From Brando to Scavullo: 2004’s Many Losses

The tree is in the trash, the New Year’s hangovers are fading and the leftover Perrier-Jouët is ready for that back shelf in the fridge, but before we begin anew, it’s a good time to raise a glass and drink one last toast to the friends we loved and lost in 2004. Harold Arlen and Truman Capote got it right when they wrote the song “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” but saying adios to the year just ending seems doubly sad.

I tend to forget obituaries when I read them, because I never want to believe them in the first place. But now the shock is justified. I mean, any year that begins its farewells with the elegant photographer Francesco Scavullo and ends with the legendary Artie Shaw is telling you something about why the world is losing so much of its luster. It’s always tough to wave adieu forever to the stars who moved and shaped our lives, but my heart is heavy as lead when I think of Marlon Brando. On a motorcycle, a stallion or a streetcar named Desire, singing with Sinatra or screaming at Stella, he was a Marlboro man with a mortgaged heart whose leonine beauty masked a vulnerability that made women faint and grown men cry. Many have imitated him-and future studs in torn T-shirts will continue to try-but there will never be another Brando.

Christopher Reeve flew through the sky as Superman and crash-landed too young, at only 52. Struggling to leave an impact on the world long after his doctors gave up hope, something brave and noble and indomitable about the human spirit expired when he did. And while we raise our crystal goblets to men who rose above the crowd, don’t forget Ronald Reagan, a bad actor who became the 40th President of the U.S. and finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s and pneumonia at 93. Nobody thought much of him in Hollywood. After his inauguration, Virginia Mayo, his old co-star in an opus called She’s Working Her Way Through College, said, “If I’d ever had an inkling how he would turn out, I would’ve been nicer to him on the set.” But in the final credits in Washington, he got star billing.

Glamour girls never really die in my naïve world of innocent values, but the prints of those glossy, flossy MGM Technicolor musicals will seem faded now that my radiant, vivacious pal Ann Miller has sent her dancing shoes to the Smithsonian. Lovable lunatic, loyal friend and “Tops in Taps” for decades, Annie heated up the screen and kept her friends laughing at the same time. It was also a wrap for her lovely, gifted MGM co-star Janet Leigh. Anorexic to the end, she starved herself unnecessarily. I remember lunching with her once when she dropped her fork in the middle of a morsel and cried out with anguish: “I just swallowed two raisins instead of one!” Hollywood fad diets finally took their toll and did her in. I remember with equal relish the allure and sophistication of the great Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin, a signature in seven films by Ingmar Bergman before she rose to international stardom in English-speaking films by Luchino Visconti and Vincente Minnelli. She passed away at 77, handing the torch to Liv Ullmann. The lights on Broadway suffered a power blackout when electric actress-teacher-guru Uta Hagen took her final curtain call at a still-feisty 84. And a special toast to the great Fay Wray, if you please. When King Kong held her in the palm of his hand, she held movie history in hers.

It was a helluva year for losing the great character actors who made supporting casts worth sticking around for in the closing credits: Jan Sterling, 82, the pouty peroxide blonde from scores of films in the 40’s and 50’s, who started out as a standby for Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday and went on to marry the star, Paul Douglas; Carrie Snodgress, 57, was Oscar-nominated for her role in Frank Perry’s 1970 film Diary of a Mad Housewife, but lacking drive and ambition she deserted her career to live with rock star Neil Young; Mercedes McCambridge, 87, Oscar winner for All the King’s Men, famous for duking it out with Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar; Frances Dee, one of the original movie Little Women and longtime wife of Joel McCrea; Jan Miner, best known as Madge the manicurist in those endless Palmolive commercials; Anna Lee, lovely British-born actress of How Green Was My Valley and later a regular on the General Hospital soap opera for more than 20 years; Virginia Grey, a second banana with decades of longevity who grew from the original Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to become everybody’s best pal in scores of Hollywood “women’s weepies”; also Universal B-musical star Peggy Ryan, wisecracking Isabel Sanford of The Jeffersons, British temptress Patricia Roc and classy Paula Raymond, who dressed up many MGM films in the 1950’s in leading roles opposite legends like Cary Grant, Van Johnson and Esther Williams. They stayed famous; she didn’t. But her elegance and beauty won’t be forgotten. So long, girls, and when you reach that screening room in the sky, say hello to Eve Arden for me.

Speaking of legends, let’s bow to the memory of Sir Peter Ustinov. He was everybody’s favorite Agatha Christie detective, Hercule Poirot, but personally I will always cherish his Nero, feeding the Christians to the lions and fiddling merrily away like a mad loon while Rome burned in Quo Vadis. Doris Day lost her only son, Terry Melcher, and her sardonic onscreen sidekick in all those Rock Hudson pictures, Tony Randall. The silver screen lost its last legendary musical superstar when MGM giant Howard Keel’s magnificent baritone belted out his final rousing show tune. Jerry Orbach exited the stage door for the last time. More grand and sturdy below-the-title departures: Iggie Wolfington, Spalding Gray, Paul Winfield, Robert Pastorelli (Eldin the oddball house painter on Murphy Brown), John Drew Barrymore (son of John, father of Drew) and Richard Ney, who played Greer Garson’s son in the film classic Mrs. Miniver, then shocked the movie world when he married her. Later, he became a prominent financial advisor and best-selling author of books about Wall Street. Yes, there was life after Leo the Lion.

Losses were heavy and irreplaceable in the music world. Broadway musicals will never be the same without the genius of the adored Cy Coleman. His songs supply the erudition in the repertoires of the best cabaret singers; his scores-for shows like Sweet Charity, Little Me, Wildcat, Barnum, The Will Rogers Follies and City of Angels, to name just a few-have already cemented his position in Tin Pan Alley’s special Hall of Fame; and when he died at 75, he was working on three new productions at the same time. As an ace jazz pianist and hip, finger-snapping vocal stylist, he was the best interpreter of his own songs of any entertainer alive, but his work will never fade as long as a new generation of intelligent performers with style and taste keep singing and playing them all over again. The big question is: Who can ever replace him? I shudder to think what the next decade of Broadway songwriters will subject us to without Cy Coleman.

It was also eight bars and out for Fred Ebb, whose jazzy scores for Cabaret and Chicago changed the tempo of theater music and whose specialty numbers for Liza Minnelli became the envy of every cabaret star on stages big and small. I hope his writing partner, John Kander, continues the tradition of idealism and perfection they have both always stood for. It was another tearful “so long, dearie” to Bart (“Fly Me to the Moon”) Howard, the famous Blue Angel pianist who became the songwriter of choice for Mabel Mercer, Portia Nelson and other discriminating singers of style, and Wally Harper, Barbara Cook’s longtime arranger, conductor and pianist, who guided her through many nervous opening nights and provided the musical right-arm support on her way to canonization. She is inconsolable, and so are we all.

Music lovers were devastated to lose the last trio of great Hollywood film composers. Movie music will lack the lush orchestrations and beautiful themes that David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein brought to their film scores. If David Raksin had written nothing but “Laura,” he would go down in the ledgers of music as a genius. But just listen to his score for The Bad and the Beautiful and you’ll learn what timeless movie music is all about. Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Chinatown occupies a treasured space on my book shelf. Fortunately for us all, Elmer Bernstein came out of retirement for one last triumph, Far From Heaven, to prove to all the tone deaf, once and for all, what real movie music sounds like. Raising their batons on the big soundstage above, can you imagine what kind of music these guys are making? Ditto for the indomitable Ray Charles, king of rhythm and blues, as well as Illinois Jacquet, the Louisiana saxophone player who became a popular bandleader and recording star; cool jazz singer-guitarist Jackie Paris; big-band crooner Don Cornell; jazz pianist Joey Bushkin; and Judy Argo, a Georgia peach who sang with the passion of Judy, the soul of Sassy and the timing of Ella. It was one last waltz around the dance pavilion for Lester Lanin, 97, the society bandleader whose smooth, corny fox trots defined every blue-ribbon function from Grace Kelly’s royal engagement to the official White House dinners for every U.S. President since Eisenhower except Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Nothing on records will sound as luminous or swing as brightly without the smashing orchestrations of the great Billy May, big band conductor and arranger for Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole and other icons who enriched the art of the American popular song. He was a guiding light during the heyday of Capitol Records whose music will outlast the fads and fruitcakes of today. And no list of musicians playing their last riffs would be complete without Artie Shaw. He was an eccentric clarinetist, bandleader, bon vivant, ladies’ man (who married Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, the daughter of Jerome Kern and five other wives), author and self-styled cantankerous old goat, but his “Begin the Beguine” made you listen to jazz in a brand-new way. When he kicked the bucket at 94, it was the end of an oddball life, but you can’t say he didn’t live it to the hilt.

Opera buffs are applauding the last encores for diva Renata Tebaldi and Robert Merrill, whose flexible baritone survived a 30-year career at the Met. As a child of television, I will never forget Jack Paar, the celebrated Tonight Show host whose droll brand of humor has all but disappeared from the boob tube now; Bob Keeshan, who helped legions of kids get out of bed on the right side as Captain Kangaroo; game-show host Art James; or fabulous Julia Child, 91, who cooked and ate her way into the hearts and stomachs of food addicts everywhere. Without a shred of snobbery, Julia ate everything from grits to goujonettes. When the crumbs fell on her kitchen floor, she ate them, too. Here’s a nod to June Taylor, whose 16 coordinated chorus girls on the Jackie Gleason Show were a TV staple in my house for nearly 20 years. Her sister Marilyn was Mrs. Jackie Gleason. Could that be one of the reasons for the longest steady choreography job in show business? If you wonder why there is so little literacy left on the idiot box, a lot of it departed with Alistair Cooke, 95, the erudite host of Omnibus and Masterpiece Theatre, who did all of his writing on a manual typewriter for over 50 years.

Laughter will have a hollow ring without outrageous Alan King and bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield. Movies won’t have the same stylish sense of adventure and challenge without imaginative French director Philippe de Broca or legendary Hollywood producer Ray Stark, whose flashy lifestyle belied his faith in films of substance and flair that were also high in caloric entertainment value. Much excitement, originality and artistry pirouetted right out of the ballet world when dancing legend Alicia Markova died at 94. Arts and letters will seem duller without the ink stains of Susan Sontag, John Sack’s eloquent essays on war for Esquire, the novels of Olivia ( The First Wives Club) Goldsmith, who died while having a face-lift, French wunderkind Françoise Sagan, best-selling novelist Arthur Hailey ( Airport, Hotel), political columnist Jack Newfield and Hubert Selby Jr., the ex–Merchant Marine who chronicled the dark and violent underbelly of waterfront life in the literary sensation Last Exit to Brooklyn. Who will write plays with the wit of Jerome Lawrence ( Auntie Mame) and Jerome Chodorov ( My Sister Eileen)? I will especially miss my unique friend Gloria Emerson-prize-winning author, journalist, war correspondent and the only fashion editor in the history of the once-august New York Times who was secretly color blind. Dear Gloria, we shared some wonderful times in Rome, didn’t we?

Speaking of fashion, cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder sold her last lipstick at 95. Geoffrey Beene, couturier to the rich and famous, retired his pinking shears. Eleanor Holm swam her last lap in the pool. She was the swimming gold digger who was thrown off the Olympic team in 1936 for drinking, but went on to break up Billy Rose’s marriage to Fanny Brice and star in his Aquacade spectaculars at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Where will the fun be from now on? And who will photograph it, now that the shutters are closed on the cameras of Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton, the 83-year-old photographer of ugly nudes in Vogue who drove his car out of the Chateau Marmont, the Gothic Hollywood hotel where John Belushi died, and smashed into a concrete wall? Their Leicas belong in a museum.

Naïvely, I’d like to see my favorites live forever. Idealistically, I’d like to suggest that we give the rest of our immortals their well-earned applause while they’re still alive and kicking, and not wait until after they’re gone. It’s a nice thought to carry into the New Year. From Brando to Scavullo: 2004’s Many Losses