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Legends in land of the living

The loss of great performers prompts farewells to an era. But it's not an end, merely a revolution in a cycle.

August 08, 2003|Michael Wilmington | Chicago Tribune

The recent deaths of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Bob Hope should have reminded us again how perishable movie legends can be -- at least in the flesh.

They seemed to have been with us forever: Hepburn, the indomitable star actress from Bryn Mawr, Peck the handsome leading man from La Jolla, and the wise-cracking, indefatigable Hope, a sharp-tongued comedian born in England but raised in Cleveland. Then, suddenly, within the span of several weeks, they were all gone.

They weren't snatched from us too soon, of course. Hepburn died at 96, Peck at 87 and Hope, like his old vaudeville pal George Burns, achieved a full centenary. But, following on one another so rapidly, their deaths did seem to mark the end of an era: the golden age of the studio system in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

Though other survivors remain (Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, even former President Ronald Reagan), these were still three passings that movie lovers could feel with special intensity and an almost personal force.

Hepburn -- radiant, tough and brilliant feminist icon -- created an imperishable body of work, stretching from her first Oscar winner, "Morning Glory" in 1933, to her last, "On Golden Pond" in 1981. Peck's star preeminence was briefer (only about four decades as opposed to Hepburn's six), but it did produce many films of great quality ("Gentleman's Agreement," "Twelve O'clock High," "The Gunfighter") and at least one performance, Atticus Finch in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird," that will always be with us.

Hope was the comic monologist without peer, the emcee extraordinaire and a movie master of the double take, the lewd double-entendre and the sneaky bravado, as well as the perfect comic foil to Bing Crosby in film history's most popular and successful two-man stooge-smoothie act.

Predictably, some marked the trio's passing by suggesting they were the last of the great movie legends. But they weren't. They were special, often extraordinary and much-loved. But they weren't the last. Legends appear and die, but new ones appear to take their places. One day, we may speak of Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Woody Allen the way we now speak of Peck, Hepburn and Hope.

Jack Nicholson is an obvious legend-to-be; so is Robert De Niro. Indeed, people often make fun of some these "younger" luminaries now, implying they're not up to their elders. But critics of another day mocked Hepburn as a snobbish horse-face, Peck a great stone idol and Hope as a lewd and shallow court jester.

If those three and a handful of their contemporaries seem remarkable now, it's because they seemed part of an imperiled species as recently as the '80s. That was the time, far more than the swinging '60s or early '70s, when there was a youth tyranny in film and show business: when it was easier to get a movie green light for something with the Brat Pack (Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy, et al.) than with, say, Hepburn, Peck and Hope.

Check Peck's filmography, and you'll see precious few lead roles in movies after 1980 -- beyond 1989's "Old Gringo," in which he replaced the ailing Burt Lancaster. Hope, similarly little used, couldn't interest producers in his proposed "The Road to the Fountain of Youth," first set to co-star him and Crosby, and later, after Crosby's 1977 death, retooled for Hope and Burns.

Hepburn defied age like no one else but, in some ways, her case is just as frustrating. She did work, until 1994, and she remained a star -- but not at the same level, even though her last Oscar came in 1981. A year later, in 1982, she couldn't get a seemingly sure-fire project financed: a film of "The West Side Waltz," a good play written by "On Golden Pond's" Ernest Thompson in which she acted (superbly) on Broadway and in which she wanted to co-star with one of her near-contemporaries.

For legends to survive, they have to be remembered. In their lives, they should remain, to some degree, in the arena. They shouldn't be shoved aside to make way for every new phenom. TV saved Hepburn and Hope, and documentaries saved Peck. That's part of why they stayed in our minds, and why we kept watching their older movies.

But when -- as in the '80s, and our own era as well -- we begin to sneer at age and lust after youth at all costs, we cut ourselves off from the past and endanger the future, while completely misperceiving the present. That's the great vice and myopia of show business executives.

It was in the '80s that the famous story about director Fred Zinnemann ("High Noon," "From Here to Eternity," "A Man for All Seasons") probably occurred -- when the seventy- something Zinnemann was summoned into the plush office of a thirtysomething studio exec who smiled and asked: "OK, now tell me what you've done!"

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