Friday, April 28, 2017

More Passages

Another year, and more celebrities exiting this troubled world.  This week we lost two who were significant, at different times of my life, in what I spent time viewing.  One was a film director who began writing and shooting exploitation films and would later create some true masterpieces of cinema.  The other was a child star whose success faded, then crashed and burned.   I had admiration for both, for very different reasons.

Jonathan Demme, who fell to cancer this past Wednesday at age seventy-thee, worked for Roger Corman in the early to mid-70s.  His credits included the women's prison flick CAGED HEAT and the Peter Fonda revenge pic FIGHTING MAD.  Corman mandated a formula for success, mainly a certain amount of nude scenes, but otherwise let his directors (who also included Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ron Howard) realize their specific visions.  With limited budgets, this may have been difficult and those looking for Demme's later virtuosity in his first movies may have to work a bit.  But each, especially CRAZY MAMA, had its eccentricities, its touches of humanity for which Demme was well known.  And the director was respected and endeared to many of his casts and crews and peers.

The first Demme movie I saw was MELVIN AND HOWARD, the story of a loser named Melvin Dummar who claims to be a beneficiary to the will of Howard Hughes.  It is a funny and wistful observant portrait of America, the one not characterized by tony suburbs and debutante balls.  With many of his films, Demme chose to mine the plights of characters found in beauty parlors, trailer parks, truck stops, and factories, to tell their stories in a no nonsense yet stylish fashion (Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are big fans).  The director never pointed at or mocked his subjects.  He celebrated them.  Demme must have been great with actors.  He viewed them as collaborators, not puppets.

Not every film was golden.  While the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was a solid remake, I just found it unnecessary.  Likewise with THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE.  But the films for which the director is best known, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SOMETHING WILD, PHILADELPHIA, MARRIED TO THE MOB, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED are all classics in my book.  I've reviewed some of Demme's films on this blog.  I anticipate writing several more.

Jonathan Demme was also known for his fine documentaries. There were the concerts like STOP MAKING SENSE, very likely the best film of its type ever made.  NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD captured the recovering singer in fine form, unobtrusively.  As a friend pointed out, these documents also told stories.  Listen to David Byrne's commentary on STOP sometime.  I've yet to see NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS.   JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS was a highly positive, yet never white washed look at this unfairly maligned former President.  I plan to watch THE AGRONOMIST and COUSIN BOBBY, which details the director's Episcopalian minister cousin, who served in Harlem.

Demme employed signature quirk for some movies, fluid style for others. And he was a warm, caring individual to boot.  There was none like him.  R.I.P.


Erin Moran, who last weekend also succumbed cancerous ravages, was one of my first T.V. crushes.  I had watched Happy Days quite religiously as child.  Every Tuesday night at 8:00 on ABC.  Moran played Joanie Cunningham, the younger sister of Richie, played by Ron Howard.  The show was a valentine to the 1950s, and corny as hell.  I can't get through an episode these days, but as a child, I was transfixed...By the time I hit puberty, Moran was becoming somewhat of a sex symbol, albeit in a girl-next-door sorta way.  I was envious of Scott Baio, who played Chachi, her boyfriend and eventual groom.  They even did a short-lived spin off.  By that time, my interest was waning.  We now had cable and network sitcoms no longer interested me.

But even though my attention to Miss Moran was of a, ahem, prurient nature, I always recognized her endearing personality. When she started on the program she was so cute and perky, affectionately called "Shortcake" by Fonzie. Moran had actually been acting steadily since the 1960s, including an appearance on Daktari.  She later grew into an attractive young woman, and even if she wasn't always the character who got the best lines, she lent more than able support and lit up the screen.

As with all too many child actors, adulthood would not greet her with open arms.  Hollywood is unforgiving, and quite willing to cast aside yesterday's bright lights.  Moran did a few television shows and B-movies here and there, but I always wondered why she didn't continue in film, or at least on another sitcom.  I'm sure she tried.  Even with her connections with her Days co-stars, some of whom who did go on to bigger and better, the roles were not there.  I recall watching a latter day interview where she makes a brief pitch to Howard, to hire her.  It was not pathetic groveling.  What happened?  I think the girl had talent.

You've seen the highly unflattering pictures from the last several years.  Erin Moran lost her L.A. home and was reduced to living in a trailer park with her husband.  She's seen appearing as if strung out on intoxicants, following a trajectory almost as tragic as that of Margot Kidder and some others.  I always feel horribly for these people, even if they "brought it on themselves."  I can't imagine the psychological tolls of childhood stardom.  There are several names in that book: Dana Plato. Corey Haim. Macauley Culkin.  You wonder if they had toxic parents (some did).  I think they deserved better legacies than merely being punchlines.

But then you look at Ron Howard, famous from his very early years, and kept his success running to this day.  He's always seemed incredibly, unusually well adjusted for someone who's been under the lights for so long.  Howard had some nice words for his former T.V. sister, choosing to remember her from the "happy days."  Good advice.  R.I.P. Shortcake.  Fifty-six is far too young for a passage.

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