Robin and Lauren
Celebrity deaths sometimes come so randomly that two figures are linked through sheer timing. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jim Henson died on the same day in 1990. Grouch Marx died three days after Elvis Presley. Some Groucho fans and admirers, such as Woody Allen, were upset that the massive Elvis coverage overshadowed Marxís passing. So it was eerie a couple of weeks ago when Lauren Bacall died just a day after Robin Williams. Two show business legends from different eras, with different strengths and different styles, yet bound together in a strange way. The only other thread tying them was the profound sense of loss that they are not here anymore.
Robin Williams enjoyed a singular career in television and movies. As a stand-up comic, he was a force of nature. With most comics, no matter how funny they are, you can see the construction of the humor. You can tell that the routine was written and planned. Williamsís performances never felt that way. He always seemed to be channeling a force inside himself trying desperately to get out. The laughs sprung forth in rapid fire, as if he were on a manic high. He would go from character to character and joke to joke like he just couldnít stop himself. Iím sure the practice and development were all there, but you would never know it. Television, whether he was Mork from Ork or a talk show guest, was a perfect venue for his hilarious brand of insanity.
Film was a different matter. Some movies were able to make use of his persona, with Aladdin the best example and Good Morning Vietnam, to a degree. Terry Gilliamís bizarre canvas in The Fisher King suited Williams well. Mrs. Doubtfire was a hit, although that character wears thin pretty quickly. It rarely seemed that the big screen fit his brand of humor the way television did. But films tapped into his other considerable talents.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked as an usher at the Loews Greenspring 3, a suburban Baltimore theater long since closed. During my 30-minute breaks Iíd slip into the back row of a screening and see a few scenes. For a few weeks the theater played Dead Poets Society, which I saw many times but only once from start to finish. Williams had a few funny scenes where he commanded the room. But what struck me most during my repeated viewings was that he could be just as commanding being calm and measured. Also, heís not on screen during much of the movie, which was more about the students than their inspiring teacher. Williams was a generous actor according to those he worked with, and it showed here. He gave his young cast mates what they needed to shine.
This other side of Williams is what made him so unique. Other legendary stand-up comics, from Bob Hope to Woody Allen to George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Chris Rock have had some success as film performers. With all of them the film persona usually varied little from their stand-up one. You were seeing Carlin or Pryor on screen more than the character they were playing.
While Williams had as distinctive a comic persona as any of them, his best work came when he left it behind. My favorite role of his was in Awakenings, a film wrongly overlooked in many of the Williams appreciations. He played Dr. Malcom Sayer, an incredibly withdrawn and shy scientist. Williams disappeared into Dr. Sayer and was totally convincing as a man for whom any social interaction was an ordeal. Itís Robert De Niro who has the showier part but Williams was every bit his equal. It was a sweet, tender, and heartwarming performance.
Williams tapped into those strengths again for his Oscar winning turn in Good Will Hunting. As he did in Awakenings, Williams let silence and stillness work for him. Again he allowed another actor, Matt Damon in this case, to have the fireworks. Hunting (Damon) is young, impulsive, and angry. Williams, as Huntingís psychiatrist Dr. Sean Maguire, is somber and weary. In measured tones, Williams lent his character an inner strength and grit. This resolve is essential for Dr. Maguire to give Hunting the tough love he needs. Williams was a supporting actor in the truest sense.
While Williams had his share of misfires and paycheck movies, he was willing to take some chances. He charted dark territory, first as a disgraced doctor in the neo-noir Dead Again. Later he surprised audiences with chilling turns as a serial killer in Insomnia and a creepy sales clerk in One Hour Photo.
Unfortunately, Williams also grappled with the darkness in real life. While his substance abuse was well documented, that was only one of the demons he faced. Few people knew of his depression and pain. We all wish Williamsís darkness hadnít taken away someone who had so much more to give.
Lauren Bacall, in her own way, had a career just as singular as Williams. Perhaps no actor had a more explosive film debut than she did in To Have and Have Not. Director Howard Hawks said that his star Humphrey Bogart was the most insolent man he knew. Hawks told Bogart that Bacall would be just as insolent. Was he ever right. Even today, Bogart and Bacallís scenes together still crackle. Here was a 19-year-old unknown going toe-to-toe with the big star. Bacallís steely sexiness, velvet voice, and that famous look matched perfectly with Bogart, both onscreen and in real life. To quote the famous tag line, she was ďthe only kind of woman for his kind of man.Ē
The studio, Warner Brothers, knew they had captured lightening in a bottle and reteamed Bacall with Bogart and Hawks in The Big Sleep. Their undeniable chemistry and the fun they seemed to have working together made the film a classic, even though audiences to this day canít figure out the plot. Bogie and Bacall co-starred in another two films, Dark Passage and Key Largo. Before Liz and Dick, and long before Brangelina, they were the movie star couple. In How to Marry a Millionaire, Bacallís character talks about how much she likes older men: ďLook at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen.Ē
While Bacall and Bogart will always be tied together in film history, she had a splendid career in her own right, both before and after Bogartís death in 1957. Like many of the greats, she reinvented herself. She became a Tony-winning Broadway star, while always returning to movies periodically. In the 1970s she was part of an all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express and starred with John Wayne in his last film, The Shootist.
Over time she became to me and many other film fans a living link to Hollywood history. She not only worked with Bogie and Wayne, but also Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Paul Newman. When she appeared on screen or gave interviews, it was a connection to a bygone era.
Yet Bacall was so much more than that. She carried herself with an uncommon elegance, style, and dignity. She could talk about the good old days but was not defined by them. Unlike far too many older stars in this short attention span world, Bacall stayed relevant. Fifty-three years after her film debut Bacall received her first Oscar nomination for The Mirror Has Two Faces. In a stunning upset, Juliette Binoche won instead and Bacall never won a competitive Oscar. Thankfully, the Academy honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 2009.
Bacall also took chances, appearing in Lars von Trierís experimental film Dogville. She even poked fun at her celebrity by appearing as herself in ďThe Sopranos.Ē Bacall was not a comedienne but she could be funny and was always a great interview. She seemed to be one of those legends that would always be around, and that was comforting.
Undoubtedly Bacall would have received more public appreciation had her death not followed Williams. Thatís not fair to her fans. Of course, what about death is ever really fair? In the end the timing wonít matter as Williams and Bacall will each be remembered with love and respect. They will be celebrated by those watching them on film, TV or online. While Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall could have never known that they would be linked this way, I am sure they would each agree that they are in good company.
September 1, 2014
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