Cue the Credits: In a Year of Few Memorable Contributions, Many Unforgettable Acts Bowed Out

'I will always love you'

And that’s just the guys. On the distaff side, nobody can approximate the brittle, no-nonsense artistry of Oscar winner Celeste Holm, 95, who played nuns, wives and career girls with a rare combination of sophistication and energy that made me dizzy. In person, she was a grand hostess and New York fund-raiser who never missed a party. She was also polished, cynical and worldly, and refused to suffer fools easily. Once at an Academy Awards event at the Russian Tea Room, a naive young Leonardo DiCaprio made the mistake of asking her, “What movies have you been in?” “No,” snapped the star of All About Eve and Gentleman’s Agreement—“you first.”

Equally unforgettable: the patrician loveliness of Phyllis Thaxter, veteran actress who waved good-bye from her organdy curtains to every movie-star pilot who flew his plane over her kitchen windows in every MGM war picture in the 1940s. (Gen-Xers think of her as Clark Kent’s mom in the 1978 blockbuster Superman—but real buffs know better.) Cashmere sweaters won’t have the same Ivory Soap appeal after the departure of pert, perky Elyse Knox, popular campus beauty in ’40s B movies like the Abbott and Costello musical Hit the Ice, and the mother of NCIS star Mark Harmon. There will never be another Ann Rutherford, MGM’s quintessential girl next door, who played Mickey Rooney’s wholesome girlfriend, Polly Benedict, in 13 of the 17 Andy Hardy pictures, as well as Scarlett O’Hara’s namby-pamby younger sister in Gone With the Wind. She retired in the ’70s, but was always mobbed by autograph hunters at nostalgia conventions and GWTW anniversary celebrations. Married to department store tycoon David May and then Batman producer William Dozier, the ex-husband of Joan Fontaine, she was apparently as sheltered from reality as the high school bobby-soxers she played on the screen. The night of Liza Minnelli’s fatal and famously flamboyant wedding to David Gest, I ended up in a limousine on the way to the star-studded reception and all-night circus that followed with Ms. Rutherford and her fellow screen legends June Haver, Ann Blyth and Anne Jeffreys. When we passed Ground Zero, Ms. Rutherford announced, “Look! That’s where they dropped the bombs on New York City!” My attempts to correct her were briskly waved away: “Oh no, we read about it in The Los Angeles Times.”

They lived full lives and made every minute count, but porcelain doll Deborah Raffin went to the screening room in the sky much too young. She made a big splash as Brooke Hayward in Haywire, the miniseries about Brooke’s tortured family history, before becoming a successful writer, publisher, producer and pioneer in the production of books on audiotape, and she was just getting started. Genuine glamour lost another struggle for silver-screen survival with the undulating adios of Denise Darcel, husky-voiced French chanteuse and buxom actress who appeared in ’50s MGM entertainments with Van Johnson, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Esther Williams (and who died too late in 2011 to make last year’s list). Hard to believe she lived to the ripe old age of 87, but the key word was still “ripe.” That same oomph was embodied by both Sylvia Kristel, Dutch star of 1970s erotic hit Emmanuelle and its sequels, and Sweden’s Anita Bjork, who was hailed as “the new Garbo.” It was one last chorus for Betty Jane Rhodes, popular actress-singer in ’40s musicals like Sweater Girl and a recording artist who made a hit out of “Buttons and Bows.” And we lost Patricia Medina, who was married to Joseph Cotten for 34 years. Gossip columnists said the couple represented stability in a socially unstable community. You can say that again.

Who could ever forget Susan Tyrell, the wonderful whiskey-voiced oddball with one leg, Oscar-nominated for John Huston’s Fat City and praised for her gritty, unsentimental work in bizarre cult films by Andy Warhol? Other ladies who lit up the screen before their final close-ups were Martha Stewart (the one who danced, not the one who cooks); distinguished British actresses Joyce Redman, who played Jenny in Tom Jones, and Faith Brook, who starred in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and The 39 Steps, as well as plays at London’s Old Vic opposite Edith Evans, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave (she was Queen Gertrude to Ian Mc-
Kellen’s Hamlet); Joan Roberts, the original star of the 1943 Oklahoma!, who warbled her last note at age 95; and Lupe Ontiveros, who might not be a household name, but the wit, passion and honesty she brought to her film roles (especially wise-cracking Mexican maids) made her a beloved and recognizable face to moviegoers who cherished her sass and verve in As Good as it Gets, Real Women Have Curves and Chuck and Buck.

Where will we be in the days ahead without these familiar faces to charge our batteries—and how will things look without cinematographer Bruce Surtees, legendary photographer Eve Arnold and pop artist LeRoy Neiman to preserve them in amber, or tasteful producers like Marty Richards (Sweeney Todd, Chicago), the Circle in the Square’s Theodore Mann, Martin Poll (The Lion in Winter), Norman Felton (Dr. Kildare), Amos Vogel (who founded Cinema 16, America’s largest membership film society, and produced the first New York Film Festival), Richard Zanuck (who ruined Myra Breckinridge, which I happen to know something about, but fared better with Jaws) and Jake Eberts (Gandhi, Chariots of Fire), to insure quality? We lost a lot of diverse directors, like Emmy-winning Paul Bogart (more than 100 episodes of All in the Family, not to mention historic plays in the golden days of “live” television on The United States Steel Hour and Studio One); Tony winner Albert Marre, whose Man of La Mancha brought him royalties from 45 countries (it was a big hit in Latvia!) up until his death at 87; Ulu Grosbard, whose plays (American Buffalo) and films (The Subject Was Roses) made him a favorite of Hoffman, DeNiro and Duvall; Greek film festival curio Theo Angelopoulos, who made a lot of slow, boring art films nobody ever saw except a handful of critics; soft-core director Zalman King; and TV masterminds John Rich, who won two directing Emmys for All in the Family, and William Asher, the hugely successful director of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, the Danny Thomas and Donna Reed shows, and eight years of Bewitched, which starred his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. And don’t write off film director Tony Scott, who devoted his career to action thrillers like Top Gun, Days of Thunder and numerous collaborations with Denzel Washington. He was the brother of Ridley Scott, and shared his passion for noise and violence, until he seemed to live out one of his own scripts when he leaped to his death at 68 from a California bridge.

Cue the Credits: In a Year of Few Memorable Contributions, Many Unforgettable Acts Bowed Out