Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 R.I.P.

The year 2013 is coming to a close. And I rather suspect that when most fans of vintage film, television, and music think of the year it will be on the many deaths that occurred during the year. Now I don't think more classic stars died during 2013. As I recall many, many more died in 2009 and 2010 respectively. That having been said, 2013 saw the passings of some very big names.

Indeed, I suspect I was not alone in feeling that my youth was passing before my eyes for much of 2013. Several individuals died who had an immeasurable impact on my life. Among those who died was stop motion animator, special effects creator, and film producer Ray Harryhausen. I am sure I have told many that his film Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was the first film I can remember watching all the way through, to the point that I am sure many of you are sick of hearing about it. The film made a lasting impression on me, to the point that I am not sure I would be a classic film buff or a writer without having seen it as such a young age.

Sadly, Ray Harryhausen was not the only person who died in 2013 who had a huge impact on my life. W. Watts Biggers was the creator of my favourite animated cartoon from my childhood, Underdog.  As the writer of many old films and episodes of The Twilight Zone Richard Matheson would have a lasting influence on my life. As an adult I would discover his books as well. Two musicians died during 2013 who would a lasting effect on my life. Reg Presley of The Troggs wrote and performed some of my favourite songs, and would have a lasting impact on punk music. Lou Reed's influence would go even further. He would not only have an impact on punk rock, but glam rock, New Wave, and power pop. Much of the music to which I listen might not exist had it not been for Lou Reed.

Beyond Ray Harryhausen, the death that would have the largest impact on me would be Joan Fontaine. In fact, while others may disagree, I think she may have been the biggest film star to die this years. Joan Fontaine was among the very first classic film stars I discovered and she has remained one of my favourite stars throughout the years. Indeed, I consider her role as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca (1940) to be one of the most iconic in film history, perhaps surpassed only by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942).

Here I feel I have to apologise for discussing those people who had an impact on myself, and I am sure that many of the other big stars who died during 2013 had a huge impact on others' lives. Indeed, some of the biggest names in film history died this year. Eleanor Parker (the character actress who looked like a leading lady), Deanna Durbin (the soprano who became America's sweetheart), Esther Williams (the Olympic level swimmer who became a film star), Annette Funicello (star of the "Beach Party" films and America's Sweetheart if there ever was one), Jean Kent (British screen legend and last of the Gainsborough Girls), Audrey Totter (the queen of film noir) and Peter O'Toole (the man most nominated for the Best Actor Oscar without actually winning) all died in 2013. What is more, many more big name stars of film and television died during the year, including Frank Thornton, Joanthan Winters, Miles O'Shea, Jeanne Cooper, Dennis Farina, James Gandolfino, Jean Stapleton, Michael Ansara, Eileen Brennan, Julie Harris, and Tom Laughlin. With regards to film, Bryan Forbes was not simply a film star, but a director and writer as well. He was a multi-talent who not only directed such films as The L-Shaped Room (1962), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and The Wrong Box (1966), but acted in film and wrote books as well. Sir David Frost was not a film star, but he was very nearly as famous. A consummate satirist and interview, he was famous on both sides of the Pond.

Several great musicians besides Reg Presley and Lou Reed died in 2013. Indeed, I've always maintained that Ray Manzarek was as responsible for The Doors' success as Jim Morrison. Quite simply, The Doors would not have been The Doors without Mr. Manzarek's incredible keyboard work. The year would also see the passing of Peter Banks, formerly of Yes, one of the most legendary progressive rock guitarists of all time, as well as Kevin Ayers, leader of the influential but under-appreciated band Soft Machine. The year would also see the passing of legendary vocalist Patti Page, Patty Andrews of The Andrews Sisters, Rick Huxley of The Dave Clark Five, Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Trevor Bolder of The Spiders From Mars and Uriah Heep, and Eydie Gorme.

Of course, more than deaths occurred in 2013. Indeed, I honestly think American network broadcast television saw some improvement during the year. After years of churning out the same old thing, the four networks seemed more willing to experiment in 2013. On NBC The Blacklist, which perhaps can best be described as a thriller, debuted this season. ABC ventured into the world of superheroes with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Several genre shows debuted this fall, including Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.  It seems as if the networks are finally trying to break free of the cops and robbers and lawyers shows they have made for so many years. While I can't say all of these shows are necessarily good, they are at least different. As to the best new show in the 2013-2014 season, I would have to give that to The Michael J. Fox Show. Not only is it good to see Michael J. Fox back on television, but the show is genuinely funny and well written.

Living on a slightly more limited income than I have in past years, I have to confess that I did not pay too much attention to what was released at cinemas this year. With regards to quality, then, I can't say if 2013 was any better or worse than past years. I do have to say that it seems as if Hollywood's trend towards sequels has continued unabated. Of the top ten films of 2013 so far, six were sequels (Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, and  Star Trek Into Darkness). What films were not sequels were often based on properties from other media (Man of Steel, Oz: The Great and Powerful). In the end, the only two wholly original films among the highest grossing movies of 2013 were Gravity and Frozen (and even it was very  loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen). People have been complaining about a lack of originality on the part of Hollywood for years now. Sadly, the top movies of 2013 show that they have reason to complain.

Over all I cannot say 2013 was a bad year for pop culture. Over all television seems to be improving slightly. That having been said, film seems to be stuck in a rut of sequels and giving us little in the way of original material. And, of course, the year saw many, many deaths of big name stars. Sadly, given the ages of actors and directors from the Golden Ages of Film and Television, I fear that is a trend that will continue for many years. At any rate, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that I hope 2014 is a much better year.

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