Martin Landau: 1928 – 2017

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In describing his approach to acting, Martin Landau once employed a story about a drunk and a sculptor. In Landau’s recounting, the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on a statue of elephant. In order to get the drunk to stop pestering him in the middle of his intricate work, the sculptor agrees to share the secret of crafting such a piece of art. The artist explains the process: get a large, square chunk of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

“I chip away everything that doesn’t look like the character,” concluded Landau.

When I started reviewing movies, at the very beginning of the nineteen-nineties, Landau was on quite a roll. Only a decade earlier, he was getting by on acting jobs in the likes of the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. A committed working actor in his sixties — and without movie star cachet — he wasn’t totally free from wince-inducing projects, but he also had a couple recent Oscar nominations in his pocket. It was an impressive late-career resurgence for an actor who’d been around long enough that his first major film role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Tall and stately, he was called upon to play serious men: doctors and judges and gravely worried fathers. Underneath that simmering seriousness, there was one deeper, truer unifying quality to his myriad of performances, one clear piece of Landau’s self that was there for those who looked closely enough. He clearly loved what he was doing, and acting sparked with his contained but constant invention.

And he could transform a whole narrative with his relentless quest for emotional truth in his performances. Notably, he met Woody Allen’s offer to play Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors by explaining to the revered writer-director that his conception of the character was off. Landau felt the character was written as a hard-nosed villain and that Judah should instead be sympathetic, so that the audience could understand why he committed his morally bereft acts even as they found the infractions appalling. Allen hired Landau that day.

Landau explained how the collaboration shifted from there:

And about two weeks into the shooting, he came up to me and said, “You know when I wrote it, I didn’t quite see him as sympathetically or as sensitively played as you’re doing it. But I think it’s better, and I want to thank you.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a completely different film absent Landau’s adjustment to the central character. That performance delivered him his second Academy Award nomination.

It was the performance that nabbed Landau’s third Oscar nomination that most vividly exhibited the joy in the craft I mentioned above. As Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau takes a part that could easily be played as little more than a flinty stunt — and still be an effective and enjoyable performance — and infuses it with depths of feeling, giving a funny, mildly spoof-spun film a welcome vein of pathos. For his efforts, Landau finally claimed an Oscar statuette, one of the most deserving acting wins of the past twenty-five years.

Although I betrayed a disdainful view of some of the projects Landau had to sign up for over the years, one of the things I respected about him was the way he didn’t really seem to adopt the same harsh judgment of material that was, by many reasonable measures, inferior. Every part was an opportunity, a gift, an avenue to potential wonderment. He plied his trade at a time when an increasing range of entertainment options — especially on television — could allow him to play an actor bringing varied strategies to a theater audition, twin brothers mixed up in a murder case (in an episode of Columbo that includes a cooking demo that stretches to several minutes), and a starship commander.

No matter the role, Landau approached it with respect, which lent a dignity to practically everything he did. He believed in what he was doing, which helped the audience shift into agreement with that outlook, no matter the built-in shortcomings of the role or the piece that held it. Landau did the work to make that happen. He chipped away.

 

Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017

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Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.

But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer.  The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.

The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.

The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.

”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”

That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.

The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.

My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.

All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.

Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”

The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.

“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.

No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.

John Hurt, 1940 – 2017

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“When I say that acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians, it’s my way of trying to quash all the pretentious crap that’s said about acting. What I mean is, if you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you.”

–John Hurt, 1990, as quoted in The New York Times

I can’t honestly say that John Hurt was ever an actor whose films I actively sought out solely because of his presence. On some level, I think that might have pleased him. There was a proper retreat from ostentation in Hurt’s work. He never seemed particular interested in commanding the screen, even in those instances when he was the clear lead. Instead, he stealthily infiltrated scenes, taking charge of moments by smartly withdrawing from them, leading the audience to reach out to him, with a instinctual and fascinated intensity.

So I didn’t hunt for Hurt, but I was always glad for his presence. Indeed, he was often the best part of the films in which he appeared, offering a flint of sly authenticity in even the most fantastical roles, which he took on with increasing frequency over the years because, well, those were the roles that were there. Whether it was a Harry Potter or a Hellboy, Hurt didn’t condescend. There was truth to be found everywhere. And the currency of that truth only increased when the implausible swirled elsewhere in the narrative.

Hurt’s capacity to push past complicated trappings with resonant humanity also served him in more serious fare. It’s fully present in his Oscar-nominated performance in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, in which the necessarily smothering makeup required to play David Merrick (it took as long as eight hours to apply) didn’t obscure the actor’s soulfulness. What could have been a mere technical feat, stultifying in its commitment to the apparatus over the artistry, is instead a marvel of delivering emotional integrity, regardless of what barrier might exist between actor and audience. There is purity to the work that is startling.

It’s been decades since Hurt’s most iconic film moments, notably his character’s unfortunate end in Ridley Scott’s Alien (which he playfully, wonderfully revisited for Mel Brooks, producer of The Elephant Man, a few years later), but I’d argue he only got stronger as an actor as he aged. He was arguably never better than in his delicate, heart-rending performance in Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, a film that never quite got it’s due, in part because it arrived in the same calendar year as the superficially similar Gods and Monsters. But my main affection is centered on even more recent fare, when it sometimes seemed Hurt took parts with the condition that he be allowed to experiment with riotously wild facial hair best suited for a deranged scientist. He’s a delight as a battered wise man survivor in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and plays nothing but trump cards in his two-hander scenes with Natalie Portman in the recent Jackie. Many of these performances are simultaneously rambunctious and contained, as if Hurt is endeavoring to condense the range of human experience into single acting notes.

Hurt pretended well enough, and then some.

 

Carrie Fisher, 1956 – 2016

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Generationally, my appreciation for Carrie Fisher is supposed to begin with Star Wars. Only her second feature film appearance, following a sharp debut in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, her turn as Princess Leia Organa in George Lucas’s space saga earned her a permanent place in pop culture history. To the degree that I even thought about such things at the time, Fisher’s performance seemed a little perfunctory in Star Wars, filling out the damsel in distress role that Lucas simplistically typed out. Looking back now, with the helpful illumination of another few decades of Fisher’s spectacularly unguarded public persona, her performance now looks a little flintier to me, as if she were slyly signaling her dissatisfaction with the material, the flowing space toga costume, the pastry-shaped buns her hair was clumped into. Before the original trilogy was over, almost of the principal actors had an air of bedraggled dismay about them, a slump-shouldered look of those who are decidedly over it. Fisher discerned the limitations of this galaxy far, far away from the jump.

In actuality, I grew to appreciate Fisher many years after she’d fired her last blaster under the watchful eye of Lucas. Freed from her royal duties in the Star Wars universe, Fisher developed a pointed, uncompromising voice. She still had her skills as an actor (her cunning supporting performance in When Harry Met Sally… hints at the career she could have had, especially appreciation for funny, jagged dames that existed during the screwball comedy era had still been in place in the closing years of the twentieth century), but Fisher made her truest self known as a writer. Beginning with the autobiographical 1987 novel Postcards from the Edge, Fisher established herself as completely unafraid to open herself up to the world, doing so with a sense of humor than cut like a razor. She wrote more books, served as a script doctor, and slipped onto the writing staff of notably stronger years of the Academy Awards ceremony. Every time she assembled words, she delivered a bracing honesty, whether about her own addictions, her brutal struggles with mental health across the years, or the sordid hollowness of the entertainment business.

Fisher increasingly brought that same fearlessness to every public forum that would have her, taking advantage of her obligations to the promotional circuit when she returned to her most famous role for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to run roughshod over interviewers and the facile questions. If anything, she become ever more unapologetic as she aged, bringing her famous dog, Gary, absolutely everywhere and generally challenging any and all notions of what the proper way to move through the society of contrivances in which she resided. As if making up for the time in her life when reality was a little shaky, Fisher was deeply, resounding present in an inspiring way.

To borrow some lines from a Paul Simon song about Fisher (some of Simon’s very best songs were about Fisher), I think perhaps we all spent too much time underestimating her power. But like the song says, discovering that power was all but inevitable.

 

Muhammad Ali, 1942 – 2016

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“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be.”

–Muhammad Ali

 

My grandmother once told me she didn’t root for Muhammad Ali in every bout he fought, but she was always in his proverbial corner when the title was on the line. I’m not sure how old I was when she shared this with me, but the timeline of my life held up against the trajectory of Ali’s career suggests my age was in the single digits. Thus, it was partially a lack of worldly experience that contributed to me feeling perplexed by the statement. To me, Ali was simply The Champ. Wasn’t every fight a title fight? I didn’t realize that he won and lost the heavyweight title three separate times, the only boxer to do so, nor was I aware of the tradition that the honorific of “The Champ” was one that was held for life once achieved, deferentially offered like “Mr. President” years after someone has cleared their belongings from the desk in the Oval Office. Ali was The Champ. Surely, he was the only one. Anyone else believing they were worthy of the name was just a hopeful, deluded impostor.

Of course, one of those instances that left Ali without the heavyweight title he held moments before was delivered with not a gloved punch but a legal decree. He famously refused enlistment to fight in Vietnam, declaring himself a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. There can be little doubt it was a wholly sincere action. Despite attempts to paint the fighter as some duped militant because he initially came to his Muslim faith through Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, at the height of the group’s political agitation, Ali was deeply devout throughout his life, praying multiple times a day, immediately revealing the secrets behind his beloved magic tricks to honor the religion’s prohibition against deceptive acts, and requesting that his star on Hollywood Walk of Fame be placed on a wall instead of the sidewalk, explaining, “I bear the name of our Beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name.” Ali was vilified for the choice to refuse wartime military service, often by the same individuals who would gladly stand up for the principle of respecting religious liberty at all costs if it were being leveraged in favor of their own hateful agendas. To this day, certain moron politicians can’t resist taking swipes at Ali’s character for his supposed draft dodging, even in the midst of national mourning of Ali as a singular icon. That at least one miserable human being who’s been elected to political office compounded the offense by also referring to Ali by the slave name he cast aside over fifty years ago speaks to the rampant bigotry that fuels the persistent animosity of an ugly minority.

Ali knew full well that his race and religion were mighty factors in the negative public reaction. He often addressed those aspects of the situation directly, bringing his formidable verbal skills to an ongoing explication of the systematic oppression built directly in the American experience, even for someone as broadly successful and celebrated as he. As David Remnick powerfully recounted in his engrossing biography of Ali, King of the World, the future champ was deeply impacted by the horrific story of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy murdered by two men for daring to step out of the social confinement that they decided he needed to reside within. Ali was roughly the same age when he encountered news reporting on Till, in the pages of Life. For the rest of his life, Ali lived the conviction of unyielding and unashamed self-authority. That majestic assurance in his autonomy combined with his instinctual genius for showmanship to make him a towering, astounding figure, not just in his home nation but around the globe.

And, my lord, he was glorious in the ring. In the annals of American sports, there have been exceptional athletes, such as Babe Ruth, who fundamentally changed the game they played, leaving it an entirely different pursuit than when they found it. There are also those, such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, who simply performed at a completely different level, forcing competitors to strive to meet them. But then their sports regressed back to prior levels after they retired, like silt settling to the bottom of a river that has stopped churning. Ali is the only athlete I can think of who dominated every aspect of his chosen sport to such a degree that the void of his eventual absence left it feeling utterly irrelevant. There are undoubtedly many reasons for the decline of boxing, led by increasing unease at its barbaric nature, but the rough alignment of the descent’s origin with the overlong exit of Ali from the sport can’t be entirely coincidental. Once the opportunity has come and gone to bear witness to The Greatest, perhaps the most accurate nickname in the history of sports, why continue to watch? After Ali, it was all shadow boxing.

In the midst of his exile from boxing, in 1968, Ali sat for a television interview presided over the by the odiously condescending William F. Buckley. At one point, Ali took questions from the assembled audience. The first came from a young Jeff Greenfield, who asked, “Are there times when you miss being heavyweight champion of the world?” Ali’s response was as swift one of his devastating punches: “No, they miss me.” True then. Truer now.

Garry Shandling, 1949 – 2016

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When I suggest that boxing, like comedy, is about rhythm, he nods. “My trainer, Dave Paul, he said, ‘G’—he calls me G—he said, ‘G, you have an unusual rhythm of your own that’s sort of, uh, no rhythm whatsoever. And yet that works for you, because they can’t figure you out.’ So sometimes when I’m in the ring, it’s like you can’t tell whether I’m about to tell a joke, or throw a punch, or start a punch and not finish it, or pass out. So some guys can’t read me. They come in close—just like when an audience leans in. And then I have a flurry.”

–Garry Shandling, quoted in “The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian” by Amy Wallace

There was a lot of hoopla preceding the latest season of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, all of it centered on the major get of President Barack Obama as a guest. For me, though, the real excitement was buried deeper in the various articles previewing the whole season, whenever a writer would round out the piece by noting others slated to ride around, throw back java, and engage in what was sure to be an amiably cranky chat with the man whose eponymous sitcom earned him a mountain of money. One of the guests listed was Garry Shandling. That’s all I needed to know. At least once, I was certain to load the show up.

Shandling was one of those comedians who made the rounds of daytime talk shows when I was a kid, helping to fill the airtime between downmarket celebrities shilling their new showbiz book with the helpful urging of Merv Griffin or John Davidson. When Judd Apatow helped craft a Freaks and Geeks scene of Bill Haverchuck laughing himself breathless while enjoying an after school snack, it was Shandling the character was watching. Let’s just say my memories of seeing Shandling back then match up fairly well with that depiction. Though Apatow acknowledged it was accurate to his own experience, too, he also chose Shandling as gesture of appreciation to a man who had been a generous mentor, just as years earlier Shandling, first testing the notion of working in comedy, had benefited from the kind encouragement of George Carlin. And I’ve no doubt that, at least to a degree, Shandling was simply the clearest representation of “funny” to the producer.

While Shandling was an excellent stand-up, his most enviable legacy is as co-creator of two different television shows that can be fairly considered brilliant and ahead of their time. The Larry Sanders Show is better known, and the clear artistic pinnacle (it sometimes seemed Shandling slowed down professionally in the years after the series concluded because he’d never be able to top it). Though painfully under-rewarded by the Emmys, it was at least a regular contender, essentially serving as the trailblazer for eventual dominant awards force HBO. Though it won precious few trophies, one of them was for writing, which Shandling shared with Peter Tolan. Before that, Shandling collaborated with Alan Zweibel on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a spectacularly meta demolishing of sitcom tropes. Signing off on either one of these series would be enough to secure Shandling’s place among the television greats. That he presided over both puts him in another class.

Shandling clearly operated with a restless mind. That fueled his comedy and his anxiety (which, in turn, fueled his comedy further). He was wryly probing and took obvious pleasure when he landed on just the right joke. I remember watching him on an awards show, seemingly wandering away from whatever had been prepared to riff a little, to share what was lately making him laugh. The audience response was warm and grateful. Thus he kept going, finally finishing with a perfectly structured and delivered joke (which I’ll not diminish by trying to recapture it here). It was a mini master class in comedy. Shandling knew his craft, and his proclivity for intense examination meant he was at his most fascinating when he expounded upon it. That’s why I was excited for that Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode. Predictably, it was a joy to watch. Today I was reminded that the episode has a title: “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.”