By Scott Ross
Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year — as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.
I. Movie Industry
Ron W. Miller, 85.
Speaking of Disney. Miller, husband to Walt’s daughter Diane, was President and CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1978–1984, a crucial period in which under his leadership, and owing to a slate of mediocre animated and live-action pictures, the studio seemed headed for, to quote from Booth Tarkington, a state of bustitude. When a greeting card company in Ohio attempted a hostile takeover that backfired (Disney ended up owning them), Michael Eisner was in and Miller was out. Some of us, who rooted for the company in ‘84, have since grown to wish it had died.
David V. Picker, 87.
Picker was, in his modest way, part of a golden age. Working at United Artists he brought Tom Jones (1963) to the studio, as well as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and, as CEO, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). He later produced Juggernaut, Lenny (both 1974), Royal Flash and Smile (both 1975). Still later, as president of Paramount, he approved and helped to develop Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Ordinary People (1980). He then produced three Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaborations (The Jerk in 1979, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982 and The Man with Two Brains in 1983). As president at Lorimar he supervised Being There (1979) and Blake Edwards’ Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981). Then, at Columbia, he brought in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). He later produced Leap of Faith (1992) and, in 1996, The Crucible. Along the way, Picker also greenlit Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.
Wayne Fitzgerald, 89.
If you were a keen moviegoer (or, via television, movie-watcher) in the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are you saw some of Fitzgerald’s best and most distinctive work as a main title designer: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Little Big Man and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); Chinatown, The Conversation, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Godfather — Part II (1974); Funny Lady and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); The Missouri Breaks (1976); Slap Shot, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl (1977); Heaven Can Wait and The Deer Hunter (1978); Apocalypse Now (end titles) and The Muppet Movie (1979); Private Benjamin and Nine to Five (1980); Reds, Pennies from Heaven and Body Heat (1981); Tootsie (1982); The Outsiders, The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment (1983); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); The Milagro Beanfield War (1988); Dick Tracy (1990); Groundhog Day and Grumpy Old Men (1993); Wyatt Earp and Maverick (1994).
Robert Evans, 89.
The famously combative producer and studio executive, satirized by several filmmakers and actors over the years, not without cause. As head of production at Paramount he shepherded a spate of terrific movies into the theaters: The President’s Analyst (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), The Detective (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A New Leaf (1971, although the studio fiddled with Elaine May’s cut and forced her to re-shoot the ending), Plaza Suite (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), “Save the Tiger” (1973) and The Conversation (1974). As an independent producer, Evans was involved in two classic thrillers (1974’s Chinatown and the 1976 Marathon Man), another very good one (Black Sunday, 1977) and several movies of varying quality: Urban Cowboy (1980), Popeye (1980), the 1984 The Cotton Club (which involved him, peripherally, in a highly-publicized murder), the 1990 Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. His later productions showed both him, and his industry, in serious decline: Sliver (1990), The Phantom (1996), The Saint (1997) and the unncessary remake of The Out-of-Towners (1999). He was also married seven (!) times and, with his brother Charles, an admitted trafficker in cocaine; being rich, famous and, although not a Gentile, at least nominally Caucasian, Evans naturally received a plea bargain. He was spoofed by David Mamet and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog (“I gave a magnificent performance,” Evans said of it), Blake Edwards in S.O.B., Orson Welles in The Other Side of the Wind and, I gather, the series Entourage, which I have never seen. The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, almost equally notorious, proclaimed in his memoir that “all lies ever told anywhere about Robert Evans are true.”
It should be noted as well that Evans was responsible for both Love Story (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974).
II. Peripherally Related to the Movies
Claus von Bülow, 92.
Accused murderers (why does our legal phraseology suggest one is a murderer if merely accused?) seldom get more notable than von Bülow, the Danish-British socialite initially convicted of putting his wife Sunny into a persistent vegetative state after twice having attempted to kill her. His conviction was, quite properly, reversed on appeal when the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz took on the case. But as the screenwriter Nicholas Zazan and the director Barbet Schroeder suggest in their fascinating 1990 movie account, there is guilt, and guilt. Claus (Jeremy Irons) may not have given Sunny (Glenn Close) the insulin injection that put her in a coma, but he may not have helped her either. Reversal of Fortune, adapted from Derhowitz’s book, presents an ambiguous narrative in which, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Sunny narrates from beyond our ken.
Dershowitz, in a later book, described a party given by Claus at which Norman Mailer, hearing the lawyer explain why von Bülow was innocent, took offense that he wasn’t having dinner with a killer, and left.
James Le Mesurier, 48.
The co-founder of the White Helmets, who proved that the Big Lie succeeds far more often than the little one. With the complicity of our world-wide corporate media, Le Mesurier managed to convince a great deal of humanity that his organization, the White Helmets, was an humanitarian aid service and didn’t behead civilians in Syria. His efforts were so effective the spurious 2016 propaganda “documentary” won an Academy Award and the cheers of idiot the Hollywood ignorati. His alleged suicide, which has all the hallmarks of a CIA hit — any time you hear a shady character associated with America’s Permanent Government has taken a dive out a window it’s time to employ a certain basic skepticism — has inspired at least two theories that should comfort the spooks at Langley that, once again, their manipulation of public sentiment has been largely successful.
James Frawley, 82. A one-time actor (i.e., The Monkees, or as Joe Galardi, the union rep in the 1965 Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Fifty-Two, Forty-Five or Work”) who moved into television direction (The Monkees and That Girl) and occasional films. His 1976 all-star disaster-movie spoof The Big Bus predated Airplane! but was not nearly as successful, but the 1979 The Muppet Movie was the perfect big-screen introduction for Jim Henson’s eponymous troupe. Among his other television directing credits: Magnum, P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Smallville, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy. I will remember Frawley with fondness for the beautiful “Rainbow Connection” sequence in The Muppet Movie, so entrancing it could have closed the picture rather than opening it.
Stanley Donen, 94.
A stylist whose technique was occasionally too busy, and sometimes not enough to cover up for thin and undeveloped material (Lucky Lady, anyone?) Donen was also responsible for some of the most elegant and witty musicals and comedies of the post-War era. A few years ago, a book appeared on the making of Singin’ in the Rain, which Donen co-directed with Gene Kelly. Since this is my favorite movie musical, it’s a book I’d waited nearly 40 years to read. I was staggered that the authors, one of whom, a PhD, was a Civil War historian, were both complete dilettantes when it came to film. That this tome, filled with factual errors, was a university press publication was dispiriting enough. What was worse was the manner in which its authors went out of their way (as Gene Kelly himself did throughout his life) to diminish Donen’s contributions to that picture, and to the others he co-directed with Kelly, painting him as a non-creative zhlub who sat in a director’s chair while Kelly did it all. If Donen contributed nothing to their movies, why did Kelly work with him so often? Why did MGM keep giving him projects?
Well, the proof is in the pudding. Among the movies Donen directed: On the Town (1949, with Kelly), Royal Wedding (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952, with Kelly), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, also with Kelly), Funny Face and The Pajama Game (with George Abbott, both 1957), Indiscreet and Damn Yankees! (again with Abbott, both 1958), The Grass is Greener (1960), Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966), Two for the Road and Bedazzled (1967), Movie Movie (1978).
Gene Kelly’s filmography without Donen? Invitation to the Dance, The Happy Road, The Tunnel of Love, Gigot, A Guide for the Married Man, The Cheyenne Social Club, That’s Entertainment Part II… and Hello Dolly!
Tell me another, Doctor.
Franco Zeffirelli, 96.
A designer and director of plays and opera, Zeffirelli’s first movie was the 1967 Burton/Taylor The Taming of the Shrew, a picture as beautiful as it is maddening; for much of the film, Kate’s dialogue is removed, in favor of a series of enraged, shrewish yowlings. Why film Shakespeare and then remove his lines? Zeffirelli fared much better with his 1968 Romeo and Juliet. Casting the lovers, for the first time on film, not with venerated older actors but with beautiful young people (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and giving them a sexy, nude morning-after scene made the picture a huge hit with teenagers. Deeply supportive of the Catholic Church, a two-term Senator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and accused at least twice of the harassment and sexual assault of young male actors, he is a problematic figure, but for the many who fell in love with Whiting and Hussey, in ’68 or after, Romeo and Juliet is his ultimate legacy.
D. A. Pennebaker, 94.
One of the few truly important documentary filmmakers of the post-war era, whose work includes the 1967 Dylan feature Don’t Look Back; the 1968 music festival documentary Monterey Pop; the 1973 David Bowie feature Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Moon Over Broadway (1997); with his partner Chris Hehedus The War Room, the revealing 1993 look at Bill Clinton and the neoliberals who helped elect him; and the 2004 record of the one-woman stage memoir Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. For musical theatre mavens, Pennebaker will forever be immortal for his 1971 Original Cast Album: Company, which captured the hectic, marathon recording of the cast recording that helped define Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s sound, and, in the saga of Stritch’s inability to nail “The Ladies Who Lunch” after singing for hours, exposed a bit of the dark underbelly of Broadway.
Richard Williams, 86.
This one is a heartbreaker. Responsible for what is arguably the finest of all renderings of A Christmas Carol in his 25-minute animated version first shown on ABC in 1971, released theatrically the following year and subsequently given the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film, creative animator for the brilliant title sequences for the two Pink Panthers that resurrected the franchise (Return of… and Strikes Again) and revolutionary animating director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams’ own perfectionism may have cost him completion of his 30-year dream project The Thief and the Cobbler. (Itself a kind of compensation after the demise of his hoped-for adaptation of Indries Shah’s The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Masrudin, an edition of which he had illustrated.) Since a test-reel for Cobbler was Williams’ entrée to Disney, and the 1992 Aladdin seemed almost inescapably so gleeful a public screwing of the very man whose genius had made Roger Rabbit possible, I have always blamed The Mouse for the way things turned out. The Eisner regime was certainly the villain here, but Williams’ own intransigence — his insistence on longer and longer sequences, and re-doing existing ones — caused him to run out of time; Warners’, which was financing the picture, pulled out rather than compete with Aladdin in the motion picture bazaar, with only 15 minutes of footage left to wrap up the project. The Completion Bond Company then fired everyone involved, including Williams, farmed out animation to South Korea, re-animating existing sequences and adding superfluous musical numbers that, if anything, made Cobbler seem more like an Aladdin rip-off rather than, as we know, the other way round. That Miramax, which snarfed up this new version (called, naturally, The Princess and the Cobbler, although it was eventually released as Arabian Knight) was then owned by Disney puts the final, un-funnily ironic nail in the picture’s coffin.
Williams was prodigiously gifted, an artist whose chosen medium was the most painstaking and time-consuming of them all. That this genuine visionary — to see his Cobbler, or merely parts of it, and even reduced to the size of a computer screen, is to experience a genuine sense of awe and of wonder and to be truly dazzled by its execution entirely by hand — was reduced to hosting animation masterclasses to earn his keep is an almost perfect paradigm for the artist in an age of rampant, and many-tentacled, commercialism. One is reminded, irresistibly, of another 20th century master incapable of completing his final project before it was taken from him, and whose indecisiveness at crucial moments exacerbated the process. And if Richard Williams was not quite in Orson Welles’ league, I strongly suspect that Welles would have recognized in him a fellow magician, his table folded, forced to sing for his supper.
Lee Mendelson, 86.
Mendelson was the producer of every Peanuts television special and movie from 1965 to 2015, making his work with Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez beloved of at least two generations and likely more. It started with an un-aired (until 1969) documentary called Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, which led to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I was slightly too young to have watched it on its premiere — or if I did, to remember it — but I vividly recall seeing the next two, both in 1966: Charlie Brown’s All Stars! and, especially, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which began my lifelong love for, and identification with, Linus Van Pelt. Several good Peanuts specials followed: You’re in Love, Charlie Brown, 1967; He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, 1968; It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, 1969; and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, 1972. I stopped watching them after that, although I was wild about Mendelson’s hour-long 1973 television edition of the 1967 Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by Clark Gesner and which starred the now-forgotten Wendell Burton as Charlie Brown, Bill Hinnant (the only hold-over from the show) as Snoopy, Mark Montgomery as Schroeder and Barry Livingston (Ernie of My Three Sons) as Linus. Mendelson also produced The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1968), the charming movies A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and Snoopy Come Home (1972), the latter of which boasts a song score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and 18 episodes of the delightful Saturday morning series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (1983 – 1985).
One could argue that with their use of limited animation the Schulz specials and films contributed to the cheapening of hand-drawn cartoons, but what Mendeslon, Melendez and “Sparky” achieved was the perfect symbiosis: Although generally not directly adapted from specific Peanuts panels, the Schulz projects distilled and embodied what made the strip, itself somewhat limited visually, so very special: Its charming humor, plangent emotionalism and philosophical bent. In an increasingly crass, vulgar and noisy society, the gentleness and essential humanism of the Peanuts cartoons, their action and dialogue as accessible to children as to their parents and grandparents, provide an alternative and a necessary corrective. I too grew up in a world filled with junk, and noise: G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, Rankin-Bass specials, terrible cartoon series, dopey music, inane commercials (and kiddie shows that existed to endorse them) and endless hours of Saturday morning pap. But it was also a world that offered the gentle, friendly presences of Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran & Ollie and Charles Schulz.
Thanks, Mr. Mendelson, for adding a small measure of grace to a largely graceless medium and an increasingly boorish world.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross