Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Allow me to interrupt my ongoing catch-up of remembering people who we lost in 2012 (yes, I’m still doing that—even though I took a break for the Easter season—and I’ll be getting back to it Real Soon Now) to remember a couple of people we lost during the past week.

Thumbs up (1942-2013)

When I heard that Roger Ebert had died, I knew that it would be big in the world of serious movie people as well as in the world of movie dabblers. But still, I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of heartfelt tributes and downright grief that cascaded through the internet and media in the wake of the news.

The amount of attention and the number and intensity of the tributes devoted to Ebert are an interesting contrast with the reaction to Andrew Sarris’s passing last June. Along with Pauline Kael, Sarris was generally considered to be one of the titans of 20th century film criticism. In the wake of Ebert’s demise and all the subsequent reflection and assessment, that judgment may be in the process of being revised.

But then it is probably not fair to judge the two men against each other. They were of different generations and of different eras in terms of the history of cinema. Also, the outpouring for Ebert was intensified by the fact that he was still active and working (his final review, of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, being publishing days after his death) at the time of his demise. It was further intensified by his long and valiant fight against cancer and the fact that, although he had just announced he was taking a “leave of presence” (a term that makes more logical sense than the usual “leave of absence”), his death came so unexpectedly. Sarris, by contrast, was 83 years old when he died (Ebert was 70) and somehow seemed to belong to the past—even though he was still writing film criticism for The New York Observer as recently as four years ago.

Moreover, unlike the hoary film critics of yore, Ebert bridged the divide between the days when professional critics had a monopoly on film discussion—acting effectively as gatekeepers for opinions and ideas by virtue of occupying the prized and limited space in newspapers and magazines—and the brave new world of the internet when anybody able to wrangle a keyboard (even a dodgy character like me) could put his or her thoughts out there. Ebert was an extraordinarily prodigious blogger. And maybe, in the end, that is why I didn’t read his stuff all that often. There was just too darn much of it.

From everything I have read about Ebert, he was clearly the sort of guy who enjoyed a good, lively discussion and would probably appreciate someone like me, at this point in time, not pretending to be a huge fan of his. He was never my favorite movie reviewer. But many film people I do admire and respect did admire and respect him. There were a lot of us who did not care for the thumbs up/thumbs down format of his televised reviews, which he popularized with Gene Siskel. But most serious film people seemed to get past that and appreciate him for his thoughtful writing. As for me, there were other writers I liked better, and that would not have bothered him one bit.

Of the posthumous accolades that have been coming Ebert’s way, the most fulsome and heartfelt have been, appropriately since he was very much a creature of Chicago, from his fellow Chicagoans, including President Obama and NPR host Scott Simon. But I notice that few, if any, of those singing his praises around the world have bothered to mention the three screenplays he wrote for filmmaker provocateur Russ Meyer in the 1970s: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (definitely not to be confused with the 2009 Pixar flick) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. While none of these was in danger of winning any awards or making any best film lists, they did give us some insight into Ebert’s interesting mind. He may have had a wicked side, and he certainly had a wicked sense of humor.

After all is said and done, there is one important trait that I feel I can claim to share with Robert Ebert. Some criticized him for writing more positive reviews than negative ones. But isn’t that a lovely kind of life to leave behind? Loving more movies than he hated—even though for so many years he watched something like 500 a year. As he wrote in the introduction to his 2006 collection Awake in the Dark, “I find that I love movies more now than when I started.” You can’t ask for more than that.

Annette (1942-2013)

In one of those interesting coincidences, Annette Funicello spent almost the exact same span of time on the earth as did Roger Ebert. And, while Ebert left behind copious volumes of opinions on film, Funicello has gone away with a big chunk of my childhood.

My story is a familiar one to anyone who grew up in America in the 1950s. The comely tween girl with the gorgeous Italian looks and, uh, blossoming body stood out among all the other kids on The Mickey Mouse Club (amazingly, she was the last of the two dozen kids to be picked for the cast) and awakened in me and my male friends something new. I credit Annette with converting me to heterosexuality.

As the breakout teen star for Disney, she dominated our adolescent culture in a way that the Miley Cyruses and Selena Gomezes could never rival due to the subsequent proliferation and dilution of the media. Apart from The Mickey Mouse Club, she kept showing up in other Disney productions (like various incarnations of Spin and Marty and a serial called Annette, in which she played a country girl adjusting to life in the city) and on the Sunday night Disneyland show, usually playing a character named Annette. And, in fact, she was usually credited as simply “Annette,” presumably because her young American fans could not handle her four-syllable Italian surname. Or was it that her popularity made her a one-name wonder à la Cher and Madonna?

In 1959 she had a recurring role for a while as Gina Minelli on the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and she kept showing up in the Zorro TV series, starring Guy Williams. She matured into playing “the girlfriend” in several Disney feature film classics like The Shaggy Dog, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle (singing the theme song with the Beach Boys).

In the 1960s her Disney career overlapped with her beach/party movie career (usually partnered with Frankie Avalon), which saw her appear in Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Ski Party (in an uncredited cameo), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Fireball 500. That last one, which again paired her with Avalon, was actually a race car movie. She made another one of those, with Fabian instead of Frankie, directed by Richard Rush and called Thunder Alley.

Married at 22 (to her agent Jack Gilardi), she mostly retired from acting, although she did turn up in occasional guest shots (including Love, American Style, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat) and, of course, those Skippy peanut butter commercials. She was not above winking at her own squeaky clean image, as she also appeared in Bob Rafelson’s strange 1968 Monkees movie Head (co-written by Jack Nicholson), playing a character named Minnie, and in the 1987 flick Back to the Beach, in which she and Avalon played a married couple whose kids roll their eyes at their square parents.

In 1995 she appeared as herself in the framing segment of a TV movie adapted from her own autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story. In the main part of the movie, the young Funicello is played at various ages by Elysa Hogg, Andrea Nemeth and Eve La Rue. The movie recounts how she divorced Gilardi in 1981 and five years later married a man from the San Joaquin Valley whom she met through a mutual love of horse breeding and training. And that is how she became the wife of a rancher in my very own home town. In the TV movie he was played by Twin Peaks veteran and future Stargate actor Don Davis.

A year after her marriage, she learned that she had multiple sclerosis. In 1992 she and her husband Glen established The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. She passed away, way too young at 70 but still a beautiful teenager to so many of us, on Monday in Bakersfield, California.

-S.L., 10 April 2013

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