Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sad passings

If I was any good, I would already have my only-useful-for-entertainment-value Academy Award predictions compiled and posted by now. But I will deal with that next week. There are plenty of other things in the movie world to discuss these days. I could, for example, comment on the Sundance Film Festival, where I am maintaining my perfect attendance record by not being there again this year. Or I could once again blow my pledge not add further attention to the Golden Globe awards (a feat made infinitely easier thanks to the writers strike), but not even that tempts me today.

After spending last week and the week before talking about dead people, the last thing I really want to do is… talk about more dead people. I really don’t want to have to change the name of this website to Scott’s Dead Movie People Comments. But some of the passings in the past couple of weeks have been very sad. So I will stay in eulogy mode for one more week.

Ennis Del Mar (1979-2008)

The death of Heath Ledger is shocking because he lived his life, as much as possible for such an attractive and talented star, away from the limelight. We weren’t constantly exposed to his twentysomething excesses and foibles as we have been with all too many other celebrities. But suddenly, there we were, watching his bagged body being carried away—multiple times on cable TV news, as helpful journalists kept mentioning that he had been found naked with prescription sleeping pills nearby. What a sad and terrible waste.

Ledger got started in teen TV roles in his native Australia in shows like Home and Away. I first noticed him in one of those late 1990s New Zealand-filmed adventure series, called Roar (created by former teen idol Shaun Cassidy), in which he played Prince Conor, a valiant Irish warrior fighting to liberate his homeland from… the Romans? (I don’t remember reading that the Romans ever got to Ireland, but I suppose the producers thought it might be a bit provocative for an Irishman to be killing Englishmen, no matter how many centuries removed.) It was mindlessly good fun and Ledger radiated golden beauty in the swashbuckling role. And he was the only cast member who bothered attempting an Irish accent. It was no surprise that he soon showed up in Hollywood movies, making an auspicious debut in 10 Things I Hate About You, in which he memorably serenaded Julia Stiles in a Tacoma high school football stadium, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” He played another anachronistic warrior in the very humorous A Knight’s Tale.

Other movies included The Patriot, Monster’s Ball, The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, Lords of Dogtown and Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm. What he will be remembered for now, of course, is playing the tragically limited Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It was a brave enough career decision, although he quickly followed up by playing the quintessential heterosexual in the very amusing Casanova. In a grim echo of reality, one of his last roles was a self-destructive poet in the Australian drama Candy. He posthumously follows in the steps of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson later this year playing the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Emily Hartley (1937-2008)

Serious TV watchers will always think of Suzanne Pleshette as Bob Newhart’s sitcom wife (anybody remember now that Emily Hartley was a school teacher?) in the 1970s. Movie buffs will probably think of her as another school teacher: Annie Hayworth of Bodega Bay, California, who meets a violent end at the hands, er, beaks of vicious attackers in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller The Birds. She had a full career on the stage and the big and small screens for more than four decades, appearing in recurring roles in such recent sitcoms as 8 Simple Rules… for Dating My Teenage Daughter and Will & Grace. Her other movies included Fate Is the Hunter, Nevada Smith, Blackbeard’s Ghost, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, Support Your Local Gunfighter and The Shaggy D.A. Among her numerous TV appearances, she played the title role in the movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean. Memorably, she reprised her Emily Hartley role in the final episode of Bob Newhart’s 1980s sitcom, in which it was revealed that the whole series was merely a dream being had by Newhart’s character from his 1970s sitcom.

As I noted just last week, she was married to Tom Poston for the last six years of his life. The two had appeared together in the 1959 Broadway comedy The Golden Fleecing. And both had co-starred or guest-starred in at least two of Newhart’s long-running sitcoms. But before they finally got together, Pleshette had a brief marriage to Troy Donahue and a 32-year marriage to a businessman, who died in 2000. Meanwhile, Poston was married for 13 years to actor Jean Sullivan and then twice to his second wife Kay, who died of ALS in 1998. So, it’s really true. All things do come to him who waits.

Apt pupil (1982-2008)

I don’t know which is sadder about the untimely demise of Brad Renfro. The fact that he was only 25 years old? Or the fact that it was not the least bit unsurprising? While there is a common narrative about child stars that suggests that they are doomed by Hollywood for putting them on a pedestal and then disposing of them when they are no longer young and cute, one gets the sick feeling about Renfro that he was on a downward trajectory for years and that his movie career may have made little difference one way or another.

Renfro’s story is well known. Born in Tennessee, he was plucked from obscurity to play the titular plucky kid in Joel Schumacher’s 1994 adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Client. In his very first movie, he played opposite Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. His straightforward southern manner and sense of bravura would have made him an ideal young actor to play Huckleberry Finn. And he did, in 1995’s Tom and Huck, with fellow teen idol Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer. But Renfro’s Huck was strangely morose and self-absorbed—not the brash adventurer that Renfro clearly was. Other early movies included The Cure and Barry Levinson’s Sleepers (in which he played a younger version of Brad Pitt’s character). His best role clearly (earning him posthumous praise last week from no one less than his co-star Sir Ian McKellen) was as the young man who forms a strange bond with McKellen’s Nazi war criminal, in Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil.

For someone who seemed to get in trouble so regularly, Renfro actually was actually working pretty steadily in movies right up to the end of his life. Many of his later movies were not particularly notable and/or he was playing a supporting role. Some of the better ones include Larry Clark’s Bully, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Deuces Wild, The Jacket and 10th & Wolf. It looks as though one more is in the pipeline: an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel The Informers, directed by Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers, Ned Kelly).

G’kar… again (1969-2008)

A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the channels and I caught the final few minutes of Fox News Watch, a media criticism show that I have mentioned before. Host Eric Burns was reading a blog entry written by a U.S. soldier in Iraq. It was an entry that had been written for posting in the event of his death. Major Andrew Olmsted, who was training members of the Iraqi army, was killed in an ambush on January 3. The bit that Burns read began like this: “I do ask, not that I’m in a position to enforce this, that no one try to use my death to further their political purposes. I went to Iraq and did what I did for my reasons, not yours. My life isn’t a chip to be used to bludgeon people to silence on either side.” He concluded with this bit: “I’m dead. And if you’re reading this, you’re not. So take a moment to enjoy that happy fact.” The normally feisty panel of media practitioners and critics was totally subdued.

I too was moved, but I didn’t think about it anymore until links to Olmsted’s post showed up in a Babylon 5 online forum. It turns out that Olmsted’s online handle was G’kar, after the major character of the Babylon 5 TV series played by the late Andreas Katsulas. And his complete posthumous post was laced with quotes from the TV series, including some of the most moving and memorable ones. But the clearly prolific, eclectic and popular-culture-aware Olmsted also included quotes from sources as diverse as Team America: World Police, The Cowboys, Wedding Crashers and The Princess Bride. But mostly, the quotes come from Babylon 5, ranging from the spiritual (“Our thoughts form the universe. They always matter.” – Citizen G’kar) to the common sense (“It’s not fair.” “No. It’s not. Death never is.” – Captain John Sheridan and Dr. Stephen Franklin) to the poetic (“Good night, my love, the brightest star in my sky.” – John Sheridan; “I will see you again, in the place where no shadows fall.” – Ambassador Delenn).

I have not yet seen whether B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has reacted to the effect that his epic had on this man, whose life was sacrificed for his country, or the tribute that was paid to JMS’s work from beyond the grave. For me, it made one individual (of the many who have lost their lives in that faraway country) very real and important to me—in a way that newscast death tolls or even capsule TV or radio profiles do not. It also reaffirms something that I have felt for some time. Literature takes on a life of its own, sometimes speaking things that its creator didn’t necessarily intend or imagine—and which are truer than even the human author realized.

-S.L., 24 January 2008

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