Once again, the obituaries in the entertainment world have surpassed my ability to note them. I will note with sorrow the passing of Mike Connors and Barbara Hale, a/k/a Joe Mannix and Della Street, two much-loved stalwarts of the TV of my youth, and then move on
1. The morning before "Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher" aired on HBO, the Washington Post ran a review of the documentary with a picture of the young Debbie hugging Baby Carrie. I almost burst out crying, and I suspect most of the people who saw it did too.
The documentary wasn't supposed to be an elegy to mother and daughter. It was a presentation of their daily lives, living next door to each other in a family compound in Beverly Hills. The portrait was of two women who loved each other deeply, despite their inevitable conflicts. When Debbie lamented that she didn't do more to help Carrie beat her addictions, or when Carrie wept openly over her mother's failing health, it was unbearably poignant. It was even more so when Carrie, browsing through a London gift shop and coming across a plaque bearing a blessing on the order of, "May you meet God in Heaven," asked, "When?"
It goes without saying, yet I feel compelled to say it anyway, that Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher do not deserve to be remembered for the tragedy that ended their lives. Both of them were can-do people, even if Carrie placed a more ironic twist on her life than her mother. It is no stretch at all to think of Debbie as the Unsinkable Molly Brown and Carrie as Princess Leia, two characters who confronted every outrageous thing life hurled at them and still stood on their own two feet at the end. That doesn't even cover Debbie's magnificent career in such films as "Singin' in the Rain," or Carrie's as a much-admired novelist, screenwriter and script doctor. They deserve our happy thoughts. At the very least, they deserve to be remembered in connection with Carrie's couplet, quoted by her friend Meryl Streep: "Take your broken heart/And make a work of art."
2. The obituary page makes strange fellows, and so it did with Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt dying two days apart. They were two of the most extravagantly talented performers of their generation, and yet it is diificult to imagine the movie, play or TV program that could comfortably accommodate both of them. They were each other's antithesis.
Mary Tyler Moore showed us the strength in normality. She was perfectly capable of playing cold-hearted characters, as she demonstrated in "Ordinary People." But it is as Laura Petrie and particularly Mary Richards that we rightly cherish her. Even more than Molly Brown or Princess Leia, Laura Petrie and Mary Richards were can-do characters with great hearts and even better backbones. Laura chose to be married, Mary chose not to be, but they were both independent-minded women who always acted according to their best instincts. Often that got them into trouble--these were comedies, after all--but they deserved, and earned, the love and respect of all. Many writers more qualified than I have written of Mary Tyler Moore's positive impact on feminism. I will only add that she had a positive effect, not only on feminism, but on humanity.
John Hurt, on the other hand, specialized in finding the sympathy for the most extreme characters imaginable. He could claim a positive effect on gay rights with his lovable portrayal of Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant," or on the rights of the disabled with his superb Joseph Merrick (misnamed John) in "The Elephant Man." Yet he could even make us feel a perverse sympathy for his Caligula in "I, Claudius," a murderous madman who unfortunately had the power of life and death over everyone in the Roman Empire. His uncanny, surgically precise line-readings--a testament to the training of actors in British Rep--showed us the fear and vulnerability behind the character's sadism. (If you've never seen "I, Claudius," you should, and if you have, you should see it again. The scenes between Hurt, Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips should be required viewing in every acting school in the world.)
OK, maybe there could have a been a movie starring Mary Tyler Moore as a much-put-upon college administrator and John Hurt as an eccentric genius professor. The movie would have them start out as enemies and eventually become friends, perhaps even lovers. I don't know how this would have worked out. I only know that Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt could have made us believe it.