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Sunday night, at the Golden Globe fest, Robin Williams dedicated his Life Achievement award to a long-ago Juilliard classmate, Christopher Reeve, 52. I was reminded of a dinner party at the Plaza Hotel, in 1993, toasting the success of the Merchant-Ivory film "Howards End." Toward the end of the bash, a familiar and towering figure approached Mary and me. Stars don't usually initiate conversations with middle-rung movie critics and their enchanting spouses, but here was Reeve, happy to chat about my work and his. He had appeared in Merchant-Ivory's "The Bostonians" and "The Remains of the Day," and said he hoped to play Thomas Jefferson in a film the producer-director team was planning. I had the sense of a restless star, no longer Superman, not yet sure of his career's next step. Well, Nick Nolte got the part, and 10 days after "Jefferson in Paris" opened in Paris, Reeve had the horrid riding accident that gave his life a more limited and profound second act.
The most famed of a half-dozen superior photographers who died last year, Richard Avedon, 81, succumbed Oct. 1, while on a New Yorker assignment to take photographs of the 2004 electorate. Nearly 30 years to the day earlier, he spent a Saturday evening at a dinner for "Lacombe Lucien," the Louis Malle film being shown at the New York Film Festival, whose selection committee I served on. Mary was seated at Avedon's table, and they soon fell into intimacy, reflecting that they both played tenor saxophone in high school. As the guests began to head across the street for the Alice Tully Hall screening, I realized that Mary had disappeared. She was skipping through the rain with her new friend, and said later he made her feel like Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face." We never saw Avedon again, and there's no photographic record of Mary's evening with this lovely man, but she still feels its glamorizing glow.
What Betty Grable was to World War II G.I.s, Susan Sontag, 71, was to young would-be intellectuals of the 60s and beyond: a pin-up icon to fire our headiest dreams. Essayist, novelist, critic, polemicist, director for film and theater, Susan carried herself, and wrote, with an incandescent star quality that, when we served together on the Film Festival committee, threatened to diminish the aura of the movies we were supposed to be watching. She must have had it from youth. Richard Roud, who ran the Festival for its first 25 years, told the story of a girl, Susan Rosenblatt, whose mother had divorced her father when Susan was 5, then married again. You can keep your father's name, the girl was told, or take the name of your new stepfather: Sontag. Richard said he thought of his friend imagining her name in lights: Susan Sontag! Classy, alliterative, a name fit for a star. I'll take it!
Susan knew a good thing when she heard it. In the early 60s, her pal, later ours, Elliott Stein, told her about an aesthetic tendency, then percolating in the hip homosexual community, called camp. Susan developed the idea into her essay "Notes on Camp." Just before it was published, she was on a plane with the estimable film critic Andrew Sarris, and told Andy, "I've just written something that's going to put me over." It did, and Susan was on the escalator to intellectual celebrity. She never got off.
Susan's grand promenade crossed my backwoods footpath in 1969, when her book "Styles of Radical Will" came out. Two years before, she had written a critique of Bergman's"Persona" for Sight & Sound; I had written one for Film Quarterly (my first published work in a serious movie journal). In a footnote to the "Persona" reprint in "Radical Will," she took issue with something in my review. My reaction: joy, rapture! I had been attacked in a Susan Sontag footnote! I must be...somebody.
In those years when we served together on the selection committee, Susan was always a good sport. She debated the merits or debits of each film informally, without hauteur, and passed out copies of "Illness as Metaphor," the book she wrote after her first bout with breast cancer (which she faced with typical ingenuity and bravado). A couple of decades later, when Mary and her colleagues in the Museum of Modern Art staff association were obliged to go on strike, Susan offered Mary a most valuable gift: her book of telephone numbers of literary and film notables who might be contacted to sign a petition supporting the strike. It was one good cause not the first or the last that Susan was eager to fight for. She kept fighting, through more sieges of the cancer she had harbored for more than half her life, until the mutant, metastasizing bastard finally took her in the last days of 2004.
Writing about the dear departed rekindles awe in me, at the legacy of those who have gone, and sometimes anger, that they had to go too soon. These are familiar feelings for a column that dives into, or dawdles in, the past. But when I assemble these tributes to the dear departed or the 100-birthday club, I also wonder what people, recently born, will come to celebrity or notoriety in the future. April 3, 1924, for example, was an ordinary day, except for two coincidental births: Brando and Doris Day. At this moment, the shapers of our world and our children's are popping out of wombs. So... what were the significant births of 2004? For the answer to that question, we'll have to wait 30 or 50 years, or maybe 100. See you then.
1. Peter Ustinov, 82, was the polymirth playwright, film director, novelist, LP auteur (for which he provided all the voices and music and sound effects), raconteur and actor, renowned as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in six movies and TV films. In a 1999 interview with Ed Grant, the diabetes-depleted but still garrulous Ustinov explained the mixture in him of crusader and cutup: "I'm a profoundly serious man [did he realize how silly that sounds?], but usually my seriousness takes the form of making people laugh." That he did, as well as investing with a magnificent, self-kidding pomp. He won his first of two Supporting Actor Oscars for "Spartacus," in 1961. His great-grandmother was a princess of Ethiopia; thus Ustinov was 1/8th black and, by pre-Civil War standards, black. (We did say "arguably.")
2. Actress Uta Hagen, 84, German-born, Wisconsin-raised, made her Broadway debut in 1938 as Nina in a Lunt-Fontanne revival of "The Seagull." In 1943 she played Desdemona to the Othello of Paul Robeson and the Iago of Jose Ferrer (her first husband). Hagen, a legendary acting teacher at the school run by Herbert Berghof (her second husband), counted among her pupils Robert De Niro, Jason Robards, Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, Liza Minnelli and Al Pacino. Her own movie career was furtive "The Other," "The Boys from Brazil" and "Reversal of Fortune" about did it but her indirect influence on movies was huge. She originated the roles of Georgie in "The Country Girl" (Grace Kelly won the Oscar) and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (Elizabeth Taylor), and followed Jessica Tandy as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (Vivien Leigh).
3. Barney Kessel, 80. was equally vitruosic as a jazz and pop guitarist. Seminal sessions with Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker didn't pay the rent, so he became a top studio man for Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and Fred Astaire.
4. Terry Melcher, 62, was born to Doris Day when she was 17, and produced Top 40 hits for the Byrds, the Rip Chords and Paul Revere and the Raiders at Columbia Records. (He also played guitar on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" LP.) Manson tried to get a recording contract with Melcher, whose rejection miffed the would-be rock star. On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson and his followers broke into Melcher's home not knowing Terry and girlfriend Candice Bergen had moved out months before and killed the five people in it, including Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate.
5. English playwright Peter Barnes, 73, had his most piquant stage success with "The Ruling Class," the film version of which starred Peter O'Toole. Barnes also wrote "Auschwitz," a black comedy on the Nazi holocaust, and a monograph on another Third Reich comedy, Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be." Three years before his death, he fathered triplets, the occasion for his teleplay "Babies." It aired on Granada TV just before his death.
6. Indian actress Nirupa Roy, 73, born Kokila Kishorechandra Balsara, established her maternal bona fides as the strong, saintly wife and mum in the 1953 neo-realist classic "Do Bigha Zameen." In the 1955 "Minimjee" she played the mother of Dev Anand, who was eight years her senior, and, many times, Amitabh's mom. According to IMDb her U.S.-born daughter did indeed file a police complaint alleging harassment and mental cruelty. (India's other reigning earth-mother figure, Leela Chitnis, who died in 2003, was reportedly abandoned by her own daughter and placed in a U.S. nursing home.)
7. Bernard Levin, 75, columnist for the Times of London and other Brit broadsides, expressed chagrin that chagrined that his record sentence (1,667 words) didn't last: "Then some bugger in India wrote a sentence very considerably longer." This famously waspish (and Jewish) journalist was known on our side of the pond for his appearances on the U.S. TV version of the 60s satirical news show "That Was the Week That Was." He was also an acerbic theater critic. From the Daily Telegraph obit: "A brutal review of a musical led its author, Wolf Mankowitz, to bring six showgirls carrying a coffin to the Express offices; and one evening, on a live television broadcast, Desmond Leslie stepped out of the audience and struck Levin in retaliation for his review of a show by Leslie's wife, Agnes Bernelle. Levin carried on as if unaffected, though he paused once to rub his nose." He survived a tempestuous affair with Arianna Stassinopoulos (later Huffington). His later life-partner, Liz Anderson, nursed him through a decade of Alzheimer's that ended with his death.
8. Alistair Cooke, 95, began his BBC weekly chat "Letter from America" on March 31, 1946 and continued it until February 20, 2004, barely a month before his death. You'll find my tribute to Cooke here.
9. Spalding Gray, 62, single-mindedly kept the art of one-way conversation alive in a series of feature-length monologues (which began off-Broadway, then were filmed by the likes of Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh). He performed in the 1976 porno film, "Little Orphan Dusty," aka "Jaws of Delight," starring John C. Holmes. "I did it out of curiosity and fantasy that it would be fun," he later said. "It was awful. It was the hardest, in quotes hardest, and most difficult work I've ever done. Wouldn't recommend it. But no regrets." His mother, a suicide, inspired part of the monologue "Monster in the Box." Gray's body was found in the East River last March, two months after he was reported missing.
10. Eddie Layton, 79, is the answer to a favorite New York sports trivia question. He played the organ "Da-da-da-DA, da-DA!" at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden (Knicks and Rangers).