Friday, June 10, 2016

Respecting Hollywood’s Legends

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Gary Cooper publicity photo
for Morocco (1936)
When two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington won the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award earlier this year, Tom Hanks, himself an Oscar two-timer, glided over some Hollywood giants in his introduction of “Denzel.” 

Like Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper and John “Duke” Wayne.

“It’s odd how many of these immortals of the silver screen of the firmament,” he said, “need only one name to conjure the gestalt of their great artistry. In women, it’s names like Garbo, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Loren. With men it’s Bogart, Cagney, Gable. Now you can chuck in the ones, who combination punch, of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. But a solo tag is the norm. Brando, Clift, Poitier, McQueen, Hoffman, DeNiro, Pacino… The list is finite. The club is exclusive…”

Spence, Coop and Duke are three “immortals of the silver screen of the firmament.” And, they tower.

Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew
in Captains Courageous (1937) 
Tracy, who left us 49 years ago today, also won two Oscars for, respectively, Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). As did Coop for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), along with an honorary Oscar for his entire body of work.  He was such a legend that, shortly before his death 55 years ago this May, President John F. Kennedy spent a day trying to get through, as he competed with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Audrey Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway, calling to say their goodbyes.

Duke, for his part, won an Oscar for True Grit (1969), which premiered 10 years to the day before his death on June 11, 1979. Like Denzel, he also received the Cecil B. DeMille Award. 

Of course, Hanks’ oversight was, no doubt, inadvertent—no disrespect intended—even though he failed even to mention Tracy, considered by his peers to be the greatest actor Hollywood had ever seen. In addition to his wins, he garnered seven more Best Actor nominations including, posthumously, for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).  

The trio, like so many stars in the silver screen’s firmament, deserves respect.

John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch trailer.jpg
John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch (1948)
For their art—the raison d’être of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  (Sure, Louis B. Mayer had convened industry insiders in January 1927 in his effort to stem labor disputes. But, Mary Pickford and others envisioned a body that would enshrine film as the art, which, in its finest form, it surely is.)

Then there are the living legends which, not two weeks after Hanks’ Golden Globe oversight, were disenfranchised by the Academy as part of its misguided effort to redress, by ‘widening its nets,’ the Academy’s collective failure this year to nominate any African American stars for an Oscar. (Though many like George Clooney rightly note the problem lies with the pipeline.) If these members are inactive for 10 years and do not meet certain criteria, their status will be changed to “emeritus” with all the privileges of Academy membership—except Oscar voting.    

Not so fast, says Academy member Mother Dolores Hart, known for Wild Is the Wind (1957), King Creole (1958) and Oscar-nominated God Is The Bigger Elvis (2012). These older members, she said, are the “wisdom figures.” And, when the Academy loses them it “is going to destroy something of the essence of how people look at” it and “the quality” with which they associate it.  “It’s always been the star in the sky” among all the guilds. “And, I think they are going to lose that.” 

King Creole 1958 (Elvis Presley and Dolores Hart).JPG
 Elvis Presley and Dolores Hart in King Creole (1958)
Not all of the lifetime members will be disenfranchised, and irrespective of their status, some like Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland, known for Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Heiress (1949), do not choose to vote. But, many will lose voting status. This “hurts” said Mother Dolores, not only for herself but for the sake of her academy friends, who, she said, are “precious and have such value.”

Mother Dolores was brought out of retirement in 1998 by Oscar-winner Karl Malden, then president of the Academy. In 1963, at the end of the Come Fly with Me press junket, her limousine’s final destination was the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, where she has lived in consecrated life for 53 years. “We want to hear what you say and what you experience, because you have experienced it from a different place,” she said Malden told her when he called.

“I think they should rethink this,” said Mother Dolores, “and see if there’s something else they can offer.”

Surely, they will come up with a solution that keeps the Academy, like the “immortals” of the “firmament,” glistening.

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, which includes chapters on Gary Cooper and John Wayne and discusses Spencer Tracy in the overview chapter, which includes a never-before-published photo with his disabled son, John, c. 1927.

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