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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.

Bonnie Franklin, RIP

MV5BOTAzMDUwNTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTUzMTAzNA@@._V1._SX640_SY433_Bonnie Franklin, who played a divorced mother on a long-running CBS situation comedy, died of cancer yesterday. She was 69. Though Franklin had an established career and had been nominated for a Tony Award, her portrayal for nine seasons of a liberated woman named Ann Romano, who memorably insisted on going by Ms., which the building superintendent pronounced “em-ess Romano”, leaves a lasting impression.

Though a popular program, Norman Lear‘s One Day at a Time certainly never achieved the vaunted commercial or critical success of its Lear-produced cousins, All in the Family, Maude and The Jeffersons, and Ms. Romano had a tendency to explode with histrionics as Bonnie Franklin overacted at least some of the time. But as a dramatic comedy about real, daily middle class life, the show – and Franklin’s character – holds up.

In the premiere, which aired in 1975, Ms. Romano had packed her teenaged kids in the car after divorce and moved to an apartment in Indianapolis. She struggled to find work, make a living, overcome sexist standards, raise children, have meaningful relationships, deal with her ex-husband, though the most interesting and humorous episodes involved dealing with her conservative mother (Nanette Fabray). Her daughters, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli, agonized over adolescent problems ranging from skin conditions and homework to sex, drugs and suicide. Before Modern Family, an excellent show that owes much of its dynamic to shows such as One Day at a Time, particularly with the personality contrast between sisters and the harried, overwhelmed mom, One Day at a Time took a hot-headed single mother, her two kids, a handyman named Schneider (Pat Harrington) and various friends, boyfriends, spouses, ex-spouses, grandchildren and co-workers over the course of its run (1975-1984) and managed to explore deep, serious topics and depict a strong, virtuous mid-American family.

Bonnie Franklin’s Ann Romano was at the center, obsessing over the newest social media – citizens’ band radio – confronting predators, chasing after her wayward, self-destructive daughter Julie and trying to make the best of everything. The program delivered thought-provoking naturalism, such as whether Julie (Phillips) would make better choices, how Ann would get ahead without compromising, why Barbara felt punished for being talented and responsible. There were more potent episodes, such as when Julie’s friend Melanie became suicidal, and less melodramatic teleplays, with Ann struggling to get work projects done while parenting her kids.

If they seemed overdone at the time, with red-haired Ms. Romano flying into a self-righteous rage, now we know – some of us knew then – that One Day at a Time reflected reality and that the culture and country were on the wrong track. One Day at a Time raised crucial, pressing questions: about whether a woman’s selfish liberation meant being a feminist – whether proper parenting meant unconditional tolerance for exploration or having conditional boundaries to protect a child’s life from the spreading drug subculture and hedonism – and whether the burdens of being a voice of reason, an intelligent child, and of living for the long term, not for the range of the moment, can be balanced. Bonnie Franklin brought us neither another high-pitched moron like Edith Bunker or Mrs. Cunningham nor a bitter shrew or harridan like Maude Findlay or Gladys Kravitz ; hers was an attempt to achieve a parent’s delicate balance between her own goals and her childrens’ interests. Ann Romano’s were real problems, then and now, but they seemed more acute then as traditional roles for men, women and children were being questioned, challenged and changed, whether for better or worse.

As the cliched title suggests, One Day at a Time, unlike its dumbed-down, ABC superhit counterparts such as Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, delivered a dose of realism with thoughtfully embedded, if at times heavy-handed, themes of productiveness, independence, pride, honesty, integrity and self-interest shaped by a mother’s love. That Ms. Romano was a serious, not a silly or sarcastic, character that refused to compromise her ego for her children – or vice versa – puts One Day at a Time ahead of its time. That was the work of Bonnie Franklin.

Charles Durning Dies

I first became aware of actor Charles Durning, who died on Christmas Eve at the age of 89, in his role as a corrupt Chicago policeman in The Sting (1973). I was a kid, but I knew that he seemed realistic in the role, and I would continue to be impressed with his performances in my favorite CBS law and order shows, such as Hawaii Five-O, Barnaby Jones and Cannon. Then, I saw him as the captain of the doomed airship, The Hindenburg (1975) and, again, he was thoroughly convincing, as he was as another cop in Dog Day Afternoon that same year. The rotund actor was gritty in each role. But he was also remarkably intelligent in each performance, showing in his eyes and facial expressions that he was a man trying to solve a problem, which his roles typically called upon his character to do, and, while it would have been easy for him to emote and express his way into an overdone performance, as was common in the late 1960s and 1970s, he instead chose to inhabit each character with a uniquely indelible personality.

Durning, a war veteran who was reportedly among the first to land on the beaches of Normandy during World War 2 and the only member of his Army unit to survive, had a lifetime of traumatic experiences to draw upon: he had lost his father at the age of 12, lost five of his sisters to smallpox and scarlet fever, and he had killed Nazis, been wounded and captured during the Battle of the Bulge and survived a massacre of fellow prisoners of war. He’d left home at 16, worked in a slag heap and made his own way in life, emerging as an actor in some of the finest pictures in Hollywood. When asked by an interviewer in 1997 about his military experience – Durning had been awarded three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star – he declined to discuss it, simply saying: “Too many bad memories. I don’t want you to see me crying.”

His range was wide. He portrayed the father of a daughter with an eating disorder opposite Eva Marie Saint in the 1981 telefim The Best Little Girl in the World. He played comedy in Starting Over (1979), horror in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and musical as a crooked governor who dances up a storm in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) for which he was nominated for an Oscar. That same year brought him one of his most memorable roles as Jessica Lange’s father falling in love with Dustin Hoffman in drag in Tootsie. A year later he played an angel trying to save John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Two of a Kind and his enduring career continued with key parts in Dick Tracy (1990), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Home for the Holidays (1995) and roles for television in Evening Shade, Everybody Loves Raymond and Rescue Me. Charles Durning displayed depth, strength and tenderness, and, therefore, humanity in nearly every picture. His work mattered. He will be missed.

 

Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong, who recently died at the age of 82, was the first man on the moon. As a Generation Xer who barely recalls watching his first lunar step on television, I am still in awe that those words as I write them are true. Neil Armstrong’s achievement is one of the greatest moments in history.

His name is synonymous with the best scientific event of what many consider the American century – the 20th century – which was actually man’s bloodiest century. Now in the spiral of a serious decline, it is easier to see that Mr. Armstrong’s tremendous accomplishment of flying and landing Apollo 11 is a grand counterpoint to the rest of the rotten century, which included the worst acts of mass murder sponsored by government known to man: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Putting a man on the moon, overly credited to President Kennedy and powered by less computer technology than is currently included in an Apple iPhone, required an enormous exertion of united American – and it was an American achievement – effort that resulted from tireless thoughts, calculations, connections, integrations and actions by those who worked on and participated in the endeavor – in a nation based on individual rights. As Ayn Rand, who had been invited to witness the launch of Apollo 11—and did—wrote in her publication, The Objectivist, after seeing Apollo 11’s rocket ship blast off:

Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.”

The U.S. astronaut who told us that “the eagle has landed” in that remarkably human action on July 20, 1969, and took man’s first step on the moon – a fact which some, possibly many, of humanity has contempt for – was Neil Armstrong. May he who gave us the sublime sight of man at his best rest in peace.

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