Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Nose By Any Other Name...

Our celebrity obsessed culture is a poor reflection on us all. The idea that we somehow "know" the famous and they've "touched" us is taken too far with 24-hour cable news coverage and the strange outpourings of so-called grief, when the regular folk appear at, say, Neverland Ranch, hoping for a glimpse of MJ's dead carcass.

Real talent is often given short shrift if not accompanied with bizarre behavior or a shred of a scintillating story line. I won't argue Michael's talent, although the tally of how many will remember him as a musical genius v. those who will recall him as Freak #1 has yet to be counted. Farrah, well, I certainly have my fondness for her, but, come on, what was she really, but an average actor who, nipples protruding, burst into the American consciousness in one of the worst television shows this side of My Mother the Car. Ed McMahon was a buffoon clad in catchphrases hammered into our brains night after night for four decades.

Lost in all of this hubbub is the loss of Karl Malden. Malden, whose most prominent feature was a schnozz that looked like a cauliflower had been glued to its end, had enough fame via his American Express commercials that Johnny Carson lampooned him, fake beak and all, during the '70's. No doubt, Big Ed was apoplectic on the sidelines.

Forgotten is how truly excellent Malden was. Truly. In On the Waterfront, Malden burns as Father Barry, seeking justice for dockworkers. One scene in particular, when the Padre speaks to the men while standing in the ship's hole next to the crushed body of "Kayo" Dugan, shines. Malden is in mid-harangue when he's hit by a bottle. He seems genuinely surprised and turns his anger up a notch. Brilliant.

With Brando, again, Malden is wonderfully affecting as the oafish Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. It's not enough that Marlon's Stanley is always on Mitch's case, but in his one attempt at love, Malden is both goofily sweet when Blanche seems to love him, then puzzled, hurt and near-violent when he finds out she's a tramp from way back.
There's so much more. Malden's portrayal of Omar Bradley in Patton is lost in George C. Scott's bravura performance in the lead, but is no less solid. In One-Eyed Jacks, Malden's traitorous and sadistic role as Dad Longworth dominates Brando's. While not top shelf, Jacks has been unfairly relegated to the bottom level. It's much better than that and worth your time.

Then there's The Streets of San Francisco, Fear Strikes Out, The Cincinnati Kid, Baby Doll... A true giant, a great loss and, while unworthy (in a good way) of cable news frenzy, the life of Karl Malden should not be passed over so lightly. He left his mark.

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