Sunday, September 28, 2008

WHO'S GONNA FILL THEIR SHOES? OR LEGENDS THAT DIE

Lately I've been thinking about mortality. My mortality. The mortality of others. The other day I was talking politics with a part-time Bostonian expatriate in his '70s who, I should mention, had an attractive blonde on his arm who couldn't have been more than 50. I was saying that all great things come to an end, and if John McCain is elected President of the United States in November, it might be the United States' turn. "Think about it," I said. "The Roman Empire didn't last forever. Great Britain and Spain were once major world powers." He nodded in agreement and said that thankfully, he wouldn't have to worry about it because he won't be around.

I wondered what it must feel like to be at an age when you know death is probably right around the corner. I'm well aware that it could strike suddenly for any of us, but when I go to sleep at night, I'm fairly certain that I'll wake up the next day. Someone who's pushing 80 can't be so sure. How does it feel?

The stars of my youth are getting old. The legends of my youth are dying. Last night I was watching an episode of the excellent series The Game, a rare TV comedy that presents beautiful black people in a realistic light, and there was Lee Majors, looking centuries older than he did when I used to watch The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid in the '70s.

Then there is Paul Newman, who died September 26 at age 83 from lung cancer. He'd been sick for a long time, so I knew that it was just a matter of time before he succumbed. Like Clint Eastwood, who is still kicking and seems to direct about two films a year at 78, Paul Newman was supposed to live forever. Along with Burt Lancaster and a very young Marlon Brando, he was quite possibly the most beautiful man I've ever seen on celluloid (see evidence in the photo above).

For me, the most indelible Newman image is him on the track field in the opening scene of Cat On A Hat Tin Roof, a film that features what I consider to be his and Elizabeth Taylor's greatest performances. He's one of the few actors from Hollywood's golden era who continued to generate great performances and decent box-office up to the end. His final major film, The Road To Perdition, even earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role, his first in that category. And for his final telefilm, Empire Falls, he won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. As Joe Elliott of Def Leppard once sang, "It's better to burn out than fade away."

In the coming years, more greats will make their final exit. Others will be crossing over into senior citizenship. Next year, Meryl Streep, Jessice Lange, Sissy Spacek, Sigourney Weaver, Richard Gere and Bruce Springsteen turn 60! When did they become my parents age? I guess they've always been, but they seemed to have taken a dip in the fountain of youth. Still, as fantastic as Meryl looked in Mammi Mia!, there's no denying 60.

I can't help but wonder who will replace them in the pantheon of greats. Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith (two of a rare few who balance commercial and critical clout) come to mind. So do the great K/Cates (Winslet and Blanchett). There aren't too many contenders, as Hollywood currently seems to be more intent on producing stars and building blockbusters than molding legends and creating classics. Will Angelina Jolie matter so much once her beauty starts to fade? Will we still love Jennifer Aniston tomorrow when those toned arms start turning to flab? Time will tell, but I'm not counting on it.
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