He eventually landing a job in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox, where he had to go into the steam room — ”in my starched shirt” — and read gossip items to the studio head, Spyros Skouras, emerging soaking wet and disillusioned.
The studio “was spending millions of dollars to sink Elizabeth Taylor in the Nile in ‘Cleopatra,’ but at the home office, they were saving on rubber bands,” Mr. Reed recalled. He made $57.50 a week, he said, survived on 35-cent ham salad sandwiches from Woolworth’s and lived in an actress cousin’s apartment on 23rd Street while she was in upstate New York doing stock theater.
“It was a one-room apartment over a Chinese restaurant, where all the roaches came up to visit at night,” he said. “You would turn on the lights, they were so brazen they would just stare at you, they wouldn’t even run. I thought, ‘This is horrible, but it’s New York.’”
The studio eventually laid him off after budget cutbacks, and in 1965 he fled the city to knock around Europe with friends in a rented red Volkswagen. He ended up at the Venice Film Festival just as his money was running out. “I didn’t know how I was going to get home,” he said. Mr. Reed decided to pose as a journalist and bluff his way into an interviews with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Buster Keaton, the aging silent film star who was promoting “Film,” a 22-minute experimental silent movie written by Samuel Beckett. Mr. Reed sold both articles, making enough to buy a return ticket to the United States.
The Keaton article, which appeared in The New York Times, was hammered out on film-festival stationery. (“Buster Keaton was there, looking for all the world like the kind of man dogs kick. …”)
Settling in New York, Mr. Reed soon became an in-demand magazine writer, then a hot job: churning out swashbuckling profiles of Tennessee Williams, Warren Beatty and many others. His unflinching Ava Gardner profile for Esquire in 1966 portrayed an embittered former screen siren two-fisting Dom Pérignon and cognac, complaining about her tenure at MGM as “17 years of slavery” in which the studio “tried to sell me like a prize hog.” The article wound up in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, “The New Journalism.”
Mr. Reed was also becoming a regular on “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
“He developed his own fan club on the show,” Mr. Cavett said in a phone interview. “I remember on one show, he said about Nancy Sinatra that she looked like a ‘pizza waitress.’ I actually began to worry. One of the musicians said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Frank doesn’t have a temper, ha ha ha.’ I think I went home and ordered a fallout shelter.”
Mr. Reed continues to consider physical appearance of public figures fair game. In 2013 he was denounced for calling the actress Melissa McCarthy “tractor-sized” and a “female hippo” in his review of the comedy “Identity Thief.”
“I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate,” she told The Times then.
“She went nuts because all her fans came out of the woodwork and were mad at me,” Mr. Reed said. “But what did she do? She lost 50 pounds. She started doing her own fashion designs. She looks terrific now, and is getting roles that don’t require her to fall down in mud puddles.”
Mr. Reed knows firsthand the mercilessness of the camera, and the critics. In 1969 he edged out George Hamilton, he said, for a prominent role in “Myra Breckinridge,” the big-budget film adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel whose protagonist undergoes a sex change — a scandalous notion then.
In the film, the sex change was reduced to dream sequence. Mr. Reed played the pre-transition Myron to Raquel Welch’s Myra.
At the outset, the film, which also starred Mae West and Farrah Fawcett, looked like a blockbuster. It quickly became a very different sort of disaster movie. The original director, the venerable George Cukor, fell out, along with Bette Davis and Burl Ives, Mr. Reed said. Ms. West, then in her late 70s, was entrusted to write key scenes, in which Mr. Reed and Ms. Welch refused to appear. “She didn’t understand the movie at all,” Mr. Reed said.
Nothing made any sense. In one scene Mr. Reed sashayed through an orgy scene “with a bottle of champagne, and my jacket over my shoulder, like William Holden in ‘Sabrina.’” But it was “a completely ridiculous orgy, everybody was fully clothed.”
“When this picture ended, it was $30 million over budget and they had filmed half of it.”
If nothing else, the project established him socially among the Hollywood A-list. He recalled dinner parties at Ruth Gordon’s house: “On my right would be Jean Renoir, and on my left would be Orson Welles.”
Other dinner parties, he was glad to miss. Like Steve McQueen, John Phillips and seemingly half of Hollywood, Mr. Reed claims to have turned down an invitation to dine, along with Jacqueline Susann, the “Valley of the Dolls” author, at Sharon Tate’s house the night of the Manson family murders.
“I said, ‘Jackie, I want to stay home and eat lemon meringue pie in my pajamas, in front of the T.V. at the Beverly Hills Hotel,’” Mr. Reed recalled.
He was back in New York by the time the devastating reviews for “Myra Breckinridge” rolled in. Howard Thompson of The Times seemed to be channeling Rex Reed himself when he described the film as a “grim grotesquerie” that “collapses like a tired, smirking elephant with no place to go.”
While there would be other scattered roles — “Inchon,” “Superman” — Mr. Reed’s destiny would be to write about movies, not star in them. “I just never had the luck,” he said. “I was never handed a good script. I just think that one of the reasons that movies are so profoundly screwed up today is because the last person who gets any credit for anything is the writer.”
Lennon Gave Him TV Guide
Mr. Reed may not have made a fortune in the film business, but he is sitting on millions of dollars of real estate. “It’s an awfully comfortable bachelor pad,” he said of the book-filled Dakota apartment he has lived in since 1969, which he bought for $30,000.
He found the apartment through his friendship with Ruth Ford, the Broadway actress who lived there with her husband, the actor Zachary Scott, whose family “owned half of Texas,” Mr. Reed said. The playwright William Inge, Judy Garland, Judy Holliday and the saxophone player Gerry Mulligan were all neighbors at various points.
“I moved into this apartment with an A.&P. shopping cart, some books and whatever I could drag over from my little walk-up on 73rd Street,” Mr. Reed said. His only furniture was a corduroy Queen Anne chair and a sleeping bag. The night he moved in, the film star Robert Ryan, who was president of the Dakota’s board, rang the doorbell to welcome him, and the two shared instant coffee, Mr. Reed on the sleeping bag, Mr. Ryan in the chair. “Do you think that happens today?” he asked.
Boris Karloff was another neighbor. Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein and Rosemary Clooney lived in the building. “Betty” Bacall, whose spacious three-bedroom apartment sold for $21 million in 2015 after her death the previous year, and Mr. Reed used to eat together regularly, he said.
He once signed a petition supporting John Lennon when the government was trying to deport Mr. Lennon because of his drug use and political activism. Mr. Lennon thanked him with a one-year subscription to TV Guide, Mr. Reed said, adding, “That was his bible. All he did was lie around stoned watching television.”
If Mr. Lennon famously sang, “All You Need Is Love,” Mr. Reed appears to disagree.
“I don’t have ‘relationships,’ except friends,” he said. “I don’t know, love is not something that I’ve been really good at. I think people are intimidated by people with opinions.”
He sighed, as if resigned. “I think it’s all over as far as that goes. How do you go start looking for a wife or a boyfriend or a significant other? It’s too late. It would be nice, though, to find somebody who’s really handy with a wheelchair, because that day is coming.”
But even if his mobility is impaired, Mr. Reed will remain a bucking bull in the china shop of current sensibilities.
“If I had to give the greatest dinner party of my own choosing in the world, the only person I would invite that I have never met was Adolf Hitler,” he said. “Everybody else, I’ve met.”