Saturday, October 02, 2010

Forget It, Jake

There was a saying when I worked in newsrooms that I presume still has some value even though many years have passed since I worked in a newsroom.

Essentially, the idea was that the deaths of prominent people come in threes. The logical extension of that, I suppose, would be that the deaths of prominent people in the same business come in threes.

If that is true — and, in my newsroom experience, it usually was — the motion picture industry exceeded its quota this week.

It started last Sunday when Gloria Stuart, the actress who played the elderly version of Kate Winslet's character in "Titanic," died at the age of 100.

Stuart had quite a career long before she made "Titanic," but she earned her only Academy Award nomination for playing the 101–year–old "Rose." The film won 11 Oscars, but Stuart lost to Kim Basinger.

I suppose it is inevitable that, when you are Stuart's age and you are nominated for an Oscar for a film you made when you were in your 80s, that is what you would be remembered for. There wouldn't be many people left who would remember the early years of your career.

And that is a shame because she really was an attractive young woman, svelte and sultry. Even decades later, when Stuart was in her 80s and her skin was wrinkled with age, you could still see some of that young beauty in her eyes and her face.

"Wasn't I a dish?" she asked her granddaughter in the film. It wasn't just a line in a movie. She was a dish in her youth.

Then, two days later, Arthur Penn, the man who directed "Bonnie & Clyde," passed away at the age of 88.

It is, primarily, for "Bonnie & Clyde," I suppose, that Penn will be remembered, and I guess that is fitting. It was a movie that really changed the motion picture landscape in its presentation of both sexuality and violence.

But as much as I admire what Penn accomplished with "Bonnie & Clyde," my favorite of his films had to be "Little Big Man."

It would be a mistake to think that everything Penn touched in his life turned to gold. He enjoyed great success with some groundbreaking films, but he had his share of misses as well.

"Penn’s later movies seemed to confuse people," wrote Bruce Eder for the AllMovie Blog, "[a]nd his last movies ... were more noted by critics than the public."

Well, as Chief Dan George's character said in "Little Big Man," "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't."

If you want to see some of the magic of which Penn was capable, Turner Classic Movies will be showing "Bonnie & Clyde" at 7 (Central) tonight.

Then, the following day, actor Tony Curtis died at the age of 85.

He is being remembered, as he should, for his performances in Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot" and Stanley Kramer's drama "The Defiant Ones."

But I really think more of Jack Lemmon when I think of "Some Like It Hot," and I tend to think of Sidney Poitier when I think of "The Defiant Ones." That doesn't mean I don't recognize the contributions Curtis made to both films. He just isn't the person I associate with either one.

The film I do associate with him is "The Boston Strangler," which was based on the true story of the murders of several women in the Boston area.

It wasn't the best film he ever made. It probably wasn't his best performance. But it was a departure from the norm for him. And I liked that.

Curtis readily acknowledged that — in his early years, at least — he got by on his looks. "But behind the pretty–boy looks was a dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability," wrote Dave Kehr of the New York Times.

In "The Boston Strangler," I think he used that vulnerability to tap into the character of Albert DeSalvo. The film acted on the assumption that DeSalvo was guilty, but his confession has been vigorously disputed, and there were times in the movie when I felt Curtis' portrayal reflected the ambiguity that surrounds DeSalvo long after his death just as it surrounded him in life.

Some would argue that was symptomatic of DeSalvo's alleged multiple personality disorder, but he was never diagnosed with that illness to my knowledge.

Well, anyway, that's three.

But there was a fourth this week. The same day that Curtis died, an actor named Joe Mantell died at the age of 94.

Mantell's was not a household name, even though he had a lengthy career as a supporting actor in the movies and on television.

But, as Bruce Weber wrote for the New York Times, he had the distinction of delivering two of the most memorable lines ever uttered by a movie sidekick.

In the mid–1950s classic "Marty," as Ernest Borgnine's best friend Angie, there was a running dialogue between the two, Weber observed.

"Angie began almost every conversation with the same question — 'What do you feel like doin' tonight?' — and always got the same answer: 'I don't know, Ange. What do you feel like doin'?' "

The second line was delivered at the end of "Chinatown," when Jack Nicholson's character is recoiling from the story's unsatisfying conclusion. Mantell, in a small role as a private investigator, encourages Nicholson to go home and try to put the matter behind him.

"Forget it, Jake," Mantell's character said. "It's Chinatown."

I guess that's a fitting eulogy for this week in the motion picture industry.

None of the four people who died in the last seven days was younger than 85 so their deaths can't be said to have been tragic in the way the loss of a young person is believed to be tragic. All four lived longer than most of us probably will.

All four probably earned more money than most of us will, and their names, even Mantell's, will be remembered after most of us are gone. They were not denied the fame and fortune that most of us are denied.

And, yet, something of value seems to have been lost to us — inexplicably, perhaps.

Forget it, Mantell might say. It's life.