Friday, June 20, 2014

Birthday Boy (and Others): Fame, it is Fleeting

A roundabout tribute to today's birthday boy, and one that leads to thinking about some others who share the date...

Today, you see, is the birthday of Errol Flynn, and the song sung here by the infinitely marvelous Miss Barbara Cook bears his name.  Flynn may still be a household name, of sorts, the subject of a prime-time TCM tribute and that sort of thing; even so, his is a fame of a distant and vaguely dusty kind, faded both by time and by the memory of his own slow fade, one that took with it much of the swashbuckling glamour that made him Warners' golden boy.

It's a sad song, then, "Errol Flynn," one that by focusing not on the star but on one of the half-remembered faces near him makes its melancholy all the more pointed:

Now, fame, it is fleeting and stars, they keep falling, 
And staying right up there, that's the business of art; 
And luck kisses some and she passes by others - 
Disappointment and bourbon are hard on the heart.

Reading down today's birthday list made me think of fame and its transience, and how reputations soar and then, unpredictably, fizzle.

Lillian Hellman was born today in 1905, and for a while she showed every sign of being one of the great American literary names of the century, a political heroine and even, as portrayed by Jane Fonda onscreen, a film one.  Yet today, who is Lillian Hellman?  Author of the vaguely quaint The Children's Hour and memoirs that seem as time passes ever more suspect and self-serving; the subject of a biting comment by Mary McCarthy (herself far from the luminary she once was); a BlackGlama subject who, unlike most of those, is an unlikely vision in mink.

Another celebrant today is Gail Patrick, a lovely actress who for a little while in the '30s seemed as if she might be the Next Big Thing; despite some fine work, though, she wasn't ("third or fourth billing," sings Barbara Cook, "at the end of each picture...").  The continuity of film, its ongoing presence in our lives, preserves the great names; at the same time, it carries along with it the vague embarrassment of those who never were.

And that might be a lesson to another June 20 baby:  Nicole Kidman.  She went in rapid succession from fresh-faced discovery to Next Big Thing and Hollywood Wife of the highest order; for a long while, it seemed she went from strength to strength, alternating blockbusters and eccentric choices, if anything made even bigger when her very peculiar marriage very publicly imploded.  But then something went wrong; too many experiments meant that there really wasn't any such thing as a Nicole Kidman picture - what would you be getting?  The gala star of Moulin Rouge?  The would-be Streepische Great Actress of The Hours?  Or the puzzling presence who did things like Fur or the Von Trier films?  She seemed, in a way, to panic; she resorted to unwise cosmetic measures that distanced her ever further from the beauty of Portrait of a Lady or the sleek young matron of The Others.

At the moment, she seems poised between two possibilities.  The first is some kind of rebalancing, one that could take her into a new phase, yet to be determined.  She is, after all, still a major name, and actresses as different as Diane Keaton and Glenn Close (not to mention Streep herself) have found ways to reinvent themselves into their 50s and beyond.  Somehow, though, the other direction seems somehow likelier.  The resounding, ludicrous failure at this year's Cannes festival of her latest unwise choice, Grace of Monaco, in combination with her ever more disconcerting appearance, points her less the way of Keaton's golden-years romcoms or Closes's TV stardom than it does to the sad fate of Faye Dunaway (who was greater?  Who has fallen further?).

So it's a nervous-making days for birthdays.  Just as well to have the soothing voice of Miss Cook see us through, her perfect pianissimo softening the song, even as we consider the "sad, funny feeling" and the bargains, often so unkind, dealt out by the fickle combination of celebrity and time.


  1. I do like Miss Kidman, but I cannot deny she is beginning to look like Don Rickles. Jx

  2. Just wanted to mention that the song is autobiographical. It was written by Amanda McBroom (Theme from The Rose) about her father, character actor David Bruce, who actually did appear in several films with Fluynn.

    1. I was remiss - it's indeed a lovely song; along with "The Rose," among her very best.