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James Garner: 1928-2014

JGJames Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.

His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.

Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.

He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972’s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.

James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.

He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.

May James Garner rest in peace.

Eli Wallach Dies

Actor Eli Wallach, an exceptional actor whose work in motion pictures, stage and television spans decades, has died. He was 98 years old. From his role as a sexually predatory cotton gin owner in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) to his performance as an embittered writer in The Holiday (2006), the Brooklyn-born Army veteran Wallach was electrifying on screen.

EliWallachYou couldn’t take your eyes off of him. I’d just watched him the other night as Guido on Turner Classic Movies dancing with Marilyn Monroe in her last movie, The Misfits (1961), another fine film. It’s a haunting Western co-starring Thelma Ritter and Clark Gable in his last movie, too, and Wallach depicts a sidekick to Gable’s cowboy. But he makes the character into so much more than that. Wallach’s Guido is an automotive mechanic in Reno who up and quits his job to chase wild Mustangs as part of this strange, lonely and unlikely quartet. His character starts as a regular fellow who spots Monroe’s newly divorced bombshell in an upstairs window and he unfolds as a widower with a past worth knowing about, and letting go of, in an unforgettable scene in which he dances, really dances, with the bombshell who is suddenly a human not merely an object. Her tender yet biting insights revive his lust for life but it’s Wallach’s eyes that transmit everything essential about his character’s story.

Small, important roles were masterfully rendered through his artistry. He was excellent in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax (2007), memorable in NBC’s ER (2003) and as a judge in LA Law (1991), and he added to Godfather, Wall Street and Chinatown sequels. He could play hard or soft, gay or straight, monsignor or rabbi and he played them all. He was featured or co-starred in pictures with Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. His 1960s work in such influential films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), How the West Was Won (1962) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) stayed true to his abilities and his dedication to his work continued in exemplary performances in The Deep (1977) and Skokie (1981) and until a few years ago. Eli Wallach ended his career as he had started it in his film debut as the villain in Baby Doll, pictured here, with his form fitting each role flawlessly and with his character as the highest purpose of each performance.

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Maya Angelou What I admired more than anything about Maya Angelou, who recently died, is that she committed to her work 100 percent. Whether she danced, wrote poems, books or songs, she expressed her life in art. She was a true Renaissance woman and this in today’s world is a remarkable achievement.

I first became aware of her when I watched the ABC miniseries Roots. I think it was her face that earned my instant respect. It was kind and searching and her expressions were as if she was intensely interested in understanding the world. Yes, it was all of that. I was a child and the saga of Kunta Kinte was an extraordinary television program built on Alex Haley’s story of a great mythic American Negro experience, which was perfect for her. Over the years, she told the tales of her life, being raped as a child, being traumatized by violent crime, growing up to dance, become an activist for her own rights, working with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Alvin Ailey, Roberta FlackOprah Winfrey and some of the best actors such as Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett, who both also co-starred in the stirring and glorious Roots.

Roots is an important connection in the life of Maya Angelou because it symbolizes an unearthing of deeply embedded truths about what it means to be black and female in America, where slavery was both a horrible mistake in the original laws despite serious opposition and a cause for abolition through a great civil war less than 100 years after the young nation was born. She represents strength and openness, the pulling out of what’s painful to acknowledge and explore, and the healing that follows one’s recognition of agony, pain and recovery. Her career mirrored and led to advancements such as interracial marriage and racial integration across the decades, from her personal narrative I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, which I referenced in my review of last year’s somber best picture 12 Years a Slave, to her sonorous readings, intonations and insights in interviews in the 21st century. Maya Angelou rarely missed an opportunity to thoughtfully comment on difficult and challenging times.

She had lived through the worst, as she revealed in Caged Bird, one of the most banned books in America due to its frank language and depictions of explicit sex, violence and homosexuality. She wrote and produced for the forerunner of PBS, mining the connections between blacks and the blues, lived in Harlem, taught at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and wrote a feature film. The native of St. Louis, Missouri, who’d been left by her parents under the care of a grandparent who taught her to read works by Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass as well as Dickens, Poe and Shakespeare, later partnered with Kansas City, Missouri-based Hallmark for a series of greeting cards. As she once proudly said in response to criticism that she profited from her work (in one of her most succinct quotes): “I write for money.”

She wrote, it turns out, in fits in hotel rooms where the eccentric demanded that wall hangings be taken down to avoid distraction, on legal pads while lying on a bed with occasional sips of sherry and, like writer Ayn Rand, with a deck of cards to play solitaire during the gaps. She wrote for better or worse in a personal and often embellished storyteller style, long before blogs and the Internet, and her writings gained notice from President Clinton, an Arkansan who invited the former Arkansas resident to recite a poem at his inauguration in 1993. Though she supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, Maya Angelou ultimately and quite distinctly chose to align herself with the fundamentally anti-American Obama presidency, a decision which diminishes her legacy.

MayaKuntagrandmaBut like Roots she was an integral and unique part of American mythology. Her words, stories and life were, in essence, inspiring. Among my favorites: “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” And: “Nothing will work unless you do.”

Maya Angelou, in all her incarnations, rose to each occasion and did. As she wrote in her collection Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

Mickey Rooney

MickeyRooney (courtesy Getty Images)From the Andy Hardy movies to his appearance as a security guard in Night at the Museum (2006), Mickey Rooney, for all of his wives, antics and flamboyance, was an actor who was capable of creating memorable characters in strong performances. I think I first noticed him during a TV showing of his movie Captains Courageous (1937) with Spencer Tracy, an excellent and powerful film to this day. I was always moved by his volcanic performance as Whitey in Boys Town (1938), also with Tracy as a Catholic priest, in the climactic scene when hero-worshipping Pee-Wee is downed. Rooney as Whitey makes the tragic scene feel like a sock to the stomach.

Whether he was playing iconic title roles in Young Tom Edison or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and later as an old horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979), and even in those silly Andy Hardy pictures with Judy Garland, he was always a jaunty or pugnacious screen presence. He had an energy that was quintessentially American. The obituaries describe Mickey Rooney, who was 93 years old when he died this weekend, as America’s boy next door. But really he was more than that. He used his voice to perfection in several animated or stop motion Christmas movies for TV. He used his foulest language in new types of villainous roles in pictures such as The Domino Principle (1977). He became something of a regular guest like the late David Brenner or writer Truman Capote (whose novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted for the film in which Rooney played a racial caricature that does not age well) on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He played on Broadway in Sugar Babies and on TV as a mentally retarded man in Bill. Rooney could play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and Judy Garland on her own TV show. The Brooklyn native had a rare, remarkable career.

Whatever his real personality and pitfalls, Mickey Rooney had talent and he was committed to a career of singing, dancing and acting, crafting roles that inspired generations of plucky – or sneaky – boys and cantankerous if wise old men. As an archetype, he embodied the spirit of a scrappy American youth, stealing away with a runaway slave down the Mississippi River or telling Father Flanagan off, getting naughty with Johnny Carson or nasty with Gene Hackman, or creaking with wisdom for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or a boy who wants to ride a stallion to victory. Shirley Temple Black was recently lost, too, and she was another child star who indelibly marked an American cultural standard that disappeared long ago. Mickey Rooney’s death marks the end of a line that traces back to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

RIP, Paul Walker

A fine actor died after Thanksgiving. His name was Paul Walker. He was 40 years old. I first noticed the strikingly handsome, tall, blue-eyed young blond in Pleasantville (1998). Then, he starred in the first of several forgettable car chase and race pictures. In 2006, he broke out as a serious actor with two pictures – one of which, Eight Below, was among the year’s best films – including one directed by Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers, an awful apologia about World War 2 in which Walker was also very good.

1He wasn’t just a pretty face; he could act. I remember one crucial scene in the gripping Disney movie, Eight Below, about his sled dogs being stranded in Antarctica. His character, Jerry, was rescued from the icy location during a brutal storm and he had to leave the adorable dogs behind. It was agonizing. his character was an athletic, silent leader. The type you’d expect would bond with animals in an instant. As the rescue plane lifted off, Walker’s Jerry was deeply wounded in physical and psychological terms and it showed on film. The dogs made the movie but Paul Walker carried the picture and made it both urgent and realistic. His deft touch played off his good looks, threading humor, endurance and strength into the character in an engaging performance. He had a real shot at being one of the world’s top actors. His loss is shocking.

Walker is part of the reason I said what the heck a few years ago and saw one of those Fast and Furious movies, which are not my type of film. I was stunned to find that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Walker’s nonchalance – he had that down pat – and interplay with the Vin Diesel character made it more exciting and plausible and compensated for all the vulgar sexual innuendo and predictable plotting. I saw another of the films in that series and liked that one, too. I’d planned to see the unfinished new one with Walker this summer. He’s gone now, an adventurer in every sense – he was apparently fascinated by marine biology and immersed himself in physical action in both life and work – who lived his adventures, including tagging sharks, self-defense and the sports car driving that killed him and his friend Roger Rodas. Whatever happened on the Valencia, California road (an area I know well), Paul Walker improved nearly every movie I saw him in. I mean it. May he rest in peace.