How do you sum up a life and career as successful and enduring as Richard Attenborough’s? With over 60 years in the film industry, a knighthood and a peerage, his life seemingly could speak for itself. In addition to his contributions to the movies, he’ll also be remembered for his charity work, particularly in the fight against muscular dystrophy and as an advocate for education. But for us film buffs, we’ll honor him for his excellent work on the big screen, whether in front of the camera or behind it.
I don’t even know how to begin to talk about Robin Williams. It seems ridiculous to try to remind people of his many standout roles and performances, because he was so iconic that any reminder is unnecessary. I could easily just post a list of his film, TV and stand-up works and everyone would instantly share my feelings by simply reading the list and having a thousand images and moments flash through their heads. I could highlight his unique talents at comedy and improvisation, in which he was in a class all by himself, or pull out examples of his dramatic roles throughout the years in order to needlessly prove that he was a real actor. I could point to his generous charity work, whether with the USO or St. Jude’s, or I could use the tragic circumstances of his passing to help bring awareness to depression and suicide. Yet instead I find myself flooded with moments, each tied to the most vivid of memories.
I remember Genie, because everyone remembers Genie. Continue reading
James Garner always seemed to me to be a little different from all other actors. Of course, each actor brings his own unique skills and sensibilities to the world of cinema, but Garner always stood out a little from the rest. His characters as he played them always seemed to be not only deeper than was written but also more colorful and interesting than any others with whom he shared the screen, yet he managed this without ever being flashy. He played heroes who didn’t fit the standard heroic mold, often wearing a black hat in a sea of bland, white hat heroes (in the picture above, featuring the leads of Warner Bros. western shows, Garner’s Maverick is the one who looks so different from the rest), and he could bring drama to a comedy or humor to a drama. With a career spanning 50 years of movies and television, he left us plenty of memorable roles, but there are several that will always stand out for me.
My first exposure to Garner must have been in The Great Escape. The classic WWII film is filled with bigger actors (in terms of personality and stardom if not size), from flashy superstar Steve McQueen to dramatic actors like James Donald and Richard Attenborough, yet Garner more than holds his own in the role of the “Scrounger,” Hendley. Hendley’s relationship with Blythe, the “Forger” (played by Donald Pleasence), is one of the most emotional aspects of the film, as Blythe loses his sight and therefore his spot in the escape only to have Hendley vouch for him and offer to take responsibility for him. The heartbreaking ending, following a daring escape attempt by airplane, is all the more sad as we see Hendley’s panic and desperation to help his friend play out all over his face. Of course, this being James Garner, the role is much more than simple drama, and he infuses the first half of the film with some fantastic humor, whether in the culture clash between Hendley and Blythe or the way he skillfully manipulates the German guard, Werner. However, my favorite moment in the film is a little one that is often overlooked. In one scene, Garner is inside the barracks when a German guard walks down the line of windows, saying “Close up!” in English to tell the prisoners to close the building’s shutters for the evening. While everyone else closes the shutters, Garner responds to the guard in German to say that he doesn’t speak English. It’s the sort of moment that feels improvised (whether it was or not), and perfectly highlights Garner’s dry and sarcastic delivery.
The best example of Garner’s comedic talents has to be Support Your Local Sheriff! In many ways it’s a film of contradictions, which is part of its lasting appeal. Garner, with his big size and his experience in Westerns, is perfectly suited to the standard role of a fast-drawing, sharp-shooting small town sheriff, and while his character of Jason McCullough fits that role he also flips the stereotype on its head throughout. McCullough may be able to shoot through the hole in a washer he tossed in the air, but he’d rather outsmart his enemies and he does his job simply because he needs the money on his way to Australia, not because of some heroic belief in law and order. And despite the film obviously being a comedy, Garner plays the entire thing straight. He may be surrounded by buffoons and slapstick, but he never delivers even his funniest of lines as though they’re a punchline. Everything comes out sounding natural, with just the right balance of sarcasm and weariness at his situation. The film is full of memorable moments, from McCullough tricking Bruce Dern’s Danby into staying in his jail cell that has no bars by dripping some red paint on the ground and telling him that that’s what happened to the last guy who tried to escape, to foiling Walter Brennan as Danby’s father by simply sticking his finger in the end of his gun. However, my all-time favorite James Garner line of dialogue actually comes from the film’s follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter. After knocking a man out, Jack Elam asks him indignantly, “You hit that fellow from behind?” Garner replies in all seriousness, “Just as hard as I could!” It’s the sort of line that only works if the delivery is spot on, catching you off guard with its honesty and being hilarious as a result.
However, my favorite performance of Garner’s might just be as King Marchand in Victor/Victoria. In the film, Marchand falls in love with Julie Andrews’ Victoria, a singer who was unable to find a job as a soprano so she and her partner concoct a scheme to pretend that Victoria is Count Victor, a drag queen. This allows Victoria to perform as herself but at the end of her performance she reveals that she’s “actually” a man in drag. Of course, the joke is that she’s actually a woman after all, who is only dressed in drag when off the stage. Marchand, a nightclub owner who works with the mob, is immediately infatuated with Victoria when he first sees her sing, only to be confused and even outraged when she reveals herself to be a “man.” As a stereotypically masculine character, Marchand doesn’t know what to make of the fact that he was attracted to a man, and when he thinks his attraction might be turning into love he becomes panicked about what would happen if word got out that he was gay. Garner takes that rugged masculinity that served him so well in Westerns and war movies and wears it almost as a burden in this film, as Marchand struggles to reconcile his feelings with his reputation while his views of the world slowly crash down around him. In the film’s best moment, he finally confesses, “I don’t care if you are a man,” before kissing her. She replies that she’s not a man but he says, “I still don’t care.”
Garner’s ability to be earnest and heartfelt while being sarcastic and even condescending carried him throughout a stellar career. Whether starring on TV in Maverick or The Rockford Files, earning an Oscar nomination for Murphy’s Romance, hamming it up in Space Cowboys (one of my personal favorites), or bringing the audience to tears in the cult favorite The Notebook, Garner made every role memorable. While other actors of his era have a modern day analogue, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a match for Garner. Few actors can be equally as sweet and biting, as at home in comedies or dramas, and are able to both play to a type while simultaneously subverting expectations. The closest we might have to Garner these days might be Robert Downey, Jr., but Garner was neither as flashy as Downey is now, nor as troubled as Downey used to be. Garner was simply a hard working, talented, versatile performer who made every film he was in better by his mere presence. He will be missed.
I’m sure we were all saddened by the death of Bob Hoskins today at age 71. Hoskins would be a familiar face to most film fans, as he had many memorable roles and a distinct style and personality. For me, I’ll always remember him for role in my favorite film of all time, Hook, and also for his brilliant starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there was a lot more to him than that, in his 40 years in film and television, including his award-winning and Oscar-nominated role in 1986’s Mona Lisa.
When a well-known actor dies, our minds tend to immediately jump to one particular film from their career. Sometimes it’s their most lauded and famous role, like when my mind immediately jumped to Lawrence of Arabia when I heard that Peter O’Toole had died. Other times the mind leaps to something more personal. When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died yesterday at the age of 46, from an apparent drug overdose, my mind instantly went to Twister. It’s not a role that won him any awards or critical acclaim, nor is it a film that’s particularly well thought of, despite its frequent showings on cable. However, it is one of my favorite films (for many reasons, which I won’t go into here), and it will always be the film I associate with him.
Other pieces will focus on his Academy Award-winning role as Truman Capote in Capote, and rightly so. Continue reading
Today one of my all-time favorite teachers passed away from a heart attack. I hope my regular readers will excuse this brief interruption in my typical movie/tv related ramblings, but I have thoughts that I need to get out. Boyd Johnston was my middle school band teacher, as well as my advisor. He taught me in band class every day for three years, and was the assistant band teacher for four years of high school. He had an unbridled enthusiasm for music, played a large variety of instruments extremely well, and genuinely cared about both his subject and his students. He was all anyone could possibly want from a teacher and he’ll be sorely missed.
In the face of Cory Monteith’s tragic death Saturday, at age 31, from as-yet-unknown causes, I find myself revisiting my first experience with Glee. I read a lot about the show during its first 13 episode run but never tuned in, despite it seeming right up my alley (as a big fan of musicals). I think I was just turned off by the excessive praise it was getting, as I tend to be wary of anything that seems to inspire unanimous opinions. But I was curious so I checked out the pilot episode online during the show’s midseason hiatus and I was sold. I ran out and bought the first half of season one on DVD, and my wife and I started to watch it over the course of a couple of days. One night, 2 episodes before the midseason finale, we decided to head to bed around midnight. But we both lay there for a while, unable to sleep, until we decided we just had to finish the show. We returned to the living room and watched the rest of the episodes, even if it meant we were up until 2am or later. That’s the sort of feeling that Glee inspires in people.
Cory Monteith was of course a big part of that. Continue reading