A week ago today, I had the sad duty of announcing the death of our irreplaceable movie columnist Kathy Shaidle. Kathy wrote everything from poetry to The Weekly World News's "Ed Anger" column and was a piercingly clear-headed thinker on almost any subject, as you can see in our video compilation of her appearances on The Mark Steyn Show. I hope you'll also read Laura Rosen Cohen's touching remembrance of our never-to-be-forgotten friend.
Last Saturday in this space, I rounded up a few autobiographical asides from Kathy's movie columns, little glimpses of her life and her world. But of course that's not why someone writes about film: You do it because you have something to say about the picture, the writing, the direction, the stars... So what follows are a few of my favorite Shaidle insights on some of the players who caught her beady eye.
Let's start with a characteristically contrarian take on Astaire and Kelly:
"They make it look easy" is a cliché of a compliment. I most admire those who make it look hard.
That's why I insist that Gene Kelly was a better dancer than Fred Astaire.
Here's Kathy on Al Pacino:
No one remembers the 1996 movie City Hall, and that's fine, because it didn't quite live up to its grand ambitions.
But this mendacious, mellifluous speech by Al Pacino, playing the city's Democrat mayor, is disturbingly timely. He's talked himself into the funeral of a young African-American shooting victim, and clearly doesn't believe a word he's saying, but the crowd falls for it anyway.
Some things never change.
...on her fellow Hamiltonian Brian Linehan:
The station saw a spark of something in Linehan during that less terrible interview. He was assigned more, finally landing his own show, City Lights, in 1973.
Eventually, he became, according to many, the best celebrity interviewer of his time in North America.
Because in those days before the internet, when microfiche was still a thing, Linehan bowled over his guests, and his audience, with his sometimes comically deep knowledge of that celebrity's life.
"How did you know that?!" Linehan was asked, by Shirley MacLaine and Burt Reynolds and Kirk Douglas and hundreds of other stars.
...on Charlie Chaplin:
During his career in silent films, Chaplin was the highest paid actor, and arguably the most recognizable man, on the planet. Unlike many silent stars, Chaplin had nothing to fear from the coming of sound; along with his other considerable talents, he had a beautiful speaking voice.
The trouble was: He used it.
...on Marcel Dalio:
You'd think if you'd appeared in three movies considered among the greatest of all time, yours would be a household name.
Yet the machinery of celebrity operates on inscrutable laws, sometimes running counter-clockwise: Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, W C Fields — movie stars all, but how many can name three of their films?
The average (or even above average) person likely wouldn't recognize Marcel Dalio's name, but odds are they know his face...
...on Henry Fonda:
Henry Fonda could tell me, "My second of five wives did not" — can't you just hear him? — "slit her throat with a razor after I demanded a divorce so I could marry a twenty-year-old!" And I'd believe him.
...on Orson Welles:
While Orson Welles merely starred in The Third Man (1949), he's credited with contributing the screenplay's most famous lines, which also happen to concern law and order.
I'd be lying if I claimed that I didn't find this little speech stirring.
...on George Lucas:
George Lucas has one of those faces I just want to punch. (His hair bugs me, too.)
...on Olivia de Havilland:
I don't want to ruin The Heiress for those who haven't seen it — and you really must — so I'll just say that de Havilland's Oscar was well-deserved. Wounded again and again by the two men in her life, Catherine subtly morphs from feeble to quietly ferocious. Along with adopting a deeper, steadier voice, I suspect that de Havilland was made to wear a touch more makeup in the third act, as if being forced to stand up for herself has made her, ironically, more attractive — an attractiveness we sense from the film's famous finale will never, shall we say, be put to use.
...on Linda Blair:
Take The Exorcist. It's basically just The Searchers with vomit. The movie would have worked better if the possessed "child" really had been a child, like the fragile, angelic little girl in Poltergeist — but that movie could not have been made. The actress they chose, Linda Blair, comported herself admirably in a torturous part, except that like most female child stars of the 1970s (think of Jodie Foster and Tatum O'Neal) she exudes preternatural confidence — a kind of chunky invulnerability — that doesn't mesh with her role as a victim.
And she's fourteen. A Catholic girl that age barfing, coming downstairs to act out during a grownup party, and swearing at priests and her mom sounds more to me like... well, Tuesday.
...on Glenn Ford:
Has there ever been a Glenn Ford Fan Club? Can you imagine Judy Garland singing to his 8 x 10 glossy rather than Clark Gable's? I don't hate Glenn Ford. He's just... whatever.
...on Robert Taylor:
There's a saying around our house: "Oh no, not Robert Taylor!" Alright, so that's not much of a saying, but I pretty much have TCM on all day, and even my husband (who is NOT a film buff) groans when he strolls by and catches Taylor's curlicued name in the credits, or the man's unnaturally handsome face on the screen. Whatever character we're meant to think he is this time, Robert Taylor — MGM's Discount John Barrymore; a Bombay Company "Queen Anne" knock-off tea table come to (something approaching) life — virtually screams over his (actual) lines: "I got 'discovered' cuz I was so damned good looking, so here I am I guess."
Now, this is somewhat unfair to Taylor, who, besides being anti-Communist (he testified before HUAC), was, like most photogenic performers, anxious to be "taken seriously" — and sometimes succeeded...
...on Gene Wilder:
Mel Brooks encourages his actors to mug shamelessly in direct violation of the old comedy rule — illustrated to perfection in Airplane! — that performers should play even the craziest situations dead straight. Wilder is often the sole cast member ignoring Brooks' incompetent direction, tempering these otherwise coarse "comedies" with his eccentric yet strangely sensitive turns. (Note that all three of his collaborations with Brooks feature weirdly touching portrayals of male friendship beneath all the fart jokes.)
Bravely, Wilder dares to take a breath for a beat or two, to be quiet, in these and other films, however zany or absurd.
As a child, Wilder was sternly warned that failure to be quiet might give his invalid mother another heart attack, but the same doctor also advised him, counterintuitively, to "try to make her laugh." He told this story in almost every interview, so it's reasonable to assume it offers an insight into his craft.
...on Joan Crawford:
Did you know she appeared in over 30 silent films? Crawford's first turn in a talkie, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, remains so arresting that it's inevitably included in every other That's Entertainment-style "Can you believe it?" montage. A Charleston contest champion, she's so comfortable in her own skin here, so carefree and cheeky, we understand why no less an authority than F. Scott Fitzgerald declared:
Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.
...on Art Linkletter:
In pretty much every movie starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, at least one cast member is obligated to observe that these women (I mean, their characters, their characters!) are devastatingly beautiful. Now, I adore both actresses enough to be accustomed to, and frankly touched by, this insistent screenplay tic. However, something identical yet even less believable mars Champagne for Caesar, except this time the irresistible specimen repeatedly presented for our tacit appreciation is... Art Linkletter.
...and finally on Vincent Price's four days in Kathy's home town:
I've heard the story of what happened next from different sources, and it never ceases to warm my heart:
Price arrived at the modest TV studio, got into makeup and costume and was handed reams of doggerel poems about some crazy characters he'd never heard of before.
He'd read each piece once, put his head down, then look up at the camera's red light and utter his lines perfectly in one take.
New makeup, new costume, same perfect delivery, hour after hour.
Finally, it was time for a break. The weary yet exhilarated crew turned off the cameras and lights.
Then they looked around and realized that Vincent Price had disappeared.
Oh well, they said to each other, what do you expect? He's a big star and all. Plus he's, like, 60 years old, so he probably went for a nap...
The studio door opened a few minutes later.
It was Vincent Price and a cab driver, hauling "two-fours" of beer from the nearby Brewer's Retail.
He handed cold stubbies out to the cast and crew and regaled them with tales of old Hollywood, his days working with Karloff and Peter Lorre and Gene Tierney and Cecil B DeMille and all the other greats he'd known.
Then he posed for photos with everybody individually.
On an overnight rush, these were blown up into 8x10s, which Price personally autographed for everyone at the station.
Over the course of four days, taping over four hundred of these interstitials, Price never complained, blew a line or missed a mark.
In an era when standards of conduct were collapsing, Vincent Price insisted on behaving like the well-bred gentleman he so often portrayed on screen.
It was a role that came easily to him. After all, he'd been born into considerable wealth, graduated from Yale, and owned a multimillion-dollar art collection.
Yet unlike many people who come from privileged backgrounds, Price didn't treat the guys at the local station like disposable underlings and hired help.
Over those four days in Hicksville, Vincent Price earned every cent of that $12,000 — a measly sum for him, even with his career on the wane, but he knew it was a fortune for CHCH.
The above stars lean somewhat away from the distaff, as Kathy's choice of films often did. However, she had a particular appreciation of Bette Davis, and we shall try to take account of that before the weekend is out.