Late Greats

December 16th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins
Eli Wallach

In their December 19th issue, Entertainment Weekly singled out twelve “irreplaceable legends” who passed in 2014. A supplemental small-print list of 66 celebrities who also passed in 2014 is provided, with a sentence of so of description for each.

It would be ungracious (even for me) to suggest that some of the EW chosen are less legendary and irreplaceable than others who only made the small-print list. But I am all too willing to suggest that the EW Late Greats list displays a shameless lack of any sense of history.

This is not to say that I wasn’t pleased to see mini-articles on such personal favorites of mine as James Garner, Jan Hooks and Harold Ramis. I am not in particular a fan of either Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou, but that’s probably my problem – maybe the Emperor is wearing nifty threads. But the only choice among the EW Late Greats – the only one – representing a sense of popular culture history is Lauren Bacall.

Here are some of the late greats who weren’t deemed to have had the pop-cultural impact of Joey Ramone.

Sid Caesar

Phil Everly (even Joey would disagree with that one).

Sid Caesar (the father of sketch comedy) (Jan Hooks would, I think, agree with me).

Mickey Rooney (the biggest box-office star of the 1930s and a fine actor and comedian who worked for most of his 93 years).

Eli Wallach (one of the great character actors of all time).

P.D. James (major crime novelist).

And most egregious of all:
Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple Black (the most famous child star ever and a huge popular culture figure in the ‘30s and beyond, a virtual symbol of hope in the Depression).

There are other terrible omissions: Pete Seeger, Bob Hoskins, H.R. Giger, Elaine Stritch, Richard Attenborough, Ben Bradlee, among others. Surely the arbitrary figure of 12 Late Greats could have been expanded, and certainly a broader sense of the history of show biz and the arts might have been brought to bear.

Last night, on the final episode of the much-derided but actually excellent Aaron Sorkin series THE NEWSROOM, a responsible-minded young person – away from running the network’s web site for a time, in exile having protected a source – finds his even younger underlings in the midst of a blog entry they’re brainstorming. The subject is “The Most Over-rated Movies of All Time.” Their returning boss notices that the oldest over-rated film on the list is THE MATRIX, and comments that fourteen years and “all time” are two different measurements. He also asks them why they would list the most over-rated movies, as opposed to the most under-rated. They have no answer, other than to suggest it’s more fun. Rightly, the web site boss tells his peers he’s ashamed of them.

I may yet defend THE NEWSROOM at more length, but I’ll say only that one of its themes – very offensive to certain brats at the Huffington Post and AV, who treat Sorkin as if he’s Ed Wood – is that the news back in three-network times used to be better, or at least more responsible. That TV news used to be journalism. That people writing and delivering news once needed credentials – you know, experience.

My point is that EW’s writers share that same problem – thinking that fourteen years ago is the beginning of time.


12 Responses to “Late Greats”

  1. Bill Crider says:

    As people often comment on my blog, the ones putting those lists together are all about 25 years old and have no sense of history. Old guys like me. It’s like those Top 50 Songs of All Time lists that don’t have anything on them more than 10 years old. And keep off my lawn.

  2. John Judge says:

    It does help me get a few answers on Jeopardy before the actual contestants when I know that the movie/tv show/record was released before they were born. Today’s students barely learn “real” history, far fewer know anything about pop culture history.

  3. Dana King says:

    This makes me feel even better about my decision, when my daughter was about 10, to at least scratch the surface of films she should be aware of because there were cultural touchstones in them. Not necessarily highbrow, but the kinds of things people would refer to and she should be able to get the reference. Apollo 13. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Sting. The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Lawrence of Arabia. Get Shorty. The Maltese Falcon. The Big Lebowski. Pulp Fiction. The Longest Day. (She was hip to Casablanca on her own.) She’s 23 now, and we still do it once in a while, but I see she appreciates the time spent because she not only had a good time, she now “Gets” a lot of things her friends don’t.

    And Max’s comment about journalism? Oh my God, yes.

  4. Robert says:

    I was 100% with you until the end. Sorkin gets what was good about the past, sorta, but he doesn’t get what was wrong with it, and he doesn’t get what is right or wrong with the present. It feels like he is always coming after strawmen.

    As a minor example, in real life, I have no doubt the most overrated movies of all time would only be 14 years old. That’s a given. But in real life, that article would have been written by one 23 year old kid, working for peanuts, next to another kid writing the top 10 underrated movies, oldest movie a 2003 vintage, and later that day kid one would write “10 most overrated cats in film history”, and the oldest cat would be Marlowe’s from The Big Sleep, mostly because it streams on Netflix and Amazon and he watched it while half in the bag one Tuesday night on his laptop.

    The underlings are brainstorming in a bullpen like those of old, but more banal. They are churning out stupid listicles in tiny little blogging sweat shops. And the most banal of them are the most positive. Look at Buzzfeed. In television news if it bleeds it leads. On the internet, if its a dog in a cute costume referencing 90’s pop culture it goes viral.

    That’s one of my beefs with the guy, anyway. But the format of Newsroom, with them reporting real stories “but better” give shim a ton of opportunities for this kind of thing. One of the virtues of new media is it can and is really specific, but Sorkin has always dealt in thick smudges, and sooner or latter the snappy screwball dialogue can’t bear the weight.

  5. Tom zappe says:

    I have underwear that is more than 14 years old.

  6. Max Allan Collins says:

    My apologies for not replying sooner to these good comments. Working on the new Heller while fighting a bad bronchial virus.

    I really don’t understand why people who dislike Sorkin dislike him so intensely, unless it’s a political thing. Most TV today — and there’s some of the best stuff in years happening now — suffers somewhat from the writer’s room approach, where there’s a patchwork feel even when a strong head writer/show runner is at the helm. With Sorkin, you get a writer auteur approach that I find very cool — one guy is writing it all. I’ve liked everything he’s done and have no apologies for doing so. THE NEWSROOM is no more realistic than LOU GRANT and I’m fine with that.

    My son Nate reminds me that what EW did may have had less to do with a lack of a sense of history than an allegiance to perceived demographics. I am a big fan of Jan Hooks, but do you think she’d have made the list if she hadn’t died very recently? If she’d passed last February, for example?

  7. Mike Doran says:

    Early Tuesday, 1:44 in the blessed AM.

    All this week, I’ve been trying to come up with a comment for this post that isn’t just a rehash of stuff I’ve written before 10 times or more.

    Thing is, (to cite one example) since TCM put up their obit reel, There’ve been a couple of new passings that deserve to be in there at least as much as the many others (68, by my count) who did make it.
    I’m thinking here of Virna Lisi, Billie Whitelaw, and Booth Colman … and I know I’ve missed a few more.
    (But then TCM missed Ed Nelson – so there too.)

    The problem that punditzes have with Aaron Sorkin is that they can’t nail his beliefs down – political, social, religious – and this bugs them majorly.
    Sorkin isn’t shilling for one agenda or the other, or even the other other; he actually wants the audience to think about these issues from all sides, and the ideologs don’t want to do the work.
    Reading the pans, I note that the things critics hated were the things I loved – particularly the garage jam with the grandsons ( I was certain that those boys must have been at least related to Sam Waterston (and for all I know they just might have been)).
    As to Jeff Daniels, any actor who can come up with THE NEWSROOM and DUMB AND DUMBER TO in the same month has to be, if not the best American actor, at least the most well-rounded.
    (I’ll skip over the crush I’ve long had on Emily Mortimer, who reminds me of a girl I knew in high school – not nearly as well as I’d have liked, but that, as Mr. Kipling says, is another story …)

    Well, you’ll likely have finished the Tuesday post before you get around to reading this one.
    In any case, much joy and success to the whole Collins Gang, and I hope that your 2017 is a great one!
    (I’m not taking any chances …)

  8. Jan Griffin O'Reilly says:

    Agree with every word you said, Max, about the “irreplaceable legends.” It is arbitrary to say there were only 12 in 2014 (who know who is going to die in any given year?) and it seems to me we lost a disproportionate number this year. Eli Wallach gave too many indelible performances to name. His dying scene in Godfather III was better than Mary’s. We just didn’t care as much. Shirley Temple made more people happy than any person in the world. When it really counted. She was the star of our childhood. We recently saw an old newspaper article about Mickey Rooney’s appearance in Piittsburgh in the 40’s doing two or three shows a day, where people flocked to the streets, overwhelmed his car, lined blocks to get into his shows, followed him all over the city during his stay. That was a STAR with TALENT. He was great in The Black Stallion, my boys’ favorite childhood movie, 40 years later. Joey Ramone is fine, but you can’t say he is better than Phil Everly or The Ramones better than The Everly Brothers. They’re different. The same way Patsy Cline is different from Joan Jett, or maybe Chrissie Hynde. Different.

    I didn’t watch Newsroom more than clips. It was enough for me. I saw the put down clip about how rotten our generation is, how we “used to stand for something,” and how useless the new generation is, and I wanted to vomit. I couldn’t disagree more. I have two hardworking sons in this generation, who don’t fit any description of this so-called Generation X, and they were raised by an upper middle single professional Boomer mother who told them repeatedly they were special, loved, and needed to care for others and make something of themselves. They do and they did. I don’t know too many who fit into Sorkin’s views.

  9. Max Allan Collins says:

    Mike, Jan, thanks for these great comments.

    Mike makes a great point, Jan, that speaks to your Sorkin reaction. Sorkin specializes in giving multiple sides of issues and asks you to think about those issues in a complex manner. Looking at a clip is no way to judge anything, but with Sorkin, you’re getting just one aspect of something he’s exploring in depth. You’re also falling prey to one of the most common mistakes (if you’ll forgive the harshness of that) of readers and audiences: assuming the main character’s opinions reflect precisely the writer’s. I write about Mike Hammer, a right-wing lunatic (and a wonderful one!) and a hitman called Quarry who has a low opinion of humanity beyond any cynic and a womanizing ethically shifting private eye named Nate Heller and…all sorts of people who represent one facet of who I am, but none of whom reflect me exactly or in full.

    Not trying to talk anybody into liking Sorkin. But I had disliked him in a knee-jerk way, based on clips and such, and until I watched the first few episodes of WEST WING, I didn’t know what I’d been missing. Also, I don’t know too many people who don’t like A FEW GOOD MEN….

  10. Peter says:

    Judas Priest, what a gang of shallow young morons the compilers of that EW list must be.

  11. yes a great tribute to legends

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