May 31, 2010

Dennis Hopper (1936 - 2010)

Losing a voice of a generation is one thing, but then losing one who was a part of several generations, well, that is another. So it was with Dennis Hopper: actor, director, photographer, madman, clown, renaissance man. In some way he was always part of various movements which has shaped our culture in the past half-century. Upon co-starring with his friend James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, history might suggest that Dennis Hopper would follow in Dean's footsteps and venture on to some "troubled youth" dramas of his own. And when he returned to the Hollywood mainstream a decade later, he became a poster child of the new counterculture- an overnight sensation for acting in and directing Easy Rider, thus making him a major figure of the Hollywood Renaissance. That success of course led to excess, both creatively and pharmaceutically, with the debacle of his follow-up film The Last Movie (which may yet be re-evaluated as a masterpiece-- who knows?), and his drug use eventually making him unemployable in Hollywood.

Still, Hollywood always loves a comeback, and so it was, that a decade later, after being found waking around naked (a scenario not dissmilar to a moment in the amazing documentary The American Dreamer made during his non-stop Last Movie-era party days), he cleaned up his act, and emerged with a string of career-defining performances (Hoosiers, Blue Velvet, and The River's Edge) that endeared him to a new generation. And once again, he directed a film that is among his very best (Colors). As much as the 1980's re-defined Dennis Hopper, he remained durable as decades passed: such as a memorable supporting role in True Romance (no doubt inspiring a new generation weaned on 90's independent films), and the villain in the megahit Speed).

Whether his excess may have hindered or fed his talents is one for the biographers, but onscreen Dennis Hopper was a magnetic performer- he always surprised you. He could be funny, savage or tragic on a whim.. thus making him exciting to watch Onscreen, as in life, one never knew what he would do next. It is small wonder he was often employed to play obsessive oddballs-- all of his characters had a mad passion.

Offscreen, Hopper was also a talented painter and photographer (American Dreamer generously features the latter). One may also be surprised that for such a mainstream figure, Hopper was also a fixture in the avant garde. He was a good friend of Bruce Conner (in fact, Hopper has a photo credit for a Conner portrait in a 1960's experimental film text), a fixture on the Warhol scene, and it's not for nothing that his first lead role was in Night Tide, the first commercial feature of former experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington. (Forty years on, whenever someone programmed a Hopper retrospective, the actor would insist that this film be shown among other more obvious choices.) It could be that the fragmented, non-linear approach to experimental filmmaking influenced the jagged rhythms of his own Easy Rider and The Last Movie.

His long list of screen credits reveal many gems: the forgotten "new" western Kid Blue; the post-Vietnam Tracks, the arthouse cult favourite The American Friend; the post-hippie pre-punk masterpiece of lost youth Out of the Blue; even a funny self-parody in Flashback. In art, as in life, there is much more to discover about the man.

May 29, 2010

Gary Coleman (1968 - 2010)

Perhaps Gary Coleman was the child star I was most enamoured with in my adolescent years, if because we are roughly the same age. And even to my pre-cinematically trained eyes, it was obvious that this kid had talent to burn. Small wonder did he capture the hearts of countless TV viewers on the hit comedy "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1986), as the younger of two African American kids, Arnold and Willis Jackson (Coleman and Todd Bridges, respectively), who are taken in by a white Park Avenue man, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who also had a daughter of his own (Kimberly, played by Dana Plato- a childhood crush) and a funny maid (first Charlotte Rae then Nedra Volz) to round out the weekly fun. The formula worked because the writing was lively and sharp, giving ample opportunities for these eclectic characters to grow and learn from each other. Of course, Coleman sold the show with his energy, timing, cuteness, and naturally his catch phrase: the oft-repeated "What you talkin' about (insert name here)?"

Looking back on his credits, it is astonishing to see the big gulf in his acting career for several years after "Diff'rent Strokes" ended. Not only was Gary Coleman a ubiquitous face in the media because of the hit show, but he seemed to always be working whenever the show was on hiatus: appearing in inoffensive TV movies, the odd theatrical film, and even guest shots on other series. (He even did a great comic turn as a futuristic president in the "Buck Rogers" TV series, seen above with Twiki the Robot). (After school in the early 1980's, I used to catch reruns of "The Jeffersons", and once was surprised to see "Arnold" playing George Jefferson's bratty nephew Raymond-- he was even turning up in syndication!). Somewhere along the way, "Diff'rent Strokes" moved from Fridays to Saturdays -a careless decision which affected its ratings since its demographic wasn't home Saturday nights- and also "jumped the shark" by having Mr. Drummond getting married, and bringing another cute kid (Danny Cooksey) to the formula. One assumes that it was during these shifts that Gary Coleman got tired of playing cute kid Arnold (when you're 16, it's not flattering to keep being 12)- in fact, he later confessed his joy at seeing the show get cancelled.

After "Diff'rent Strokes" ended with a whimper not a bang, so too did Gary Coleman slip from the public eye. It was six years later that I was reminded about him again- six years is not a long time in the life cycle, but an eternity for show biz. The glossy rag I was reading at my convenience store job had a photograph of an older, haggard Gary Coleman with a Fresh Prince haircut appearing next to a blurb that mentioned he was currently working as a security guard, and was suing his parents over mismanagement of funds!

Child stars seldom make the easy transition into adulthood on screen. The two most obvious reasons for this misfortune are that the public still wants to see their star as an eleven year old, and, more tragically, they are often cheated out of their rightful financial reward due to naivete. Both of these affected Gary Coleman: he was a man still trapped in a child's body (as kidney complications had stunted his growth), thus making him hard to cast; and although he successfully sued his parents for frittering away his fortunes, his comparatively small settlement was hard-won.

Sadly, Gary Coleman became another example of the disgusting trend in which this industry exploits child labour (and you can take that phrase any way you like), and summarily sucking one dry for all their worth and discarding them like an empty vessel afterwards. So too did he become another footnote in the misfortune that affected the kids of this wholesome TV show: Todd Bridges received a murder charge, and America's sweetheart Dana Plato took her own life in a drug overdose. (Sadly, only weeks before Coleman's sudden death Friday, her son also committed suicide.)

Roger Ebert said it best, albeit on a different topic: "In today's world, everything is ironic." One cannot help but think that Coleman's fleeting, subsequent TV and film appearance, were all in some way a nod towards his sorry fall from grace. It is doubly ironic upon reading the outpouring of sympathy in the media towards his death after complications from a brain hemmerage, since it seemed that only scandalous headlines made us remember Gary Coleman again, yet still this sympathy is too little too late. The airwaves are instead saturated with exploitation masquerading as entertainment news or "reality TV" shows that only prefer to celebrate the worst of everything, and speak of former celebrities only in a condensing presentation of our nostalgic heroes at their very worst: yes, they're as human as we are, but there is more to real people than just their flaws.

Upon writing this eulogy for Gary Coleman, I am reminded of a similar outpouring of affection almost a year ago (albeit on a grander scale) upon the death of Michael Jackson- another celebrity icon with a tarnished image whose sudden departure robbed the public of seeing the comeback they so deserved.

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