Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hollywood and the Death Industry: Remembering Our Loved Ones

Facebook users have doubtless spotted startling notifications on the right-hand margin. Here’s one sample: “We Say A Sad And Somber ‘Goodbye’ To The Wonderful Betty White . . . BREAKING NEWS . . . Betty Is Gone.” There’s a pensive photo of White too, strongly implying that the 93-year-old comedy star has suddenly gone to her eternal reward. Staunch Betty White fans will doubtless click on the accompanying link, only to find that this is a sneaky ad for some kind of skincare miracle-product. I admit I’ve succumbed to my curiosity and checked out a similar link connected with the wonderful (and not very young) Judi Dench.

It’s amazing what we’ll do when we’re lured in by news of dead and dying celebrities.

My mind is so boggled by the carnage of the past week that I can barely focus on the conventional life cycle, from which people depart at an appropriately advanced age. There’s a lot of that in Hollywood movies, often featuring touching deathbed scenes that are far too sanitized to resemble actual life. But Hollywood’s fascination with death also extends to the bizarre and the gruesome demise. When I worked for Roger Corman, we took great pains to pump up the gore in our movies and suggest it on our posters. For some folks a film where no life hangs in the balance is simply not worth watching.

There are even movies where the phenomenon of death and dying becomes its own sort of dark comedy. Quentin Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction know how to walk the fine line between death as tragic and death as funny. But I’m thinking more of the 1971 cult favorite, Harold and Maude, in which an unhappy young man plays at suicide and a wise elderly woman shows him the meaning of life—and death. (They meet because both have the hobby of attending funerals.) And I’m particularly thinking of The Loved One , the outrageous 1965 satire (based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel) of Southern California’s extravagant funeral industry Even a simple listing of the cast of supporting characters—Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, and Liberace—hints at the skewed perspective in this film. It has just had a major fiftieth-anniversary showing at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, sponsored by the American Cinematheque along with the Los Angeles Conservancy’s committee on modernist architecture, which appreciates how this film features L.A.’s urban landscape on-screen.

It’s all too easy to think about dying these days. But I’ve also been giving some thought to conventional funerals after attending a simple but dignified send-off for a friend’s elderly mother. It took place at Hillside Memorial Park, a freeway-close cemetery that many Angelenos spot on their way to Los Angeles International Airport. What first catches the eye is a lofty cupola and fountain dedicated to the memory of Al Jolson. There’s also a statue of Jolson down on one knee in a characteristic pose. It’s all very Hollywood, which is apt because many stars of Jewish Hollywood are buried here. Hillside dates from the era where Jews, even famous ones, weren’t welcome in mainstream cemeteries, like the legendary Forest Lawn. At Hillside they’re buried in style, with many of the most celebrated interred inside a massive mausoleum, complete with marble benches and stained glass windows. On a quick stroll I saw the final resting places of comedians Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and Jack Benny (who, despite his tightwad reputation, rests in an imposing crypt). There are younger celebrities too. One who surprised me was David Janssen, known for TV’s The Fugitive. Who knew?   

Al Jolson Memorial, Hillside Memorial Park
Al Jolson Statue

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