Why Those Racist Remarks Allegedly From Donald Sterling Felt Like a Punch in the Gut to Most of Us. Will the NBA Be Able to Do Enough to Fix the Problem? And a Surprise About Racism and the Rest of Us
In listening to just a 15-minute tape of what is purported to be a conversation between Donald Sterling, the owner of the professional basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers, and his former girlfriend -- which is full of venom and vitriol about African Americans in general and Magic Johnson specifically -- it’s impossible to overreact.
Like most people, I wasn’t familiar with Sterling’s history of racist remarks. And given the setting wherein the comments were made -- an intimate private conversation between Sterling and a woman we’ve been told is his former girlfriend -- the verbiage stung all the more. The comments had the ring -- and the rawness -- of authenticity.
A thought-provoking article by Harry Bruinius in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor addressed the issue head on, noting that Sterling’s alleged rants were just one example of how “the racism of today has been papered over by how Americans talk about race in public, which squares neither with many people's private beliefs nor with the realities on the ground.
“ ‘We are now living in a society where there is a huge gap between what people say publicly about race, and what they say when they think they are among trusted friends,’ says Mark Naison, the chair of African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. ‘This allows us to think we have placed race behind us even though there are deep underlying tensions.’
“ ‘It also allows us to deny that racial disparities in income, wealth, life expectancy, education and rates of incarceration have anything to do with racism,’ continues Mr. Naison. ‘Donald Sterling's comments remind us that this conclusion may be premature.’”
Indeed, the article adds: “Opinion polls consistently show white Americans think more progress has been made against racism than do black Americans. That perception gap has played out throughout society, even echoing into the U.S. Supreme Court.
“In gutting the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2012, a 5-to-4 majority of justices essentially decided that attitudes toward race have improved significantly. ‘Our country has changed,’ Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.
“But last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor mounted a full-scale intellectual assault on her colleagues’ thinking that race no longer matters as it once did, calling it ‘out of touch with reality.’”
Today NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the league would impose a lifetime ban on Sterling along with a $2.5 million fine. That's a stronger penalty than most expected, with many predicting that if the NBA found the tape to be authentic, the most the league would do would be to suspend and fine Sterling.
That would not have satisfied most of us.
One of the factors that leads one to believe the tape has not been doctored is, as we have learned over the past few days, Sterling’s past history. Deadspin, the sports news site, has posted a number of quotes attributed to Sterling as far back as 1983 that are about minorities. They are some of the nastiest comments I’ve seen on the subject.
Why hasn’t the NBA said anything up until now? That’s something else that’s inexcusable. In a news story about the Sterling tapes we wrote, “Elgin Baylor, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, was employed by Sterling's Clippers for 22 years. He exited from the Clippers in 2008. In February 2009, Baylor filed a wrongful termination suit against the team. A 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times about the suit said: 'In his deposition, Baylor spoke about what he called Sterling's "plantation mentality," alleging the owner in the late 1990s rejected a coaching candidate, Jim Brewer, because of race. Baylor quoted Sterling as saying: "Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players." Baylor said he was shocked. "And he [Sterling] looked at me and said, 'Do you think that's a racist statement?' I said, 'Absolutely. That's plantation mentality.'"'"
Josh Levin of Slate talked about this in another provocative piece I read yesterday: “The owner of a sports franchise acquires his cultural cachet by basking in the reflected glory of his players. There’s a dark side to that owner-player relationship that we don’t really think about, an uncomfortable truth that’s particularly fraught when you consider the racial dynamics at play in the NBA. A white plutocrat like Los Angeles Clippers owner/Hall-of-Fame-caliber bigot Donald Sterling doesn’t just own a basketball team. He owns the black players who suit up for that team, too.”
Levin continues: “Sterling is not a typical NBA owner. I’d have to imagine that his basketball-world brethren see their employees as remarkably talented human beings rather than the needy, subservient recipients of charitable food donations. Even so, it’s impossible to ignore that pro basketball is a business in which most of the employees are black and the vast majority of the owners are white. A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons. But like Sterling says, it’s the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. … As the New Yorker’s Ben Greenman wrote on Twitter, ‘It's not just Donald Sterling's ignorance that's the problem. It's the decades that ignorance has been tolerated because of wealth.’”
In another piece on Slate, William Saletan notes that on the tape “Sterling -- or a man who impersonates him perfectly, while the real Sterling mysteriously fails to deny that the voice is his -- invokes society’s opinions. You have to practice racism, he argues, because otherwise people will think ill of you.”
In the tape, “Sterling repeatedly attributes racism to the world, not to himself,” Saletan observes. But then, when Sterling’s girlfriend suggests that he can “change himself,” Sterling says, “I don’t want to change.” Saletan comments, “What a wretched moment. Sterling, a rich man with immense power over a city and millions of fans, pleads weakness. But eventually he admits it’s a matter of will. He has surrendered not to the world, but to the worst in himself.”
Part of our outrage is aimed at Sterling’s incredible insensitivity. Most of us don’t feel sorry for him, we are mad as hell at him and despise him.
One of the few people who has warned us to slow down in our efforts to get rid of Sterling is fellow NBA team owner Mark Cuban. Cuban, who at first declined to talk about the Sterling situation, opened up about it to the press yesterday.
Cuban was unequivocal in his condemnation of Sterling: “What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the NBA. … There’s no excuse for his positions. There’s no excuse for anybody to support racism. There’s no place for it in our league.”
But Cuban added that he is worried about a “very, very, very slippery slope” in forcing Sterling out of the league. “In this country, people are allowed to be morons. They’re allowed to be stupid. They’re allowed to think idiotic thoughts.”
Cuban then added: "Within an organization like the NBA, we try to do what's in the best interest of the league, and that's why we have a commissioner and a constitution, and I think Adam will be smart and deal with Donald with the full extent available. But, again, if you're saying a blanket, 'Let's kick him out?' I don't want to go that far because it's not about Donald, it's not about his position, it's about his mess -- and what are we going to make a decision on?”
According to ESPN, “Cuban said it was ‘damn scary’ to ponder the thought of attempting to remove somebody from the NBA because of their private thoughts.”
I would argue that Sterling has a track record of plenty of public thoughts that are racist as well. And TMZ, for one, has reported that Sterling knew his recent rantings were being taped.
To bring this piece full circle, in my readings over the past few days I came across a poll that reiterates the point of the Christian Science Monitor piece above.
It was an Associated Press poll and story from the fall of 2012 that should give us all pause.
The piece reports: “Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.”
The story goes on: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell."
"We have this false idea that there is uniformity in progress and that things change in one big step. That is not the way history has worked," said Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. "When we've seen progress, we've also seen backlash."
It’s not often outside of awards season that creators of some of television’s most riveting and successful dramas get together in one room for a deep dive into what goes into making their hit programs.
That was the agenda for Michelle Ashford, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex," Carlton Cuse, co-creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer of A&E’s “Bates Motel," and Jenji Kohan, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black," the headliners of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Hitmakers Newsmaker Luncheon, held April 16 at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom. The fourth participant -- and the only broadcast television representative--John Eisendrath (“The Blacklist”) was a last-minute cancellation due to production of the NBC show.
Two of the three programs are based on the lives of real people while the third derives from a classic film, so the first question on the table from panel moderator Michael Schneider was about how beholden the creators feel to truth and accuracy.
For “Masters of Sex,” based on a 2009 book about sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Ashford said the science is never fudged, but that composite characters were created for the drama, which stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as the lead characters.
“Thomas Maier’s book is very thorough but there are gaps that allow us freedom to fill in the blanks,” said Ashford.
Although “Orange” is based on the memoir of a woman’s time behind bars, Kohan said show producers deviated from the source material, even though author Piper Kerman wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of the fictionalized version. She is, however, consulted on issues about how her character would react in certain situations.
“All of the [other] women come out of our imaginations,” said Kohan, whose series will launch a second season in June.
With “Bates Motel” using the iconic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film as source material for a drama set in contemporary times that takes place before the events of the film, Cuse said the guiding principle of the prequel was the fact that nothing was known about Norman Bates’ mother, Norma.
“What if she was a multidimensional woman preventing him from becoming what he became?” Cuse said. “It’s a tragedy, it’s Shakespeare, but we didn’t pitch it that way. We used the ‘Psycho’ moniker to tell a mother-son story in another time. We didn’t want to live in the shadow of the movie. There’s no gain in trying to improve it. But we kept the iconic house and the Bates Motel. It lends it a sort of timelessness that was intentional and shows their relationship and conflict with the outside world.”
Although “Masters” is a period piece, the issues it deals with are contemporary. “It only made sense if it spoke to a modern audience,” said Ashford. "I don’t like graphic sex, so that presented a dilemma. Sex is often portrayed as a cliche. But in our story, it is strange and uncomfortable.”
“I love graphic sex,” Kohan interjected, before discussing the challenges of having actors deal with nudity. “There’s a lot of negotiating but it doesn’t get easier. People are weird about it. Nudity isn’t necessarily sexuality. It’s a hard sell. There’s one rule: Penises can’t be erect.”
From sexuality, the conversation veered into the distinction of comedy versus drama and the vagaries of deciding which category shows fall in for the Emmy Awards.
“I wish it was half an hour or one hour. It’s getting more muddled,” said Kohan. She also discussed shooting in New York, but rued the runaway production from L.A. “You can’t beat the 35% tax credit, but there’s a fight for resources.” “Bates Motel” shoots in Canada; “Masters” in Los Angeles.
One thing the panelists agreed on was that television is the place for quality drama and continues to attract quality actors, including many from features.
“Vera [Farmiga] was my first choice,” Cuse said of his lead actress. “I think if it was a feature we couldn’t improve on the cast.” “Bates Motes” co-lead Freddie Highmore also came from film, and “Masters’” Sheen holds prestigious stage, screen and television roles on his list of credits.
Kohan expressed gratitude that her show did not go through the pilot process. “It’s a vote of confidence to have a series order. It was music to my ears to go straight to series,” she said.
“If you believe in the idea and the creators, you should order the show,” said Cuse, whose program began its second season last month and has already been picked up for a third ten-episode season.
When the discussion turned to social media, Ashford and Kohan said they are not on Twitter. “It’s an intensive process and we have an incredible support staff doing it,” Ashford said. “To me, it’s noise, but essential to get the show out there.”
“I have work to do and I don’t want to deal with it,” Kohan said of tweeting. “I think it contributes to the culture of giving away your work for free. Then everyone thinks they’re entitled to your work, and that concerns me.”
“I see the value of Twitter but it’s hard to find time for it,” said Cuse, who regularly gets asked about “Lost” by stalwart fans and hears about their binge-watching.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” apparently didn’t howl quite loud enough to wrest the top golden popcorn trophies from the claws of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards Sunday at the Nokia Theatre, where "Catching Fire" claimed Best Picture, Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and Best Actor (Josh Hutcherson).
The always irreverent two-hour awards show seems to go by in a flash compared with other ceremonies, because of the fast pace of presenters and presentations along with exclusive previews of highly anticipated films -- which this year included looks at “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
And, putting back some of the music in the moniker MTV and demonstrating its ongoing relevance, some headlining musical numbers from the likes of Eminem and Rihanna, dueting for the first time live on their new single “The Monster,” and Ellie Goulding and Zedd, who brought the “Divergent” soundtrack to life with their new hit single “Beating Heart.”
For the first time, taking a lesson from the VMAs, which has served to launch artists including Florence + The Machine and Young the Giant, the Movie Awards featured a music discovery slot called “MTV Artist to Watch.” The spot went to the band twenty one pilots, who delivered a riveting performance of their new single, “Car Radio," which immediately vaulted their album to #1 on the iTunes alternative album charts.
Hosted by Conan O’Brien, the 2014 kudocast was tamer than many of its 21 previous editions -- with several recipients including Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum reminiscing that they had watched the show as kids and either dreamed of or never thought they’d be capable of being up on stage accepting a trophy from MTV. Aww …
O’Brien got the party started with an opening video showing him accepting the challenge to get 50 celebrity cameos into it, which featured the late-night host in funny interactions with people ranging from Jack Nicholson to Andy Samberg, Taylor Swift and Jack White, none of whom appeared too pleased to be accosted by him -- especially White, after O’Brien grabbed the guitar out of his hands and trashed it.
With O’Brien stating that his goal was to make the show the best ever, more laughter ensued when he showed six-second Vine videos encapsulating the essence of two of the year’s top films, “Wolf” and “American Hustle” -- both culminating with Matthew McConaughey’s infamous chest-thump chant. Then, O’Brien showed an amalgamation of the awards for Best Kiss and Best Fight with him facing off in a passionate battle against Will Arnett.
Then there was his special, fake award for Best Product Placement, which went to "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," for a clunky Pepsi machine planted on Middle Earth.
But it wasn’t entirely fun and frivolity. The audience, which always includes a large mosh pit surrounding the stage that loudly shows its love, was stilled as Jared Leto gave a moving acceptance speech -- he won the trophy for best transformation for playing Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club” -- about eliminating not only HIV/AIDS but the stigma that still surrounds the disease.
Later, Jordana Brewster fronted a moving tribute to Paul Walker, whose “Fast and Furious” films have been an MTV Movie Awards mainstay. The video spotlighted not only the late actor’s on-screen scenes and remembrances from co-stars including Vin Diesel but also his humanitarian and charitable work.
Yet the awards, most of which are voted on by fans, are overwhelmingly light-hearted, with categories for Best Villain, which went to Mila Kunis, and Best Shirtless Performance, taken by Zac Efron.
That presentation featured a bit of a John Travolta/Idina Menzel moment, with Jessica Alba pronouncing Zac’s last name as “Eefron,” after which co-presenter Rita Ora ripped his shirt off to squeals and cheers from the audience.
Tatum was presented with the Trailblazer Award by his “22 Jump Street” co-star Jonah Hill, who ribbed the actor for blazing a trail as a “gorgeous guy who becomes a movie star.”
Seth Rogen’s mom took center stage when despite his protests and eventual acquiescence, the two engaged in a passionate kiss in a skit that saw two members of the audience running up on stage to first smooch his "Neighbors" co-stars Dave Franco and Zac Efron as they presented the award for Best Kiss.
After the award went to Will Poulter, the British actor’s acceptance speech was uncannily interrupted by a text from Jennifer Aniston, with whom he’d starred in "We're the Millers," which he read aloud. Presumably in all good fun, she called him a “doucher,” and said the reason she didn’t show up at the ceremony is that she never wanted to be near him ever again.
Mark Wahlberg was given the Generation Award, presented by “Entourage’s” Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrera and Adrian Grenier. In an f-bomb-infused acceptance speech, the former underwear model and onetime rapper commented on the honor by saying, "I know what this really means. Many people have gotten this award before -- Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston -- this is the you're too (expletive) old to come back award. This is 'you're f---ing done.' But you know what, it was a great run."
We doubt that Wahlberg is done, or too old for further MTV recognition, with the “Entourage” movie and “Ted 2” on the horizon.
A Tribute to the Most Enjoyable Movie Ever Made, and the TV Channel That Is a National Treasure for Airing It 125 Times in the Last 20 Years
I first fell in love with Ingrid Bergman when I was a young teenager and she was just 26 years old.
She still is.
My feelings for her have been rekindled each of the dozen or so times I've watched her as she first enters Rick's Café Américain and makes eye contact with Sam, at his piano.
The movie is "Casablanca," which remains the most enjoyable movie I've ever seen. I first came to it on TV, which is how most baby boomers came to fall in love with the movies. When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, old movies from the 1940s in particular were TV staples.
From the nightly "Million Dollar Movie" on RKO's Channel 9 to the weekly "Fabulous 52" on KNXT Channel 2 to the daily Ben Hunter Movie Matinee on KTTV Channel 11, to name but three, it was a cornucopia of cinema.
While there were commercials galore, and who knows what was edited out of the movies to make them fit the time slots, one thing remained true: On our box-shaped Admiral and Philco black-and-white TV sets, the 4:3 ratio of the picture was almost identical to the 1.33:1 ratio in which most black-and-white movies of the 30s and 40s had been shot.
Since so many of those movies emphasized talk over action, and were primarily made up of single-subject close-ups or frames of film with just two actors in them -- called two shots -- we felt we were getting a reasonable facsimile of seeing what the movies were like when they were projected on the big screen.
Don't get me wrong -- watching a movie on TV in one's living room, even back then, was certainly not the same as seeing a nitrate print of a wonderfully photographed black-and-white movie shimmering on a bigger-than-life canvas in a darkened theater with no distractions. But as a way to fall in love with movies we could not otherwise hope to see, it was a damn fine substitute.
And it still is. Today, April 14, 2014, is the 20th anniversary of the debut of Turner Classic Movies -- TCM -- on TV. And the network has remained true to its founding principles -- the showing, primarily, of old black-and-white American movies uncut and without commercial interruption.
In being true to this simple mission, TCM continues to be a public service practically unique among TV channels. Contained within the sounds and images from TCM that now flicker digitally into our homes and onto to our screens both big and small, both stationary and mobile, are both a history of our past and the keys to our future.
No movie illustrates this better than “Casablanca.”
“Casablanca,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1942, came out a decade before I was born, and I didn’t first see it until it was a little more than two decades old. It was a hit when it came out almost a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when America was fully engaged in World War II. And, as it happened, there were events in WWII happening in Casablanca around the time of the film’s release as well.
But what’s amazing is that both 20 years after “Casablanca’ came out -- when I first saw it -- and today, this contemporary World War II movie resonates in such a timeless fashion.
“Casablanca” has been repeatedly characterized as a “happy accident.” But I demur. I’ve read a lot about “Casablanca” over the years, and my conclusion is that the movie is better described this way: “Casablanca” was no more an accident than were most of the other movies made under the studio system. That’s basically how movie historian and reporter Aljean Harmetz described “Casablanca” in her 1992 book “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of ‘Casablanca’ -- Bogart, Bergman, and World War II.”
“Casablanca” resonates because it’s excitingly, almost breathlessly filmed by director Michael Curtiz with a camera that seems to be on steroids; because the romance is so heartbreakingly played out; and because the movie, ultimately, appeals to the very best in each and every one of us.
All of this is done with performances that are letter-perfect from every single cast member and a script that is, arguably, the best movie script ever written.
And the glue that held all of this together was clearly the genius of Hal Wallis, the film’s producer, without whom the messy jigsaw puzzle pieces that were the pre-production and production of “Casablanca” would never have been put together in such a picture-perfect way.
If there is more chemistry on-screen between any two leading actors than the chemistry in “Casablanca” between Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, then 42, I haven’t seen it.
In her 1980 autobiography “Ingrid Bergman: My Story,” the Swedish-born actress surprisingly wrote this about “Casablanca”: “I’d hardly got to know Humphrey Bogart at all. Oh, I’d kissed him, but I didn’t know him. He was polite, naturally, but I always felt there was a distance; he was behind a wall. I was intimidated by him. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ [starring Bogart] was playing in Hollywood at the time and I used to go and see it quite often during the shooting of ‘Casablanca’ because I got to know him a little better through that picture.”
What I love about that is here we find Bergman saying that she’s falling in love with Bogart the same way all the rest of us did -- through one of his great film performances. She was falling for the same celluloid Bogie that we did.
Furthermore, as it turns out, the nobility of Rick Blaine was part of the essence of Bogart as well, according to an article written by Alistair Cooke for the Atlantic Monthly in May 1957, four months after Bogart died: “From all [Bogart] was determined to keep his secret: the rather shameful secret, in the realistic world we inhabit, of being a gallant man and an idealist.”
Among the many wonderful insights in Aljean Harmetz’s book about the making of “Casablanca” are those about the script. First, she notes that many of the memorable lines that ended up in the final film were actually in the unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison that “Casablanca” was based upon.
She also deciphers, as best she can, what was written by the identical-twin Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, and what was written by Howard Koch. Because all three were employed as studio writers by Warner Bros., it wasn’t a case, like today, where one writer -- or writing team -- works on a script and then they wave it goodbye as some other writer revises it.
Writes Harmetz in her book about the making of “Casablanca”: “Each subsequent [version] of the script became leaner and sharper, more economical, the scenes rearranged for greater dramatic effect and the speeches polished and clipped. Within the confines of a studio that both Koch and Julie Epstein describe as ‘a family,’ Koch rewrote the Epsteins to give the movie more weight and significance, and the Epsteins then rewrote Koch to erase his most ponderous symbols and earnestness.”
In one specific example of this process, writes Harmetz, Koch “deepened Rick’s character and underlined the political tensions in subtle ways. For example Koch makes the man Rick bars from his gambling room -- who was an English cad in the original play -- into a representative of the Deutschebank.” Furthermore, Harmetz notes that “if Koch layered the politics rather heavily … the Epsteins would remove those speeches. … With delicate balance, Koch managed to hold down the gags, while the Epsteins managed to cut the preaching.”
One more reason “Casablanca” works so well is both the dialogue given to, and the performance of, Claude Rains, who plays Captain Louis Renault.
Renault is the classic foil with whom we in the audience so identify. Without Renault I’m pretty sure “Casablanca” would not be the endearing classic it became.
I said at the top of this piece that “Casablanca” is the most enjoyable movie I’ve ever seen. I also like how the late movie critic Roger Ebert once described how so many of us feel about it:
"Casablanca" is The Movie.
There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time. But when it comes right down to the movies we treasure the most, when we are -- let us imagine -- confiding the secrets of our heart to someone we think we may be able to trust, the conversation sooner or later comes around to the same seven words:
"I really love 'Casablanca'."
"I do too."
This is a movie that has transcended the ordinary categories. It has outlived the Bogart cult, survived the revival circuit, shrugged off those who would deface it with colorization, leaped across time to win audiences who were born decades after it was made. Sooner or later, usually before they are 21, everyone sees "Casablanca." And then it becomes their favorite movie.
It is The Movie.
Today, Monday, April 14, 2014, at 5 p.m Eastern Time (2 p.m. PT), as part of its 20th anniversary celebration, TCM will present “Casablanca” for the 126th time on its air. It's just one of 8,719 feature movies that TCM tells me they have shown uncut and without commercials since the channel debuted in 1994.
From all of us movie buffs to everyone at TCM, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
It’s been a beautiful relationship, indeed.
[Besides being a big fan of "Casablanca," Chuck Ross also used the script of the movie as the basis for one of the most famous experiments in the history of Hollywood. Please click here to read that piece.]
Marlon Brando, who knew something about acting, wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”: “As I’ve observed before, acting talent alone doesn’t make an actor a star. It takes a combination of qualities: looks, personality, presence, ability. Like Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo wasn’t much of an actress, but she had presence. She probably played the same character in every film she ever made, but she was beautiful and had an unusual personality.
“Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is an unsung hero of the actors’ world. He never become a leading man -- he was too short, his teeth weren’t straight and he didn’t have sex appeal. But like Jimmy Cagney, he could do almost anything.”
The late James Agee, who may have been the toughest movie critic I have ever read -- when he was writing columns about the movies for The Nation magazine in the 1940s -- wrote this in 1944: “I am quite sure about Mickey Rooney: He is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles …”
Four years later, in 1948, Agee wrote about “Killer McCoy,” which was Rooney’s first adult role. Rooney plays the "Killer" of the title, a boxer. Agee said he found the film “almost … likable,” though he also said it was “a harmless, worthless movie about prize-fighting” -- I told you Agee was tough. However, about Rooney’s role in “Killer McCoy,” Agee nailed it when he called it “a coolly magical performance.”
The late director John Frankenheimer worked with some of the finest actors ever, from Burt Lancaster to Robert De Niro, from Frederic March to Robert Ryan. Yet it was of Rooney that Frankenheimer said he was “the best actor I ever worked with.”
Frankenheimer was specifically talking about Rooney’s performance in a classic 1957 “Playhouse 90” program titled ‘The Comedian.” The teleplay was by Rod Sterling, who adapted an original story by Ernest Lehman. Rooney played the title role, a comic named Sammy Hogarth, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. Rooney’s kinetic, manic portrayal is spot on, as in his mania we fully understand both his cruelty and his insecurity.
The critic David Thomson, in the 2002 version of his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” writes about the actor, “Do we laugh or cry for Rooney? ... Mickey Rooney is important, and yet he is ridiculous … .”
I think a lot of people have thought that about Rooney, though, most probably, few have even thought of him at all in recent years. Rooney died yesterday, April 6, 2014, at the age of 93. I must add, I was a fan, and, like Brando, always thought Rooney was underrated. No doubt that was because of the many “Andy Hardy” movies Rooney made at MGM in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And while Brando says Rooney never became a “leading man” in the same sense as a Clark Gable or a Gary Cooper, during Rooney’s heyday at MGM he was “one of the most popular stars in the world,” as Thomson notes.
Thomson cites three of Rooney’s performances in particular that show him off “not just [as] an actor of genius, but an artist able to maintain a stylized commentary on the demon impulse of the small, belligerent man," Thomson writes. Those three performances are as Puck in the 1935 version of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” as Whitely Marsh in “Boy’s Town” (1938), and as the title character in the 1957 cult favorite “Baby Face Nelson.”
In a later role, his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Black Stallion,” Rooney is superb. That family film, by the way -- one of the most stunningly photographed movies of the late 1970s -- just came out on Blu-ray last month.
Another must-see Rooney performance is as a horse jockey named Grady in “The Last Night of a Jockey,” which was first shown in the fifth and final season of “The Twilight Zone” in 1963. [Update at 11 a.m., PT on 4-7-2014. Me-TV has announced that as a tribute to Rooney it will be showing this episode of "The Twilight Zone" tonight at 11 p.m. ET/PT, 10 p.m. CT.]
I want to end with this anecdote about Rooney that I have told before. I first read about it in the 2005 autobiography of producer William Froug, tiled "How I Escaped from 'Gilligan's Island': Adventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer." Froug produced the “Twilight Zone” episode that starred Rooney.
And Froug produced an earlier program that starred Rooney. The year was 1958, and Froug was producing shows for the half-hour drama anthology series "Alcoa Goodyear Theatre." He received an unusual script -- a show that consisted of a single monologue. Froug loved the script, titled "Eddie." It was about a gambler who had to raise money to pay off his debts by a certain hour, or he was going to be killed. Immediately, Froug thought of one actor to play the part: Mickey Rooney.
Here is some of what Froug wrote about "Eddie" in his autobiography:
"As it turned out, Rooney could have directed himself. [As the cameras rolled] I could only stare with amazement as this superb actor picked up the prop phone and instantly became Eddie, making his desperate pitch to his customers, his brother, and finally his mother; a lonely, isolated man pleading for his life. With no actor to play against, it was a virtuoso performance. Rooney's face broke out in sweat, his eyes searching the tiny apartment as if seeking divine intervention. Mickey Rooney's performance defined talent. He was even better than I had imagined. ... When we finished shooting after a little more than two days, the entire crew gave Rooney a richly deserved standing ovation."
Froug continues: "When the print was edited we showed the rough cut to a few Screen Gems executives. They came out of the projection room with raves. 'It's an Emmy for Rooney, no doubt about it,' was the consensus. You could feel the excitement around the Screen Gems offices. We had something special."
Finally it was time for the Emmys to be presented. The show itself won. Froug writes, "It turned out to be 'Eddie's' night. Jack Smight won as best director, and Al Brenner won one for adapting Kenneth Hughes' script."
Rooney was up against five other actors in the category Best Single Performance of the Year. The previous year he had been nominated in the same category for his role in “The Comedian.”
Competing against Rooney in “Eddie” were Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Paul Muni and Robert Crawford Jr.. All were nominated for their performances playing characters in various other drama anthologies. The other nominee was Fred Astaire, who was up for playing himself singing and dancing in his TV special "An Evening with Fred Astaire." Astaire won the Emmy.
Froug writes: "Entering the men's room at the Earl Carroll Theater [in Hollywood] after the ceremonies were over, I discovered Rooney at the sink, staring at his image in the mirror. 'Fuck 'em!' he yelled. 'Fuck 'em all! Who needs the bastards!' He turned away from the sink and staggered drunkenly out the door, barely able to navigate. Who could blame him?"
It would be almost 25 years later before Rooney would finally pick up an Emmy for Best Actor. It was for his role in the now-classic 1982 TV movie “Bill,’’ wherein Rooney played a man with a serious intellectual disability.
Here’s a copy of a very good quality kinescope of “The Comedian” that was first presented on “Playhouse 90” on Feb. 14, 1957. We found it on YouTube, where it’s been up for almost two years. There is so much movement in the show it's hard to believe that this performance was broadcast live, and not on tape. When you have 90 minutes free to watch it, I urge you to do so. It’s a performance in which Rooney gets the last laugh.