Archive | June, 2014

Remembering Eli Wallach: “Indelible”

30 Jun

It’s been quite a week…

Eli Wallach National Board of Review

Eli Wallach never earned an Oscar nod in a career that spanned 60+ years and well over 100 credits. Theoretically, he came close via his turn as an aging screenwriter in 2006’s The Holiday starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, and Jude Law. Wallach earned great notices for the holiday release. and was profiled as a likely candidate in top newspaper and magazine Oscar preview features. Despite a bit of buzz, awards consideration was slim, meaning nothing from the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Screen Actors Guild, or any of the critics’ societies. That noted, during the same season Wallach received a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review.

Eli Wallach was never a star on the order of say, Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen, with whom he co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven respectively, but he achieved greatness nonetheless, forging a stellar career as one of America’s most prolific character actors with more than 160 film and TV credits, per the IMDb, going as far back as 1951’s Lights Out up through Ghost Writer and the Wall Street sequel, both in 2010. Did I happen to mention, by the way, that when he died last week he’d reached the ripe old age of 98? Incredible. Still working all the way up through his mid 90s.

Born in Brooklyn, Wallach claimed the University of Texas as his alma mater. Indeed, he famously attended classes in Austin, and acted in theatre productions, alongside no less than legendary Walter Cronkite, the newcaster once famously hailed as the most trusted man in America. Besides being a UT grad, Wallach studied “The Method” at the Actors Studio in New York under the direction of Lee Strasberg.

Wallach won a Tony for Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. His other stage credits include Camino Real, also by Williams, along with Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, Teahouse of the August MoonLuv, and Rhinoceros among many, many others.

the-uglyArguably, however, he made his greatest impression in such Sergio Leone films as the aforementioned The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Still, he scored many other impressive credits, including How the West was Won, The Misfits (top-lined by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift), How to Steal a Million, Cinderella Liberty, Nasty Habits (which co-starred his wife of 60+ years, Anne Jackson), Girlfriends, The Two Jakes (1990’s underrated yet also unnecessary sequel to Chinatown), and The Godfather Part III. His versatility was legendary, no accent seemingly beyond his talents,witness his role as a Central American dictator in 1964’s odd Kisses for My President, a strangely sexist comedy starring Polly Bergen as the first female President of the United States of America. Too bad the movie seems more fixated on the challenges faced by Madame President’s husband, good ole Fred MacMurray, than those faced by the Chief Executive herself. Still, Wallach was, to quote the New York Times, “droll” in a role that didn’t offer much.

On TV, he appeared on the likes of Kojak, The Young Lawyers, L.A. Law, Law and Order and Murder, She Wrote (of course). He was one of three actors to step into the role of Mr Freeze on the campy Batman TV series (the other two being George Sanders and director Otto Preminger).  He lent his voice to the docudrama Houston, We Have a Problem, twenty years before Ron Howard tackled the same material in 1995’s Oscar nominated Apollo 13; he also appeared in the acclaimed mini-series The Executioner’s Song, starring Texan Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore.


Four years after being honored by the National Board of Review, Wallach was singled out for career longevity honors by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governors awards. He is seen here with actress Anne Jackson, his wife of 66 years. Their successful marriage serves a powerful rebuttal to the claim that showbiz marriages buckle under the pressures of such a demanding profession.

Wallach’s long and varied career represents the best and worst of the peculiar profession known as acting. Because he was never a big-name star, he enjoyed career longevity; after all, being a star is a fickle thing. We want our stars to be beautiful, fit, sexy, and young, or at least youngish. Once stars start losing their luster,  aging like the rest of us, there are fewer choices: reinvent themselves as character actors, try fiendishly to keep up with the youngsters in a youngster’s game, or, well, retire (that or get the boot by failing miserably at that youngster thing). Wallach endured because he was first and foremost,  an actor–a gifted, rigorous actor who knew how to deliver a solid performance regardless of how big or small the role. Oh, and actors like Wallach work for much less than their bigger name counterparts, always a plus in the ledgers. On the other hand, because he knew how to disappear into a role, the audience almost never caught him “acting,” which means he seldom earned special recognition from peers and critics for even some of his more high profile work. Not a single Oscar nod, per se, in spite of some huge hits and major awards contenders though the Academy ultimately honored him with a 2010 Governors Award for “a lifetime of indelible screen characters.” [Italics added for emphasis.] He earned a Golden Globe nod for portraying a shady Sicilian in Baby Doll (1956) in addition to British Academy honors for the same film. He found greater favor with Emmy voters, snagging five nominations with one win, for 1966’s Poppies are Also Flowers (a TV movie about heroine smuggling starring Yul Brynner, Omar Shariff, and a host of others). His last Emmy race was for an appearance on Nurse Jackie back in 2010.

Turner Classic Movies will honor Eli Wallach on Monday, June 30, with a marathon that includes Baby Doll, How the West Was Won, The Misfits, and, yes, Kisses for My President.

Additionally, Wallach’s films have been written about in the following posts:

  • “The Ghost Writer or the Riddle of  ‘How Many Best Picture Nominees Does It Take…?’ Part Two” (August 1, 2011)
  • “The Movie Bucket List” (January 1, 2013)
  • “Girlfriends All Over Again” (June 2, 2013)
  • “Myth and Music in the Majestic Old West” (June 22, 2013)

Thanks, Eli…

Wallach at the Internet Movie Database:

Wallach at the Internet Broadway Database:

TCM Marathon

Wallach’s obituary in UT’s The Daily Texan:

Bosley Crowther on Kiss for My President in the New York Times:


The Hightowers of Austin, TX

25 Jun

Well, Michael and I just got back from vacation. For real. We haven’t had a vacation in three years. Two years ago when our plans fell through rather abruptly, I decided multiple viewings of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, set in the picturesque New York countryside, would suffice. When scheduling difficulties and other concerns dictated that we forgo an out of town vacation last summer, I found solace in Agatha Christie’s luxurious Evil Under the Sun in all its sunny Adriatic glory. Exquisite. This year, fortune smiled upon us, and we made plans to visit our state capital, Austin, TX. In some ways our destination was chosen for us. Several weeks ago, maybe as much as two months, I saw a feature on the morning news about a luxury bus service–Vonlane, to be specific–that makes daily trips to and from Austin: huge, comfy seats, plenty of leg room, an attendant, and snacks included. What a kick! Austin looked better and better.

Aside from a brief period in the early 1980s, I’ve lived in Texas for most of life, yet I’ve only been to Austin a total of three times. Once, when I was around 12 or 13, and our family—or what was left of it after the divorce–made a road trip across the state with stops in San Antonio, San Marcos, and Austin. I did not set foot in Austin again until 2006 when I was there to receive a medal I’d earned as a member of Richland’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Incredibly, in spite of my involvement in the Dallas poetry scene for many, many years, I’ve never made the trek to the Austin International Poetry Festival. Tons of my friends and fellow poets–including my own husband–have made that pilgrimage, but not me. No ma’am. I’ve also never felt compelled to venture on down to the annual see-and-be-seen carnival of madness known as South by Southwest. I also don’t care if I never make that trip even though, again, I know plenty of people who have and have loved every minute of it.

So, anyway, there we were in Austin, strolling up and down Congress Avenue, watching from Lady Bird Lake (aka the Guadalupe River) as the bats emerged at dusk from underneath the famed Congress Avenue bridge,  checking out the sights on Sixth Street as well Guadalupe Avenue, and visiting the historic Elisabet Ney museum in the old Hyde Park district. Of course, we made it to the capital building, but that was a site I’d already visited during my previous visits, so it wasn’t a must-see, necessarily. We also spent an afternoon poking around on the University of Texas campus. We’d managed a little time there when I made the trip for the Phi Theta Kappa event because the ceremony was held on the premises. Easy enough. One highlight was spending a few minutes with the magnificent statue of the one and only Barbara Jordan. Anyway, I don’t consider myself an especially morbid person, but curiosity got the best of me, and we made a beeline to the infamous UT tower, the site of the blood curdling 1966 sniper attack that more or less ushered in the era of modern domestic terrorism, that is, if you don’t count the JFK assassination in downtown Dallas.


The original 1-sheet for Nadine, similar to the art work for 1983’s A Christmas Story, appears to be inspired by Norman Rockwell’s classic cover art for an issue of the old Saturday Evening Post. Alas, the DVD artwork is much more generic. Also, the DVD boasts no extra features.


While we were in Austin, we stopped at a used DVD outlet that had a whole Texana section,  focusing specifically on locally filmed features, but the store didn’t stock one of my favorite titles, 1987’s Nadine, from Oscar winning writer-director Robert Benton, starring Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. Born and raised in Waxahachie and schooled at UT before he headed to Columbia University, the director’s most famous works carry traces of his Texas roots, first with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1967’s sensational Bonnie & Clyde, and then again with 1984’s nostalgic and inspirational Places in the Heart, filmed in Waxahachie (Benton’s birthplace), for which he won the Academy’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar–to go along with the pair of Oscars he’d already earned for 1979’s smash adaptation of Kramer vs. Kramer. The more I thought about Benton and Nadine, actually shot on location in Austin,  the more I wondered whether Benton had a far darker sense of humor than even the strangely, sometimes inappropriately, humorous Bonnie & Clyde hinted. See, the two main characters in Benton’s 1987 offering are Nadine and Vernon Hightower. Hightower, get it? As in a sniper high in a tower…in Austin, really?  How did this curious lapse get past Benton and the entirety of the Tri-Star marketing team? What were they thinking, or were they? How much trouble could it have been to change the last name to something banal like Johnson, Connolly, or Briscoe?

Seriously, though, Nadine is actually one of my favorite flicks of 1987 vintage. Oh, it wasn’t anything close to a hit. Per the IMDb, it cost 12 million, not a huge amount for a mainstream film–from a major studio–back in the 80s, but, also per the IMDb, it only earned about half of that domestically. Even so, Nadine performed well enough at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5. It was our kind of movie, and it held up well enough in a summer that also included Stakeout, Adventures in Babysitting, Full Metal Jacket,  La Bamba, and The Big Easy.   True confession: I liked Nadine so much that I sometimes sat through back-to-back showings when I wasn’t working. What’s that you say, back-to-back showings, really? Oh, did I mention that it’s only 87 minutes long?

Set in 1954, Nadine covers a lot of territory in its brief running time: part screwball comedy, with alternately bickering and sweet-talking soon-to-be ex-spouses (that’s a lot of hyphens), and part noir, that is, Texas noir, with twangy colloquialisms,  crooked businessmen, good ole boy bad guys, double and triple crosses, a dead body or two, guns, of course, and rattlesnakes.  Again, all in 87 minutes.  One of my former co-workers, a film major (who has subsequently made quite a name for himself as a TV producer), argued that he couldn’t get into Nadine because it was too simple, almost like a cartoon. Exactly. In its own way it is very much like a live-action cartoon, and I’m good with that, because it’s so tightly constructed. I happen to think Benton’s screenplay is a textbook example of what good screenwriting is, or can be; so much so, that anyone who ever thinks s/he wants to write a screenplay should study it just like, well, it were a textbook.

Not that Benton has written something profound, or even wildly exciting, because he hasn’t, but the lesson for novices is to apply what Benton as screenwriter does in Nadine to almost any story in almost any genre. For example, where does Benton begin his story? Tempting to answer, “At the beginning,” right?  No, Benton starts somewhere near the middle. The first major plot turn–and it’s a doozy–happens about two minutes after the opening credits. Two minutes! Suddenly, with little or no preparation, the audience is right in the middle of the action, and then Benton fills in the particulars gradually, bit by bit, and not via flashbacks either. Instead, the specific details reveal themselves not so much through pages of expository dialogue as through characterization. The dialogue shows as well as it tells, with subtext a-plenty, but the characters generally define themselves by what they do rather than what they say, anyway. Ah yes, that’s also worth noting. Although Benton definitely has a way with dialogue, he also knows how to tell a story visually, which is the hardest thing for young screenwriters to crack. When the characters are sharply developed, and a given scene is properly orchestrated, the writer doesn’t need his/her characters to explain or comment upon what is happening to them in order to advance the story. The audience can read it in all kinds of clues, and this movie is a marvel of that very thing. Sit back and watch how many visual cues just snap into place with little or no verbal accompaniment. One scene in a dinky trailer really spotlights Benton’s gift for visual wit. The surprise isn’t that Benton knows how to perfectly set-up a gag–after all, he’s credited as one of the writers for the uproarious What’s Up Doc?–but that he can do so with three actors occupying such a tight, tight, space.

Though giving the most delightful performance of her career, Basinger never had much hope of earning an Oscar nod for such an insignificant film as Nadine even though she received strong reviews, and in spite of writer-director Robert Benton’s seasoned pedigree, not in a year dominated by the likes of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, and Cher in just about anything. That was also the year that Sally Kirkland funded her own massive campaign for the independently made Anna, and the likes of Barbara Hershey (Shy People), Angelica Huston (The Dead), Christine Lahti (Housekeeping), and Maggie Smith (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn) had to sit it out along with Diane Keaton, renewing her star energy in the commercially successful comedy Baby Boom. Basinger kept plugging away for 10 more years before she finally won Best Supporting Actress for her role as a Veronica Lake lookalike in 1997’s LA Confidential.

Nadine‘s second biggest selling point has to be leading lady, Kim Basinger.  At the time, Basinger was still a smashingly good looking, if somewhat muted, actress looking for a great career-defining role.  She’d done well enough with supporting parts in The Natural (1984) and Blake Edwards’s remake of Truffuat’s The Man Who Loved Women (1983), but Robert Altman’s big screen adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love didn’t generate much heat despite the potentially explosive material and top-notch talent. The icky Blind Date, also from Blake Edwards and co-starring Bruce Willis, in his “official” big screen debut, performed moderately well  in the spring of ’87, that is, well enough for Willis though it did almost nothing to enhance Basinger’s reputation. Nadine provided her a star making opportunity even if the film didn’t quite take-off with the public. Still, what a performance! (Unofficially, Willis had appeared in a handful of movies often as an uncredited extra before making it big in TV’s Moonlighting.)

Nadine is a manicurist in the middle of a divorce who has also just learned that she’s pregnant. She’s pretty certain she can make it without her big talkin’ night-life lovin’ would-be entrepreneur of a husband, but she has other concerns, and when she tries to correct a momentary lapse of judgement, she stumbles into a situation much bigger and much uglier than she could have ever imagined, a veritable stewpot of Chinatown-esque  skulduggery, if you will. That’s when and why she turns to her ex. Really, she just needs for him to perform one little favor, but she can’t afford to let him know that she’s really, well, just using him. At least that’s the way  it seems from the start.

What struck me most about Basinger’s Nadine on first viewing is the way she moves, whether running or walking–briskly. Maybe it’s the period clothes, a flouncy full-skirted dress, a beautifully tailored cinched suit–flamingo colored, no less–or vintage high heels, but her every movements is comical, animated,  just like, yes, a cartoon character. Now, ask yourself how often you notice the way a character  walks in any movie? Do most actors make a point of differentiating their own walk from that of their characters’? Depends on the character,  I guess, especially if s/he has an obvious limp or some other frailty. In this case, Basinger creates a woman in a state of near-constant excitement. She’s frequently agitated, and she can’t stop–kind of like the Energizer Bunny (which this movie predates by two years)–and won’t stop until she gets her life and every component in it back in order. She’s also a quick talker, a quick thinker, and Basinger lets the audience see the wheels turning inside her head, planning the next often desperate move. Then, at other times, she’s fun and flirtatious,  or scared and vulnerable. Again, there’s a lot of character, a lot of emotions, to play at a fairly rapid clip as the story zigs and zags breathlessly from comedy to romance to high stakes chases. By the way, according to most reports, Benton wrote the character with Basinger  specifically in mind. Beautiful. Of course.

door floor 2

Bridges (top) and Basinger (below) reteamed for 2004’s The Door in the Floor, a partial adaptation of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, an incredible piece of filmmaking, much much darker and more realistic than Nadine. In this one, they play a couple, their marriage in shambles after the deaths of their teenaged sons. Even though Bridges never stood much of a chance, he was chatted up as a longshot Best Actor contender by both Entertainment Weekly and USA Today, ultimately earning a Sprit award nomination. Like Nadine this one was far from a hit, but it deserves to be seen. Add it to your queue.

Basinger is not the whole show. She’s matched by Jeff Bridges in the role of Vernon Hightower, the scheming husband, who is quite a bit more than he initially seems. On one hand, Vernon comes across as a fool, a loudmouthed bumbler easily manipulated by his ex. On the other hand, he’s also a hustler, not a great hustler, but he knows enough to stay afloat. As the story progresses, Vernon’s true savvy becomes apparent, and he registers more as a victim of bad timing than as a flat-out schmuck. He definitely isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but he’s smarter than he’s often given credit for being, and it’s obvious that he loves Nadine.  Bridges doesn’t exactly play the straight man to Basinger’s Nadine because he gives as good as he gets in their scenes, but he also knows when to underplay and let Basinger shine; after all, the movie isn’t titled Vernon.

The cast is rounded out by a few veteran aces and at least one right on time newcomer. First, there’s the magnificent Texas native Rip Torn as scummy wheeler-dealer named Buford Pope. No doubt, he’s a deadly serious business man who gets what he wants most of the time, but when he’s pitted against Nadine and Vernon, well, he’s more like Wile E. Coyote and just can’t catch a break. Torn plays the crafty scalawag beautifully and as only he can. At the time, he was enjoying a career resurgence thanks to an Oscar nominated turn as one of Cross Creek‘s most colorful locals–that and a bodacious turn in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter (1984) starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Also along for the ride are Gwen Verdon, as the motherly proprietor of the beauty shop where Nadine works, and Jerry Stiller, a grizzled photographer who has seen a lot of action. It’s only a brief bit, but Stiller nails it. Character actor Jay Patterson shows up for a few scenes as Vernon’s equally enterprising cousin.  Patterson does marvelous work, deftly spinning corny–almost immature–lines into pure comic gold, and he manages to not look like too much of a buffoon when playing a scene in his underwear and socks. The find in all of this is actress Glenne Headly in a breakthrough role as Vernon’s latest squeeze Renée Lomax, a former beauty queen with a bit of a Marilyn Monroe affectation and, most importantly for Vernon, connections in the beer biz. Headly only has three scenes, but she seizes each and every one, taking no prisoners as Lomax bares her heart and soul with full abandon. It’s a sharp, sharp performance that screams, or screamed, for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Trust me. Writing in the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby praised all of the performances, “especially” Basinger and Bridges but also Torn, Headly, and Stiller. Of course, Benton deserves some credit for the great performances; after all, he guided three Oscar winners: Sally Field (Places in the Heart), Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer), and Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer), not to mention a few more contenders, such as Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool, 1994).


Broadway regular William Youmans appears briefly in Nadine as Vernon’s accordion playing barkeep, Boyd. They have one of the funniest exchanges in the film: Youmans has only a smattering of film and TV credits, including another small role as a smirking clerk at a sleazy hotel motel in 1985’s Compromising Positions. His Broadway credits include Titanic and Wicked. I was super surprised to see him as Prior Walter in the Dallas Theatre Center’s production of Angels in America: Perestroika in 1996.

One thing missing from Nadine is Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” which would seem like a perfect fit even though, technically, Berry’s tune wasn’t recorded until the early 1960s. At the same time, Benton has already cheated ever so slightly in the music department because there are almost no 1950s hit songs to be heard anywhere in the movie. I know Renée Lomax listens to Lefty Frizzel’s  “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” on her car radio, but that’s about the most of it; however, and this is the cheating part, Benton relies heavily on the music of California-tinged country duo, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, that is, sisters Janis and Kristine Oliver (at the time, Janis was known as Janis Gill, then wife of emerging country superstar Vince Gill). Their sound brings to mind the deft harmonies and country infused pop of the Everly Brothers in their heyday, so the effect works in context. The women’s infectiously upbeat “Since I Found You” plays over the opening credits, and then the gorgeously slowed-down “I Can’t Resist” adds the perfect, longing touch to a tender, beautifully played late night scene between Nadine and Vernon. Here again, Benton reveals himself as the total filmmaker. Not only does he know how to draw the best from his performers, he’s also smart enough to not get too fancy with the camera, and he understands how to use music to tie the whole thing together. A third Sweethearts of the Rodeo tune, “Midnight Town/Sunset Girl” plays in the background of a scene set in Vernon’s two-bit lounge.

Benton and his team do a wonderful job with the period details, including a well-placed bottle of Evening in Paris perfume in classic cobalt blue on Nadine’s dressing table. Mercifully, the movie doesn’t seem over-designed. None of it looks too studied, too pristine, to be believable. Benton also includes dutiful classic noir elements, such as rain-slick streets and neon signs. In one scene, Nadine is framed against Venetian blinds in a darkened room, another noir signifier, the only source of light being the glow of red neon just outside the window.

Well, that just about does it. It’s only 87 minutes, so how much more can I possibly write? Twenty-seven years later,  and Benton has only made a smattering of films since then, and even fewer good ones, one possible highlight being 1998’s Twilight, starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman, along with James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and M. Emmett Walsh. 2003’s The Human Stain, adapted from a Philip Roth novel,  qualifies as a low-point though it helped launch the career of charismatic Wentworth Miller. To be fair, Benton is approaching his eighty-second birthday, so I guess that’s one reason why his output has decreased over the past two, almost three, decades. Meanwhile, Bridges, never the most commercial of actors in spite of a number of high-profile hits, has honed his craft in a wide variety of projects, including fan favorite The Big Lebowski along with The Contender, in which he played the President of the United States and netted a fourth Oscar nod. As far as the Academy goes, Bridges finally hit paydirt with 2009’s Crazy Heart–for me, an inferior retread of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning Tender Mercies–for which he won Best Actor, followed a year later by an Oscar nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn (the role for which John Wayne was finally lionized by the Academy) in the Coens’ startling True Grit reboot. Basinger, currently seen in Paul Haggis’s Third Person, continues to work though, like many actresses over 40, the trick is to find challenging roles in quality films that people actually want to see. She played Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile and First Lady in The Sentinel, top-lined by Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland. On the other hand, Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain spotlighted three amazing actresses, the other two being Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence (but TV’s The Mermaid Chair strained for greatness). Still, Basinger made a huge impression as a celebrity look-alike escort in 1997’s LA Confidential, securing Best Supporting Actress honors in her first Oscar race. At the time, award winning scribe William Goldman [*] gushed, “By the way, she is just splendid in the part, her best work since Nadine” (239).  Right, William?

Thanks for your consideration…

PS: Keep Austin weird.


Goldman, William. The Big Picture: “Who Killed Hollywood?” and Other Essays. New York: Applause, 2000.

Vincent Canby’s review of Nadine in the New York Times:

Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor as one of the 2004/05 Oscar longshots per USA Today:

* – Goldman won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Best Adapted Screenplay honors for All the President’s Men (1976). He also adapted both Magic (1978) and The Princess Bride (1987) from his own novels. His other credits include screenplays for Harper (1966), The Stepford Wives (1975),  Marathon Man (1976) and Misery (1990).




Goodbye, Ruby Dee…

15 Jun

Ruby Dee at the 2007/2008 Screen Actors Guild, the year in which she won for her supporting performance in American Gangster.

The indomitable Ruby Dee died this past week, June 11, at the age of 91. Funny thing, I didn’t see that much coverage in the major news outlets, not really.  Oh, I read a headline late one night, but I don’t remember seeing anything on the next day’s morning news shows.  Maybe I missed it. I’ve had a hectic week; however, I do remember what seemed like wall-to-wall coverage a week or so earlier when poet-activist Maya Angelou passed away and then again when venerable TV actress Ann B. Davis died as well.

Coincidentally, I had just been thinking about Ruby Dee a few days earlier as I watched last Sunday’s Tony awards presentation, and London born Sophie Okonedo, Oscar nominated for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, snared Best Featured Actress in a play honors for her performance as Ruth Younger, wife of scheming Walter Lee Younger, in the acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun. Of course, Dee portrayed Ruth Younger in the original stage production back in 1959, the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway, and then later in the 1961 film version, for which she won Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review. I’m pretty sure that I first saw Dee in Raisin when it first aired on TV, and then I saw her again, again, and again as she forged an impressive career that actually began well before her work with Hansberry.


Ruby Dee recreating her stage role as Ruth Younger in the film version of Raisin in the Sun, for which the National Board of Review hailed her as the year’s Best Supporting Actress.

Dee’s IMDb profile boasts a staggering 111 acting credits, including playing Rae Robinson in a 1950 film based on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson–with no less than Robinson actually portraying himself (more than six decades before last spring’s hit 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Behari as Rae/Rachel).  Dee also made her mark in the long running daytime drama The Guiding Light as well as prime time’s  phenomenally popular Peyton Place in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, She co-hosted a PBS series with her husband of 50+ years–and fellow Civil Rights actvist–Ossie Davis, who passed away in 2005.  She once had a guest-starring role on The Golden Girls, playing a much cherished yet misunderstood  character from Blanche’s childhood. She played iconic Mary Tyrone in a 1982 tele-adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for which she won a Cable ACE award (a big deal at the time as cable TV was all but ignored by Emmy voters).  When it comes to Emmy awards, well, Dee made quite an impression there as well, logging six Primetime nominations, including one for a stint on Evening Shade (on which Davis worked as a cast member) and one win, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for Decoration Day (1990); furthermore, she garnered three more Emmy nods for her work in daytime television. Whew!  That’s a lot.

Dee was a frequent NAACP Image award honoree. As recently as 2010 she was nominated for the TV movie America. She earned a total of eight Image nominations, including the fact-based Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1999), co-starring Diahann Carroll. She won twice, for the series Promised Land and for  Spike Lee’s hit, Do the Right Thing; she later appeared, to devastating results, in Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever–as the mother of Wesley Snipes as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s  unstrung crack addict, Gator. Additionally, Dee was inducted into the Image Hall of Fame along with Davis in 1989 and won the President’s Award in 2008, the same year she was nominated for American Gangster.


Ruby Dee in 2007’s American Gangster, her sole Oscar nominated role as the mother of the real life drug lord played by Denzel Washington.

Ah, American Gangster. The 2007 epic docudrama based on the exploits of drug smuggler Frank Lucas. The movie starred Denzel Washington as Lucas opposite Russell Crowe as New Jersey based law enforcer Richie Roberts. No matter those two megawatt stars, Dee stole the show as Lucas’s mother and earned her only Oscar nomination–seven years after sharing with Davis a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Indeed, for her work in American Gangster, Dee actually won her only competitive SAG Award: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. She was 85 at the time, and only 5’2″, but no worse for wear as she hauled off and slapped Washington in what for me was the overblown movie’s best scene. By Oscar week, Dee seemed neck-and-neck-and-neck in a tight three way race for the gold that included Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)–not to mention gender bending Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and thirteen year old Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. Talk about spanning the gamut right? An 85 year old and a 13 year year old in the same category? At any rate, Swinton’s name was called when the contents of the coveted envelope were revealed at last.  Dee lost the Oscar, true, but it wasn’t a total defeat as she continued to work in acclaimed projects for the next several years.

Her many other accolades include the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of the Arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts; she shared both honors with Davis. Looking back, Dee never delivered a stirring poem at a presidential inauguration or wrote a literary classic like Angelou did, but she still made her mark as an activist for change. A whole column could be devoted to her work on behalf of justice and civil rights; likewise, as much as I loved the late Ann B. Davis, both as the ever dependable housekeeper Alice on The Brady Bunch or in her Emmy winning role as sidekick Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show, I think Dee’s acting accomplishments inspire ever greater awe. Whether with Ossie Davis or on her own, Dee’s hard work, devotion to excellence, and indefatigable spirit, led her to the heights of American acting royalty, a true jewel in the crown.

Thanks, Ruby….

Ruby Dee at the Internet Movie Database:

Bosley Crowther reviews The Jackie Robinson Story in the New York Times, May 17, 1950:


On Golden Fonda

10 Jun

I’m rushing to complete this piece before TNT airs Jane Fonda’s American Film Institute Life Achievement Award celebration sometime this month; the tribute was taped less than a week ago. I’ll probably skip the TV program. Oh, I’ve watched these annual shindigs from time to time going all the way back to the 70s when Bette Davis, James Cagney, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock were honored, but for some reason the last several tributes have seemed extremely edited, to force the fun factor, and that bothers me. Besides, I don’t need the AFI, necessarily, to remind me how much I love the films of Jane Fonda or to help me remember my favorites.

When I was a wee thing, I thought Jane Fonda too gorgeous for words. Truthfully, if I saw any of her movies at that time, it would have likely been Barefoot in the Park (1967), co-starring the equally and improbably gorgeous Robert Redford; the two later reteamed for 1979’s smash The Electric Horseman (directed by Sydney Pollack), but I digress. No, mostly I recall seeing pictures of Fonda in my mother’s movie magazines, Modern Screen, Photoplay, etc. Based on what I’d heard, I imagined that she ran around naked in most of her films, mostly Barbarella. Then, she cut her hair, apparently dyed it black, and protested the war–to put it mildly. I didn’t know what to think about all that, but I was still a child, only 11 or 12. I didn’t understand the full implications of her actions, but I also didn’t want my older brother to be drafted, yet I also wanted America “to win,” so I was more confused than anything else. Fonda won the Oscar for Klute during that period, coincidentally my first time to make it through the Academy Awards from start to finish. I outlasted everyone else in the house. The French Connection won Best Picture, btw. Still, I somehow knew that Fonda played a prostitute in Klute, thereby further fostering the notion that she probably appeared nude in most of her films.

This column is not for Fonda haters. Politically, she and I probably have a lot in common. but that’s not to say that I agree with, or follow, her every move. It’s easy to write her off as a bit of a dilettante, given that she was raised second generation Hollywood and has had a tendency to attach herself to powerful charismatic men; however, she’s also a damned fine actress, and while actresses of her caliber are still doing their gosh-darnedest to create meaningful work, I think almost none of today’s top tier stars use their star power in quite the same way that Fonda did at her peak in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s. Not only is she a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress, with five additional acting nominations, she also made her mark as an astute movie producer whose credits include such smash hits as Nine to Five and On Golden Pond though to clarify, she almost never received screen credit on the films she developed with ally and business partner Bruce Gilbert through IPC films–though we’ll get to that. Right now, these are my reminisces of a lifetime of movies starring the one and only Jane Fonda.


Left to right: Lee Marvin, Jane Fonda, and Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, the movie that announced Jane Fonda as a star in the making.

Cat Ballou (1965): Fonda plays the title character in the mid 1960s western romp, but Lee Marvin won all the accolades, including the Oscar for Best Actor, in dual roles. Legend has it that Ann-Margret was actually the first choice for the role of the would-be school marm turned would-be outlaw. The story goes that Margret’s agent turned down the offer without notifying his client first [*]. Yikes! Fonda was on her way.



Jane Fonda as Barbarella. Who looks like this in real-life? No one.

Barbarella  (1968): Fonda and her then husband, French film director Roger Vadim, teamed up for this far-flung futuristic sex farce based on a comic strip. Though reportedly more scandalous than profitable in its time, it has nonetheless influenced a host of filmmakers, as well as 1980s pop-superstars Duran Duran, and once upon a time no less than Drew Barrymore threatened to star in a remake. Thank god that never happened though Britney Spears clearly jumped at the chance in her video for “Oops! I Did It Again.” I caught up with Barbarella years and years ago at the old Granada theatre, and it had not aged well. Whatever the film’s weaknesses, Fonda is not one of them. She’s the very definition of eye-candy, and the opening credits are a hoot.



Besides earning an Oscar nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonda was also named the year’s Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  (1969): A year after Barbarella, Fonda and Vadim were on the skids, and the spaced-out sex kitten reinvented herself as a serious actress of the highest order in Sydney Pollack’s searing look at the desperate participants in a grueling Depression-era dance marathon. Fonda earned her first Oscar nomination, losing–not entirely undeservedly–to the great Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Affable long-time character actor Gig Young took the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his audacious turn as the crass, cruel emcee. The Academy also nominated supporting actress Susannah York and director Pollack. Indeed, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, besides having one of the most iconic movie titles of all time, also holds the distinction of being nominated for more Oscars, nine, without also competing for Best Picture. It was, in fact, the most nominated film during the 1969/70 race with the top award going to Midnight Cowboy. The cast  also includes Michael Sarrazin, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons, and Al Lewis.  I saw this unrelentingly harsh movie the first time it aired on network television and have never cared to revisit it since then even with that stellar cast.


Fonda (l) and Sutherland (r) not only co-starred in Klute, they jointly campaigned against the war. Sutherland escorted Fonda to the ceremony the night she won her Oscar. The two later reteamed for Steelyard Blues.

Klute (1971):  Fonda took home the 1971 Best Actress Oscar for her, for the times, surprisingly frank portrayal of call-girl Bree Daniels in this Alan J. Pakula thriller starring Donald Sutherland as the title character, a detective investigating the disappearance of a male executive with possible ties to Fonda’s character. The critics and the Academy went bonkers for Fonda in this film, especially as she worked hard to make her character a complex, fully dimensional human being rather than the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold depicted in many films, but  after a number of viewings through the decades, I remain a tad unconvinced that the performance is all that though I have misgivings about the film in general.  I understand that her matter-of-fact take had just enough of an edge to make an impact.  I still prefer Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), which I’ve also seen several times, or Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots).

Fonda as Lillian Hellman

^ Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia. To put it kindly, the real-life Hellman didn’t possess Fonda’s movie star good looks. Indeed, the two women bear almost no resemblance. If Julia were made today, I’m afraid there would be a pronounced effort to make the actress look more like the real deal, a feat that would probably involve prosthetics, but I applaud Fonda for eschewing such gimmicks as they often distract from rather than enhance a performance, a characterization.

Julia (1977): The years immediately following Klute were lean for Fonda as her activism alienated her from both mainstream audiences and the Hollywood corporate power structure tthough she jumped at the chance to work with George Cukor on the U.S. – Russia ill-fated remake of The Bluebird. In the spring of 1977 she caught a break when the dark comedy Fun with Dick and Jane, co-starring George Segal along with Ed McMahon, turned into a surprise hit. In the fall, her comeback at 39-going-on-40 was seemingly complete as she commanded the screen as “scrappy” playwright Lillian Hellman in Julia, based on a remembrance, long disputed, of Hellman’s to-the-manor-born childhood friend who later used her inheritance as a member of the European resistance. In this tantalizing puzzle of a tale, taken from the intriguingly entitled memoir Pentimento, Hellman, a Jewish playwright making her mark with The Children’s Hour while duking it out with mentor and sometime lover Dashiell Hammett, embarks on a tense journey to smuggle money into Berlin and reunite with her long cherished friend. The movie opened in the fall of 1977 though I didn’t catch up with it until weeks, if not days, prior to the 1977/78 Oscars when it had shifted its run from the old GCC NorthPark to the historic Highland Park Village, and I have to say it was the most important moviegoing event of my life up to that point–and, keep in mind, I’d seen Star Wars the first week it opened in May of ’77. Certainly, the European flourishes and period decor of the theatre contributed to the ambience. At any rate, I loved everything about  Julia, including the incredible true story–as we were led to believe at the time–along with the European locales, the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the breathtakingly composed opening shot, the stunning score by Georges Delerue, the luxe period costumes by Anthea Sylbert, and, of course, the righteous performances of Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave (seen mostly in flashbacks as the glorious title character), Jason Robards Jr. (as Hammett), and Maximilian Schell (particularly good as the enigmatic emissary known as Mr. Johann). Fonda nabbed another Academy nod for playing a woman with tremendous gumption in spite of herself, but her generosity with other actors was becoming apparent as Redgrave and Robards both won golden statuettes–it was Robards’ second consecutive win–and Schell yielded an additional nomination. As much as I love Diane Keaton, my heart broke when Fonda lost the Oscar to the  Annie Hall star. I’d never experienced anything as emotionally nuanced as the big reunion scene between Lillian and Julia in a Berlin cafe. I was willing putty in the hands of two highly skilled thespians, and it felt like heaven. I didn’t react nearly as strongly to Annie Hall, so, yes, Fonda’s loss broke my heart; however,  it would not stay broken for long.


In the fall of 1977, Newsweek deemed Fonda and Julia worthy of a cover story: “Hollywood’s New Heroines.” Indeed, it was a heady time for actresses as earlier the same year, the same magazine featured no less than Sissy Spacek (below) just as she was being feted by the Academy for Carrie and co-starring with Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule in Robert Altman’s 3 Women.  Duvall later tied for Best Actress at that year’s Cannes fest and would have likely figured in the Oscar race in a less competitive year. How competitive was it? Well, all five of that year’s Best Actress nominees starred in Best Picture finalists: Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point, Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, and Fonda; moreover, The Turning Point and Julia went into the final stretch as the frontrunners with 11 nominations each, including Best Picture and Best Director. (Julia was directed by legendary Fred Zinneman, already a two-time winner for From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons [1].) Star Wars was next with 10 nods. [<The three most nominated films, btw, were all released by 20th Century Fox, clearly having a banner year.] The list of failed Best Actress possibilities from that race includes not only Duvall and Spacek but also Liza Minelli (New York, New York), Kathleen Quinlan (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden),  Gena Rowlands (Opening Night), and Lily Tomlin (The Late Show), all of whom were Globe nominated. That was also the year that Keaton dazzled critics in the steamy big screen adaptation of  Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner’s sensational novel about a doomed thrill-seeker amid New York City’s ever adventurous swingle scene. Cases could be made for a few other sterling performances in films that were relatively obscure or otherwise indifferently received, but you get the gist.


Spacek Newsweek

^ When Sissy Spacek appeared on the cover of Newsweek in the spring of ’77, she was basking in the glow of her Oscar nod for Carrie and earning raves for both Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to LA. She hosted SNL, portraying no less than Amy Carter, around the same time.





Jane Fonda (r) gave Jon Voight (l) the role of a lifetime in Coming Home. I was thrilled by his Oscar victory and don’t think he’s ever been better. I’d still rank it among my top five leading male performances. Easily. With the possible exceptions of Harold and Maude–also directed by Coming Home’s Hal Ashby–and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I have probably paid to see this one in theatres more times than I have any other movie.

Coming Home (1978): With this earnest tale of Vietnam veterans learning to cope in a politically charged climate, Fonda moved from onscreen talent to behind the scenes mover-and-shaker as she co-produced the film with partner Bruce Gilbert.  At the time, many Americans who either fought in the war or lost loved ones during the fight, criticized Fonda for being a hypocrite given the militancy in which she had previously attacked the war and anyone connected to it, but the film actually shows a great deal of compassion for the soldiers who sacrificed some of their humanity while fighting a senseless and unpopular war. Of course, it’s always been easy to dismiss Coming Home, as well, as an icky love triangle in which an affection starved woman finds sexual happiness from a seemingly incapacitated pacifist (Jon Voight) rather than an overwound gung-ho soldier (Bruce Dern), and, yes, I guess that claim is hard to dismiss, but I also think there’s lots of other stuff to praise, mostly the believable, nuanced performances, and the compassion the filmmakers show for the vets. To clarify, many of the patients at the VA hospital are actually played by real-life veterans, and, per the DVD,  they improvised their dialogue in key scenes. The movie competed against, among others, writer-director Michael Cimino’s macho-fueled, operatic Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter for Oscar’s top prize though Fonda and Voight claimed top honors for Best Actress and Best Actor respectively. Voight also won the Cannes Best Actor prize; meanwhile, Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford, as a woman Fonda befriends at the VA hospital, welcomed nods in the supporting acting categories [2]. Oddly, Fonda is absent from the DVD commentary though Voight, Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler contribute. The movie clocks-in at #78 on the AFI countdown of the 100 greatest love stories.

California Suite

1978 was a heck of a year for Jane Fonda. Besides starring in Coming Home, she also appeared in Herbert Ross’s star-studded adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite, featuring Oscar winner Maggie Smith (lower right). Fonda also teamed with James Caan and Jason Robards in Comes a Horseman, directed by Alan J. Pakula, which also boasted an Oscar nominated supporting performance by Richard Farnsworth. Oh, and please note: though photographic evidence is scant, Fonda wore the same gown to accept her Coming Home Oscar that she’d worn the year before when she was up for Julia. That was the 1970s; no actress would consider doing the same today.



Left to right: Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and the reactor towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Philadelphia. The China Syndrome, written and directed by the late James Bridges, earned four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Lemmon, who also scored the top acting honors at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

The China Syndrome (1979): This suspenseful, nuclear power cautionary tale opened on Friday, March 16, 1979. I saw it the following Monday, March 19, at one of the GCC NorthPark theaters, either the I & II near the mall, or III  & IV across the expressway. My gut tells me the latter, but more than 30 years later, it’s no longer crystal clear. Plus, that’s not even the real story. No, the real story unfolded on March 28, 1979, when one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Philadelphia suffered a partial meltdown and made headlines and cover stories all across the map. In an instant, Fonda found herself with the most relevant movie of the year, and all of us who’d already seen it could barely, well, contain ourselves. Naturally, I had to take a second and third look in the Three Mile Island aftermath. Fonda plays a flame-haired TV reporter, a throwback to the vintage Brenda Starr comic strip, who’s often assigned fluff stories but stumbles upon a cover-up at a plant outside of Los Angeles. Her eager cameraman is played by Michael Douglas, who also shares producer credit. The trio is rounded out by Jack Lemmon as a plant supervisor who knows more than he cares to admit. The whole thing just builds and builds to a shocking climax, and Fonda’s Kimberly Wells serves as the audience’s surrogate along the way. On one hand, the actress seems to be repeating herself by playing a naive woman whose consciousness is raised. On the other hand, the characters are otherwise night and day, and Fonda works hard to make Wells unique. Unsurprisingly, she earned her third consecutive Best Actress Oscar nod, also unsurprisingly losing to Sally Field in Norma Rae (a role that Fonda might have played under other circumstances) in a race that also included Bette Midler’s powerhouse debut in The Rose. The China Syndrome appears on the AFI’s list of greatest thrillers, weighing in at #94.

9 to 5

My first manager at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5 kept scrupulous records regarding box office performance for all the films we played. Throughout the years, even as ticket prices rose and big budget blockbusters such as Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, Top Gun, and Batman grew increasingly popular, Nine to Five‘s original numbers continued to hold as one of our best house performers not only for ticket sales but also for longest runs, measured in weeks.

Nine to Five (1980): Not the funniest ever made, but a lot of fun, and a huge, huge, hit. Fonda’s business savvy is evident all over this offering about sexism and office politics as three capable yet undervalued secretarial workers unite against macho-fueled corporate tyranny. Fonda and company [3] shine light on the very real disparity between men and women in the workplace, an issue not entirely resolved today but especially noteworthy at the time, yet the message is cloaked in a more than generous dollop of humor. See? Nine to Five has a message, but it’s also an office comedy; likewise, The China Syndrome works as a suspense flick, and Coming Home tells a moving, complex love story. Fonda remembers her audience as well as her purpose. In this one, she portrays a prim divorcee trying dutifully to fit-in with her more seasoned co-workers, and she’s a constant delight as her straight-laced “Judy” learns to roll with the punches though more often later rather than sooner. Of course, in Nine to Five she’s aided immeasurably, once again, by her ability to cast the right people. In this case, Lily Tomlin as the sensible widow with children who’s continually passed over for promotions, and  Dolly Parton, in her film debut as a cute, curvaceous, and plainspoken secretary constantly fighting her boss’s sexual advances. (Give credit to Dabney Coleman for making the most of the women’s boss, “a sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical bigot”; to his credit he understood who the stars of the movie were and didn’t get in their way.) The DVD commentary is a real treat as the three stars are reunited, and their affection for one another is most apparent.  Of course, Parton didn’t just act in the film, she wrote the catchy title tune which, let’s face it, has become a workforce anthem. Parton nabbed an Oscar nod for the tune. She also scored a handful of Globe nominations: Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy; Best Newcomer, and, yes, Best Song. She lost the song award to the ubiquitous “Fame” (from the movie of the same name). Parton went on to snare a pair of Grammy awards as well as a People’s Choice award for her track. Nine to Five is an AFI fave as it ranks #74 on its roster of funniest comedies while Parton’s ditty comes in at #78 on the organization’s list of greatest movie songs [4].


Jane Fonda In 'Nine To Five'

Jane Fonda in Nine to Five and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie: practically separated at birth. Same curly hairdo, similar glasses, and fussy wardrobe.





Clockwise from left: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda filming On Golden Pond. Not only did Mr. Fonda earn an Oscar, at last, Ms. Hepburn won an unprecedented 4th Best Actress Oscar for her work as the sage who must manage both husband/father and daughter. Though deceased for many years, Hepburn remains the Academy’s sole four-time performance winner. Meanwhile, Jane earned her only Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the film, which included mastering a tricky backward flip into the water. At the same time audiences were flocking to On Golden Pond, Jane was also starring in Rollover, IPC’s second seasonal offering, opposite Kris Kristofferson.

On Golden Pond (1981):  Arguably Fonda’s most personable film as it presented the opportunity for her to appear onscreen with her dad, screen icon Henry Fonda. The actress-producer and her partner purchased Ernest Thompson’s play about an aging couple’s annual summer retreat,  and a final attempt for their grown daughter–with a son of her own–to work through longtime conflicts with her ornery, distant dad.  Though some critics complained that the resulting effort was just a tad too sweet, the public gobbled it up, going back again and again and making it one of 1981’s top tier hits though it technically made most of its money in early 1982. At Oscar time, it garnered 10 nods [5], including Best Picture and Best Director (Mark Rydell), placing second only to Warren Beatty’s epic Reds which led the pack with 12. Ultimately, Chariots of Fire pulled a Best Picture upset. Incredibly, in spite of being one of America’s most beloved actors, Henry Fonda had only been twice nominated by the Academy at that point: for playing Tom Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, and for co-producing 1957’s Best Picture candidate Twelve Angry Men, in which he also starred. A year prior to On Golden Pond, Mr. Fonda had been honored with an honorary Oscar for his body of work; however, with his daughter’s vision, he found the perfect valedictory role and won a competitive Oscar at last. Alas, Mr. Fonda’s health was in rapid decline, and he was unable to attend the 1981/82 ceremony. Jane accepted the award for him. He passed away in August of 1982 at the age of 77. The AFI has singled this one out multiple times, including the enduring romance between the characters enacted by Mr. Fonda and Ms. Hepburn (100 Years…100 Passions) and the inspirational message of the film as a whole (100 Years…100 Cheers).

The Dollmaker

By the mid 1980s, Fonda had established herself as a fitness guru with a bestselling lines of books, workout videos, etc. Amid her busy schedule, she starred in, and co-produced, the Emmy winning TV movie The Dollmaker (1984), in which he portrayed a 1940s era Appalachian woman transplanted to Detroit, so her husband can find work.



Agnes of God (1985): No Fonda Oscar nod for this one, nor did she produce it, but she still gives a compelling performance in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of John Pielmeier’s successful play about a court appointed psychiatrist investigating a novice who claims she gave birth to a dead baby after an immaculate conception. Though Fonda did not find favor with the Academy for this one, she shares the screen with no less than Anne Bancroft (l) and Meg Tilly (r), both of whom did make the Academy’s short list: Bancroft for playing the formidable Mother Superior who clashes repeatedly with Fonda, and Tilly, sublime, as the troubled novice. Geraldine Page took the Best Actress Oscar that year for The Trip to Bountiful while Angelica Huston nabbed supporting actress honors for her wicked, wicked Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor.


Fonda lost her last bid for Oscar glory to newcomer Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) in a race that also included Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart), Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married), and Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), who was actually my first pick, followed by Turner. I would have given Fonda’s nod to either Jessica Lange (also Crimes of the Heart), Helena Bonham Carter (either A Room with a View or Lady Jane), or Julie Andrews, doing exceptional work as a violinist with multiple sclerosis in the adaptation of Duet for One.

The Morning After (1986): This Sidney Lumet mystery signals Fonda’s last Oscar nomination, a nod I’ve always felt was, well, generous. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Fonda demonstrates in scene after scene that she is more than capable of emoting–as if none of us knew that already–but I also think she’s somehow miscast. Simply, she doesn’t look like the boozy, washed-up, movie actress that the script keeps saying she is, the next big thing that never was. Mainly, she just looks like she’s acting. A lot. Personally, and for reasons that might not be easily explained, I’ve always thought the role would have been better served by Angie Dickinson–and that’s not an insult to Dickinson. I just think she had a worldly lived-in glamour that robust Fonda–at the peak of her fitness empire–lacked. Plus, Dickinson deserved a meaty role at that point in her career; however, this was yet again a feature that Fonda developed with her partner, so mine is a moot consideration. Dickinson or any other actress never stood a chance. The movie opens promisingly enough as Fonda’s hot mess of a character wakes up next to a dead body, a stabbing victim, in a strange loft. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well as a mystery because there aren’t enough suspects to make the story compelling, and the “reveal” seems tacked on almost as an afterthought. Still, Lumet provides a visually interesting tour of sunny LA, a novelty for the famously east coast based director. Fonda’s co-stars include Jeff Bridges and Raul Julia.


Still a knockout, Fonda easily topped my 2012/13 Oscar’s “Best Dressed” list.

After The Morning After, Fonda completed the overblown, if entertaining, Old Gringo (1989) with Jimmy Smits and Gregory Peck–the latter as no less than fabled writer Ambrose Bierce. From there, she filmed Stanley and Iris (1990) with Robert DeNiro, and then she took a decade-plus break from movies during her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner. She made a comeback with Monster-in-Law, opposite Jennifer Lopez, in 2005 and even copped a Golden Globe nod. She also published her memoirs to considerable acclaim. Since then, she has triumphed on Broadway in 33 Variations, enjoyed a recurring role on Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom,  and appeared–briefly–as Nancy Reagan in last year’s White House based hit, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. She and Tomlin are prepping a new series for Netflix. I’m glad she came out of retirement and continues to find interesting projects. It’s crazy to me that she’s only three years younger than my mother and about the same age that her father was when he passed away. Amazing. I can hardly wait to see what she does next. Maybe I’ll watch the AFI telecast after all.

Thanks, Jane…

TNT airs the AFI tribute to Jane Fonda on Saturday, June 14, 2014. Check your listings for times.

Jane Fonda Walk on the[*] This alleged twist of fate involving Fonda, Ann-Margret, and Cat Ballou might only be the stuff of legend though it is reported on the IMDb as well as in Ann-Margret’s autobiography (p. 89 in my long cherished paperback copy). Anyway, we just have to take Margret’s word for it. I don’t remember reading anything about it Fonda’s book. I will say that I can imagine it happening since during that era, the mid 1960s,  Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, and, say, Tuesday Weld loomed large as saucy starlets who could play darling ingenues one minute and then sex it up for a walk on the wild side–the title of one of Fonda’s films–the next. Btw: Per Margret, her agent signed her up for Kitten with a Whip after turning down Cat Ballou.

[1] Writer Alvin Sargant won the first of his two Oscars for his Julia screenplay; he won again for 19890’s Ordinary People, adapted from Judith Guest’s best-selling novel.

[2] The trio of Nancy Dowd, Walso Salt, and Robert C. Jones won Oscars for the Coming Home screenplay; technically, Salt and Jones received final credit for reworking Dowd’s original treatment.  Salt, who also won for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy (starring Jon Voight), has since been memorialized with an annual screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival named in his honor. Actress/writer/director/producer Lake Bell won that honor in 2013 for her wrly amusing In a World.

[3] “and company” includes, among others, director and co-writer Colin Higgins along with co-writer Patricia Resnick. Higgins famously wrote Harold & Maude, which was directed by the previously mentioned Hal Ashby, also of Coming Home. Higgins would later direct Parton in the rousing Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

[4] Nine to Five‘s legacy includes two TV spin-offs, one on ABC and the other syndicated, both of them featuring Rachel Denison, Parton’s younger sister, as Doralee. The show also spawned a short-lived Broadway musical featuring songs by Parton and a cast that included Tony nominee Alison Janney in the Tomlin role.

[5] Thompson won an Oscar for adapting his own play.