After writing so many obituaries this year, it is pleasant to record major birthday milestones for beloved and important show business figures: Mel Brooks, who turned 90 on June 28, and Olivia de Havilland, who made her full century on July 1.
Brooks' career, of course, has been one long explosion of raucous and invigorating joy. It's virtually impossible to list all the memorable moments he has given us as performer, writer and director, but it is interesting to think about how many of those moments, for a man not primarily considered a musician, have been musical: the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence, one of the single funniest scenes in the history of movies, in both the original and musical versions of "The Producers;" Madeline Kahn doing her best Dietrich impression in "Blazing Saddles" as she vamps through that masterpiece of double entendre, "I'm Tired;" Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle, as Frederick Fronkensteen and his monster in "Young Frankenstein,", dodging the rotten vegetables thrown by the learned scientists watching them dance to "Puttin' on the Ritz." Music has always been in Mel Brooks' head, and that music has always been happy. A recent picture that circulated on Facebook showed Brooks with his nonagenarian friends Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke. The caption--"270 Years of Funny"--is one that can all make us happy.
Olivia de Havilland probably resonates less with younger audiences than Brooks; her great period as an actress ranged from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, and she has been a private citizen for many years. It is both sad and bewildering to think that none of her "Gone with the Wind" co-stars--Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel--lived to see 60, and the last of them, Leigh, has been gone nearly a half-century. "Gone with the Wind," long the most popular and celebrated movie ever made, has lost some of its luster as audiences turned against the racial attitudes it presents. (Again, it's interesting to note that many years later De Havilland appeared in "Roots--the Second Generation," playing the mother of a young man who gives up everything to marry the African-American woman he loves.) However, De Havilland made an indelible impression as Melanie, the perfect flower of gentle Southern womanhood, and that performance was the harbinger of many great ones to come. One of the greatest performances by any actor, in my opinion, was hers in "The Heiress," William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square." De Havilland's Catherine Sloper, a mousy young woman squeezed between her dictatorial father and a mercenary suitor, is a miracle of subtle transformation from victim to victimizer.
In noting the birthdays of two great figures, we must still note the passing of an even greater one: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, prolific writer, Nobel Prize winner, global defender of human rights. Wiesel spent his life as a witness to slaughter, fighting the forces of hatred; again, it is interesting to think of Mel Brooks using laughter to fight those very same forces.
I love the quote from Wiesel that a friend posted on Facebook: "To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. I couldn't prevent that first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death." In 2016, as we still reel from the horrible loss of life in Orlando and Istanbul and Baghdad and brace ourselves for more carnage, Wiesel;'s words unfortunately are more meaningful than ever. We must stand as witnesses to the slaughter of the innocents, and never let the world forget them.