Gene Wilder

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I step away from music for a moment to remember Gene Wilder.  He was one of those actors I’ve always loved because he was a presence in my childhood.  Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (my favorite) were staples in my family from the moment they were released.  I didn’t see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory until I was an adult.  (And the fact that the adult comedies were staples of my childhood while I had to seek out the kids’ movie as a grown-up should tell you a great deal about why I’m such a twisted little weirdo.  Although that is one twisted kids’ movie.)  Wilder was also a favorite of mine for his devotion to his wife, the brilliant Gilda Radner, during her illness and ultimate death from cancer.  He was a very funny and very good man.

News of his death today from complications of Alzheimer’s makes me terribly sad for all of us on this plane of existence.  But for everyone he loved who have already transitioned to the other plane–people like Gilda and frequent co-star Richard Pryor–there is much rejoicing.  Now they can all be brilliantly funny together again.

Alan Rickman

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I just wanted to take a little break from my Bowie-fest–and from music altogether–to pay tribute to one of my favorite actors.  Alan Rickman has died.  Like Bowie, he was 69 and the cause of death was cancer.

Rickman was one of those actors you had trouble not noticing.  He wasn’t the greatest looking guy on-screen, usually (although I found him immensely attractive), and at first he didn’t seem to be doing anything especially outstanding character-wise.  But you would find yourself paying more and more attention whenever he was in a scene, and all the little details he brought to his roles became such a magnificent performance that you couldn’t help but want more.  Like most Americans, my first exposure to him was as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  I knew something was up when I found myself rooting for the villain halfway through the movie.  Rickman was a compelling actor and his presence will be sorely missed.

My favorite movie of his (one of my Top Ten all time movies) is Truly, Madly, Deeply with the equally wonderful Juliet Stevenson.  It is one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  (I’ve always assumed it inspired an insipid piece of garbage called Ghost, but don’t let that put you off from this one.)  I cry every time I see it, twice: once at the beginning and once at the end.  Big, awful, chest-wracking sobs.  This movie breaks my heart and puts it back together again.  And Alan Rickman as Jamie is just so glorious to watch.  Find this movie.  Watch it.  Right now.

Here’s a clip from near the end.  They are reciting a Pablo Neruda poem titled “The Dead Woman.”  Have a tissue handy.

Thank you, Alan, for making me cry and laugh and cringe at the movies for so long.

James Garner

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Maverick (the original TV show, not the movie).  Move Over, Darling.  The Great Escape.  Murphy’s Romance.  Victor/Victoria.  What do these things have in common?  The wonderful and talented James Garner.  (They’re also some of my favorite performances by him.)  Garner’s screen presence was such that you liked him the moment you laid eyes on him.  You trusted him.  You knew that even if he was pretending to be a bad guy, he’d do the right thing in the end, even if it meant he would lose.  The real James Garner, of course, didn’t lose; he had a long and successful career, and a happy personal life.  But his charisma, personality, and presence made him perfect for the role that will always define him in my eyes.

Jim Rockford never did seem to catch a lucky break, but he never let it get him down.  Not for long anyway.

James Garner died yesterday at 86.  It’s a celebrity death that hits me pretty hard.  Not just because I liked Garner, but because enjoying his work was something I had in common with my father.  It was a link between us.  I hope in whatever afterlife there is, Garner will have a drink and a laugh with my dad.  I know the real man was just as personable as he was on-screen, so I think they would like each other.

While the rest of us have lost a great talent and nice guy, I know his family and friends have lost so much more.  My heart goes out to all those who loved the man.

“Bad Moon Rising”

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Sorry I was lazy yesterday, but I wish you all a happy Lunar New Year anyway.  It’s the Year of the Horse, so this also would’ve been appropriate.  But as I perused the headlines on my homepage just a few moments ago, I saw the news that brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment this morning.

So far, the Lunar New Year is not off to a good start.

I rather hope this isn’t a portent for the year.  It’s always tragic when someone dies too young (Hoffman was only 46).  Although there’s no confirmation yet, Hoffman’s death is suspected to be an overdose, which makes it even worse.  What a waste of such talent.  I’m starting to be glad that I’m merely good at my chosen art rather than extraordinarily gifted.  So many of the truly great artists are equally troubled, finding some kind of solace in drugs/alcohol/recklessness that ultimately lead to their untimely deaths.  Pick an art form or entertainment, and you will find it littered with the bodies of geniuses who died young.  (Accidents and murders not caused by reckless behavior are exceptions, of course, but even more tragic for it.)

Whatever the causes or reasons, my heart goes out to Hoffman’s family.  My wish is that this year, lunar and calendar, is better than its beginning.

Gone to the Movies: “All That Jazz”

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Catherine Zeta-Jones always seemed like a bitch to me, and not in any sort of empowering way.  She had a reputation around Hollywood as being a difficult, demanding star.  “Difficult” used to be a synonym for “Refuses to be a doormat” when used in conjunction with women in old Hollywood; nowadays, it usually means something involving drugs or money, or both (i.e.: CBS considers Charlie Sheen a very difficult star).  She was rumored to be rude to various working folks, both on and off set.  Shortly after her wedding to Michael Douglas, she spearheaded a lawsuit and public smear campaign against OK! magazine after they published what she deemed an unflattering, and unofficial, photograph.  (To be fair, I don’t know all the details; she may have been totally justified.  And smearing a tabloid isn’t exactly unexpected . . . or difficult.)  She came across in interviews as vain, superficial, and entitled.  It’s a big part of the reason why I generally dismissed this otherwise beautiful and talented woman.

Then it was announced a couple of years ago that Zeta-Jones suffered from Bipolar II, one of the main symptoms of which is radical mood swings.  All of a sudden, her capricious behavior in public made perfect sense.  She wasn’t a nasty, selfish bitch.  Catherine Zeta-Jones was mentally ill.  It took a lot of courage for her to come out publicly as suffering a mental illness (she just as easily could’ve claimed she was “exhausted,” or some other euphemism).  But she acknowledged her struggle with her own brain and personality with honesty and candor.  She first sought treatment after her husband’s much publicized battle with cancer, and recently checked into a residential facility for further treatment.  The tabloid press would’ve gotten hold of all this eventually, so kudos to her for making it a non-issue.

Catherine Zeta-Jones won an Oscar for her role as Velma Kelly in 2002’s Chicago.  What impressed me most was that she and the other stars all did their own singing and dancing.  That’s a pretty big deal for a bunch of actors not exactly known for their singing and dancing skills.  But they trained and rehearsed and brought this classic Bob Fosse show to life.  “All That Jazz” is the movie’s sexy iconic number.  It defines the decadence and passion of the 1920s setting, and helps set the stage for the defiance of Roxy and Velma.  It’s a proud song about living life on your own terms, refusing to be limited to tradition or convention: “No, I’m no one’s wife, but oh, I love my life and all that Jazz.”  The term “all that jazz” has become a dismissive catch-all phrase for trivial things or details.  But this song makes it sound like whatever makes life worth living.  There’s certainly nothing trivial about Zeta-Jones’ performance as the murderous Velma.  She knows that everything she does matters, that everything could mean the difference between life and death.  I’ll let you decide whether I’m referring to the character or the woman.  One thing I do know, Catherine Zeta-Jones is not a bitch; she’s a survivor.