2009 was yet another tough year when it comes to celebrity deaths. Much like 2008, there were quite a few upsetting and shocking deaths (Natasha Richardson, David Carradine, Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy). There were also, as usual, several deaths in the classic film world, but perhaps this year wasn’t as upsetting as last year, when we lost film giants like Paul Newman and Richard Widmark. Nevertheless, we lost several wonderful and memorable contributors to classic film. As usual, I can’t right something for the many people who passed away, but here are just a few that hit me hard.
Early this year we lost the wonderful character actor Karl Malden. He was 96 years old, one of the oldest of the great actors left. He didn’t have the movie star looks to be a leading man, but he was easily one of the best actors throughout the latter part of the classic era, turning in several incredible supporting performances. He won an Academy Award for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and received another nomination for On the Waterfront. These are easily his two most famous performances, but he was also amazing in movies like I Confess, Gypsy, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Baby Doll, which is my personal favorite performance from him.
Director Robert Mulligan is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an excellent film. It is easily his best film, but unfortunately a lot of his other films are overlooked, and he made many good ones. I’m pretty fond of Love With the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. It’s a really strong romance and Mulligan worked with the chemistry between Wood and McQueen so well. Fear Strikes Out is also an really good film, one of the better biopics of the era. He also did an excellent job with the uniquely structured Same Time, Next Year.
Dorothy Coonan is probably best known as Mrs. William Wellman. They were married for 41 years, until his death. But before she married Wild Bill, she made a few movies. She was a dancer and chorus girl in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. But her most impressive work onscreen is in her husband’s film Wild Boys of the Road, in which she plays a young girl living her life on the railroad, hopping freights. It’s an honest movie about the Depression, and Coonan’s performance is quite affecting.
Ricardo Montalban is mostly remembered for his later work in Fantasy Island and The Wrath of Khan, but he made a few good films back during the classic era. He costarred in a few really good musicals in the late 1940s (On and Island With You and Neptune’s Daughter) as well as Battleground, a very good World War II movie from 1950. He also starred in Latin Lovers with Lana Turner. It’s not a particularly good movie, but I’m fond of it.
Jane Bryan’s career was pretty brief. She only made 18 films and worked only between 1936 and 1940. But in that four year period, she had supporting roles in some really wonderful films, like Marked Woman, The Old Maid, and Each Dawn I Die. She was extremely charming in the lead female role in the crime comedy A Slight Case of Murder. Bryan had a really great, understated screen presence, but she married in 1940 and quite the business for good.
James Whitmore is one of my favorite character actors from the 1950s. He was in John Huston’s caper drama The Asphalt Jungle, and he more than held his own among a really impressive ensemble cast. He also costarred with Montalban in Battleground. Whitmore had a screen presence that was really electric and versatile. He went from films like The Asphalt Jungle to musicals like Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma.
I wrote about Jones’ death a few weeks ago when it happened. She’s one of my all time favorite actresses, who could handle both comedy and drama with amazing skill and ease. From Portrait of Jennie to Cluny Brown, she was simply dazzling to watch on screen. She was also great at going from the good girl (in something like Since You Went Away) to the bad girl (her fiery performance in Duel In the Sun). Her talent is simply unforgettable.