Monday, December 31, 2012
Year’s End: The Legends We Lost in 2012
The end of a year tends to make everyone nostalgic. And, at times, melancholy. I felt sadness wash over me recently while dining in a neighborhood bistro that uses Hollywood classics as a sort of moving wallpaper. While munching on ahi tuna, I kept feeling my eyes drawn to the big rear wall where the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street was silently unfolding. This whimsical story of a department store Santa Claus should have seemed festive. But in watching jolly Edmund Gwenn, crotchety William Frawley, stalwart John Payne, and (especially) the beautiful nine-year-old Natalie Wood, I couldn’t help remembering that all have left us. (Blessedly, Maureen O’Hara is still around, having lived to the ripe old age of 92.)
At year’s end, magazines and TV programs all trot out their memorial tributes. One of the most moving, from TCM, salutes film people who passed away in 2012. Here are just a few: Japan’s Isuzu Yamada, a favorite of director Akira Kurosawa, was the spookiest Lady Macbeth ever, in Throne of Blood. When I did a serious phone interview with Phyllis Diller, she blew me away with the unexpected announcement that she was a great cook. Surprise!
Then there were the two wonderful character actors we lost on Christmas Eve, Jack Klugman and Charles Durning. Both had an Everyman quality that made them instantly believable in a wide range of roles. Klugman was a household favorite when I was growing up, both for his role as the slovenly half of TV’s The Odd Couple series and for playing a rough-hewn but dogged medical examiner on Quincy, M.E. Though Klugman is less associated with films, there were some modest but memorable characterizations. In the movie version of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, he gave both credibility and likability to the role of the doting nouveau riche father of golden girl Ali MacGraw. And, as Juror #5 he was part of the stellar ensemble (along with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Ed Begley) that brought the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men brilliantly to life.
The more I read about Charles Durning, the more fascinating he seems. The defining moment of his life seems to have come on the battlefield of World War II, when he met the enemy face to face and somehow survived. He kept mostly hidden the side of himself capable of killing a young German soldier at point-blank range, but his wide variety of stage and screen roles always hinted that he was a man with unplumbed depths. He excelled as a crooked cop (The Sting) and in the two crass roles that won him Oscar nominations, as a shifty governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a lustful Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be. But I’ll remember Charles Durning for roles both funny and tender. As Jessica Lange’s father in Tootsie, he was fully convincing as a man’s man who becomes sweetly besotted with Dorothy Michaels, whom we know to be Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) under a wig and a lot of pancake makeup. And I loved him in a 1975 television drama, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, about a mailman who woos a lonely widow (Maureen Stapleton) on the dance floor. Critics of the day were amazed to find Durning so light on his feet. But along with everything else, he’d also worked as a ballroom dance instructor. Here was an actor forever capable of surprising his audiences.
May 2013 be filled with lovely surprises for us, one and all.