RECREATING THE CELEBRITY OBIT
by Katharine Blossom Lowrie
One long, curly strip of dialogue
Who can forget Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin, the grieving widower in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) as he struggles to find the precise words to describe his late wife to son Jonah (Ross Malinger, shown left with Hanks), who fears his mom is fading from his memory. “She could peel an apple…in one long, curly strip,” Sam finally tells his son, a note of awe in his voice. “The whole apple.”
Obituaries, my stock and trade, rarely make a lasting impression on the living – not in comparison to that “one long, curly strip” of dialogue (thanks to screenwriter Nora Ephron) that resurrects the mother Jonah so longs to remember. Which brings me to a pet peeve: the sameness with which deceased celebrities are paraded past us at year’s end, not to mention the reels of film clips that spool in the midst of every Oscar-type telecast.
Familiarity has bred contempt. And I write this stuff!
Dean of Dirty Words
In an effort to recreate the format, I foraged for treasures among the ashes, individual acts, insights and ideals that offer inspiration as opposed to the gut-wrenching sense of loss these memorials often engender. Better yet, bring some humor to it all. Take George Carlin, Dean of Dirty Words and Counterculture Prognosticator of Doom, who succumbed to heart failure in June. Considered the gold standard among stand-up comics, Carlin constantly mined dying for laughs. “Death,” he famously said, “is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.” (Photo: Jerold Hamza/Home Box Office)
Change you can believe in
Just nine days before Carlin passed into oblivion (he didn’t believe in an afterlife), he was trading “death jokes” over the phone with Jerry Seinfeld. Reprising the conversation in a tribute to his old friend for the New York Times, Seinfeld wrote, “We were talking about [the recent passing of] Tim Russert and Bo Diddley. George said: ‘I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before [the next one dies]. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.'”
If gallows humor enriches the repartee of brilliant humorists, I figure it’s worth creating a riff of my own, if only to voice opposition to Carlin’s lack of faith in God, government and an afterlife. “When we meet up in heaven, Carlin, I trust you’ll have found a ‘change’ you can believe in.”
The Snow Show
Tony Snow, who so deftly trod the tightrope of White House press briefings during his 17-month tenure as press secretary (May 2006-Sept. 2007), lent a badly needed element of style to George W. Bush’s presidency. Journalists of every stripe enjoyed the Snow Show, from all accounts, and Republicans and Democrats alike admired his classy sass. Snow (at left in AP Photo) brought the same grace under pressure in his fight against colon cancer. Twice. When his battle ended last July at age 58, the loss prompted even the ordinarily taciturn House minority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio to lavish praise. “[Winston] Churchill said, I like a man who grins when he fights.’ That was Tony Snow,” Boehner said. “For 35 years, as a writer, broadcaster, and spokesman, he fought fiercely for what he believed in, and he did it with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.”
Aside from arguing Bush/Cheney “talking points” as though they actually made sense, Snow delivered some truly relevant information. “Investigators have discovered that dogs can laugh, which can’t be too big of a surprise.” You gotta want to emulate a fighter with a twinkle in his eye who knows the importance of that.
Ledger’s last days
Heath Ledger, odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his chilling portrayal of The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, didn’t believe in planning ahead. “I don’t plan at all,” he told one long-ago interviewer. “I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future.” (Shown below at Marc Jacobs fashion show in 2007.)
When the actor’s future ended tragically in a SoHo loft last January, writer Lisa Taddeo took over with a piece labeled “reported fiction” in the April issue of Esquire. Taddeo’s stitched together account of Ledger’s last days (heavily researched, apparently, in terms of talking to the actor’s friends and tracing his whereabouts) begins with what Ledger did not do – a place I was pleased to visit, even if it is a figment of Taddeo’s imagination. “If you force me to make my last weekend a microcosm of my existence, and what my existence means to you, then I’ll tell you how it went and who I played,” Ledger supposedly muses posthumously. “But first things first: It was an accident. I’m not some f——up star who couldn’t deal. I could deal; I just couldn’t sleep.”
Final unedited shot
To demonstrate Ledger’s devotion to living in the now (the sole point of my own longer than “one, long curly strip” of narrative) comes in the way Taddeo scales the 28-year old Aussie’s mindset on Jan. 21, 2008, the day before he died of an accidental overdose of prescription pills. Sitting alone at the Miro Café (a frequent Ledger haunt in his SoHo, NY neighborhood), he supposedly regrets his choice of an “official last meal…a banana-nut muffin. It’s not even a particularly fresh one. Some advice: Look at your next muffin. Really fucking look at it. Imagine that muffin is the last bit of food you will ever stick in your mouth. If I could do it over again, I’d make sure everything I ate was an endangered animal’s heart on toast with foie-gras crumbles and black-truffle shavings. I mean, f—. A goddamn muffin.”
Taddeo ends the piece by celebrating what Ledger celebrated in life, his “final unedited shot,” his daughter Matilda with ex-wife Michelle Williams, the actress he met and fell in love with while filming Brokeback Mountain (2005). “[Matilda] is what lives on. The rest is just bull—.” Or maybe not. Maybe it’s about savoring the now.
Van Johnson’s guardian angel
In a reverse scenario, truth imitated fiction when Van Johnson, a leading man in the ’40s and ’50s, got his first big break as a result of a near fatal automobile crash. It happened in the midst of filming A Guy Named Joe (1943), in which the freckle-faced actor with the strawberry blond hair and sunny smile was cast as a young fighter pilot who acquires an older pilot (Spencer Tracy) as his guardian angel after the older man is killed in a plane crash. In a very real sense, Tracy served as Johnson’s guardian angel when he and co-star Irene Dunne (shown above left with Johnson in a still from the movie) refused to allow the studio to recast the actor’s part during his lengthy hospitalization and recovery.
Once released, A Guy Named Joe launched Johnson into immediate stardom, paving his way with leading roles at MGM for more than a decade, a time he spoke reverently of in 1985. “It was one big happy family and a little kingdom. Everything was provided for us, from singing lessons to barbells. All we had to do was inhale, exhale and be charming. I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world.”
I like to think Van Johnson resides on any number of studio lots, guiding up-and-coming young actors, his guardian angel wings as securely in place as Spencer Tracey’s.
Everybody’s father figure
Tim Russert, whose buoyant personality and no-holds-barred interrogations on Meet The Press still seem indelibly etched on Sunday morning, left a living legacy other than his adored son Luke. (Photo at right by Paul Drinkwater/ABC NewsWire.) Russert’s family – including his father Big Russ and wife Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair writer – encompassed more than kin. Chuck Todd, the NBC/MSNBC numbers man, who led many of us through the baffling ballot breakdowns during last year’s primaries, became NBC News’ political director in March 2007 – all because Tim Russert brought him on board. “He was a cheerleader, a consoler,” Todd said during MSNBC’s weekend-long tribute to the Managing Editor and Moderator of MTP, whose fatal heart attack last June still stuns those who knew him. “He was sort of everybody’s father figure here at the bureau,” Todd said. Journalists remarked to Todd all the time, he said, “I want to be Tim Russert some day.” As for Todd, his favorite memory is briefing Russert on any number of stories and hearing the same rousing refrain, “Go get ’em, Todd!”
Go get ’em, Russert!
Here lies Paul Newman
You’d have to be living on Krypton not to know Paul Newman’s story. The balance and perspective he brought to life, his 50-year marriage to second wife Joanne Woodward, his transition from megawatt movie star to consummate actor, the range of films – from Cool Hand Luke (1967) to The Verdict (1982) – his Hole in the Wall Gang camps that cater to children with serious medical problems, his need for speed and racing cars, his handling of the tragic loss of his only son, Scott, to drugs in 1978, and, admittedly later, his role as a doting father to five daughters (three by Woodward and two by first wife Jackie Witte, also the mother of Scott) and grandfather.
Newman’s secret, most agree, was his humor. Never one to be overly impressed with himself, he once wrote his epitaph. “Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.” When wife Joanne Woodward fell out of bed and broke her collarbone in 2005, Newman later told AARP Magazine that he gazed down at her as she lay in pain on the floor and said, “I’m not going to listen to any more complaining about my racing.” His asides are legendary: “Just when things look darkest, they go black.” On acting: “I’m basically an irresponsible person, and I wanted to find a way of life that allowed me to continue in my irresponsibility.” Only Paul Newman would admit to feeling embarrassed that his Newman’s Own salad dressing was “out-grossing” his films.
Oh, dear. I’m now utterly depressed, my whole purpose – to celebrate instead of memorialize – defeated. All I can think of is what Butch Cassidy (Robert Redford) says to the Sundance Kid (Newman) when the posse traps them on that canyon ledge overlooking the river below. “Kid, the Next Time You Say ‘Let’s Go some place like Bolivia’, Let’s GO some place like Bolivia.”