July 1, 2009

They are the last of my old time friends

There's this moment in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous where Kate Hudson's Penny Lane is drunk and overdosing on Quaaludes in a hotel suite in Manhattan, depressed over being dumped by Stillwater guitarist, Russell, and Patrick Fugit's character comes in to rescue her (and to also proclaim his undying love for her) and she says wistfully, sadly: "You're the last of my old time friends." And then she goes on to tell him where all the other band aids and roadies from the Stillwater tour -- her friends -- have gone. Everyone has left her -- everyone except Fugit's character, William Miller.

With the passing of Karl Malden today, I'm feeling a lot like Penny Lane.

Did you know that today is Olivia De Havilland's birthday? And that she's 93?! Her sister, Joan Fontaine, is still alive too, thank God, but I'm beginning to feel like they (and a few others, a small few) are the last of my old time friends. I was just talking with a family friend the other day about how so many of these great stars are passing away. We both mused, sadly, that when these old actors and movie people pass away, the culture and our country loses a connection with its history and we both felt it as a great loss. And then, today, I find Karl Malden has died.

I also got to thinking about how the WWII era in general is now dying away. My grandparents have lost many, if not most, of their old friends. It's sad for them, I know, to lose the people they care about. And it's sad for me as well, because I can't help mourning the loss of a generation I feel more connected to than even my own messed-up Gen X/Millenial generation. My grandparents always said I was born in the wrong era.

I guess it says everything you need to know about who I am that I feel the loss of Karl Malden more than I do that of Michael Jackson. One, a bulbous-faced character actor who had his most famous roles some forty to sixty years ago; the other a man who was arguably the most popular entertainer of my lifetime (me born: 1981). But while Michael's passing is tragic and unsettling and I certainly feel bad for his family and fans (let's leave out what I think of the pedophile stuff -- the guy had a life of terrible suffering and confusion and I hope he finds some peace in death he couldn't find here in life), it's Malden's passing that hits me right in the gut.

It's not because he died too soon, obviously. The guy lived to be 97 (!) -- that's as good a run as anyone can hope for, God bless him. So, it's not upsetting because of that. It's just that, again, he's one of the last of an era. With him goes a part of our once-great culture. With him goes a part of a great generation -- a great generation that many people my own age are forsaking as "irrelevant" and "boring." He was one of the last old time friends and now we who love those old days and old stars have one less person to cherish on this earth. We can only hope and pray to see him in the next life.

The first time I loved Karl Malden was when I was around thirteen or fourteen years old and watched 1962's Gypsy on television late into the night. It was 2 a.m. on a school night and I should have been in bed, but the movie kept me riveted. It was probably the whole pack-up-and-move-to-New-York-and-go-into-show-business-and-be-a-star! spirit of the thing, with Mama Rose doing everything she could to make her kids into big stars, that grabbed me. I wanted to be an actress at the time and the movie was as alluring as it was cautionary in regards to show business. But the thing that sent shivers down my back wasn't Rose's inevitable descent into fame-obsessed madness -- it was Herbie, Karl Malden's character, the long-suffering boyfriend/manager who stuck by Rose and Louise through thick and thin. When Rose is so desperate for her daughter's fame that she offers Louise up to be a stripper in a burlesque show, Herbie finally draws the line and it's a scene I'll never forget.

Malden's performance in this scene is so raw, so savage and heartbreaking, that I still shiver a little when I think of it to this day. Sure, it wasn't his greatest role. And yes, the movie is not really a classic, like, say On the Waterfront or Streetcar Named Desire are. But the way he explodes on Rosalind Russell's Mama Rose -- "No, Rose, I DON'T understand!" -- was so frightening and righteous and unforgettable for me, the star-struck little fourteen year old on her living room floor, that I'll remember and love that scene forever. I thought the movie was pretty good up till that point, but thanks to Karl Malden's performance, it became a masterpiece for that one brief, furious moment. Thanks, Herbie, we'll be seeing ya...

Now we have so few left. So few who remember those days -- the 20s, the 30s, the 40s -- who can share with us their experiences and their memories. I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy yesterday in the spirit of the 4th of July and also watched the little documentary that came with the special two-disc dvd set and the only actor from the movie who was interviewed was sweet, adorable Joan Leslie (who was only, like, sixteen or seventeen years old during shooting for YDD). She looked great and had some wonderful reminisces and I was grateful that she's still around to share her stories (and the woman worked with some of old Hollywood's biggest giants too: Cagney, Bogart, Cooper, and Astaire). But she's the last of a dwindling few. De Havilland, Fontaine, Leslie... Jane Russell, Audrey Totter, Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, and others. And to think how many we've lost, even in just the last couple of years, people like Richard Widmark and Betty Hutton and others. It really does break my heart. So happy birthday, Miss De Havilland! And many, many happy birthdays to come -- for you and for all the wonderful old timers!

The last of my old time friends..... Thank you, Mr. Malden, for the good times and the memories.

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