Bill Katz: Four deaths and a rule change

Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort over at Urgent Agenda. In his column today, Bill draws in part on his experience working for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson:

Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Karl Malden, Michael Jackson. Rarely do we get that many show-business deaths so close together. And there was also, during this two-week period, a rule change for the Oscars. It is the rule change that may have the greatest impact on the future of our popular culture, although it has barely been noticed.

Ed McMahon, whom I knew when I was a talent coordinator on The Tonight Show, was exactly as he seemed on TV – jovial, friendly, genuine, and a man who probably stood before a mirror each morning and wondered if this was all real. He would travel with the staff, joke with us, and always seemed to regard show business as simply a way of making a living. It was never an obsession. Ed was, in fact, more proud of his earlier life as a Marine Corps pilot in Korea, flying Corsairs, than he was of any on-the-air performance.

There is no school for “sidekicks.” It is not a learned profession, and there are no honorary degrees given for outstanding achievement in sidekickery. I doubt if Ed grew up dreaming that, some day, he’d be a sidekick. But, through some good breaks, he became a very famous sidekick, and performed the role for three decades. The audience never tired of him.

I was struck by similarities between Farrah Fawcett and Marilyn Monroe. Both women were famous more for a still picture than for any part they played. In Marilyn’s case, the photo featured considerably more of her, and less of any fabric, than it did in Farrah’s. Marilyn Monroe’s calendar shot launched her toward fame, if a somewhat controversial fame at first.

Farrah’s poster added to the fame she’d achieved as one of “Charlie’s Angels,” and made her an international sensation. Some said – there is no way to check this – that in the late 70s she was the most recognizable actress in the world.

But there was another similarity. Both Marilyn Monroe and Farrah Fawcett, stereotyped as the blonde bombshells of their time, struggled to escape the image. They refused to let good looks stand in their way. Both attempted to improve themselves, to go on to become accomplished actresses, and both, more or less, succeeded. Sir Laurence Olivier, cast with Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” was struck by her comedic talent. Farrah Fawcett, becoming famous in a later, gloomier age for feature films, had to settle for some strikingly good performances in TV movies like “The Burning Bed.”

Monroe, of course, died at 36, so we don’t know if she would have fulfilled her potential. Farrah was 62 when she died, and had been struggling, as an older actress, to find the recognition she had earned.

An editor at the New York Times once read me a series of letters Marilyn Monroe had written him after he’d shown her around the paper. They were not the letters of a genius or a political sophisticate. But they discussed the 1960 presidential campaign in the striving manner of someone who was saying, “Look, I’m a person. I can have real opinions, too.”

Karl Malden, one of our finest actors, was probably better known for the American Express commercials he did in the 1970s through the early 90s than for any of his distinguished roles. It’s the power of television. And he always seemed to be the actor who was famous largely because of the actors he acted with. He played opposite Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront.” He played opposite George C. Scott in “Patton.” He played opposite Michael Douglas in the TV series, “Streets of San Francisco.” He played opposite Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for which he won the Oscar as best supporting actor. He even played opposite Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood in “Gypsy,” a musical.

Malden’s most heroic role, though, was offscreen. In 1999, as a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he proposed an Oscar for lifetime achievement for Elia Kazan, one of the America’s greatest directors.

Ordinarily, it would have been an easy call. But Kazan had infuriated the Hollywood left in the early 50s by appearing as a friendly witness before a congressional committee investigating Communist influence in Hollywood. Even in 1999 it was still risky to speak favorably of Kazan, and to take on a political left that never forgives or forgets. But Malden did, and the award was presented to Kazan at the Oscar ceremonies, both to sustained applause and some visible sneering from the usual suspects.

Mention of the Academy provides a nice segue into the rule change for Oscar that will change the awards ceremony and remind us of film history. No, I’m not referring to the new rule that will see ten, rather than five films nominated for “Best Picture.” That is grotesque, and nothing more than a publicity grab for an ever more mediocre industry. It’s hard enough to name five pictures worthy of “best.” Getting ten will put Oscar on the level of summer camps that give an “outstanding camper” ribbon to any kid who doesn’t
drown.

The other rule change involves “best song,” a category that has become, for the Academy, an embarrassment. The Associated Press reported:

LOS ANGELES–No Academy Award will be presented for best song at next year’s ceremony if none of the tunes is considered good enough, Oscar organizers said Friday.

Rules for the 82nd Oscar show next March will require that at least one song must achieve a minimum score of 8.25 on a scale of 6 to 10 in voting by members of the academy’s music branch.

“We’re trying to improve the quality,” said composer Bruce Broughton, who heads the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “There’s been a lot of talk about the songs in films, the lack of memorability compared to songs in the past, the almost forgettability of some of them.”

You think?

Surely you regularly hum 2005’s Oscar winner, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Ranks right up there with “Over the Rainbow” and “High Noon,” doesn’t it?

In fact, a change like this has been in the works for decades. As early as the 1970s there were rumblings in Hollywood that the latest “best song” winners wouldn’t have even made it into movies of an earlier time, much less been nominated for Oscars.

Consider just five years of Oscar-winning songs, starting in 1940, roughly corresponding to World War II: “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “White Christmas,” “You’ll Never Know,” and “Swingin’ on a Star.” Just to hear Alice Faye sing “You’ll Never Know” in “Hello, Frisco, Hello,” is to be enveloped by quality.

Or another five years, starting in 1953, in “best song’s” last great period: “Secret Love,” “Three Coins in a Fountain,” “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Que Sera, Sera,” and “All the Way.” When you hear Sinatra sing “All the Way,” you’ve gone to the top.

Recall many Oscar winners of the last 20 years? Now you know why they’ve changed the rules. We hope the change jolts the music world and gets the real composers going.

We haven’t considered here the death of Michael Jackson. If you really feel compelled to read more about that, there are medicines available.

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