Parker/Totter/O'Toole and Fontaine - The Passing of the Old Guard

This past week was a particularly harsh one for film buffs with the passing of Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine. 

Eleanor Parker’s career is one I have not followed closely.  Her coolness on screen did not appeal to me, but I am told by several friends there are some good performances I really should seek out.  I always liked her as the Baroness in The Sound of Music if for no other reason she was the counterpoint to the spunky sweetness of Julie Andrews.  I have a real fondness for her in Between Two Worlds which I find her to be very effective.  She also positively steals Scaramouche, MGM’s overblown Technicolor swashbuckler.  How Mel Ferrer and Stewart Grainger could have preferred Janet Leigh over Parker is beyond me.  Parker is utterly gorgeous in glorious Technicolor and clearly she relished the comedic aspects of the film.  I am told I must see Caged for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.  She loses points for the 1951 film Valentino, for obvious reasons.

Audrey Totter was noted mostly for nourish, B films.  I loved her in Lady in the Lake and The Set UpShe remains a favorite simply for her role in one of my favorite of all films, The Unsuspected.  Everything you need to see about Totter on film can be seen in the below clip from The Unsuspected, it’s glorious as she was.  She married and retired early for what I presume was a happy life contrary to the tough dames she played on screen. 

Peter O’Toole was the last of the hell-raising, hard-drinking, hard-partying actors from his generation that included Richard Burton, Richard Harris and the delicious Oliver Reed.  His incredibly bright blue eyes shining against the baked desert in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia will remain an iconic image on film.  Even in dreck, I do not think he gave a bad performance, but once wonders with all the abuse it is a wonder he survived to 81.  He was much nominated by the Academy eight times and never won, excepting an Honorary Award in 2006.  A shame, that. 

Finally this weekend, on the same day as O’Toole, patrician Joan Fontaine also left at the age of 96.  It took me a long time to warm to Fontaine, I have to admit.  I was early on a fan of her sister Olivia de Havilland and found the coolness (much like Parker) a bit off putting.  That said, I have since warmed to her in many films, including Rebecca, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Jane Eyre (where I feel you can really see the underlying fire in Jane despite the reserved, guarded exterior), Tessa in The Constant Nymph and Born to be Bad (delightfully wicked, manipulative as Cristobel).  Pointing you to the Self-Styled Siren, her tribute to Fontaine is as elegant as Fontaine appeared to be.  I'd be lying if I did not think sister Olivia was waiting for Joan to die first so she could publish her long in progress autobiography.

My roommate asked me, how can you feel sad for the passing of someone who was 96 (or 81 for that matter) and someone you never knew?  I do not feel the keen loss that I felt when Cary Grant or Fred Astaire passed away, I can tell you where I was when I saw the news.  To me, this is more the passing of the old guard, the ever thinning ranks of a link to the old Hollywood.  I’ve been a film buff from an early age, the golden days before cable when local stations ran classic films constantly on rotation.  Where I cut my teeth, so to speak as an amateur film historian. 

In my lifetime, so many of the film stars I loved were still active, still working.  I’ve watched in my own time, perhaps to a lesser historically important degree than that of the WWI buffs, who saw the passing of the last witness to that awful spectacle a few years ago.  With so few real old greats remaining to bear witness to a time and people we will never see the like of again, I feel sad.  Hollywood, the film business has changed.  With the internet, twitter and the instant news cycle and without the dream factories, it also makes me sad that, with few exceptions, we will not see the likes of so many of these actors again. 

For better or worse, I still mourn the studio system that created, nurtured and protected them.  I miss the mystery, the mystique of an actor or star I admire.  With each that leaves us in due time, it is like the passing of an old friend.  Happily, each will live on, to be rediscovered anew by future generations so long as cinema endures in some fashion.  And as they pass, it also gives me the opportunity to revisit old favorites and find new ones thanks to suggestions from friends.  This is a sad time for their families, but for us who only knew them as flickering images on screen, it’s a way to say thank you for the delightful legacy left behind and treasure the art of cinema which we love. 

All in all, a very sad weekend for the Old Guard Hollywood and TCM needs to do a serious revision on their end the year clip reel.


Jef Roberts said…
Nice appreciation. I love Parker, who is for me one of the more interesting actresses who peaked in the 1950s. That she can be SO lively in the lavish but leaden Scaramouche is a tribute to her gifts. Adept at comedy and drama, she deserves to be better known.
I will have to go back and watch Totter again. I have seen her and recall her name but remember nothing about her at this moment.
O'Toole was a force of nature and left behind a remarkable body of work. Time to revisit it for me.
I admire Joan Fontaine but have never warmed to her. But she was a link to Old Hollywood and there are very few of those left. And yes, please, Olivia, finish the memoirs!
Lovely post, especially your summing up of what these films and their stars mean to us classic-film fans. Whenever a favored actor dies, I feel you lose so much in a way, because they represented so many people in their roles. But then you have the full panoply of their careers to remember and rediscover them by.
Tinky said…
Like Jef (and like you early on), I am not a Fontaine fan, but it's still odd to think of her gone. I once did a paper on her correspondence with David O. Selznick; he was enough to make anyone seem cold and distant. But O'Toole I will miss....
Patti said…
A sad week, indeed. I cannot remember a week when we have lost so many of the old greats.

I adore Eleanor Parker. She's my #4 gal, behind only Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, and Barbara Stanwyck. I was so grieved to learn of her passing that I wept like a baby. You definitely MUST see "Caged." I truly believe she is the one who ought to have won the Oscar that year...despite the fact that Bette (my #1 gal) was nominated. Also, catch her in "The Man with the Golden Arm." I couldn't understand why she wasn't even nominated for that film...but then I realized she had been nominated for "Interrupted Melody" that same year. While that is a good film and a great performance, I happen to think she was nominated for the wrong film that year. "Golden Arm" was an Oscar-worthy performance for sure, IMO.

Joan Fontaine is in my top 15, and I had intended to have her as my star of the month in October. Alas, I changed my mind and have even taken a blog break. Now, I'm wishing I had stuck with my original plan and honored her while she was yet I did her sister in July.

Thanks for a lovely post.

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