Monday, February 21, 2005

Davis, Dee, and Thompson

I didn't write about it at the time as I had a quite a bit going on in my life at the time, but actor Ossie Davis died February 4 at age 87. Davis was one of my favourite actors, a truly gifted man who could perform in dramas and comedies equally well. His career lasted longer than the life time of many actors, over 65 years.

Davis made his debut on the Broadway stage in the play Jeb in 1946. It was not long before he appeared in films and television, appearing in The Joe Louis Story on the big screen and The Emperor Jones on the small screen. He went on to appear in such movies as The Scalphunters, Sam Whiskey, and Do the Right Thing. He guest starred on shows ranging from The Defenders to Bonanza to Love American Style. Notably, Davis was a director and writer as well as an actor. He wrote and directed Cotton Comes to Harlem and directed the movie Gordon's War (one of my fond childhood memories).

More importantly, Ossie Davis was a man of principles. Along with his wife, Ruby Dee, Davis was a one of the early supporters of the civil rights movement. In the Sixties they participated in marches in the South and in the famous 1963 march on Washington D.C. He delivered addresses at both the funerals of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Actor, writer, director, and activist, Davis was a true Renaissance man. There is very much to admire about him.

More recently, Sandra Dee died from kidney disease at age 62 on February 20. Dee made her first appearance on film in the movie Until They Sail in 1957 and then became a star with The Reluctant Debutante in 1958. Gidget in 1959 secured her position as Hollywood's teen queen. She played Tammy Tyree (a role originally played by Debbie Reynolds) in two movies, Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, as well as roles in A Summer Place and If a Man Answers. By the mid-Sixties, however, Dee's career began to fail. Her divorce from Bobby Darin in 1965 made casting directors skeptical of putting her in the parts of ingenues she had once played. At the same time, the sugary sweet sort of motion pictures she had made were well on their way out. Following 1967 she made only a few movie and television apperances, most notably in The Dunwich Horror.

In some respects Sandra Dee will always symbolise for me the end of an era. She was the last major female star at Universal to be under contract. She was also one of the last actresses to play teenagers with a squeaky clean image. As the Sixties progressed, teenagers were portrayed more realistically than they had been before. I do find it sad that she was not allowed to make the transition to adult roles.

It was also on February 20 that journalist Hunter S. Thompson took his own life. Along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, Thompson was one of the innovators of the New Journalism or, as Thompson liked to call it, "gonzo journalism." The New Journalism involved a higher degree of detail and description than previously seen and, in Thompson's case at least, often the writer became part of the story. As a journalist, Thompson offended people with equal opportunity, particularly those in power. He described members of the Bush Administation as "...the racists and hate mongers among us," called the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine "a vicious 200-pound river rat" and Vice President Hubert Humphrey "a hopelessly dishonest old hack."

There are certainly things I did not admire about Hunter S. Thompson. He abused both drugs and alcohol. When the Federal government raided his home in 1990, they found LSD, cocaine, and marijuana--Thompson beat the rap only because the search was ruled illegal. Still, I have to admit that Thompson had, for lack of a better term, moxie. He defied the establishment, defied society, and even defied his editors. His fights with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner were legendary. More often than not he would twist the stories assigned to him around. His editors would forgive him only because the story he wrote was often beter than the ones they had proposed. I cannot say I admire Hunter S. Thompson--he was much too flawed in too many ways--but I can certainly admire his talent.

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