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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

2004: In Memoriam

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

And here you thought I'd left you. Well, you won't get rid of me that easily. No, the truth is that the popular vaudeville team of Hunt and Doogan were kind enough to give me a brief hiatus while I put the finishing touches on a new book I've been writing with Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman. A novel this time, based on The Toxic Avenger. But there'll be plenty of time for shameless self-promotion later. For now, let's get back into the swing of things with Part One of my look back on 2004.

Last year's In Memoriam column proved surprisingly popular (surprising to me, anyway). So if I may beg your indulgence for another year, here are my thoughts on a few of the filmmakers, artists, musicians and writers we lost last year. Unfortunately, the world doesn't stop turning just because we're busy with other things. As I write this, 2005 is barely a week old and I already have someone to salute this time next year (that would be comics legend Will Eisner).

Once again, the people mentioned here are only a fraction of those who passed on in 2004. If I've overlooked one of your favorites, I apologize. But each of the men and women in this column had some effect on me. Some big, some small. But in each case, the news of their death stopped me in my tracks and made me reflect, reminisce, and yes, mourn their passing. To everyone mentioned below, I'd like to say thank you and goodbye.

Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith

Film music is a difficult artform to master. The score must compliment and support the movie it's been written for without overpowering the images or dialogue. It's much more than just coming up with a memorable theme to play over the credits, although a truly great theme can carry a movie a long way. By the time Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein died in 2004 (oddly enough, within a month of each other), each of them had forgotten more about film composing than most of today's crop will ever know. Bernstein could do just about anything, from the sweeping score to The Ten Commandments to the poker-faced parody of Airplane!. The Magnificent Seven wouldn't have been nearly as magnificent without Bernstein's unforgettable music. Otto Preminger's once-shocking The Man with the Golden Arm hasn't stood the test of time very well but Bernstein's hot jazz theme still swings. The highlights of Bernstein's career are some of the most instantly recognizable pieces of music in film history. But my personal favorite of his work, next to his brilliant work on To Kill a Mockingbird which is just about everybody's favorite, has to be his amazing jazz score to Sweet Smell of Success. Rarely has music, cinematography, script, performances, direction and editing gelled so perfectly into a cohesive whole.

As for Jerry Goldsmith, he was too often considered just a composer for horror, sci-fi and fantasy pictures. But if he was pigeonholed, it's only because he did them so, so well. His score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was one of the few elements of that movie I enjoyed without reservation. His music for both The Omen and Alien were so influential that they were both frequently, slavishly imitated but never equalled. However, Goldsmith may have found his ideal collaborator in director Joe Dante. Dante's mix of fantasy, horror, humor and nostalgia brought out the best in Goldsmith. His scores for Gremlins and Gremlins 2 are about as unhinged as anything you'll hear come out of a major studio release. Unlike many other film scores, Goldsmith's music sounded like he was having fun writing it. Without Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith, movies will sound just a little bit more ordinary from now on.

Marlon Brando

Shortly after Brando's death, someone said to me that they didn't understand what the big deal was. I was momentarily speechless. Could Marlon Brando, the actor, have been completely overshadowed by Brando, the Larry King-smooching caricature? I couldn't believe that I had to explain to someone what the big deal was about Marlon Brando. The big deal was that he basically changed the way actors act in movies forever. His performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront draw a line in the sand between the movie stars of the 1930's and 40's and the method actors of the 60's on up. And when it looked like his disciples might leave him in the dust in the 70's, Brando came roaring back to show everybody how it was done in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. And yeah, maybe nothing he did in his final years came anywhere close to hitting those heights. But his performance in The Freshman is a priceless bit of self-parody. To my eyes, he single-handedly made Don Juan DeMarco worth watching. As for The Island of Dr. Moreau, once you see Brando in this movie, I defy you to forget him. On his worst day, Marlon Brando was more interesting to watch than most anyone else on screen with him. He was simply a fascinating, larger than life individual and that made him a very big deal indeed.

Laura Branigan

Most any pop song has the ability to transport you back in time to where you were when you first heard it. But really good pop songs not only do that every time you hear them, they also stand up as enjoyable pieces of music in their own right. For me, such is the case with Laura Branigan. I remember hearing her frequently on the radio back in the 80's and I never changed the dial when she came on (something I can't say about a lot of her contemporaries, even those I kind of like). A few years back, in a tidal wave of nostalgia, I revisited some of her stuff and was downright shocked to discover I liked it just as much as ever. I don't care what anybody says, "Gloria" and "Self-Control" are great songs. Laura Branigan's powerful voice cut through the over-produced synthpop of the 1980's and I'll always wonder why her career didn't rise above the decade of excess. She was a terrific singer who deserved a bigger taste of fame than her few years at the top.

Ray Charles

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a recording artist who used the word "genius" in his album titles as often as Ray Charles. With anyone else, this would be considered unfettered egomania. With Brother Ray, it was a simple statement of fact. Better writers than I have tried and failed to put into words just what it was about Ray Charles' music that was so affecting. And certainly I'm not about to sit here and try to analyze his work. But if I had to try to sum up why a Ray Charles song works, I guess I'd just have to say it's because it flows. His songs seem effortless, pouring from his hands like a river. The music came from somewhere deep inside him and that, I believe, is what made it so important to so many people. You don't have to like R&B, country and western, gospel, soul or any of the specific musical genres Ray dabbled in over the course of his long career to enjoy his music. He transcended genre. He played Ray's music. And if he changed the world a little bit while he was playing, well I bet Ray thought that was OK, too.

Rodney Dangerfield

It's unfortunate that Rodney Dangerfield never made a truly great movie. Movies, after all, are as close to forever as we've got. They can be revisited any time. Whereas stand-up comedy, Dangerfield's true forte, is as ephemeral as any live performance. Once it's gone, it can never really be recaptured. Yes, there are HBO specials and the like but they're not quite the same. And Rodney Dangerfield was one of the great stand-up comics. Not that he couldn't work in films. He brings Caddyshack to life every time he's on screen. He single-handedly made Back to School worth watching. He was even effectively creepy in Natural Born Killers. But his natural environment was on stage with a stool, a glass of water and a microphone, nervously yanking at his tie and wiping sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. No respect? Maybe not but his fans wouldn't have had it any other way.

Spalding Gray

Live theatre has been a part of my life since I was born. Both my parents taught theatre and I've been involved myself in all sorts of shows in all sorts of capacities. As both a theatre-goer and a sometime participant, no words fill me with dread more than "one-man (or woman) show". Some of the worst theatre I've ever seen have been one-person shows and they're often even deadlier when the actor in question has written the text himself. Spalding Gray was the exception. When he took the stage, he wasn't an actor doing a show or a writer performing an extended poem. He was a storyteller. And you sat, captivated, for as long as the story took to be told. Spalding's love of language was intoxicating. His words and his voice made you see every detail in his story, even though all you were really seeing was Spalding sitting behind a desk talking to you. Anyone who wants to write or act in the theatre should watch Swimming to Cambodia. It's all right there. You don't need big sets or elaborate costumes or casts of thousands to make electrifying theatre. You just need a story and the ability to tell it.

Janet Leigh

Like most people my age, my first introduction to Janet Leigh was her fatal shower in Psycho. But once I started to watch more movies of the 1950's and 60's, I was startled to discover that Janet Leigh kept turning up in the ones I liked the most. There she was in Touch of Evil as Charlton Heston's wife. There she was again in The Manchurian Candidate. And again, opposite James Stewart in The Naked Spur. I was beginning to discover what Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Frankenheimer and Anthony Mann knew all along. When Janet Leigh played a character, you could tell at a glance that this was a complex, interesting woman. She's immortal now, thanks to the most memorable death in film history. But the murder of Marion Crane wouldn't have meant nearly as much if we hadn't just spent almost an hour getting to know the woman in the shower.

Mercedes McCambridge

Like Janet Leigh, for a long time my knowledge of Mercedes McCambridge was limited to two important facts. First, her voice had scared the bejeezus out of me in The Exorcist. Second, she had possibly the coolest name I'd ever heard. Eventually, also like Janet Leigh, I began to see that name appear in the credits of other films, movies in which she actually appeared on camera. Most notably, she was the hysterical sister out for justice in Nicholas Ray's brilliant, vastly underrated western Johnny Guitar. And although she was uncredited, she was unforgettable in Touch of Evil as the gang leader menacing... that's right, Janet Leigh. Mercedes McCambridge's screen appearances were limited but she made the most of them.

Russ Meyer

Breast men everywhere lost a valuable patron the day Russ Meyer died. More importantly, the film world lost one of its few truly independent filmmakers. Russ Meyer did things his way. He made the movies he wanted to watch, he distributed them, and remarkably kept control of the rights to almost all of them until the day he died. His movies turned a handsome profit, which meant that when he made two films within the studio system (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes), 20th Century Fox came to him, not vice versa. Still, there are those who just aren't on the same wavelength as Russ Meyer and can't stand his movies. I ain't one of them snobs. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! remains one of my most-wanted DVDs. Late last year, Bill, Todd and I took in a double feature of Faster Pussycat and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. The movies are crude, yes, in just about every sense of the term. But we and the rest of the audience (men and women, mind you) loved every mammary-packed minute of it.

Jerry Orbach

Not so very long ago, audiences developed a level of familiarity with popular TV stars because we invited them into our living rooms for a half hour or an hour every week. Now imagine you're a key player on a popular series for over a decade. And your show is so popular, it's repeated several times a day on multiple channels. If you're a Law and Order fan (or, like me, are married to one), you know exactly how familiar these people become. For the past several years, Jerry Orbach was invited into our living room for hours at a time, every single day of the week. As Lennie Briscoe, he was the ideal everyman detective and our guide through L&O's weekly ripped-from-the-headlines investigations. Orbach was such a perfect fit as Lennie that, try as one might, it still came as a shock to see him doing anything else. He was an accomplished star of musical theatre, winning a Tony back in 1969. And every time I see him, I can't help but remember the first place I took notice of him: as Martin Landau's shady brother in Woody Allen's great Crimes and Misdemeanors. His was a face you remembered. It's no wonder audiences keep bringing him into their TV sets, night after night.

Johnny Ramone

Now I don't know much about the technical side of music. I can't play the guitar or the piano or much of anything very well. But when I would hear critics complain that the Ramones' songs were too simple, I would always scratch my head. The sonic attack Johnny Ramone was wailing on his guitar didn't seem all that simple to me. Basic, yes. Stripped down, sure. But simple? Sounded pretty goddamn hard to me. Rock music doesn't get much more elemental and perfect than the two-three minute bursts of energy recorded by the Ramones. Maybe Johnny Ramone wasn't the most technically proficient guitarist the world had ever heard. He wasn't gonna be playing classical guitar anytime soon, anyway. The Ramones were as good as they needed to be to get their music out of their heads and into the air. And that music hits you like a sucker punch. Wham and it's done. I find it sadly appropriate that Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone have all died within a couple years of each other and not long after the band officially broke up. It seems in keeping with the spirit of their music. We're done here, folks. Thank you and good night.

Tony Randall

There's something terrifically endearing about the stuffed shirt who can poke fun at himself, the fussbudget who is keenly aware of how his mannerisms appear to the rest of the world. For years, Tony Randall played that part to perfection. Whether it was on The Odd Couple or on one of his countless appearances on David Letterman, Tony Randall was the straight man who didn't seem to realize how funny he was. But he knew. Check him out doing a job Peter Sellers would envy, taking on all of the title roles in George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Or marvel at how easily he steals every scene he's in in Pillow Talk. At his best, Tony Randall wasn't just in on the joke. Look deeper into that twinkle in his eye and you realize he designed the joke himself.

Ronald Reagan

OK, I've seen what happens around here when people say anything even remotely political. On the other hand, I don't want this to turn into one of those awful tributes where just because someone has died you can only say nice things about them. I come from a long line of capital "L" Liberals and disagreed with virtually everything Ronald Reagan stood for while he was President of these United States. But. I never disliked the man, even when I thought he was completely wrong about something. And I certainly can't say that about a lot of other politicans on either side of the fence. I respected him. Unlike a lot of other politicians, when I disagreed with Reagan on an issue, I never thought he was stupid because of that. I always considered him to be very smart, which simultaneously made him both more disturbing and more fascinating to me. If you think someone's an idiot, you can just dismiss them completely. But if you don't, you have to stop and think about why they're doing what they're doing. Which forces you to re-examine your own position. Too many people who disliked or disagreed with Ronald Reagan simply dismissed him as a foolish old man. That was wrong. He knew what he was doing and believed in it completely. Although I didn't always agree with him, I believe the world would be a better place if we had more Presidents like Ronald Reagan. And it would certainly be a better place if instead of negating the other side of an issue completely through name-calling and personal attacks, we instead could respect and try to understand why someone sees things differently than we do.

Christopher Reeve

Well, what can be said of Christopher Reeve that hasn't already been said? The actor who played a superhero who became a hero in real life to so many people. It's quite a story. And hopefully, someday, when the inevitable movie is made of Christopher Reeve's life, they will find an actor to play him who is as sincere, soulful and human as Reeve was himself. Superman isn't an easy role to play without looking like an idiot. Christopher Reeve did more than just escape with his dignity intact. He gave his own dignity to the character. The promotional tagline for the first movie was, "You will believe a man can fly." And we did. Not because of the special effects but because Christopher Reeve made us believe. He was so memorable as the Man of Steel in Superman, his other performances tended to get overshadowed. But a sizable cult has grown around the sweet fantasy Somewhere in Time and he was equally good in less popular movies, including Deathtrap, Switching Channels and especially Street Smart. So when they make that movie based on his life, I hope whoever the filmmakers are think long and hard before they cast someone to play Christopher Reeve. He deserves someone who can make us believe the way he did.

Julius Schwartz

I'll wager that of all the names mentioned so far, this one is the least familiar to a lot of you. So let me try some others. Batman. Superman. Green Lantern. The Flash. Hawkman. During the Silver Age of Comics, Julie Schwartz was at the helm of DC Comics, writing, editing, and revitalizing characters that most everyone in the world had forgotten about completely. Now I'm a comic book fan, yes, but I came of age during the Marvel Age. DC books were low on my list of priorities. I was into Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and that lot. But even though I didn't read the books very often, I was well aware of the DC characters. I knew all their names, all their secret identities, and all their powers. Who didn't? And for that, you can thank Julie Schwartz. He was a tremendous force in getting comic books accepted into mainstream pop culture. And once I took my Marvel blinders off and started getting into comics history, I grew to love the books Julie had developed. The DC Universe was, at one point anyway, a ridiculously complicated place. And for me, that was part of its appeal. These are big characters. Icons every one. Julius Schwartz helped make them that way.

Fay Wray

I first saw King Kong when I was about seven years old. My mother was taking a film appreciation class and brought me along when they screened Kong. I was as mesmerized as I've ever been by a movie. And Fay Wray became the first movie star I ever fell in love with. And the fact that I, a seven-year old kid in 1976, had a crush on a woman from a movie made in 1933 says as much about Fay Wray as it does about me. She never really became a huge movie star, although she virtually defined what it meant to be a Scream Queen. And she's certainly good in other movies, including The Most Dangerous Game and Mystery of the Wax Museum. But with that one iconic performance, she became the beauty to one of Hollywood's most memorable beasts.

As was the case last year, time and space prevents paying respects to each and every person who passed away in 2004. However, in an effort to acknowledge as many as possible, I submit the following incomplete list. My thanks and appreciation go out to each and every one of them (a recommended work or two by each of them follows in parenthesis):

"Dimebag" Darrell Abbott (musician, Pantera & Damageplan - Vulgar Display of Power album)
Victor Argo (actor - Taxi Driver/King of New York)
Richard Avedon (photographer - Evidence: 1944-1994)
Hugh B. Cave (author - Murgunstrumm & Others)
Julia Child (chef - Julia's Kitchen Wisdom)
Alistair Cooke (broadcaster - Masterpiece Theatre)
Eric Douglas (actor - Student Confidential)
Carole Eastman (screenwriter - Five Easy Pieces)
Neal L. Fredericks (cinematographer - The Blair Witch Project)
Brian Gibson (director - What's Love Got to Do with It)
Uta Hagen (actress/teacher - Reversal of Fortune)
Arthur Hailey (author - Airport)
J.J. Jackson (original MTV VJ)
Rick James (musician - The Ultimate Collection album)
Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo)
Alan King (comedian/actor - Casino)
Harry Lampert (comic book artist, co-creator of The Flash)
Ann Miller (actress/dancer - On the Town/Mulholland Dr.)
David Myers (cinematographer - THX 1138)
Helmut Newton (photographer - Helmut Newton Work)
Ron O'Neal (actor - Superfly)
Ol' Dirty Bastard (musician - Return to the 36 Chambers album)
Jack Paar (broadcaster - The Tonight Show)
Robert Pastorelli (actor - Dances with Wolves)
Daniel Petrie (director - Sybil)
Isabel Sanford (actress - The Jeffersons)
Hubert Selby, Jr. (author - Last Exit to Brooklyn/Requiem for a Dream)
Carrie Snodgress (actress - Pale Rider)
Ray Stark (producer - Fat City)
Frank Thomas (animator - every great Disney movie)
Peter Ustinov (actor - Lola Montes/Topkapi/Death on the Nile)
Paul Winfield (actor - Sounder/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan/Mars Attacks!)
Kate Worley (comic book writer - Omaha the Cat Dancer)
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
(director - The Blob)

I'll be back very soon with Part Two of my look back at 2004. Next time, my ten favorite movies of the year… and some of my least favorite. Expect trouble.

Adam Jahnke

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