by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
The bad news started with the death of beloved comedic icon Elaine Stritch in mid-July, the Emmy and Tony-award winning talent passing at the age of 89 on July 17. Two days later James Garner, sardonic, icy-cool gambler Bret Maverick to some, laconic, eagle-eyed San Francisco P.I. Jim Rockford to so many more, passed quietly in his sleep at the age of 86. In August came the double-whammy of Lauren Bacall, the woman who taught Bogie how to whistle, and Sir Richard Attenborough, who won an Oscar for directing Gandhi and as actor brought dinosaurs to life in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, each quietly succumbing to a variety of ailments, she at the age of 89, he 90.
Individually, these losses were sad, to be certain; but collectively, for lovers of classic film and television at any rate, this foursome passing on was like a punch to the gut. All were members of what is often called Hollywood's Golden Age, each making names for themselves from Los Angeles to New York to London and to locations all around the globe. Their impact on the world of entertainment is incalculable, all leaving an indelible mark generations still unborn will likely be talking about far into the unforeseeable future.
But as tragic as all of this might be, there's something about Robin William's death on August 11 from apparent suicide that ends up hitting the hardest. Why? It could be the complete and totally unexpected nature of his passing. It could be the way he purportedly enacted it via self-strangulation. By all appearances, the live-wire comedian and Oscar-winning actor was still at the peak of his powers, battles with depression and addiction left in the dust as he continued to work at a fevered, almost non-stop pace.
But as the old adage says, looks can be deceiving; and when dealing with a chameleon as talented as Williams it shouldn't be surprising that what we all saw on the surface wasn't the same as what was taking place underneath the skin. It was reported by his wife Susan Schneider after his death, the actor had recently learned he was in the early stages of Parkinson's, that news coupled with his continued battles with depression apparently more than he could handle.
We can't know what would have happened had Williams' cries for help been answered. Heck, we honestly don't even know if any were even made, the actor so good at playing things close to the vest it's likely no one, not even those closest to him, knew he was in so much pain. All that's really left is the shock and the awe of a unique talent gone from this earth far too soon, a pantheon of fans of all ages and backgrounds left mouths agape dealing with their own sort of sadness as prayers of condolence are sent in the direction of his family as they deal with their loss.
Instead of ruminating on what happened and why, I choose to celebrate Williams for the diverse collection of performances and films he left us with to mull over and enjoy. A live-wire performer from the start, even with an Academy Award under his belt for Good Will Hunting, not to mention additional nominations for Good Morning, Vietnam (my personal favorite of the actor's features), Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King, I don't think he was ever given credit for being as terrific an actor as he ultimately was.
He could go from Moscow on the Hudson to Awakenings to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Dead Again to The Birdcage to Toys to Shakes the Clown to Mrs. Doubtfire to One Hour Photo to Insomnia at the drop of a hat. Williams could make us believe Peter Pan really could grow up and forget his past in Hook only to rediscover his child-like innocence when it ultimately mattered. At the flip of a switch he could ooze Dickensonian menace as a modern-day Fagin terrorizing a pint-sized musical prodigy in August Rush. He could become the mad magician of our fairy tale dreams when voicing the genie in Aladdin, make a convincing Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniel's The Butler and mine the complicated inner territories of a father at the end of his rope in World's Greatest Dad.
Were their missteps? Certainly, a number of them, especially when the actor decided to pick up paychecks for comedic drivel like R.V. and License to Wed or appear in saccharine-drenched melodramas like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. But those weren't as frequent as most might think, and as bad as some of those motion pictures were, more often than not Williams was still at least moderately interesting in the majority of them, offering up moments of idiosyncratic electricity worthy of taking note of.
When looking at all five of these losses, it's impossible to say any individual tragedy is more impactful or saddening than another. For my part, Williams, Garner and Bacall are the ones I will feel the most, each playing a vital and meaningful role in my ongoing cinematic love affair and growth as a critic. I discovered all three in my youth, diving headfirst into their early projects as I got older, while waiting with bated breath anything new they might choose to be involved with. Losing them, especially at more or less the same time, in some ways feels a bit like losing a part of myself, the sadness I feel diluted somewhat by the simple fact we still have their films to revel in and celebrate.
Elaine Stritch made a name for herself on the Broadway stage and on the television screen, winning three Emmys and a Tony as part of a long and distinguished career. Her epic battles with alcohol were chronicled in her one-woman tour de force Elaine Stritch at Liberty, while the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is without question one of the finest released in all of 2014 up to this point. Her guest appearances on '30 Rock' garnered five of her eight Emmy nominations (including one of her wins), while her work with Robin Williams in 1990's severely underrated Cadillac Man is well worthy of being revisited.
James Garner's body of work speaks for itself, films like The Great Escape, Victor/Victoria, Grand Prix and 36 Hours classic entertainments that have stood the test of time and then some. The Korean War veteran and proud Hollywood liberal is most known for his television work, both 'Maverick' and 'The Rockford Files' considered two of the best programs to have ever graced the smaller screen. Garner earned a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for his work in 1985's Murphy Romance co-starring with Sally Field. He also picked up 15 Emmy nominations, along with two wins, during the course of his illustrious career. The actor considered his work in The Americanization of Emily alongside Julie Andrews to be his finest, however, and I for one am not about to disagree with him.
At 19 years of age Lauren Bacall, born Betty Joan Perske, set the cinematic world afire appearing alongside screen icon Humphrey Bogart in director Howard Hawk's celebrated WWII thriller To Have and Have Not. The two would appear together three more times in The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo, but, more importantly, they would begin a love affair that would set the world afire ranking as one of the deepest and longest lasting Hollywood has ever known. She won two Tonys for her stage work in the 1970s, while an Academy Award nomination for her appearance in 1997's The Mirror Has Two Faces, under the direction of Barbra Streisand, was somewhat surprisingly the actresses first and only nod before finally being awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2009. Other notable screen appearances include Douglas Sirk's poetic melodrama Written on the Wind, the CinemaScope musical How to Marry a Millionaire alongside Marilyn Monroe and Lars Von Trier's disturbingly tragic epic Dogville.
Sir Richard Attenborough
Sir Richard Attenborough's first screen appearance was made in Noel Coward and David Lean's 1942 war drama In Which We Serve. It would not be his last, the actor making the most of roles both big and small in films as diverse as A Matter of Life and Death, Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, The Flight of the Phoenix and 10 Rillington Place. He transitioned into directing with 1969's absurdist war satire Oh! What a Lovely War, ultimately winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for 1982's Gandhi. Other notable directorial highlights include his adaptation of the Broadway classic A Chorus Line, the apartheid drama Cry Freedom and two biographies, Chaplin and Shadowlands. He returned to acting in 1993 appearing as dinosaur impresario John Hammond in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, while his work as Kris Kringle in 1994's Miracle on 34th Street might be the only notable aspect of that otherwise forgettable remake of the B&W holiday classic.
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