By Scott Ross
Note: The deaths of nearly all elderly people with pre-existing medical conditions are now routinely ascribed to “complications from COVID-19,” first by their survivors, who have suddenly become coroners the same way the McResistance received instant law degrees in 2016, and secondarily by officials doing all they can to run up the numbers — with the object, I presume, of frightening everyone in what we laughingly call the world’s democracies enough they can be persuaded to willingly surrender what little remains of their liberties. In the entries below I will not dignify this pernicious lethal idiocy with a mention.
Patricia Bosworth, 86.
Bosworth, once an actress, became a first-rate biographer (and, later, memoirist) with her Montgomery Clift in 1980. While it is, inevitably, a deeply depressing book, it is written with grace and compassion, reminding older readers that Clift revolutionized movie acting before Brando arrived on the scene, and introducing younger ones to the brilliance he paid for from childhood on with his sanity and, ultimately, with the loss of that breathtaking beauty for which he was also known and which he made the narcissistic center of his being. Bosworth’s 2012 biography of her old friend Jane Fonda is likely the best work we will ever get on a woman who, for all her intelligence and, occasionally, staggering accomplishment — her performance as Bree Daniels in Klute remains to my mind the single finest piece of movie acting of the last 50 years — is in essential ways a phony, endlessly searching for a substitute for her cold, cruel, unfeeling father. Seldom has a biographical subject been seen with such unflinching acuity by an author who is also that person’s friend.
Honor Blackman, 94.
Blackman, who first achieved fame as Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers, became a vivid icon of popular culture with the jaw-droppingly named Pussy Galore in the 1964 Goldfinger. “Icon,” like the now-ubiquitous “legendary” for anyone who ever saw a modicum of fame or notoriety for more than the requisite 15 minutes, is a buzz-word I avoid whenever possible, but in Blackman’s case it seems apropos: Pussy is the rare Bond Girl who provides even a modicum of resistance to the charms of 007 (“I’m immune,” she dryly informs him) and if the filmmakers wisely avoided the nasty use of Lesbianism that marks Galore and her Flying Circus in Ian Fleming’s novel, the implications seem obvious… at least until that memorable battle of wills in the barn that ends in a literal roll-in-the-hay that must have pleased even Fleming, whose James Bond reminds his readers in nearly every book that “women enjoy a kind of demi-rape.”
Phyllis Lyon, 95
There is no way to underestimate the impact Lyon and her partner (later, wife) Del Martin had on the popular gay/Lesbian movement, nor their importance to it. They co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, co-edited its influential magazine The Ladder for eight years, and became the first open couple to join NOW, once a vital feminist organization, now alas merely another neoliberal cultural bulwark.
From Wikipedia (with my emendations, in brackets): “Both women worked to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in northern California to persuade ministers to accept homosexuals into churches, and used their influence to decriminalize homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They became politically active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which influenced then-mayor [the ever-conservative] Dianne Feinstein [who, but for two murders, would be a barely-remembered footnote in local San Francisco history] to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians [which must have just about killed her].“
The first same-sex couple married in San Francisco in 2004, Lyon and Martin’s marriage was later overturned, as were those of thousands of couples in the infamous Prop-8 vote. They were re-married in 2008; once again their wedding was the first such to take place after the ban was lifted by the California Supreme Court. Martin died two months later.
I don’t often write such sentiments, but these two women, neither of whom I ever met, will live in my heart until it stops beating.
Hal Willner, 64.
Willner was an associate producer on two Leon Redbone albums, including the early masterpiece Double Time, later becoming known for his rock-oriented tribute albums: Amarcord Nino Rota (1981), That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk (1984), and the often brilliant Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985) and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988). His 2003 Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen did honor to my favorite composer of popular songs, but it was Willner and Greg Ford’s 1990 The Carl Stalling Project that earned him a kind of immortality in my household. Unaware of the CD’s existence, I literally gasped when I came across it in a soundtrack bin, and during the first blush of my ardor I must have listened to it more than just about any other recording in my collection, then or now; as a Warner Bros. animation fanatic that recording was, for me, the fulfillment of a dream I wasn’t really aware I had until I held it in my trembling hands. It was not merely having some of Stalling’s best and most representative Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies scores on a CD that made the album so special but as well the creative and often witty arrangements of those tracks into medleys which revealed it as a special sort of aural nonesuch. And if the 1995 Volume 2 was perhaps an inevitable let-down, that first disc retains pride of place in my sound library. Whatever else Willner ever did, he did this, and it earned him a tasty little slice of immortality.
Allen Garfield (né Goorwitz), 80.
Garfield was one of those faces one saw often in the ’70s, usually in small parts or even just bits — he’s the other man on a cross during Woody Allen’s Messianic dream sequence in Bananas — occasionally in larger roles, and always a welcome presence. He was in Brian De Palma’s Greetings (1968), Robert Downey Sr’s Madison Avenue satire Putney Swope (1969), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a rare lead in the 1971 Cry Uncle!, The Candidate (1972), The Conversation (1974), one of the reporters in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s version of The Front Page (also 1974), The Brink’s Job (1978), One Trick Pony (1980), The Cotton Club (1984) and very good as Abe Feller in the fatally flawed 1992 HBO movie Citizen Cohn. His best supporting performances were as Ronee Blakely’s manager/husband in Nashville (1976), so focused on his wife’s career he can’t see how close she is to the edge of sanity, and as the screenwriter in Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stunt Man, in which he has a memorable comic-philosophical dinner debate with Peter O’Tooole’s slightly Satanic filmmaker Eli Cross.
Lee Fierro, 91
Fierro became, quite rightly, immortal as the anguished mother of little Alex Kitner, the second victim of the great white in Jaws (1975). Her confrontation with Roy Scherider on the dock, filmed with beautiful understatement by Steven Spielberg, is at the emotional heart of the picture, and the most moving scene in it. Fierro’s simplicity and directness, the way she holds on to her soft-spoken dignity, her voice breaking only slightly as she pours out her grief and outrage, is a small model of effective acting. She turns a moment, and a role, that court cliché into a quiet little powerhouse. You may forget a lot of things, in any number of movies, but you never forget her.
Mort Drucker, 91
“The way he draws James Caan’s eyebrow is worth some folks’ entire careers” — Tom Spurgeon, The Comic Reporter.
Another touchstone of my youth gone. God damn it.
Alain Daviau (77)
Daviau was the cinematographer of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), two episodes of the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie (“Kick the Can” for Steven Spielberg and “It’s a Good Life” for Joe Dante), Spielberg’s movies of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), the John Schlesinger-directed The Falcon and the Snowman (1975), Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990) and Levinson and James Toback’s Bugsy (1991) and the extraordinary Fearless (1993) for Peter Weir.
It says something about the state of American movies that this masterly painter of light ended his career shooting such modern classics as Congo, The Astronaut’s Wife and Van Helsing.
Brian Dennehy (81)
Dennehy was one of those actors, like Brian Keith, who had everything an actor needs — good looks, an imposing presence, a fine and instantly identifiable vocal instrument and the ability to play anything from low comedy to the starkest drama — but who, for reasons perhaps best left to an alchemist to anatomize, enjoys a long and varied career yet never attains first-tier stardom. An actor’s actor, he came to the profession late, toiled for years making thankless roles memorable, or contributing small gems to good work (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, “10,” Never Cry Wolf, Gorky Park). After years of solid performances he was finally recognized, in 1985, for his role in the fantasy Cocoon… as an alien.
In the theatre, Dennehy became perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eugene O’Neill after the death of Jason Robards, Jr. He was Hickey in The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre in 1990 and the Abbey Theatre in 1992, Hughie in 2008 at Stratford, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2003 (for which he won a Tony Award) and Larry Slade in Iceman in 2012 (at the Goodman) and 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opposite Nathan Lane as Hickey. In 1999 he was Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, winning his first Tony, and in 2007 he played Matthew Harrison Brady (aka, William Jennings Bryan) in Inherit the Wind opposite Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow).
Naturally, he is now being lionized in the American entertainment press for appearing in First Blood and Tommy Boy.
Danny Goldman, 80
Being, blessedly, too old to have been subjected to The Smurfs, for which I gather he provided a recurring voice, I know Goldman best for his roles in the movie M*A*S*H (victimized by Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns), as Billy De Wolfe’s son (if you can imagine such a thing) in the Disney comedy The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and as the medical student in Young Frankenstein (1974) whose questions cause an increasingly agitated Gene Wilder to stab himself with a scalpel.
Gene Deitch, 95.
If you grew up in the 1960s, Dietch’s work was a fond part of your daily life, especially his mid-’50s Terrytoons shorts, still very much in evidence on children’s television programs during my pre-school years and which included such wonders as Clint Clobber, Sidney the Elephant and, most wonderful of all, the endlessly inventive Tom Terrific. Dietch started at UPA in 1955 before moving to Terrytoons, and although he was nominated for an Academy Award for Sidney’s Family Tree in 1958, and despite the popularity of Tom on the Captain Kangaroo show, he was fired from Terrytoons. He relocated to Prague to work on an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s parable Munro, met his future wife there, and stayed. An affecting satire on bureaucracy and authoritarianism about a boy who is drafted into the American Army, where no one will listen when he repeatedly tells them he’s only four years old, Munro won an Oscar in 1961.
Dietch did a great deal of work for King Features in the ’60s, on their ill-advised Popeye and Krazy Kat series, and also directed some truly bizarre Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. In all of these cases his hip sense of humor and pared-down style, developed early in his career as an artist for the jazz magazine The Record Changer, clashed with the existing characters. He fared far better with projects he originated, and with none so beautifully as the Tom Terrific series, with its simple design, endearing and somewhat magical main figures (Tom and Mighty Manfred the Wonder-Dog) and their various nemeses, notably the mad scientist Crabby Appleton. Although only 26 Tom shorts were produced, their charm and inventiveness, coupled with repeated showings on the Kangaroo show, made them perennial, and immortal. Shockingly, they have never been released on home video, in any format. This must not stand!
Shirley Knight, 83
Knight was one of those actors who virtually define the word “professional.” Despite two early Oscar nominations (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1960 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962), appearances in incendiary plays such as LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman, a Best Featured Actress Tony for Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (pictured above, left, in 1976) and a number of Emmys (including two in a single year in 1995) she remained largely unknown to the mass audience, yet was never less than splendid in anything she did. To get an idea of what I mean by professional, take a look at the 1974 Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut. Her role as a woman trapped on a passenger ship carrying two bombs is minimal, but Knight gives it everything, making it memorable through her gift for understatement and the force of her obvious intelligence.
Peter H. Hunt, 81
Hunt directed Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s stage musical 1776, a resounding success on Broadway in 1969, as well as the 1972 movie version, which while not necessarily a great picture was nonetheless a hugely important one to yours truly. (See link.) Badly mangled by Jack Warner before its release, 1776 has since been restored and its missing footage (including the song “Cool, Considerate Men,” cut at the urging of Tricky Dick Nixon) edited back in. In this case at least, more is more.
Hunt also directed Samuel Gallu’s 1974 monodrama Give ’em Hell, Harry! which, sadly, did much to sell the thoroughly white-washed version of Truman we are still reckoning with to a public thoroughly fed up with Richard Nixon. If Hunt hadn’t directed the play, someone else would have. Still, it’s hard not to hold him at least a little responsible for rehabilitating a nasty little Missouri racist who, more than anyone, was the architect of the appalling arms build-up that still haunts us today, and the creation of the National Security State that makes our lives, and those of millions if not billions more across the world, the miserable things they are.
But by all means keep telling yourself it was Donald Trump who created the insanity that governs us all.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross