Thursday, December 31, 2009

Farewell to the Year of Death

There can be no doubt that the year 2009 will be remembered for many things, but most of it all may well be remembered as the Year of Death. While many, many celebrities die every year, it seemed as if more celebrities died in 2009 than most years. What is more, it was not simply any celebrities who died in 2009, but some very big names.

Indeed, perhaps the most famous television news anchorman of all time passed in 2009. Walter Cronkite died on July 17 of this year. The year also saw the passing of his producer and the man who created 60 Minutes. Don Hewitt may have been the most influential news producer ever to work in television. He died only about a month after Walter Cronkite did. Of course, it was not simply the world of television news that saw the loss of giants. It seems as if every medium lost some very big names. Some very of the most famous television actors of all time passed in 2009, including Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Harry Endo, Don Galloway, Wendy Richard, Ron Silver, Frank Aletter, Gale Storm, Beatrice Arthur, Farrah Fawcett, Mollie Sudgen, Dallas McKennon, Ed Reimers, John Hart, Henry Gibson, Edward Woodward, and several others. The medium of motion pictures also saw the loss of some fairly well known actors, including Pat Hingle, James Whitmore, Jean Martin, Monte Hale, Natasha Richardson, Betsy Blair, Sydney Earle Chaplin, Maxine Cooper, Jody McCrea, Dom DeLuise, Harve Presnell, David Carradine, Brenda Joyce, Karl Malden, John Quade, Patrick Swayze, Frank Coghlan Jr., Lou Jacobi, Collin Wilcox, Jennifer Jones, Brittany Murphy, and yet others. Of course, actors were not the only celebrities to die in 2009. Several directors also passed during the year, including François Villiers, Claude Berri, Ken Annakin, Peter Zadek, John Hughes, Paul Naschy, and others.

While television and movies saw several deaths in 2009, the world of music was not spared either. Dave Dee (of (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich), Dewey Martin (of Buffalo Springfield), Lux Interior (of The Cramps), Kelly Groucutt (of The Electric Light Orchestra), Jimmy Boyd, "England" Dan Seals, Randy Cain (of The Delfonics), Jay Bennett (of Wilco), Bob Bogle (of The Ventures), Sky Saxon of The Seeds, Michael Jackson, Drake Levin (of Paul Revere and The Raiders), Gordon Waller (of Peter and Gordon), Les Paul, Dickie Peterson, Al Martino, Eric Woolfson, The Rev, and yet others. The year also saw the passing of several well know authors, including John Updike, Christopher Nolan, Philip Jose Farmer, J. G. Ballard, David Eddings, Frank McCourt, Tim Guest, Keith Waterhouse, and yet others.

Of course, while death filled the headlines in 2009, there were other things which happened this year. With regards to movies, it seemed to be another year of sequels. The top three highest grossing films for the year worldwide  as of December were all three sequels: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, with some films released in 2009 still playing in theatres, this is subject to change. It would seem that Avatar is poised to become the highest grossing film released in 2009. When it comes to movies one thing for which 2009 may be remembered is the independent films which saw mainstream success. With a budget of only $5 million, (500) Days of Summer made a total of around $46 million at the box office. Completed in 2007, the independent horror film Paranormal Activity became a phenomenon in 2009. It made a total of around $141 million at the box office.

Sadly, the 2009 fall television season may well have been the worst in some time. Many of the shows which debuted in the season were, very sadly, derivative. There were medical dramas (Mercy, Three Rivers), a legal drama (The Good Wife) , and new takes on old favourites (Melrose Place). This is not to say there was no originality among the broadcast networks this season. NBC would make one very innovative, if risky move, by scheduling The Jay Leno Show every weeknight at 9:00 PM Central/10:00 PM Eastern. So far NBC's gamble does not appear to pay off. So far The Jay Leno Show has been routinely beaten in the ratings by the dramas on ABC and CBS. Alongside NBC, ABC would also show some originality.Their show, Flash Forward, based on the novel of the same name, began with a global event takes place in which people experience what their lives will be like in the future for two minutes and seventeen seconds an proceeded from there. With regards to television news (and the news media in general), it sadly displayed an obsession with scandal this year. When David Letterman allegedly became victim of a blackmail plot, it was treated as an important news story. When it was discovered that golfer Tiger Woods had cheated on his wife, the television news outlets gave the scandal more coverage than other stories that were much more important.

With regards to music, the big news of the year may well have centred upon an old band. On September 9, the entire catalogue of The Beatles was re-released in digitally remastered format. The year would also see new albums from some of the biggest names in music. Bruce Springsteen's album Working on a Dream came out in January. Green Day released 21st Century Breakdown in May. Cheap Trick released The Latest in July. The year also saw new releases from Franz Ferdinand, Cannibal Corpse, Lily Allen, Morrissey, Van Morrison, U2, Pet Shop Boys, Neil Young, Depeche Mode, Coldplay, Tori Amos, Marilyn Manson, Placebo, Spinal Tap, Bowling for Soup, and others.

Sadly, for everything else that happened, 2009 will perhaps be remembered as the Year of Death. It was the year that giants in every medium passed, and in unusually large numbers. It was the year that saw the passing of Walter Cronkite, Patrick McGoohan, Jennifer Jones, Sky Saxon, John Updike, and Philip Jose Farmer If there is one thing to be hoped for in 2010, it is that we do not lose quite so many legends.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Photographer Bob Willoughby & Drummer The Reverend Tholomew Plague

Bob Willoughby

Photographer Bob Willoughby, who took candid photos of Hollywood legends from Audrey Hepburn to Dustin Hoffman, passed on December 18 at the age of 82.

Bob Willoughby was born in Los Angeles on June 30, 1927. He developed an interest in photography after he got a camera as a present for his 12th birthday  He enrolled in classes at the film school at the University of Southern California, and apprenticed under various photographers. At the Kann Art Institute in Los Angeles he studied under legendary graphic designer Saul Bass.

Willoughby began his career photographing jazz musicians in various clubs around California. This would lead him to photograph album covers for Fantasy Records, a label ran by his friends Max and Sol Weiss. He eventually received a contract with Globe Photos. It was in 1953 that he received his big break when his agent sent him on an assignment to take photographs of Audrey Hepburn at work on Roman Holiday for the magazine Harpers Bazaar. Rather than taking the usually stills, Willoughby instead took the documentary approach of photographing Hepburn at work. This brought Willoughby to the attention of Warner Brothers, who found his approach appealing. In 1954 he photographed Judy Garland at work on A Star is Born. One of his photographs of Garland made the cover of the September 13 issue of Life.

Unlike traditional Hollywood photographers of the past, who simply took posed photographs, Bob Willoughby preferred candid shots of the stars. He would blend in with film crews to get shots of the stars at work, and sometimes even with their guard down. In 1963 he invented the first remote controlled camera for use for shooting on Hollywood sets.Over the years Willoughby shot the stars and directors of many films, including the Rat Pack on the set of Ocean's Eleven, Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Marnie, Blake Edwards on the set of The Great Race,  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dustin Hoffman on the set of The Graduate, Roman Polanski on the set of Rosemary's Baby, and Jane Fonda on the set of Klute.

Bob Willoughby was not simply one of the greatest Hollywood photographers of all time, but one of the most revolutionary. Not only did he introduce the idea of taking pictures of actors at work on the set, but he even developed technology to make doing so even easier. It is Bob Willoughby that we owe the shots of scenes from movies that look almost exactly as they do on the big screen. He was one of the best photographers in Hollywood and perhaps the most innovative. I doubt we'll ever see his like again.

The Reverend Tholomew Plague

The Reverend Tholomew Plague, most often simply called The Rev, passed on December 28 at the age of 28. He was the drummer for heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold.

The Rev was born James Owen Sullivan on February 9, 1981 in Huntingdon Beach, California. It was while in high school that he met and befriended the other future members of Avenged Sevenfold. Together M. Shadows, Zacky Vengeance, The Rev and Matt Wendt formed Avenged Sevenfold in 1999. M. Shadows came up with the band's name (often abbreviated A7X) , a reference to the story of Cain and Abel from the Torah. Avenged Sevenfold released two demos in 1999 and 2000 respectively. The band developed a strong local following in the Huntington Beach area. Their first official album, Sounding the Seventh Trumpet, was released on the minor label Good Life Recordings in 2001. It was later released on Hopeless Records in 2002. Their second album, Waking the Fallen, was released on Hopeless Records in 2003.

It was not long after the release of Waking the Fallen that Avenged Sevenfold was signed to a major label, Warner Brothers Records. Their first album with Warner, City of Evil, was released in 2005. It produced their first hit, "Bat Country," which reached #2 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Chart. This was followed by the release of a self titled album in 2007, which produced the hits "Almost Easy" and "Afterlife." The band was at work on another album at the time of  The Rev's death.

In addition to his work with Avenged Sevenfold, The Rev also played piano and sang vocals for Pinkly Smooth, a side project with A7X guitarist Synyster Gates.

Avenged Sevenfold was one of the bands responsible for the re-emergence of heavy metal in the Naughts. Much of their success was largely due to The Rev, who was arguably one of the best drummers currently in the music business. With The Rev's powerful drumbeat backing the guitars and bass, Avenged Sevenfold became one of the best heavy metal bands in later years. Of course, it must be pointed out that The Rev did not simply play drums. He also provided backing vocals on tracks, as well as played piano. There are even those who believe that The Rev was so pivotal to the sound of Avenged Sevenfold that, wit his loss, the band's sound will change. Regardless, he was an immensely talented drummer and an important part of one of the best bands of the Naughts. He died far, far too young.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Arnold Stang and Brittany Murphy R.I.P.

Arnold Stang

Arnold Stang, comedic actor and the voice artist who gave life to Top Cat, passed on December 20 at the age of 91.

Where Arnold Stang was born and how he got into show business has always been a bit unclear, much of this due to Stang himself. It has often been claimed that Stang was born in Chelsea in Boston, Massachusetts. Stang tended to lend credence to that story with his tale of how  he entered show business was that he entered show business after sending a postcard to the children's radio show Let's Pretend at the age 9. He was told he could audition, so Stang took the bus to New York City, and got the job. His family has said that in actuality he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Stang did indeed write a note to Let's Pretend, but he was a bit older than 9 years old.

Regardless, Arnold Stang did begin his career while young on such shows as The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour and Let’s Pretend. He appeared on many radio shows, until he received the role of Seymour Fingerhood on The Goldbergs. In 1946 he became Henry Morgan's sidekick on The Henry Morgan Show. He appeared in a similar role on the shows of Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and Eddie Cantor. Arnold Stang also appeared on Broadway,. In 1942 he appeared in the play All in Favour. In 1943 he appeared in the play You'll See Stars. He made his first appearance on film in an uncredited role in My Sister Eileen. He then appeared in the Forties in such films as Seven Day's Leave and Let's Go Steady. It was in 1943 that Stang first lent his voice to a cartoon. In 1944 he became the voice of Herman Mouse in Paramount's series of animated Herman and Katnip shorts.

Stang made his television debut on an episode of Starlight Theatre in 1950. He was the star on The Billy Bean Show in 1951. In the Fifties on television he would appear on The Goldbergs, The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show, December Bride, and Playhouse 90. Arnold Stang on also continued to appear in feature films, such as Two Gals and a Guy and The Man with the Golden Arm. The last night Herman and Katnip cartoon was released in 1959--Stang had been the voice of Herman for fifteen years.

In the Sixties Arnold Stang guest starred in such shows as Wagon Train, Bonanza, and Batman. He was the voice of the title character in the primetime cartoon Top Cat. He was also a regular on the sitcom Broadside and The Jonathan Winters Show. Stang appeared in the movies The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Skidoo. He was the voice of Nurtle the Turtle in Pinocchio In the Outer Space. In 1969 he appeared on Broadway once last time in a revival of The Front Page.

The Seventies saw Stang in appear in the films as Hercules in New York. He provided voices for the films Marco Polo Jr. Versus the Red Dragon and Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. He guest starred on the shows Emergency, Flying High, and Chico and the Man.  By the Eighties Stang's career slowed. He voiced Churchy LaFemme for Pogo for President: 'I Go Pogo' and Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats He guest starred on Tales from the Darkside and The Cosby Show. In the Nineties he appeared in the films Ghost Dad and Dennis the Menace. He voiced Top Cat for one last time in the series Wake, Rattle, and Roll. His final work was in the Naughts as various voices on Courage the Cowardly Dog.

Arnold Stang was a remarkable comedic actor. He was also one of the best voice men in animated cartoons. He voiced two of the medium's most famous characters, Herman Mouse and Top Cat. He excelled at comedy, particularly playing nervous, frantic or annoying characters. Stang was also a very good dramatic actor, proving such in The Man with the Golden Arm. He was one of the last great character actors from radio and the Golden Age of  Television, and one of the best.

Brittany Murphy

Actress Brittany Murphy passed on December 20 at the age of 32. The cause was a heart attack. She had appeared in such films as Clueless, Girl Interrupted, and Sin City. She was the voice of Luanne on King of the Hill.

Brittany Murphy was born on November 10, 1977 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was only two years old, so Murphy grew up in Edison, New Jersey and later Los Angeles. She guest starred on Murphy Brown and Kid's Incorporated before becoming a regular on Drexell's Class. She made her film debut in Family Prayers and was one of the cast of the show Almost Home.

It was in 1995 that Brittany Murphy appeared in the movie Clueless. She then appeared in several films, including DriveThe Prophesy II, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. In 1997 she began voicing Luanne on King of the Hill. She stayed with the show for its entire run. In 1999 Murphy had  significant role in Girl, Interrupted and appeared in the film Drop Dead Gorgeous. In 2002 she gave a critically acclaimed performance in 8  Mile. Murphy appeared in the films Just Married, Little Black Book, Sin CityLove and Other Disasters,  and Deadline. She provided voice work for the TV series Pepper Ann and the movie Happy Feet. Her last screen appearance was in The Expendables, due to come out next year.

Brittany Muprhy's passing is particularly sad as she was still very young, and would have had a long career ahead of her had she not died. She was certainly a talented actress, giving good performances in even the most unexpected material. And she was a very good voice artist. For twelve seasons she voiced Luanne on King of the Hill, and provided the voice for Gloria in Happy Feet. It is very sad that she passed all too soon.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Top Twenty Actresses

I recently compiled my list of my twenty favourite actors.This was due to a tag which has apparently been going around forever, or at least since the invention of blogging. Recently, the lovely Kate Gabrielle did her top twenty actresses list on her blog Silents and Talkies (sadly on indefinite hiatus now). Millie of Classic Forever and Nicole of Classic Hollywood Nerd both did theirs recently. I thought now would be a good time to do mine.

As with my list of actors, I left off my favourite actresses whose fame is due mostly to television (Diana Rigg, Elizabeth Montgomery). I also left off the adorable Thelma Todd, whose fame is primarily due to her short subjects. This is a list dedicated to actresses who starred in feature films. For those of you who are sensitive about such things, I must also apologise about the preponderance of cheesecake, but then I am a guy!

Anyhow, if you have a film blog or pop culture blog, and you wouldn't mind doing such a list, then consider yourself tagged.

1. Grace Kelly

Favourite Roles: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief

2. Audrey Hepburn

Favourite Roles: Sabrina, My Fair Lady

3. Ingrid Bergman

Favourite Roles: Casablanca, Gaslight, Notorious

4. Louise Brooks

Favourite Roles: Pandora's Box, Diary of a Lost Girl

5. Cyd Charisse

Favourite Roles: Silk Stockings, The Band Wagon

6. Carole Lombard
  Favourite Roles: My Man Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, To Be or Not To Be

7. Vivien Leigh

Favourite Roles: Gone with the Wind, Ship of Fools

8. Doris Day

Favourite Roles: Pillow Talk, Send Me No Flowers

9. Myrna Loy

The "Thin Man" Series, Too Hot to Handle, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

10. Ava Gardner

Favourite Roles: The Killers, The Barefoot Contessa

11. Gene Tierneyy 

Favourite Roles: Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

12. Brigitte Bardot

Favourite Roles: Et Dieu… créa la femme, Le Mépris

13.  Janet Leigh

Favourite Roles: Holiday Affair, The Manchurian Candidate

14. Maureen O'Hara
(Sorry, fellas, I just couldn't resist a pic of her with Tyrone Power)

Favourite Roles: The Black Swan, Miracle on 34th Street

15. Jane Fonda

Favourite Roles: Any Wednesday. Cat Ballou, Barbarella

16. Bette Davis

Favourite Roles: The Man Who Came to Dinner, Now Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

17. Barbara Stanwyck

Favourite Roles: Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut

18. Julie Christie

Favourite Roles: Billy Liar, Petulia

19. Marilyn Monroe

Favourite Roles: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot

20. Hazel Court

Favourite Roles: Curse of Frankenstein, The Man Who Could Cheat Death