In movies, actors never die, they, like General MacArthur, just sadly fade away.
As a passionate movie fan, death occasionally touches your heart, and that occurred recently with the passing of Roger Ebert, Jonathan Winters and the lovely Annette Funicello. Their significance was far greater than their artistic reputations, and I couldn’t let their deaths escape without a personal comment.
Much has been written about Mr. Ebert, but few articles dealt with his impact on the average movie fan. Like many people, I first became exposed to movie criticism after watching his great TV show with Gene Siskel, and I was never the same.
Importantly, Mr. Ebert never shied away from the relationship of certain films to politics, and I obviously have long followed his lead. In other words, if anyone has grown a bit weary of my enthusiastic connection of various films to relevant national issues, blame Mr. Ebert because he is at fault!
As for Mr. Winters, he was as funny as any performer to appear on TV. Hunt down the movies It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963); The Loved One (1965); and The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966) to understand his comic genius.
But I must confess that I still remain immensely saddened by the death of Ms. Funicello. When she first appeared on TV in “The Mickey Mouse Club,” it was 1955, and she was only 13 years old. I was 8, and I made sure I got home every day in time to watch this beloved ensemble.
To get right to the point, I fell in love for the first time with a cute, dark-haired Italian girl. She was as genuine as she was fascinating, and it was easy to embrace the entire show. Anyone remember the adventures of “Spin and Marty?”
Sure, her subsequent movies, largely with Frankie Avalon, were as foolish as they were entertaining. More to the point, you got to see her on the beach, and it bears a startling contrast to the wretched recent film Spring Breakers.
Sure, Ms. Funicello was a good girl, but she also was intelligent and profoundly caring. The girls in Spring Breakers were utterly vapid, and I couldn’t help but feel that they would have learned a bit on how to live if they would have spent a few hours watching old reruns of “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
What made Ms. Funicello all the more admirable was her long struggle with multiple sclerosis. She had been fighting that degenerative neurological disease since 1987, and she did it with dignity and style. She helped raise money to fight this and other neurological disorders, and she simply should not and cannot be readily forgotten.
Upon reading about her death, I was reminded of the daily closing song on her “Mouse Club” series. One of the guys, I believe Jimmy, sang the following with Annette and the kids:
See you real soon.
Why? Because we like you.
Well, Annette, there were a lot of young people, particularly boys, who liked you too.
Watching Brian Helgeland’s “42” is like taking a trip in a time machine. Growing up in southern Indiana, I blindly learned to love baseball without fully understanding its past.
I quickly learned. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I embraced Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League. In 1954, I won a national Coca-Cola contest and was able to take my dad to Cleveland to watch a World Series game between the Indians and the New York Giants. More to the point, I was able to watch Willie Mays play shortly after his legendary over-the-shoulder catch in center field off a fly ball hit by Vic Wertz.
Equally important, I attended a St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Fantasy Camp for one week in 1991 where I was fortunate enough to have Bob Gibson as my team manager. Listening to both him and Curt Flood discuss their careers, they had not forgotten the segregation that forced them to live apart from their white teammates in the 1950s.
The best thing about “42” is the ability to become a personal part of Jackie Robinson’s quest to be simply treated as an equal. Chadwick Boseman literally brings Robinson back to life both on and off the baseball diamond. In the end, his courage was a product of the great advice he got from Brooklyn Dodgers’ team executive Branch Rickey when he was told to have the strength to turn the other cheek.
The incredible abuse that Robinson had to tolerate was leveled both on and off the field. The reluctance of his own teammates to initially accept him paled in comparison to the vicious diatribes leveled by players like Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman. It is telling that you hear the “N word” almost as frequently as in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
What “42” teaches us is that we can’t simply sing the praises of our country if we ignore our profound historical weaknesses. This occurred during our lifetime, and there is a reason why Robinson’s number, 42, is the only number retired by baseball to this day.
I should also note a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford, here playing Rickey. Rickey had the courage to fight racial prejudice head on, and the Dodgers added legendary players Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe in subsequent years. It has been a long time since Harrison Ford was remotely this good, and he deserves to be remembered at Oscar time.
Finally, it goes without saying that most Americans would have denied the presence of racial prejudice at the time Robinson joined the Dodgers. It makes you wonder just how alive this racial venom is today when a Robinson counterpart known as Barack Obama became the first African-American president.
Like Jackie Robinson, President Obama has consistently turned the other cheek no matter how hostile the criticism. Tragically, racial hatred didn’t die overnight in this country, and it remains frightening to see us dodge that reality.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.