Saturday, August 30, 2008
Centennial Tributes: Fred MacMurray
By Josh R
For the first decade of his career, Fred MacMurray was a model of gentlemanly comportment. Pleasant in manner and appearance, he provided a strong shoulder for Hollywood’s top female stars to lean and occasionally weep on in a series of films in which his function was clearly secondary. Not that MacMurray seemed to register any of the supposed indignity of playing second fiddle; he understood that his job was to show up promptly and well-pressed, corsage in hand, and execute the duties of a conscientious escort without diverting too much attention from his leading lady.
In film after film from the mid-'30s to the early '40s, MacMurray was attractive without being conspicuously so, charmingly low-key, and dutifully observant of the Boy Scout’s honor code as pertaining to relations with the opposite sex. Consider that painful dinner party sequence in Alice Adams — just one of a series of humiliations Katharine Hepburn must endure throughout the course of that film — in which, as the guest of honor, MacMurray spares the heroine’s feelings by pretending not to notice that the soup is cold, the room is sweltering and the company is decidedly bourgeois. If there had been a merit badge for chivalry, he would have won it several times over.
You can earn medals for good behavior in certain walks of life, but not many prizes are awarded for being a good team player in the film business. While a very fine actor, MacMurray may never have been a distinctive enough presence to grab the spotlight for himself. His masculinity was of the casual, nonthreatening variety; he was good-looking, without being exactly handsome; he could be very funny, but not in such a way as to give the great comic clowns of the age any reason for concern. His seeming averageness consigned him to leading man duties in light comedies and tearjerkers, the kind of films frequently referred to as “women’s pictures.” The ladies were the main attraction, and good boy scout that he was, MacMurray graciously allowed himself to be consistently upstaged by Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard and gallery of others. Perhaps all that modesty and nobility — being a nice guy in a woman’s world — began to wear on him after a while, eroding his confidence and breeding a sense of dissatisfaction. For if MacMurray’s early outings never betrayed a whiff of danger — he had trained his preternaturally deep, gruff voice to speak in the hush, dulcet tones of a sympathetic Boy Friday, while his features remained frozen in a perpetual mask of wholesome credulity while comforting all those chiffon-swathed damsels in distress — he did manage to veer off course on a few occasions, forsaking the straight and narrow path just long enough to create room for doubt as to whether all that clean conduct may have little more than a put-on.
The dominant-submissive dynamic in most of his early pictures — which really made notably few demands of him as an actor — probably made him impatient for something more challenging, less emasculating. Consider Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, a character defined very much by a spirit of restlessness. A moral weakling who falls prey to the machinations of yet another dominant female (in this case, a genuine sociopath with metal anklets that cut into her reptilian skin without drawing blood), what makes Walter so eminently corruptible is how bored he’s become in playing by the rules. He goes from a passive observer to an active participant, and effect is just intoxicating enough to give him the false illusion of being the one in charge. The fear of getting caught becomes as much of a turn-on as the breaking of the social compact, and murder becomes the ultimate sexual act — if planning a murder may be the ultimate form of foreplay, enacting it is the ultimate form of release. Once again, a woman is really the one calling the shots — only this time, the man finally gets disgusted enough to do something about it.
The shifty anxiety and bitter fatalism MacMurray brought to his performance in the Billy Wilder film were astonishing, and not the least by virtue of their coming from such an unexpected source. It was a role he had been reticent to play, but ultimately the one in which he seemed the most thoroughly at home. Double Indemnity was the first film to show the darker side of MacMurray — happily, it wouldn’t be the last. Pushover, The Caine Mutiny, and especially The Apartment — as the embodiment of smooth-talking corporate disingenuousness — showed how effortlessly he could peel back the layers of surface geniality to reveal cowardice, ruthlessness or just plain rottenness. Occasional forays into villainy may have given the chance to stretch, but niceness remained his stock in trade. For MacMurray, the 1960s meant paydirt. My Three Sons stayed on the air so long they started filming it in color, while a series of films for Disney established him as favorite of family audiences. He seemed to enjoy himself in his outings for Disney — most notably as the sane-mad-scientist who whips up an electro-magnetically charged form of silly putty in The Absent-Minded Professor — but his most popular successes didn’t really represent his best work. MacMurray was a whiz at doing comfort food, but his meatiest roles — especially the two for Billy Wilder — were ultimately his most satisfying. The actor wisely decided to retire after The Swarm…so many bees packing so much less sting than Stanwyck in a blonde wig and trashy heels. It is tempting to consider his a minor career — tempting, that is, until one considers that unforgettable moment when love and hate converge with the firing of a gun, the final showdown between partners in crime bound together in deed and consequence “straight down the line”. It’s a testament to the power and clarity of MacMurray’s performance the pulling of that trigger seems not so much a sordid crime of passion as the ultimate act of self-loathing punishment. As Walter Neff ruefully recounts in his recorded confession, “I didn’t get the money…and I didn’t get the woman.” MacMurray never really got the rewards, nor the recognition of the type usually accorded a major star…but then, MacMurray was the type of actor who seemingly always gave more than he got. His co-stars, directors and audiences were the chief beneficiaries.
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Sunday, August 10, 2008
To all the posts I didn't write
"In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."
By Edward Copeland
Energy is something I've sadly lacked for most of the year, one that prevented me from celebrating the 30th anniversary of the publication of John Irving's The World According to Garp in April. My computer access was further hampered in May when I was hospitalized, where I remain today. Thanks to my contributors, particularly Josh and Jeffrey, who have helped keep the blog breathing during my health crisis. I'm sparing you the details because I don't want to make this a pity party. I just want to talk about what I didn't get to write.
What caused me the most pain wasn't the anniversaries I missed or the reviews I didn't get to write, but the appreciations I was unable to do. The first hospital I was in finally got tired of my complaining about their inadequacies and coughed up a laptop for me to borrow, so I was able to post on Sydney Pollack and Harvey Korman.
Unfortunately, a little more than a week later I was transferred to a long-term care hospital that not only didn't have computers, the building didn't even have WiFi. The death that caused me the most anguish was George Carlin, my favorite comic since high school. I'm not ashamed to admit that for about a week after his death, every time I saw a clip of him on TV I would burst into tears. Of course I'm such an emotional basketcase, I do the same thing when that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial comes on. I wish I could have acknowledged the passing of Don S. Davis, better known as Major Briggs on Twin Peaks. He also played Scully's dad on The X-Files. This piece alone took me so long to finish that Estelle Getty, Bernie Mac, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Hayes fell through the cracks. Of course, this blog survives mostly on reviews, reviews I've been unable to provide. The last film I saw in a movie theater, perhaps the last film I'll ever see in a theater, was The Counterfeiters, which won this year's Oscar for foreign language film. It was very good. At the first hospital where I was imprisoned, they also tried to buy my silence by bringing a DVD player in my room, so I was almost able to write my 60th anniversary appreciation of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and my 30th anniversary piece on the movie Grease. The most ambitious project that fell through was my 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of Fanny and Alexander as well as comparing it to the longer version Ingmar Bergman made (and preferred) for television.
I also regret not writing about the 20th anniversary of Die Hard, the 30th anniversary of National Lampoon's Animal House and the 25th of Risky Business. While I am back (sort of), my posts will be infrequent and I don't know what form they will take since I won't have access to things to review. I'm just grateful to be back in cyberspace.
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