Catching Up on Old News

14 Aug

Hmmm…to write about the passing of Eileen Brennan and Karen Black, or to just let it go? Oh wait, what’s that you say? Eydie Gorme has passed also….

Well, Eydie Gorme, of Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie, versatile, vintage singers with a most loyal following, has passed away at the age of 84. Her death follows the passing of Karen Black on August 8 at the age of 74. This is a most unusual coincidence because in Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Black played a transsexual who once worked as an Eydie Gorme impersonator. True that. Look it up.

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^ Karen Black () received her only Oscar nod, in the Best Supporting Actress category, for 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. She later parodied that movie’s oft-quoted diner scene on Saturday Night Live–during the show’s disastrous 1980-1981 season.

Some actors and actresses become stars; some do not. I’m not sure that Black was ever really a star, but that didn’t stop her from having a long rich career, acting in everything from from some of the most influential films of the 1960s and 1970s, including Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, to big-budget disaster flicks, such as Airport ’75. She worked with Robert Altman twice (or at least twice that I can readily recall), including 1975’s celebrated Nashville. Indeed, ’75 was a banner year for Black, what with Nashville, the aforementioned Airport ’75 (in which she played a flight attendant turned reluctant pilot–so memorably parodied by Julie Haggerty in 1980’s Airplane), and, oh yes, The Day of the Locust. The latter, adapted from Nathanael West’s scathing novel about Hollywood in the 1930s, presented Black in one  of the year’s most high profile roles for leading actresses–a platinum haired, would-be starlet–that seemed to generate just enough acclaim to warrant an Oscar nod, especially given all the hand wringing over the dearth of viable candidates. (To the degree that, as reported by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona on page 515 of Inside Oscar, Ellen Burstyn, the previous Best Actress winner, actually lobbied for Academy members to NOT vote for Best Actress as a protest against the perceived deficit.)  When the Oscar nominations were announced, Day of the Locust was recognized in two categories: Burgess Meredith (as the father of Black’s character) for Best Supporting Actor and Conrad Hall for Best Cinematography. Nothing for Black though she was up for a Golden Globe during the same season.  The year before that, she actually won a Globe for her supporting role as Myrtle Wilson in the oft-maligned adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  A year after Nashville and Day of the Locust, Black had the distinction of appearing in what would ultimately become Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, for which I definitely have a soft-spot. Not vintage Hitch by any stretch, but an entertaining mix of suspense and oddball humor with a cast that also includes Bruce Dern, William Devane, and Barbara Harris.

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Left to right: Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The production began as a short-lived Broadway play, by Ed Graczyk, directed by Altman with the same basic cast. Altman then reassembled the group for a relatively quick film adaptation. Alas, it is still not “officially” available on DVD though bootleg editions abound. Too bad. Graczyk’s play is creaky, mean-spirited, and just a little too high-falutin’ for its own good, but Altman’s movie (I saw it at the Inwood oh-so-many-years ago) is fascinating: visually stunning (thanks to a tricked-out set, some fancy slight of hand in the lighting design, and Altman’s probing camera)  as well as a great showcase not only for Black but also Cher (a Golden Globe nominee); Kathy Bates, barely known at the time, is also featured.

As an actress, Black amassed an amazing 194 TV and movie credits in her lengthy career (per the IMDb). Besides her work in prestige projects, she also gained quite a reputation for appearing in horror flicks: everything from Burnt Offerings (1976) with Bette Davis all the way up to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Black aficionados (Blackheads?)  no doubt still salivate over TV’s Trilogy of Terror, featuring Black in multiple roles and perhaps best known for the segment in which her character is terrorized by a monstrous voodoo doll come to life.  It’s both campy yet creepy nonetheless.   Thanks, Karen. Rest in peace.

Just days before Black’s death, the entertainment world lost another veteran character actress, the great Eileen Brennan who came to prominence in the 1970s per her performances in, among others, such major Oscar contenders as The Last Picture Show (1971) and 1973’s Best Picture winner–and box-office goldmine–The Sting. Of course, in the latter, she was given little to do as that the film was really a showcase for Paul Newman and Robert Redford–not to mention Robert Shaw and the likes of Charles Durning, Harold Gould, and Ray Walston. Oh, and Edith Head’s dandy, Oscar winning costumes. There was only a smattering of smallish female roles in the picture, but Brennan’s dry delivery gave added oomph, added resonance, to a few choice one-liners. I’ve always loved her turn as the saucy madame. (Again, not an enviable, substantial role, but Brennan made a strong impression.)

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Eileen Brennan (l) with Goldie Hawn (r) in Private Benjamin, the movie that earned both of them Oscar nominations. Brennan won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the TV adaptation.

Of course, Brennan really came into her own as something of a national treasure when she teamed with Goldie Hawn for 1980’s smash hit, Private Benjamin, which featured actress-producer Hawn as a featherweight Jewish-American princess/widow who joins the military on the mistaken assumption that it’ll be just like a much-needed vacation.

Brennan plays Hawn’s nemesis, the seemingly humor impaired Capt. Doreen Lewis who doesn’t much care for Judy Benjamin’s frothy nonsense, and so a contest of wills begins with Benjamin finding she has greater, well, reserves than she ever believed possible, but she doesn’t necessarily have the last word, either. Or does she?

Actually, Brennan’s Capt. Lewis is kind of pathetic, the implication being that in order to succeed in the military, she has somehow failed as a woman. Believe me, it’s all there. You don’t have to dig too deeply.   At the same time, Brennan is (or was) such a crackerjack actress that, once again, her dry delivery and marvellously expressive face (Those eyes! That mouth!) make the character a hoot. Okay, so the audience laughs at her rather than with her–I don’t think she’s laughing, actually–but at least the audience was laughing, and even as foes, she and Hawn had great chemistry–to the degree, of course, that both actresses were nominated for Oscars: Hawn in the leading actress category; Brennan as a supporting player. Personally, I can hardly hear that old chestnut “Deep Purple” without thinking of Brennan in Private Benjamin, but even this many years after the fact, I’m not in the mood for spoilers.

Then, just as suddenly as she finally hit the big time, Brennan faced seemingly insurmountable tragedy, and we were all collectively shocked. The success of Private Benjamin the movie led to the creation of Private Benjamin the TV sitcom with Lorna Patterson on board as Judy Benjamin (seemingly with Hawn’s blessing), and Brennan as well as few other original cast members, including Hal Williams, returning. This time, Brennan was nominated for–and won–an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, except that the whole thing turned into heartache after about a year when Brennan, out for dinner one night with Hawn (as they were obviously quite friendly off-screen) was hit by a car and severely injured. I think many of us believed we’d lost her forever. Her recovery was long and painful, succumbing to addiction and entering rehab. (Meanwhile, Polly Holliday, a popular sitcom veteran, gamely tried to fill the void left by Brennan/Doreen Lewis on the Benjamin series though it was a short-term fix that didn’t work, and the show was soon canceled.)

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Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock in 1985’s Clue. The movie was hardly a smash back in the day, but this meme proves that it has been far from forgotten.

Eventually, Brennan made a comeback, but did she ever regain her career momentum? Hard to say though she worked steadily. She was a delight as a slightly discombobulated Mrs. Peacock in the big screen adaptation of the classic board game Clue (or, for purists, Cluedo). The 1985 Christmas offering, which also featured the comic stylings of Lesley Ann Warren and the late, great Madeline Kahn (not to mention the wonderful Tim Curry), was no doubt hampered at the box office by a gimmicky release pattern that relied on multiple endings (accorded to separate prints) to the whodunit in the hopes that moviegoers would see the movie more than once, Clue-hopping, as it were, from one theater to the next in order to catch all three endings.  Confusing, much? Hmmmm…seemed like a fun idea at the time, but it was asking a lot of audiences; however, much like, say, Troop Beverly Hills, which I wrote about last month (a movie clearly in debt to Private Benjamin, btw), Clue has thrived for decades on home video where all three endings appear in a single edition. Believe me, I know plenty of people who can quote the quip filled, entenderé laced dialogue, for days.

I can look on the Internet Movie Database and see that Brennan racked up dozen of credits over the last few decades, including a lot of TV appearances (netting a handful of Emmy nods in the process), but I remember that she made quite a vivid impression on me in 1990’s White Palace, in the role of Susan Sarandon’s sister. There seemed to be something mystical about her, and I was really rooting for Brennan to score an Oscar nod to solidify her comeback, but, of course, I was also rooting for Sarandon to score a Best Actress nod, but that didn’t happen either. Oh well. G’night, Eileen. Rest in peace.

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Remember when Ellen DeGeneres spoofed Bjork’s swan dress at the Emmy awards? Well, you must surely remember that she did so when this nation was at one of its lowest points: the aftermath of 9/11 when the awards had already been postponed at least once, but Ellen gave us permission to laugh again.

On the other hand, I am so incredibly thrilled that the Academy has invited Ellen DeGeneres to host this year’s (well, next year’s) telecast. I can’t believe it has taken this long. DeGeneres was a hoot during her last gig in 2007 (that is, the 2006/2007 ceremony). I loved that she made the most of her particular brand of “nice” humor, trotting out the carpet cleaner at one point to vacuum the aisles. That was a genius moment for me–mainly because it’s something that no other comedian would have ever dreamed of doing, but it was perfect for Ellen. Yeah, we just call her Ellen rather than Ms. DeGeneres.  I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us!

Btw, who’s your favorite Oscar host? I know Bob Hope holds the record with 18 engagements (as host or co-host), first in radio and later on television. Billy Crystal is apparently next in line with 9 appearances–as recently as 2012 (a year after the debacle known as Franco-Hathawaygate). Still, my all-time favorite is the one and only Johnny Carson who hosted five times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One thing that was so great about Carson but has escaped so many recent hosts is that he understood the audience wasn’t really there to see him. He knew his purpose (to keep the show moving and lively), and he most definitely knew his audience: “I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces” (Wiley & Bona 563). The problem with Crystal, who was brilliant in his first 2-3 outings, is that he seemed to become more and more preoccupied with making himself the center of attention with each and every gig. This was also part of my problem with Seth McFarlane earlier this year. For me, Steve Martin (who’s hosted solo twice and co-hosted with Alec Baldwin once) and DeGeneres come close, or closer, to matching Carson’s smoothly assured touch. When you’re really funny, and comfortable, the audience gets it, and they don’t have to be beaten over the head.  I’ll also give props to Hugh Jackman, and Whoopi Goldberg (a three time host) has had her moments too.

Thanks, Ellen!

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