That Old Feeling: The Long Goodbye

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Saying a last goodbye to a friend is tough. Attending a funeral or memorial service, we acutely feel the pain of loss; its shock blurs the complicated glory and compromise of a life just ended.

Saying goodbye to people in arts and entertainment is easier. They touched us, but with a general radiance that rarely triggers feelings of ownership, and whose ending focuses out attention on what they meant than how they went. We knew them at their best: swankly coiffed, speaking or singing lines they had memorized, presenting the words or images they got right on the fifth or 50th try. And we have all the evidence of their achievement, all the films, CDs, books they left us, from which we can create a monument in our memory.

Last month TIME and other organs of journalism paid tribute to those notables who died in 2003. Late as ever, I offer my valediction to people who, though most of them didn't know me, had a lot to do with stocking my fondest memories. Some of these names may be unfamiliar to you, and I'll explain why they deserve inclusion. A few celebrated ones have received enough coverage to make my comments unnecessary. Besides, I wrote at length in TIME on Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn just after they died, and for TIME.com on Bob Hope just before. Some of the other brief Obits I wrote for various editions of TIME. And one death last year — that of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson — will require comment this year, for she was the victim in the Phil Spector murder case, due to begin later this month.

In the spirit of informed and passionate year-end roll calls by Rex Reed (in the New York Observer), Michael J. Weldon (Psychotronic Video) and Ed Grant (the invaluable Manhattan cable-access show Media Funhouse), I offer this very personal list. I hope it will remind readers of the breadth of popular culture, and its enrichment, by people on three continents. It saddens and warms me to think of them.



FILM

At first, Wendy Hiller didn't know she was special. "I thought Shaw asked all young actresses to do those parts," she said after George Bernard Shaw chose her, at 23, to play the lead roles in new productions of "Saint Joan" and "Pygmalion." Then the films of "Pygmalion" and "Major Barbara." She imbued these roles with a bonnie Brit common sense that was at once earthy and buoyant. Four decades later she was playing princesses ("Murder on the Orient Express") and suspicious mother superiors ("The Elephant Man"), but Hiller rarely suppressed that twinkle. Like any Shaw heroine she knew that even the strongest political argument needs charm to put it over. She kept me charmed for all that time. But I was not her longest admirer. That was writer Ronald Gow, her husband for 56 years, until his death in 1993. Ten years later, she joined him.

Three Hollywood leading ladies from an age when the leads were ladies: Ellen Drew, who charmed Dick Powell into spending money he only thought he had, in "Christmas in July .... raven-haired Jeanne Crain, who at 19 mimed Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring" in "State Fair" (Louanne Hogan did the singing), then played Joe Mankiewicz's most sensible heroine in "A Letter to Three Wives" and impersonated a light-skinned African-American in "Pinky" ... and lovely Hope Lange, Oscar-nominated as the raped daughter in "Peyton Place," then a gracious ornament of TV and film, including her one walk on the weird side in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

I'll miss wall-eyed Jack Elam, who brought great menace to his early coot-varmint roles and charm to his later geezer parts; in between was the fabulous cameo in "Once Upon a Time in the West." ... Lyle Bettger was the blondest, most menacing villain in his film debut, "No Man of Her Own." ... All of Donald O'Connor's vaudevillian snazz and snap is compressed into the two minutes of his "Make Em Laugh" routine in "Singin' in the Rain": he made mock love to a cloth dummy, did backflips off a wall and then hurtled through it — still smilin' — in the greatest comic dance solo in film history. ... Les Tremayne's dulcet voice wallpapered the 50s, as the befuddled auctioneer in "North by Northwest" and as narrator for hundreds of films and trailers.

That grimacing movie stalwart Robert Stack died last year. Over a 60-year career, the L.A. native is best remembered as Eliot Ness in TV's "The Untouchables." But he was equally impressive in 1950s epics by Budd Boetticher ("The Bullfighter and the Lady"), Samuel Fuller ("House of Bamboo") and William Wellman ("The High and the Mighty"). Beneath his rugged looks and rough voice, Stack often suggested a psychic danger, an imminent imploding that got him an Oscar nomination for "Written on the Wind" and gave his Ness the undertone of obsessiveness: a G-man Javert. As host of "Unsolved Mysteries," Stack lent this same Old Testament God authority to tales of missing persons and unquiet ghosts. And he was married to the same woman for 46 years. All in all, a life that might make even Robert Stack smile.

Hume Cronyn's snappy intelligence lent the weight of insolence to his bantam frame in "Shadow of a Doubt," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Parallax View" and many fine two-handers with his wife Jessica Tandy. In 1994, I received a tender note from Cronyn about my Obit. He said it was "so eloquent and rewarding that I only wish I could have shared it with Jessie. In those last few weeks, when she wanted so desperately to die (never with tears, never with self-pity, but just because of exhaustion), I kept trying to remind her what an extraordinary success she had had as a wife, a mother and an actress. I hope that it registered and that in her darkest moments she may have remembered and even believed it."

An exaltation of crafts: cinematographer Conrad Hall, master of telephoto angst. Through his eye, realism never looked better: "Cool Hand Luke," "In Cold Blood," "Electra Glide in Blue," "Day of the Locust," "American Beauty." He shot his last film, "Road to Perdition," at 75. ... Norman Panama, with his partner Melvin Frank, wrote the craziest Hope-Crosby picture ("Road to Utopia") and the best Danny Kaye ("The Court Jester," with the immortal line, "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true"). ... Way down the budget (and quality) ladder, Jack Pollexfen wrote and produced two of Edgar G. Ulmer's grade-Z fantasies, "The Man from Planet X" and "Daughter of Dr. Jekyll." ... John Jympson edited "A Hard Day's Night." His filmography doesn't have much more in the way of rule-smashing inventiveness, but, really, does it need to?

In the French style: producer Serge Silberman goaded some notoriously difficult men — Luis Bu&ñtilde;uel, Jean-Pierre Melville, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Jacques Beineix — to create some of their best films. ... Daniel Toscan de Plantier, producer ("Cousin Cousine") and head of the French promotion guild Unifrance, died at the Berlin Film Festival in February. He made good films and, through his passionate crusade fro French cinema, made films better. ... Max Pécas directed some of the glammiest of French soft-core in the 60s, then went hard in the 70s. The French magazine Trash Times called him "le fleuron du navet gaulois paillard" (I double-dare anyone to translate that so it makes sense), and Tim Burton said, "Max Pécas is to comic movies what Ed Wood is to science fiction movies." That's not fair; he was much better. His luscious compositions and languid pace created a seductive frame for beautiful actresses to do naughty things. ... Marie Trintignant was born to French movie royalty — supersuave actor Jean-Louis Trintignant and director Nadine Marquand Trintignant — and proved a lovely ornament to French films. She died August 1 from head injuries, reportedly after a fight with her boyfriend, rock star Bertrand Cantat. Two months later Nadine published a book addressed to her dead child, "My Daughter Marie."

Cheerie-bye to that learned dilettante George Plimpton, the Paris Review editor and Manhattan brahmin who guest-starred in a half-dozen other careers, including movie actor. ... And a ghostly wave across the Croisette to author and critic Alexander Walker. He was the Evening Standard's movie reviewer for 43 years and a Cannes Festival celebrant for at least 50. Silver-plumed Alex was a dashing presence in London and Cannes, and an excellent film historian. None of which impressed Ken Russell when, after Alex had panned Russell's "The Devils," confronted him on a TV show by (as Walker relates the incident in his book "Hollywood, England") swatting him with a copy of his newspaper: "'Then go' —WHACK! — 'to America and write' —WHACK! — 'for the fucking Americans' —WHACK!"

Occasionally, in combing the IMDb list of the year's deaths, I got a little shock of sadness. I had seen Ying Ruocheng in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" and in "Little Buddha," as the chief monk in charge of finding the next avatar. Now, on the first day of my first visit to Beijing in 1995, I was sitting in his modest home. Ying had translated "The Death of a Salesman" into Chinese and played Willy Loman across that vast country. In the mid-80s he was Vice-Minister of Culture. But when I visited him with his son Ying Da (a successful sitcom producer) and TIME Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime Flor-Cruz, the old mandarin was out of favor. But not out of stories or opinions. I recall that evening as a magical introduction to Chinese culture, and I am bereft at the news of his death on December 27.

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