MAGIC MAN (Stanley Donen: R.I.P.)

Few directors, producers or choreographers were responsible for as much Hollywood iconography as Stanely Donen, a master of all three roles, who passed away today at the age of 94.

Gene Kelly singing (and dancing) in the rain. Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Gwen Verdon generating steam heat. Audrey Hepburn asking Cary Grant how he shaved in there. The Seven Brides being swung by the Seven Brothers. Donald O’Connor makin’ ’em laugh.  Kelly and Frank Sinatra hitting the town in their sailor suits. Hepburn catsuiting through a Paris nightclub in the name of Emphaticalism.

One could go on. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, most of those images will ring a bell.

With Kelly, he both reinvented the Hollywood musical and extended its natural lifespan by a generation, no easy task in a post-war era that already prized realism (if not cynicism) above all else. With Hepburn, he made a signature musical (Funny Face), a Hitchcock homage (Charade) that was better than all but a handful of the Master’s own and perhaps the best film anyone has made about marriage (Two for the Road), giving her a chance to do what everybody knew she could do and a few things nobody thought she could. Besides the superstars, Debbie Reynolds, James Coburn, Walter Matthau, Geoge Kennedy, Bob Fosse, were among the many whose careers got a jumpstart in Donen’s films.

And all of that happened because from the late 40s to the late 60s he had the surest touch in the game.

After that his career went into a tailspin, never to recover as we set about throwing everything away and forging our own way to Paradise without the benefit of what all the poor hidebound Past could teach us.

I’m betting whoever’s in charge of the next life is looking at his resume along about now and saying “Well, we can’t blame him.”

Never mind us, though. and what all we didn’t do. No future worth living in will forget him.

TYPES? WHO NEEDS TYPES? (George Kennedy, R.I.P.)

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Like all great character actors, including those who never took an acting class, George Kennedy could disappear into an astonishing variety of roles without resorting to any device detectable to the human eye. Like only the very greatest–a Ward Bond, a Harry Morgan, a John Carradine–he could do so without losing or surrendering any part of himself. He didn’t so much disappear into his best roles as make those roles disappear into him.

The only thing that kept him from leaving quite the legacy as the others was the absence of opportunity. He didn’t enter film acting until 1960 (after a sixteen-year stint in the military). He had missed the decade-and-a-half that might have given him a dozen memorable roles in noir or westerns. By the end of the first decade he did play in, the studio system that had given those other men so many chances to stamp themselves on the future had collapsed. Given what little time he had–how much trash and television was bound to infiltrate his resume as the world of the seventies-and-beyond fully emerged–he still left a remarkable legacy.

For my generation, especially the male half, his defining role was bound to be as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. It’s the kind of performance you only have to see once for it to be burned into the memory forever. Dragline was the very definition of the kind of man you knew you might have to deal with if you ever found yourself in prison or the military, one whose rough respect might actually have been worth earning if, by chance, you measured up.

It’s hard to overemphasize just how rare it is for any actor, let alone one hired solely for support, to embody a character so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him at all, forget as well. Just as a for instance, I can actually imagine others (Harry Morgan, say, or, adjusting for age, John Carradine) replacing Strother Martin in the same movie without putting a hole in its side. If you’ve seen the movie, you can appreciate how hard and rare that is. And I’m not saying I’d prefer anyone to Martin, just that I can comprehend it.

Nobody else could ever be Dragline. That was one case where they didn’t have any choice but to give him an Oscar.

But what’s far more interesting is that Kennedy wasn’t defined even by that.

He gave real menace to the fundamentally comic Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant thriller Charade, put indelible worry lines on the face of the permanently harried, middle-rank go-between in The Dirty Dozen (where those he had to go between were merely Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan), and played the crucial deadpan foil who allowed Leslie Nielsen’s comic genius in The Naked Gun movies to flourish without ever suggesting his own indispensability to anyone who wasn’t prepared to think longer and harder about it than he ever would.

In other words, he could do this:

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or this…

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..without making you think he was doing anything at all.

Or letting you forget that he, alone, was George Kennedy.

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