As much as I love the movies, I don’t care much about the personal lives of moviemakers. I think that actors owe the public a good performance. That’s what we pay our money for and that, it seems to me, is all they are really obligated to provide. The Kardashian aspect of show business: marriages, affairs, addictions, their politics, the trips to rehab, the weight problems just don’t interest me when I could be watching “Swing Time” (again) on TNT.
That isn’t to say that I don’t read books and watch documentaries about actors and directors I particularly admire if they concentrate on how their careers evolved. Pivotal events in their own lives might continually be reflected in their art.
John Ford’s deeply-ingrained Catholicism is apparent in most of his films, as is Hitchcock’s oft-repeated fear of authority figures. Natalie Wood’s wrist didn’t heal properly after it was broken in a traumatic accident on a movie set when she was a child. She always insisted on concealing the physical (and quite possibly psychological) deformity.
The following is about three people that we have lost recently. Rather than focus on personal details concerning their lives, I wanted simply to offer my own observations about their careers.
Betty White died on Dec. 31, a few days before her 100th birthday. The last couple of decades of her life seemed like an extended celebration of both her longevity and her perseverance.
She had a sense of comedy that rivaled Jack Benny, whether she was playing the sweetly vitriolic Sue Ann Nivens in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or the sweetly clueless Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls.” When she hosted “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 89, she said that she was there because so many people on Facebook had requested it. She told the audience she initially had no idea what Facebook was and, after finding out, she concluded it was “a huge waste of time.” How are you possibly going to dislike a woman as perceptive as that!
The fact is that, with the exception of Bea Arthur, whose capacity for unabated cheeriness was evidentially limited, everyone loved Betty White. Ultimately, she gave people a sense of what one person can accomplish in a lifetime. All she ever asked for was a smile in return.
Peter Bogdanovich, who died on Jan. 6, was a classic victim of early success in Hollywood. He began his career as a director with a tense, low-budget thriller called “Targets” in 1968, starring Boris Karloff, no less.
Three years later, his adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show” ushered Bogdanovich into the front ranks of Hollywood directors, a particularly dangerous place to be at such an early stage. The film, shot in black and white, offered an unsparing look at dead-end lives in a dead-end Texas town. It deserved every ounce of praise that was lavished upon it.
Although “The Last Picture Show” was only the third of his 34 feature films, Bogdanovich would never repeat its success. The closest he came was in 1973 with “Paper Moon,” an endearing, nostalgic look at Depression era con man, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), and his combative traveling companion, who may or may not also be his daughter. Ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal remains the youngest actor ever to receive a competitive Oscar for her performance in the movie.
There were other financially successful efforts. Cher gave a moving performance in “Mask,” and Barbra Streisand proved that Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur were irreplaceable in a sporadically funny screwball comedy called “What’s Up, Doc?” But, for every oasis there were desolate stretches of expensive flops like “At Long Last Love,” “Nickelodeon,” and “Daisy Miller.” “Texasville,” a sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” failed to click at the box-office in 1990.
Bogdanovich’s literate sophistication was reflected in his personal favorite of his movies, but “They All Laughed” was such a troubled production that the director had to put up $5 million of his own personal fortune to assure its release. No one laughed and the film is mostly notable for the not inconsiderable feat of rendering Audrey Hepburn virtually charmless. After its dismal reception, most of the balance of his career was spent on vehicles for television.
Peter Bogdanovich’s love for film was evident in the series of definitive interviews he conducted with men who occupied the director’s chair before him. His conversations with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks provided insights into legendary careers, not offered from the perspective of acolyte to master, but derived from the mutual respect between two accomplished people who happened to share a devotion to the same art.
Sidney Poitier died at the age of 94 on Jan. 6. Poitier had acquired the status of icon during his long career in the movies, but a quick look at the actor’s filmography leads one to suspect that it was as much the attributes of his own character as it was for the quality of his movies that lifted him to that lofty rank.
After a short stage career in New York, Darryl Zanuck cast him in “No Way Out” as a doctor assigned to treat two white racists. A Black man threatened by white bigotry was potent subject matter for moviegoers in 1949, but Poitier’s dedication to social issues would be apparent in both his personal commitments and in many of the 53 subsequent films he made over the next five decades, including 1967’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, “In the Heat of the Night.”
He was ideally cast as an escaped convict handcuffed to a white man (Tony Curtis) in Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” which remains Poitier’s (and Kramer’s) best and most enduring film.
Poitier was, above all, a trailblazer. He was the first African American to win a Best Actor Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and he participated in the first interracial kiss in a mainstream film in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” four years later. Despite the mediocrity of many of his lesser films, he remained an advocate for advancing the position of members of his race both in Hollywood and in America. and for that alone he deserves to be revered and remembered.