Norm MacDonald, R.I.P.

I’m still in shock about the news that Norm MacDonald died today, at the age of 61. He died of cancer, which he had been battling for nine years.

Norm MacDonald was the funniest man alive, though he often didn’t seem to get the appreciation that he truly deserved. There are so many comedians who claim not to care what people think about them and their jokes but, when it came to Norm, it was no act. He would joke about anything and anyone, delivering his punchlines with deadpan but savage nonchalance.

Like a lot of people, I first knew Norm MacDonald as the anchorman of SNL‘s Weekend Update. He was the last great Weekend Update anchor, which unfortunately led to him losing his job when NBC president Don Ohlmeyer took offense to his frequent jokes about OJ Simpson.

Personally, I liked Norm MacDonald’s takes on the movies:

After he was fired from Weekend Update, Norm MacDonald appeared on David Letterman’s show and said that he had been told that he would still be allowed to be a performer on Saturday Night Live and that he would still be doing celebrity impersonations but “I suck at that.” However, anyone who ever saw Norm MacDonald plays Burt Reynolds knows that MacDonald was being too modest.

After Saturday Night Live, Norm MacDonald continued to be a popular and beloved talk show guest. His appearances on Conan O’Brien were legendary.

My personal favorite Norm MacDonald talk show appearance was when he showed up on The Larry Sanders Show, along with special guest Henry Winkler. Though everyone on the show was concerned about a missing Hank Kingsely sex tape, Norm kept the audience laughing.

Norm MacDonald, Rest in Peace.

Scenes That I Love: The Ending of Breathless (R.I.P., Jean-Paul Belmondo)

I was saddened to learn of the death of French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo earlier today.  He was 88 years old and still an international icon of movie star charisma at the time of his death.

Belmondo spent the majority of his career in France, where he was one of the early faces of the New Wave and also a prominent action star, famed for doing his own very dangerous stunts.  In America, he was best-known for his starring turn in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.  In Breathless, Belmondo was the perfect existential outlaw, living life day-by-day and obviously doomed but still so incredibly magnetic and stylish.

In tribute to Belmondo, here is a scene that I love, the final moments of Breathless.

Charlie Watts, R.I.P.

Charlie Watts, the drummer of the Rolling Stones, died today at the age of 80. He passed away peacefully in London, surrounded by his family.

This one is hitting me hard. Charlie Watts was one of my drumming heroes. He was also the underrated glue that held the Stones together, the steadying influence that controlled the chaos that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards released on stage. He was a key member of the band but, because he was so self-effacing, he was often underrated. In many ways, he was the perfect drummer. While the lead singer and the lead guitarist prowled the front of the stage, Watts stayed in the background and produced the beat that propelled the Stones’s best songs.

Not only was Charlie Watts one of the best drummer, he was also perhaps the best dressed drummer to ever grace the stage. By most accounts, Charlie Watts a gentlemen, through and through, one who stayed loyal to his wife despite the temptations of the road and who often viewed touring as member of the world’s most dangerous band with a bemused wit. Reportedly, he was the only member of the band to openly cry when they first learned that co-founder Brian Jones had drowned. In the documentary Gimme Shelter, while Mick Jagger remains detached while watching the Hell’s Angels kill Meredith Hunter while the Stones perform at the Altamont Free Concert, Watts is clearly upset by the violence unfolding on the monitors before him.

Charlie Watts, R.I.P. You shall be missed.

Sonny Chiba, R.I.P.

The news today is tragic.  COVID has claimed the life of Sonny Chiba.  Chiba was 82 years old.

Born Sadaho Maeda, he first entered films when he won a talent search that was sponsored by Toei Studios.  The CEO of Toei renamed him Shinichi Chiba.  He started his career largely appearing in crime dramas, playing police and gangsters.  He found international stardom when he started to play roles that took advantage of his mastery of the martial arts, which eventually led to him playing the lead role in 1974’s The Street Fighter.  With the success of that film, he also received a new name when the film’s U.S. distributor, New Line Cinema, advertised the film as starring “Sonny” Chiba.  At the time, The Street Fighter was notorious for being the first film to receive an X-rating due to violence.  Perhaps the MPAA was scandalized by the scene in which audiences were literally shown an x-ray of Chiba smashing open a man’s skull.

A good deal of Sonny Chiba’s appeal came from the fact that he actually was a skilled martial artist.  He wasn’t faking it through camera trickery or fancy editing.  His film fight were exciting because it was obvious that Chiba could do the same things in real life that he was doing in the movies.  He was also a good actor, one who had an imposing screen presence and who was legitimately menacing when he scowled at an opponent.  Before his death, Bruce Lee hoped to make a movie with Sonny Chiba and George Lazenby.  Unfortunately, the day that Chiba arrived in Hong Kong to discuss the film was the same day that Lee died.

Quentin Tarantino was a fan, casting Sonny Chiba in the Kill Bill films.  He was also beloved by the stoners who named a strain of potent cannabis after him.  In Japan, Chiba was a tireless advocate for raising the level of martial arts techniques used in film and television.  He worked up steadily from 1961 onward and he still has one more posthumous film, Bond of Justice: Kizu, set to be released at some point in the future.  He held black belts in 6 different martials arts: Kyokushin, Ninjutsu, Gojo-ryu, Shorinji Kempo, Judo, and Kendo.

Sonny Chiba, R.I.P.

In Memory of Ned Beatty

Ned Beatty died yesterday, at the age of 83.

Ever since I heard the news last night, I’ve been thinking about what an amazing actor Ned Beatty was. He could play it all. He could play a hero, he could play a villain, and he could play the quirky comic relief. He could effortlessly move from the movies to television to the stage and he seemed to instinctively grasp how to modify his style for each medium. Physically, he was instantly recognizable but he still managed to disappear into every role he played. You never thought you were watching Ned Beatty. Instead, you thought you were watching Bobby in Deliverance or Detective Bolander on Homicide or Otis in the first two Superman movies.

It’s amazing that, in his long career, Ned Beatty was only nominated for one Oscar and it wasn’t for his film debut in Deliverance. Playing the Atlanta salesman who is raped by two inbred hillbillies, Beatty gave a fearless performance in a role that a lot of established actors probably would not have had the guts to accept. Beatty wasn’t nominated for Deliverance or for his charming work in the British film, Hear My Song. Instead, he was nominated for his thunderous cameo in Network, in which he told Howard Beale that he had upset the natural order of things and, in a few brief minutes, stole Network from every other member of that film’s legendary cast. The same year that Beatty was in Network, he also appeared as an honest but befuddled investigator in All The President’s Men. Though his screentime was limited in both films, he made a lasting impression.

One of my favorite Beatty performances was as Detective Stanley Bolander on Homicide: Life on the Streets. For the first three seasons of that underappreciated show, Beatty played a veteran detective, the type of man who had dedicated his life to giving a voice to the voiceless. Who can forget him in the pilot, taunting Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch into solving a cold case? Even though Beatty was the best-known actor in the film’s cast, he still blended in effortlessly with the ensemble. Watching Homicide, you didn’t see Ned Beatty. You saw Detective Stanley Bolander, an aging Baltimore detective who had seen the worst but still tried to do the best job that he could. Beatty left the show after three seasons, under circumstances that are still hazy, though everyone seems to agree that blame ultimately rests with the ratings and youth-obsessed executives at NBC, who never appreciated the show while they had it.

(Considering we’ve lost both Yaphet Kotto and Ned Beatty in the same year, I hope at least one streaming service will pick up Homicide so people who missed it the first time can see how great it was. Homicide really laid down the foundation for The Wire.)

Ned Beatty was one of the greats. R.I.P.

NETWORK, Ned Beatty, 1976

The Shattered Lens Honors The Birth of Three Icons

Today, the Shattered Lens honors the birth of three cinematic icons!

Vincent Price was born on May 27th, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Peter Cushing was born on May 26th, 1913 in Kenley, Surrey, England.

Christopher Lee was born on May 27th, 1922 in London, England!

These three gentlemen went on to not only become very good actors but also horror icons! Each, in their own way, is responsible for my own love of cinema. You could argue that, without them, there would be a lot less horror fans in the world. Just as Lee and Cushing introduced a new generation to Dracula and Frankenstein, Price helped to introduce a new generation to the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

On top of all the work they did in the movies, the three of them were apparently good friends off-screen as well!

So, today, take a minute or two to remember three great actors! And, if you want to watch a movie with all three of them at their best, might I suggest Scream and Scream Again? It’s my favorite!

Charles Grodin, Rest in Peace

Charles Grodin could have been Benjamin Braddock.

It was a story that he told often, about how he was a struggling, 30 year-old actor with a few film credits to his name when he was offered the lead role in The Graduate. Even though producer Lawrence Turman said the role would make him a star, Grodin turned it down because of the low salary that Turman offered. The role was then offered to Dustin Hoffman, who went on to become a star and spend several decades as an unlikely box office draw.

It’s easy to imagine Grodin in the role of Benjamin Braddock. He probably wouldn’t have been as insecure as Hoffman was in the role. He would have been a less passive Benjamin. Grodin’s Braddock would probably have been more obviously frustrated with Mrs. Robinson and his parents. Nobody played frustration quite as well as Charles Grodin. Audiences might not have been as quick to sympathize with Benjamin if Grodin had played the role but I think he would have eventually won them over. Grodin was an actor with a talent for making unlikable characters somehow funny and relatable.

Though Grodin may not have played Benjamin Braddock, he still went on to establish himself as one of the funniest character actors in the business, a master of deadpan humor. He was often the best thing in the moves in which he appeared. In Heaven Can Wait, he was funny even while he was trying to kill Warren Beatty. In Real Life, he was a suburban father who found himself trapped in an early version of reality television. In Seems Like Old Times, he gets more laughs with one annoyed expression than Chevy Chase gets in the entire film. In The Great Muppet Caper, he fell in love with Miss Piggy and tried to kill Kermit. He was one of the few actors to make it through Ishtar with his dignity intact. In Midnight Run, he was the perfect comedic counterbalance to Robert De Niro. In Dave, he taught the government how to balance a budget. Though he was often cast in supporting roles or as a co-lead (as in Midnight Express), he proved that he could carry a film with his starring turn in The Heartbreak Kid.

A lot of people knew Grodin best as a late night talk show guest, where he always seemed to be annoyed about something. He would get into mock arguments with the hosts and leave audiences confused as to how serious any of it was. (According to David Letterman, none of it was.) He briefly hosted his own talk show, from 1995 to 1998. Legend has it that Lorne Michaels banned him from Saturday Night Live after he hosted the show, apparently because he was so difficult to work with. How much of that is true and how much of that was just Grodin doing a bit, no one knows. I’ve seen Grodin’s episode. It’s fine. He’s funny.

Charles Grodin died today of bone marrow cancer. He was 85 years old. I’m going to miss him.

Gilda Radner, John Belish, and Charles Grodin on Saturday Night Live

4 Shots From 4 Films: In Memory of Monte Hellman

4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films is just what it says it is, 4 (or more) shots from 4 (or more) of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films lets the visuals do the talking.

I just saw that Monte Hellman, one of the most interesting American directors of all time, passed away today. He was 88 years old. Hellman didn’t direct a lot of films but the ones that he did direct were some of the most unique American films of their time. The Shooting is perhaps the strangest western ever made. Two Lane Blacktop is one of the greatest road films. Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37 both suffered from distribution problems but they have since been rediscovered by audiences and critics. Even Silent Night Deadly Night 3 has its moments of uniquely deranged mayhem, though Hellman himself often said that he did the film strictly for the money.

In honor of Monte Hellman’s legacy, here are….

4 Shots From 4 Monte Hellman Films

The Shooting (1966, dir by Monte Hellman, DP: Gregory Sandor)
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, dir by Monte Hellman, DP: Jack Deerson)
Cockfighter (1974, dir by Monte Hellman, DP: Nestor Almendros)
Road to Nowhere (2010, dir by Monte Hellman, DP: Josep M. Civit)

Today is Edie Sedgwick’s Birthday

Edie Sedgwick (1943 — 1971)

Today, Edie Sedgwick would have been 78 years old. Edie and her tragic life has always fascinated me. I’ve always related to her. As Edie once put it, “It’s not that I’m rebelling. I’m just trying to find a different way.”

Below is the “screen test” that Andy Warhol shot of Edge Sedgwick in 1964. Warhol did screen tests of several famous people, everyone from Dennis Hopper to Salvador Dali to Bob Dylan to the various denizens of the Factory. He would simply turn on the camera and film without sound and it’s always interesting to see how each subject deal with being filmed without direction. Edie was one of the few who controlled the camera from the minute her screen test began to the moment that it ended.

Edie Sedgwick’s life is often described as being a tragedy and, certainly, it was. But it was also filled with hope and optimism and future promise. That the world ultimately proved to be unworthy of Edie does not change who she was or how important she was to the development of pop culture.

Today, on her birthday, we honor the the amazing Edie Sedgwick.

Yaphet Kotto, RIP

Yaphet Kotto in Blue Collar

I saw rumors on twitter last night that Yaphet Kotto had died but, since it was just random people on social media, I didn’t want to say anything until the news was officially confirmed.  Sadly, it was confirmed this morning.  Yesterday, at the age of 81, Yaphet Kotto passed away in the Philippines.

Yaphet Kotto was a busy actor who appeared in so many classic films that I think we took sometimes took his talent for granted.  Kotto, though, was an actor who could play almost anything.  He was usually cast in dramas but he could also do comedy.  He could play both villains and heroes with equal skill.  He held his own opposite Anthony Quinn in Across 110th Street.  He was one of the best Bond villains in Live and Let Die.  He was one of the toughest members of the crew of the Nostromo in Alien and a key member of the resistance in The Running Man.  Long before Forest Whitaker won an Osar for playing the role in The Last King of Scotland, Yaphet Kotto brought Idi Amin to terrible life in Raid on Entebbe.  He was just as believable as an FBI agent in Midnight Run as he was as a auto worker in Blue Collar.  Blue Collar was probably he best performance, one in which he easily upstaged both Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel.

For me, Yaphet Kotto will always be remembered Lt. Al Giardello in Homicide, the philosophical leader of Baltimore’s murder cops.  Giardello was written to be a stern and no-nonsense leader but Kotto played him with a subtle sense of humor.  He was the ideal leader and one the key cast members of one of the best shows of the 90s.  Andre Braugher may have gotten the critical acclaim and Richard Belzer may have gotten an entire new career based on playing John Munch in a dozen different shows but Kotto was the one who often held the show together.  Though Homicide was cancelled before it’s time, the show was allowed a reunion movie to tie up loose ends.  The movie ended with the death of Giardello and it felt appropriate because, as played by Yaphet Kotto, Giardello was the heart and the soul of the show.

Yaphet Kotto, a great actor, has left us but he will never be forgotten.