Classic movie fans are in mourning today, as five unique performers, each much loved for their contributions to the diverse art of film, have died in the last week.
Joan Fontaine, an Oscar winner for Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941) and a nominee for REBECCA (1940) and THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943), passed away at her home in Carmel, California on Sunday morning, December 15. After a three decade career that began in 1935, Fontaine’s final feature film role was in Cyril Frankel’s THE WITCHES (1966), a Hammer horror movie also known as THE DEVIL’S OWN. Fontaine continued to work in theater and on television for three more decades, with an Emmy nominated role on the ABC daytime drama Ryan’s Hope in 1980, and appearances in TV movies and mini-series throughout the ’80s and ‘90s, including the atmospheric Dark Shadows rip-off Dark Mansions, a 1986 ABC pilot from producer Aaron Spelling. (The series was not picked up, but imagine the joy of Joan Fontaine on TV every week if it had been.) Her final role was in the Family Channel TV movie GOOD KING WENCESLAS in 1994.
Although it’s not particularly well known, one of my favorite Joan Fontaine performances is in Nicholas Ray’s soapy potboiler BORN TO BE BAD (1950), where she’s cast against type as manipulative villainess Christabel Caine. I wrote about the DVD release of that film here.
Self-Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme has a touching remembrance of the iconic actress here. Lara Gabrielle of the film blog Backlots conducted one of the final interviews with Joan Fontaine, posted on her 96th birthday in October. You can read that here. And here’s the obituary from The New York Times. Turner Classic Movies has also posted their TCM Remembers memorial montage, which you can watch here.
UPDATE 12/17/13 2:30 PM (ET) – Terence Towles Canote has an excellent retrospective of Miss Fontaine’s career at A Shroud of Thoughts. And Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera has a look at Fontaine’s career, and her 1978 autobiography No Bed Of Roses.
UPDATE 12/17/13 12 AM (ET): TCM has also announced a special day of programming honoring Joan Fontaine on Sunday, December 29 from 6:30 AM (ET) until 8:00 PM (ET):
6:30 AM Joseph Santley’s BLOND CHEAT (1938, RKO)
7:45 AM George Cukor’s THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)
10:15 AM Nicholas Ray’s BORN TO BE BAD (1950, RKO)
12:00 PM Richard Thorpe’s IVANHOE (1952, MGM)
2:00 PM Edmund Goulding’s THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943, Warner Bros)
4:00 PM Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941, RKO)
5:45 PM Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940, Selznick/United Artists)
Peter O’Toole, an eight-time Oscar nominee and winner of an honorary award in 2003, died on Saturday, December 14 at a London hospital, following a long illness. He was 81. O’Toole appeared in KIDNAPPED (1960) and THE DAY THEY ROBBED THE BANK OF ENGLAND (1960) before landing his career-defining role as British Army officer T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). Despite announcing his retirement in 2012, O’Toole continued to work until the end of his life, with a role in the as-yet-unreleased KATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA.
Much as I love LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and his fierce yet sympathetic portrayal of Henry II in Anthony Harvey’s THE LION IN WINTER (1968), I think my favorite O’Toole performance is the charming 1982 comedy MY FAVORITE YEAR, directed by Richard Benjamin. O’Toole plays Alan Swann, an alcoholic, over-the-hill swashbuckler who grabs one last moment in the spotlight on a 1950s television variety show.
I also had the pleasure of seeing O’Toole live in 1987 as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at Broadway’s Plymouth Theater, opposite Amanda Plummer as Eliza and John Mills as her father. I sat in the third row and could practically reach out and touch him.
Lou Lumenick in The New York Post has a nice remembrance of the actor here and Elise Crane Derby of Elise’s Ramblings has photos and video of O’Toole’s handprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theater during the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2011.
UPDATE 12/17/13 12 AM (ET): TCM has also announced a special evening of programming honoring Peter O’Toole on Sunday, December 29 from 8:00 PM (ET) until 6:00 AM (ET):
8:00 PM David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962, Horizon/Columbia)
12:00 AM Live From the TCM Film Festival: Peter O’Toole (2012, TCM Original)
1:00 AM Herbert Ross’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (1969, APJAC/MGM)
3:45 AM Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982, MGM)
Audrey Totter, a beloved bad girl in film noir classics of the 1940s and ‘50s, died on December 12, following a stroke, and after suffering from congestive heart failure. She was 95. She made her debut in Edward L. Cahn’s MAIN STREET AFTER DARK (1945) and continued to work until a 1987 appearance as a nun on the CBS mystery series Murder She Wrote with Angela Lansbury. Totter is best remembered for roles in iconic noirs like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and THE SET-UP (1949), but my favorite of the films I’ve seen is John Farrow’s ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949).
As a recent screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art, Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller called her performance as a fallen woman who leads a politician (played by Thomas Mitchell) into temptation “tremendous.”
“I would cast Audrey Totter in that part every single time,” Muller said. “She had three or four scenes in the movie that could be the signature Audrey Totter scene.”
Due to somewhat inscrutable rights entanglements, ALIAS NICK BEAL is not on DVD, nor is it available for broadcast on TCM. But the film is on YouTube. You can also read about Totter’s career, with notes on twelve of her films, at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings. And here’s her obit from the L.A. Times.
Tom Laughlin, the director, co-producer, and star of four action-packed BILLY JACK films released between 1967 and 1977, died on December 12 at age 82, due to complications from pneumonia. The character of the half-Indian Vietnam veteran Billy Jack was introduced in THE BORN LOSERS, a 1967 biker film released by American International Pictures. Laughlin directed the film (using the pseudonym T.C. Frank) and went on to direct and star in three independently produced sequels. The first, BILLY JACK (1971), was distributed by Warner Bros., and earned more than $60 million domestically. THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974) was self-distributed by Laughlin and also a huge commercial success. BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977), a pseudo-remake of the Frank Capra classic, did not receive a wide theatrical release, and effectively ended the franchise. A fifth film, THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK, was shot in 1986 but uncompleted, due to financing issues and an injury the actor suffered during production in New York City.
Laughlin was a devout political activist, running for president in 1992 (as a Democrat) and 2004 (as a Republican). He was married to Delores Taylor, his co-star in the BILLY JACK films, from 1954 until his death. He had been suffering from ill health in recent years, but maintained a website, billyjack.com.
UPDATE 12/17/13 2 PM (ET) Lawrence Carter-Long on Twitter shared an excellent article on Tom Laughlin’s role in the creation of what we today consider “the Hollywood blockbuster.” You can read it at Pop Matters.
Eleanor Parker, perhaps best known for her role at Baroness Elsa Schrader in Robert Wise’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), died on December 9 in Palm Springs, California. She was 91. The actress was nominated for Academy Awards for her performances in John Cromwell’s CAGED (1950), William Wyler’s DETECTIVE STORY (1951), and Curtis Bernhardt’s INTERRUPTED MELODY (1955).
“Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known,” Christopher Plummer, Parker’s co-star in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, said in a statement. ”Both as a person and as a beauty. I hardly believe the sad news for I was sure she was enchanted and would live forever.”
TCM honored Parker on Tuesday, December 17, with a 14-hour marathon of seven of her films beginning at 6 AM (ET).
6:00 AM Delmer Daves’ THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU (1944, Warner Bros.)
7:45 AM Edmund Gouding’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1946, Warner Bros.)
9:45 AM Peter Godfrey’s THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948, Warner Bros.)
11:45 AM John Cromwell’s CAGED (1950, Warner Bros.)
1:30 PM George Sidney’s SCARMOUCHE (1952, MGM)
3:30 PM Curtis Bernhardt’s INTERRUPTED MELODY (1955, MGM)
5:15 PM Vincente Minnelli’s HOME FROM THE HILL (1960, MGM)
TCM does not control the broadcast rights to THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but you can watch it streaming (in HD, on supported devices) at Amazon.
UPDATE 12/17/13 2 PM (ET) - Turner Classic Movies revealed on Twitter that they are re-editing the 2013 TCM Remembers memorial video to reflect the sad events of the past week. The first version of the video was posted to YouTube on December 10 and has been airing for the last week. The montage is cut to the song “In the Embers,” by Sleeping At Last.
UPDATE 12/17/13 2:30 PM (ET) - TCM confirmed that the update will include Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin, Audrey Totter, and British actress Jean Kent (who died November 30, 2013 at age 92) and will begin airing this evening.
Side note: Jean Kent’s death was a result of “a trauma injury to her chest,” and police in the county of Suffolk (approximately two hours from London) had investigated the possibility of a break-in at her home or foul play, which was determined not to be the case. You can read more about that investigation here.
UPDATE 12/17/13 5 PM (ET) - The updated TCM Remembers has been posted with Jean Kent (added at 2:04), Audrey Totter (added at 2:31), Tom Laughlin (3:10), Joan Fontaine (4:17), and Peter O’Toole (4:23). TCM gave O’Toole the final shot, with a touching wave goodbye from MY FAVORITE YEAR.
After nearly 10,000 views on YouTube, the original cut has been removed. And that’s for the best, I think. I previously had a mixed review of this year’s TCM Remembers, but concluding with Joan Fontaine, Esther Williams, and Peter O’Toole gives the piece a staggering emotional heft. If you have even a cursory knowledge of classic film, this will tug a tear from you.