RIP Diana Rigg

I’m a little late posting this, but I’m also leery of having this site turn into an Obits page, and reluctant to acknowledge yet another lousy development in what’s been hands down the crappiest year in my lifetime. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t make note of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg.

Some time ago, I wrote a tribute to Emma Peel of The Avengers, and while Ms Rigg was obviously a separate person entirely with a long line of impressive credits to her name, it’s equally obvious that much of the charisma and wit and style of the character was inextricable from the performer.

Much of that carried over into other roles, notably that of the Countess Teresa diVincenzo, aka Tracy Bond, the only woman capable of compelling confirmed batchelor 007 to walk the aisle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Ms Rigg didn’t physically resemble Fleming’s character from the novel, but she was the best and only choice for the role on screen, with her ability to be feminine and alluring but also tough and capable at the same time.  In 1969, that was fairly uncommon combination on screen, especially in a series not exactly renowned for promoting feminist ideals.  Indeed, Dame Diana’s established bona fides as a capable performer and believable action hero made her the perfect “insurance policy” for a film that starred a new lead actor as-yet unproven on either front.  George Lazenby as Bond acquitted himself fairly well on some fronts, less so on others, but ultimately it was Diana who embued the proceedings with a sense of gravitas and import, and Tracy’s fate on which the film turned.  When, a couple of years ago, I was able to see it again on the big screen at a local cinema, one lady in the audience who’d obviously never seen it before (in some ways, it is the “forgotten Bond”) let out a shocked yell when Tracy met her doom in the last scene.  It was funny in way, given that we’re talking about s a 50-year-old movie and a predictable fate for the wife of a franchised action hero, but it also spoke to the power of Diana’s performance: she gave us the first Bond Girl in whose welfare we were at all interested.

More receently, she won over a whole new generation of fans with her role on Game of Thrones, of which I confess I have seen not a single episode, but it’s telling that even in her 70s and 80s, she never lost the screen presence and audience appeal she’d mastered half a century before.  Time can be tough on a pretty face, but a truly attractive soul exerts its draw til the end.

Rest in peace, Dame Diana.  You may not have had “all the time in the world” any more than the rest of us, but what time you had you made great use of, and we’re the richer for it.

Happy 90th Birthday, Sean Connery

Sir Sean Connery celebrates his 90th birthday today, so I thought I’d mark the occasion with another art project using my digital stylus.  I’m sure he’s thrilled.

Note I didn’t say “James Bond Actor Sean Connery,” because by now he’s earned the right to be recognized as an icon in his own right, having long ago climbed out from under the shadow of 007.  In fact, I tend to like him better in non-Bond roles, including his turns in The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Train Robbery, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Outland and The Hunt For Red October. It’s impressive that one performer could be tapped to play such heroic figures as James Bond, Robin Hood, King Arthur and Richard Lionheart over his career.  I still remember seeing Time Bandits on the big screen and when King Agamemnon — after a fierce battle with a Minotaur-like monster — removes his helmet to reveal the face of Sean Connery, a cheer went up.  I didn’t even know he was in the film, but as soon as I saw him, my reaction was, “Well, of course that’s who it’d have to be.” That moment was echoed years later in the last few moments of the truly dire Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, when King Richard climbs down off his horse and it’s Sean again, to more cheers.  In what was pretty much a cameo appearance, he nearly salvaged that wreck of a film just by showing up.  Almost.

Since the COVID shutdown, I’ve gotten to catch up on a number of Connery films I’d last seen either decades ago or not at all, including Murder On The Orient Express and The Anderson Tapes, The Offense and — easily the best of the lot — The Hill.   And now I’ve got an urge to seek out Highlander.  Even though I came in at the middle of Connery’s career — rife with stinkers like Wrong Is Right, The Next Man and Meteor — I have to say that on balance, Big Tam has racked up one of the most impressive filmographies of any actor since the Golden Age of Hollywood.

And yet, when it comes time to draw him, here I’ve gone and put him in the tux from Dr No.  Ah well.  Here’s to ya, Sir Sean.  I hope it’s  great day and there’s many more ahead of you.

The Latest Doodle

Like most folks, I’ve tried to find creative ways to stay busy during this whole pandemic thing.  Since I’ve had so much daylight and so many weekends without commitments, the house and yard are looking pretty good.  In fact, the neighborhood in general is looking a lot better since everyone else is in the same boat.

To keep life interesting I’ve also taken up new hobbies like learning the guitar (I’m making progress, slowly but surely) and growing a beard (the jury’s still out) and resuming old ones like reading vintage pulp novels and drawing.  On the latter front, I took another stab at caricature using a stylus on my 10-inch Kindle.  I go back and forth on whether I like it, but anyway here’s where I ended up.

Hopefully you recognize that as two-time Bond actor Timothy Dalton, or maybe you just guessed it was “some take on James Bond” because of the tux and gun (hopefully I at least made THEM recognizable).

The task I’ve set for myself — besides drawing with a stylus, which can be challenge enough — is to capture a likeness with as few lines as I can, hopefully arriving at some kind of individual style as well as getting across who the person is.  Certainly I’ll never be in the league of the greats like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis or of Tom Richmond, who manage to walk a fine line between “real” and “cartoony,” but maybe with practice I can come up with a style that’s consistent and my own.

Anyway the cool part about digital drawing is the ability to “cheat.” I can create a “pencil” layer and “trace over” it with more controlled lines, then throw away the “pencils” like they were never there.  I can isolate eyes, or a nose or mouth, and drag them around if I got the relationships wrong.  I can even enlarge or reduce elements if I need to, or realign them if they’re off kilter.  Of course I could do all those things on a piece of paper with an eraser, too, but it’s so much cleaner and easier this way, and if I get several steps in and decide I don’t like the way it’s going, I can go back as many steps as I need.  Try erasing ink, or removing color from a drawing on paper.

If nothing else, I look at it as a learning experience; every mistake I make, every adjustment or do-over is a lesson learned for next time.  Hopefully it’ll rub off on my “real” drawings, too.  After all the only way to improve is to practice.  And right now, I’ve got plenty of time for that.

RIP Olivia deHavilland

Olivia deHavilland passed away over the weekend.  At age 104, she was officially the eldest “celebrity crush” I’ve ever had.

Looking back, I probably first saw her in Airport ’77, a lame film even by the low standards of 70s disaster flicks.  As the middle-aged “Worried Passenger #28” or whatever, she made far less of an impression on 12-year-old me than a drowned Christopher Lee floating past the window of a sunken 747.  It wasn’t until the 90s that I “discovered” Olivia in all her youthful glory, opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and THAT made an impression.  It’s a cliche to say a performer “lights up the screen,” but in her case it fit, as there was a genuine luminance to her features and perfomance, all the more remarkable given she was only 19 years old at the time.

If Flynn was, on screen anyway, the perfect hero — dashing, honorable, courageous, a leader of men, then Olivia was his ideal match: beautiful, elegant, virtuous and in her own, less flashy way, heroic as well.  Their chemistry was undeniable; whether in medievel Sherwood, 1700s Jamaica or 1800s Dodge City, they were drawn together as if reincarnated through the ages to continue a love affair that stretched over multiple lives.  It was only in 20th Century real life they couldn’t make it work, although Flynn at least seemed to wish it.

Of course, Olivia would go onto much bigger and better things than playing “The Girlfriend,” winning two Academy Awards (for whatever that’s worth),  no thanks to studio boss Jack Warner, who would’ve been happy to keep her in period epics and romantic comedies as “the girl” forever, if he could.  Loaned out to MGM for Gone With The Wind, she finally had a chance to show greater range, and like everyone else associated with that film achieved a level of immortality.  Even now, she may be best remembered as “the last surviving star of Gone With The Wind,” which is ironic as I find her “Melanie” character as maddeningly “goody-goody” as Scarlett O’Hara was insufferably rotten.  Scarlett may have been conniving and selfish, but at least she was a survivor.  Melanie, in comparison, was too sweet and pure and angelic to survive the harsh realities of Earth.

The real Olivia was made of sterner stuff, outliving all her peers from the Golden Age of Hollywood (more than twice as long as Flynn!) and going toe-to-toe with Jack Warner — a guy who’d successfully shoved around the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis — to win her freedom from an unreasonable contract, in the process driving a stake through the studio system and empowering generations of performers to act as free agents.  At 103, she was in the news again, suing a production company for defamation and striking a blow, in her way, for all her old comrades who are “fair game” for any scriptwriter to slander now that they’ve passed on.  

So yeah, I know Olivia was formidable, and super-competent, and feisty to the end.  But I confess I’ll always love her best as “the girlfriend,” provided the “boyfriend” was Flynn.  Over his career, Errol was paired with fine leading ladies like Anne Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Alexis Smith, but for most of us, there was Olivia and then there was everyone else.  When Errol and Olivia were on screen together, you believed they were meant for each other, and when Errol went into battle, you believed Olivia was the woman he’d risk everything for.

In fact, my favorite on-screen moment between the two comes in a pre-battle scene in They Died With Their Boots On.  Technically an “action picture” (which does have great action scenes) and a “bio-pic” (which isn’t even remotely close to historically accurate), in the end what holds the film together is the romance between George and Libby Custer, from their first meeting at West Point through a humorous courtship and a loving, sometimes difficult marriage to their final, heartbreaking separation on the eve of the Little Big Horn.  This was the last of Errol and Olivia’s eight films together, as Olivia was anxious to move on to other things.  In a weird nexus of fact and fiction, their characters’ goodbye scene was the last scene the stars ever filmed together, and it’s hard not to read extra layers into it: it was “meta” before “meta” was a thing.

Errol as Custer puts on a brave face as he heads out on a mission he knows he’ll never return from, while Olivia as Libby plays the role of dutiful wife to the end, equally certain of what’s ahead but knowing her husband needs her to be brave one last time.  It’s a masterful performance of a great script, where what’s not said is as important as what is.  Again, it has a “meta” feel to it, as the stars say goodbye to each other through scripted lines, speaking as other people.  Legend has it that even decades later, Olivia had to excuse herself from a screening of the film as this scene approached, unable to watch it without breaking down.  I can sympathize; I never get through it with a dry eye, either.

104 years is a great run, but there are certain folks you dread to read that last headline about, even though all logic tells you it’s coming.   There was a certain comfort knowing that somewhere out there (usually France) was a living link to the Golden Age of film, the girl who inspired heroes to great deeds and the woman who struck bold blows, herself.  Plus, it was an odd kind of fun, crushing on a centenarian.  Godspeed, Dame Olivia, and thanks.  

Goodbye June

Aaaannd another month’s gone by.  Somehow you’d think time would pass more slowly in lockdown, but if anything, it feels like it’s super up. When every day is essentially the same, they all pass in a blur.

There have been a few changes from last month, anyway.  The country turned upside down with protests over police violence and Richmond is down a few Confederate monuments with more likely on their way out soon.  Like most folks, I’m on board with the peaceful protests, but not with the violence and vandalism that’s too often gone with it.  Much of the latter seems to be the work of individuals or groups that have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter or any other legitimate movement; they’re just hooligans and agitators who’ve latched onto an excuse to wage destruction under the smoke screen of the protests.  As far as Richmond’s Confederate-era statues are concerned, I believe they were on the way out, anyway, and I won’t miss them.  But removing them this way only prevents any opportunity at closure or resolution in the community, slow as that process was moving.  I don’t know how long it would have taken to get us to the point where they could have been removed with something close to community consensus, but done this way, it’ll just be another point of contention for those folks who valued them; they’ll always be something that was “taken away,” something else to resent and hold a grudge about for another generation.  La plus ça change.

Last week, I went back to campus to set up for a special event, and had halfway intended to drive past the statues or their former sites to see things for myself, but by the time I was done setting up, I was just ready to go home.  Double-masked as I was, in 90 degree heat, it was all I could do to stay vertical after pushing a cart for four blocks. Campus was eerily empty, the office deserted.  I saw a few people walking around, about half of them with masks, but even those with masks mostly kept them hanging loosely around their necks and only raised them to their face if they felt they were getting too close to someone.  Of course touching a mask all the time is almost as bad as not wearing it at all.  In general, Virginia’s done a lousy job of complying with, first, the stay at home orders and now, wearing masks.  Our numbers aren’t (supposedly) as bad as some other states, but as there are apparently no rules or consistent standards for how to compile numbers, not much interest in giving tests even to people with symptoms, and all sorts of hanky-panky going on with counting, it’s anyone’s guess exactly what shape we’re in.

Tomorrow, VCU begins reopening in phases, with employees returning in gradually increasing numbers until the start of the Fall semester.  The semester itself will start a few days early, barrel along with no fall break and end at Thanksgiving.  My team and I will continue on with telework unless we have to come in for video productions, which hopefully we can limit to one-man jobs, and take turns.

Out of an abundance of caution, and to test how feasible it would be if we had to do a real quarantine, I stayed in the garage for four days after my VCU visit.  I set up the inflatable mattress for a bed, borrowed Jason’s zero-gravity chair to relax in and hooked up the laptop to work (the garage is right under the wireless router, anyway).  I have to say it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience.  Laura cooked me hot meals and left them on the porch for “contact-less pickup” and I got out of household chores.  We bought a shower tent and I set it up in the backyard and used it a couple times.  It worked pretty well, and should be useful on camping trips.  After spending over 3 months in lockdown with the same 4 people — even if they are my favorite 4 people — it was nice to have some alone time, although going from limited socializing to none at all was a bit daunting.  I feel for those folks who live entirely alone in these times.

Anyway, we’ll see what July brings.  It’s not very appealing to imagine spending the rest of 2020 on a short leash, but at the moment it’s still hard to imagine traveling any real distance in the next few months, or doing anything once we got there.  It’s equally hard to imagine going to a movie theater, or a restaurant, or church.  Maybe things will start looking up and we’ll change our minds, but it’s not looking promising at the moment.  Too many people seem to be equating “eased restrictions” with “crisis over,” and the numbers are already showing the folly of that.

Well, this has to count as one my more depressing entries in a while, but I want to get in at least one post per month.  I’ll make the next break shorter and try to post something more upbeat next tme.