Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Of course, the first time I was ever aware of Henry Gibson as Henry Gibson was on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, on one of those rare nights when I was able to convince my parents to pry their eyes away from Gunsmoke. (It's entirely likely that I might have recognized his face from the many TV commercials he was also doing at the time, but I wouldn't have known his name.) Gibson's absurdist, deadpan poetry was such of a piece with the general silliness of the show, yet I always found his hangdog mug, as most children without much experience in life probably would, slightly sad. After the demise of that variety show in 1971, Gibson became a fixture guest starring on TV shows and in TV movies (one of the most memorable being Evil Roy Slade), and he even voiced Wilbur the Pig in the 1972 animated feature adaptation of Charlotte’s Web.

But it took Robert Altman, casting Gibson against type as the slightly sinister, inscrutable and vague Dr. Verringer, to see beyond Gibson’s harmless-looking façade and reach the dark currents flowing just underneath the surface. Verringer is holding something over the head of one of his patients, drunken writer Roger Wade (metaphorically, of course, since Wade was played by Sterling Hayden and Gibson would never have been able to reach that high), and Gibson plays upon our knowledge of his type in this small role to create an insinuating, intimidating presence. Gibson’s finest hour of many fine hours as an actor and a writer, however, came two years later, as the country music icon Haven Hamilton at the center of Altman’s whirling spectacle of curdled bicentennial Americana, Nashville. Hamilton bore a strong physical resemblance to Hank Snow, but the character's inspiration was more likely drawn from multiple sources, including Gibson’s imagination. Gibson gives us the face of music industry megalomania and patriarchal entitlement right off the bat underneath the film’s opening credits, singing his own satirical composition “200 Years” (a tune just perfect enough to have been adopted by some as a straightforward patriotic celebration, sans irony). Throughout the film we’re given to see just how he looks upon Nashville as his own to oversee, the little man whose pompous personality insists upon seeing the whole of the country music scene as a surrogate family (to the detriment of his own, of course).

Gibson’s scenes with Barbara Baxley as Lady Pearl, his life partner (the true legal, emotional aspect of their relationship remains largely suggestive)—squabbling, enjoying each other’s company, holding court at her popular nightclub—are among the movie’s most delightful, poignant and funny moments. One of my favorite things in the film is when Haven is made aware of the presence of movie star Julie Christie, making an appearance in the club. He is, of course, completely taken by her status as a celebrity, though he must immediately be reminded, on one of those sinuous and delightful aside tracks of dialogue that swirl through Nashville like clouds of the sweetest, funniest smoke, just who she is. He’s soon made aware that Christie, once the star of Dr. Zhivago, a family-type film of which his public persona may safely approve (whether or not he has actually seen it), has also recently been in some films which he probably would not-- Don’t Look Now or Shampoo, no doubt. He then recedes into the noise of the club and can be heard trading catty quips about the actress with country star Connie White (Karen Black, channeling Lynn Anderson).

A lesser actor, a lesser film, would cue us for Haven’s comeuppance, the moment where we’re made to feel superior to him, where his kingdom comes crashing down around him. Well, the kingdom is thrown into chaos, but Altman and Gibson use the moment to dig further and reveal yet another aspect of Hamilton’s character, this one much more in good standing with the idealized imagery of courageous patriotism that characterizes that opening number. Gibson shows us that it is not good enough to sit on our preconceptions of who we think people are, or of what they are capable of. He shows us in Haven Hamilton the foundation of belief and purpose that is often there unseen, propping up the superficial, the self-righteous, the smug and insufferable. Gibson’s Hamilton brilliantly illustrates what ought to be obvious but what the shallow pool of movie storytelling often ignores—that shitheels are often complicated people too.

I loved seeing Henry Gibson in other roles as well—- Mr. Klopek in The ‘burbs, the barfly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia who goes by the name Thurston Howell, and most recently in his recurring role as the pompous, power mad Judge Clark Brown on the TV series Boston Legal who, not unlike Haven Hamilton himself, was given room to breathe and eventually became something decidedly more interesting and believable than the two-dimensional mother-obsessed blowhard cartoon that was originally sketched. The man had a way of transporting us with a simple glance, of seducing us with a look of crestfallen perturbation, only to waylay us with an absurd turn of phrase, or a bit of rude behavior offset by that quiet, gentlemanly demeanor he so often cultivated for the purpose of these very kinds of surprise contrasts. Henry Gibson was 73 when he died today. No other details have been made available, and none really are needed to register just how much be will be missed.


I have gone a few days without directly mentioning Patrick Swayze, but I feel I must, if only because he seemed to embody, as David Edelstein observed in his lovely remembrance, aspects of manly athleticism and artistic grace and movement that for so many actors seemed mutually exclusive. These were qualities that were always conspicuously absent in my own experience, and yet I never resented Swayze his ability to hypnotize the female population (and some of the males too). I appreciated that grace and seductive quality for its existence in movies like Ghost and Dirty Dancing, qualities that connected him to the movie stars of old that so many of his contemporaries were clearly uninterested in evoking. That said, these are not the movies for which I will remember Swayze. For me, there need have been no other films than Roadhouse and Point Break, pinnacles of absurdist action at its most primal (Roadhouse) and most ludicrously amplified (Point Break, and God bless Kathryn Bigelow for fanning those flames so brilliantly). These are movies that, by measurement of real world standards, have barely a believable moment between them, yet they are exhilarating pulp thrillers that owe a huge debt to Swayze's muscular economy and willingness to step outside the lines and take a chance on looking silly for the good of the film. That the films in question are the epitome of Movies for Men Who Like Movies makes no never mind to me—they are terrific movies, fueled by the conviction that Swayze, in his prime was able to bring to them—insinuating athleticism, toughness, and confident sexuality-- so confident, in fact, that he pulled off with ease and charm the robust cartoon sex appeal required to play one of three transvestites (alongside Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) in the infamously titled To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Love, Julie Newmar. He was so good and so comfortable in the part that in the process he ended up inadvertently exposing just how uncomfortable with and fearful of his role Snipes apparently was. As much as I appreciate his work in these movies, I can’t say I will miss Patrick Swayze’s presence as an actor in my life, because outside of these films he was never one I followed with great interest. I mourn him as a man, however, and I look forward to taking part in remembering him with a cheerful audience this weekend when his trucker thriller Black Dog screens at midnight at the New Beverly Cinema. Someone with the strength to fight his disease to the extent that he did deserves peaceful rest, and it is that which I wish him tonight.


Good God, what an awful week. I have no time to properly write about them, but I did not want to end this without also bidding a fond farewell to two other important figures. First, I wish a tearful good-bye to the lovely Mary Travers, she of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, who sang me many songs when I was just a boy in the early ‘60s. Travers succumbed to leukemia in a Connecticut hospital earlier this afternoon at the age of 72.

But I also need to acknowledge the passing of the brilliant Tony-winning South African actor Zakes Mokae, who championed the works of Athol Fugard, such as Master Harold and the Boys, and who himself gained some measure of fame as a character actor in films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow, Cry Freedom! and The Island, as well as the television series The X-Files and Oz. Mokae, who had been battling Parkinson’s Disease, suffered a stroke in May and died this past Friday. His immediately recognizable face could never hide his essential warmth, the kind exuded by a beloved grandfather, that I always took refuge in, no matter how ghastly or gallant the character he played. He was 75.


No comments: