Fading Stars

IT IS interesting to me while watching TCM to note which of yesterday’s stars have faded from memory, and which seem (in retrospect) to make you think “What was the big deal?” versus which oversights seem tragic.

Jean Arthur, in the latter category. A silent actress who made the transition to talkies, and starred in such classics as Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (and reprised virtually the same role in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), and later in her career, Shane.

It’s probably because she was never a sex symbol and retired early. Whereas, say, Katharine Hepburn worked and was fairly visible well into recent years, and, say, Rita Hayworth was a sex symbol.

I thought of this because Warren Beatty is 71 today. Over in the Althouse bad movie thread, we were talking about Ishtar, which probably deserves to go in the “forgotten mediocrities” category rather than the “greatest disasters of all time category”.

Despite the negative pre-press (which was extensive, including absolutely vicious attacks on Elaine May), the movie opened at #1, probably due to the staggering drawing power of Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. (I can’t even tell if I’m being facetious at this point.)

However, I gotta believe that Warren Beatty’s drawing power at that point was limited to those who remembered his break-through role in the late ‘60s (Bonnie and Clyde) and his few notable other films through the mid-’70s.

Those whose earliest experience was the pleasant (but not astounding) remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan confusingly titled Heaven Can Wait–and the original, classic Heaven Can Wait was on TV often enough for that to happen even among younger viewers–or worse, the 3-and-a-quarter hour commie-love epic Reds were unlikely to be turning out in force for Mr. Beatty.

At some point, movies and movie stars fall into the category of “old”. It has less to do with their age and more to do with their activity level. Like Mac Culkin could be seen as “old”, as could Pauley Shore or even, to a lesser extent, Haley Joel Osmont. Any of these guys could come back and start a new career that put them (and intriguingly, their old movies) back into the light, like, say, Virginia Madsen or John Travolta (several times!) but if not, or when they get past the point of no return (say, by dying, as even Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy had a revival in the ’80s that brought their older movies back into the light), then they just become answers in the big book of movie trivia.

I think Warren Beatty’s window was really quite small. He really appealed to a segment of the Boomer population for a few years, and that carried him through for the next couple decades of turning out the occasional, largely forgettable flick. And a lot of that “carriage” may have been due to his sex symbol status, and probably tons of favorable press generated by his politics.

Compared to, say, Jack Nicholson, whose 71st is coming up in a few months, and whose drawing power has been considerable for 30 years. It seems likely that in a few decades, both will fade from the consciousness, though hard to imagine that Beatty will be more of a footnote, and Nicholson’s penchant for delivering memorable movie moments (“You’re not gonna pull that hen-house shit today, are you?”, “Honey, I’m home!”, “You can’t handle the truth!”) will keep him elevated above Beatty.

But you never know. Jean Arthur should be better remembered, shouldn’t she?