Necrology: April 2020

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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.
Goldfinger - Connery, Blackman (resized)
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

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon - wedding

Del Martin at left, Phyllis Lyon at right: Their second wedding ceremony.

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 ( Goorwitz), 80.
Nashville - Blakely, Garfield
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
Jaws - Lee Fierro, Roy Scheider

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)
E.T. - Henry Thomas and E.T.

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)

The Iceman Cometh- Dennehy as Hickey, Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope

The Iceman Cometh (1990): Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope and Dennehy as Hickey.

Iceman Cometh - Dennehy, Lane

The 2012 Iceman: Dennehy as Larry Slade with Nathan Lane as Hickey.

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
Danny Goldman - Young Frankenstein

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.

Gene Deitch and sons

Dietch with his sons. Kim, at left, later became a noted underground cartoonist.

Gene Deitch model sheet

Character sheet for Tom Terrific. Note Sidney, who first appeared on the series.

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

1776 - Howard, Da Silva, Daniels (The Egg) resized

1776: Ken Howard (Jefferson), Howard Da Silva (Franklin) and William Daniels (Adams) singing “The Egg,” possibly the only late-addition song in Broadway history to have been inspired by the poster art.

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.

Peter H Hunt

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

 

A wine not properly chilled: “Shalako” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

Shalako (1968) has a lot going for it, mostly what the filmmakers retained of the crisp little Louis L’Amour novel on which it is nominally — alas, not maximally — based. But it’s ultimately one of those exercises one regards more with sorrow than with anger.

Although no one, I think, not preternaturally deluded would deem L’Amour a great stylist — the original Shalako feels like a pulp novella padded out to full length by the use of very brief paragraphs — the scenarists were faced, as is always the case with any fiction of even minimal literary qualities, with insurmountable problems, the chiefest being that film is a literal medium. One cannot photograph thought, only an actor thinking — which I need hardly add is not the same thing. What L’Amour’s titular hero knows cannot be expressed in dialogue other than the most risibly self-conscious sort: How to read the signs of the earth about him, and to act accordingly. Shalako survives in his desert milieu because he thinks like an Indian. There’s some hint of this in Sean Connery’s likable, taciturn, performance, but hints, however expert, are not the same as tangible knowledge.

What was filmable was L’Amour’s rather ingenious central conceit: A genteel, largely European, hunting party in the Western desert, about to be set upon by a band of renegade Apaches led by Chato, up from Mexico. For reasons now lost, presumably, to the mists of time, the people behind Shalako ditched much of what the author had so generously set before them, and weakened thereby what little narrative thread existed in the source material. (They also — for budgetary reasons? — dropped the author’s sensible use of the Cavalry.) One senses a desire to portray the Natives in a slightly better light, by making the Whites’ violation, however inadvertent, of the treaty governing the reservation the reason for the attack. Yet in a prolonged, rather horrible sequence involving Honor Blackman, they managed to make the Indians far more brutal in act and aspect than would have been had the case had they followed L’Amour’s (admittedly somewhat threadbare) plotline. And that after virtually reprising Blackman’s roll-in-the-hay with Connery in Goldfinger, this time under the notably coarser persuasions of a black-hatted Stephen Boyd.

ABC FEATURE FILMS

The brutal, humiliating death of Honor Blackman.

Shalako himself is rendered more or less as L’Amour wrote him, albeit with no attempt to justify Connery’s own obvious European origins. A more inexplicable misstep than this, however, is the casting — or, more properly, miscasting — of Woody Strode, lately an equally ludicrous Mongol warrior for John Ford*, as Chato. But even this is not so disastrous a misstep as eliminating from the picture the role of the silent assassin Tats-ah-das-ay-go, spooked by overhearing Shalako’s mention of his name and engaging in a memorable climactic battle with him, which, while ferocious, somehow emerges as an affaire d’honneur, at the climax of which Shalako salutes him as a brother warrior. Instead, the screenwriters (there were three, seldom a good sign) and the author of the “screen story,” elect to stage the combat as between Strode and Connery only to, in an utterly preposterous narrative leap, have it called as a draw by Chato’s chief and father… following which the Indians simply ride away, leaving the survivors fresh horses to ride. I trust Shalako’s compatriots were as gob-smacked by this as the audience.

Shalako-poster

Connery, not reacting to the climax.

A number of good actors manage to acquit themselves more honorably, including Boyd (whose character in the novel suffers a far gorier fate than in the picture, one L’Amour, wisely, or in deference to the sensibilities of the time, merely sketches in), Blackman, Jack Hawkins (who, post-laryngectomy, was dubbed by Charles Grey), Alexander Knox, Peter Van Eyck, Julián Mateos and Valerie French. In the feminine lead, Brigitte Bardot is lovely, but I found her thick accent largely unintelligible. Interestingly, Blackman has the more interesting role, although it is almost a paradigm of movie stardom that she plays a supporting part; conversely, male actors, as their careers ascend, get younger and younger co-stars. Connery does get one nice, Bondian wisecrack in gentle mockery of his pedigreed hosts: Faced with a scavenged pot-luck dinner he dryly intones, “I hope at least the wine is properly chilled.”

Shalako - Boyd 15581_5

Stephen Boyd, as the cowardly villain. watches from safety as Blackman is dispatched.

There is also, at onset and finale, one of those terrible attempts at a hero-building ballad, sung by a Mitch Milleresque male choir of the sort one might reasonably have thought died in the 1950s. Producers in those days, of course, always thought in terms of potential hit singles; by 1968 the form was as passé as a coonskin cap. To note that the insipid lyric was penned by Jim Dale does no honor to him, so forget I mentioned it.

If the foregoing suggests that Shalako is a waste of time, I can’t say I was bored by it, merely a bit annoyed. While Edward Dmytyk’s direction is merely competent, the editing is rather good. But what distinguishes the picture is Ted Moore’s sumptuous widescreen photography. As one ages, and newer movies grow increasingly less interesting, adult and intelligent, there is no small pleasure in watching a picture of less recent vintage that — even if ultimately lacking — in cinematographic terms anyway, satisfies through a rich palette and expansive photographic techniques. These movies remind you of the enjoyment even a minimally successful enterprise held when it was put together by professionals who were at least attempting to get at something. Since I can’t conceive of how L’Amour’s book could be successfully filmed, call Shalako less a missed opportunity than a hock improperly distilled.


*In the interesting 7 Women (1967) which was, sadly, Ford’s last picture.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross