Amanda Ladd Jones tells her father, the long-time film executive and producer Alan Ladd Jr., early in her documentary tribute, Laddie: The Man Behind The Movies.
I know how she feels. Ladd, now 80 years old, was famous not just for his taste and tenacity—films like Star Wars, Braveheart, and Blade Runner might not have happened without him—but also for a personal reticence that sometimes approached dead silence. In the closing credits of Ladd Jones’s film, which screens Saturday afternoon at the DocuSlate festival in Los Angeles, Mel Brooks knowingly croons the lyrics to the song “Speak Low.” Jenno Topping, a producer who worked with Ladd, notes that nearly word-free phone calls with the him could be “torture.” My own first phone conversation with Ladd was so painfully silent, it actually shocked me out of an excruciating case of writer’s block.
This happened in January of 1985, when I was still fairly new to the Wall Street Journal. I had taken the job partly because I had always found writing to be extremely difficult: I figured a daily newspaper would kill or cure me. The “kill” part nearly happened when I was told to write an instant “profile” of Ladd, who had just taken charge at MGM/UA. Mercifully, he got on the phone in short order. But it didn’t take long to realize that Ladd was beyond monosyllabic; he may have been answering some questions by nodding “yes” or “no” on the other end of the line.
It was pretty clear to me that this piece wasn’t going to happen in the 90 minutes or so before deadline—end of job, end of journalism career. But after throwing up (metaphorically or otherwise) I got the bright idea of trying Gareth Wigan, who had worked for years with Ladd. With a grace that I never forgot, Wigan essentially re-did the Ladd interview, filling in the missing details, and adding a few. I managed to gag out the article—and, mirabile dictu, was cured of that horrible block in the process.
Only in watching Ladd Jones’s film, which is populated by too many famous Ladd admirers to name (and even ekes a few words from the man himself), did I learn how deeply Wigan and Ladd were then at odds, mostly over some scenes that had been plunked back into The Right Stuff without Ladd’s knowledge.
“Imagine how it felt for me, I had the same experience,” Ladd Jones said of her own discoveries during the nine years it took her to make Laddie: The Man Behind The Movies. The film had its debut at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October, and is now on the festival circuit as Jones ponders its path to a wider audience that may not know her very silent father (in the doc she polls Star Wars fans to blank stares at Comic-Con; no accident that he made Brooks’ Silent Movie), but has been moved to laughter, tears and applause by his work.