The Academy’s “In Memoriam” Snubs: Much Better This Year—Thanks, Oscar

The great Jonathan Winters in the not-so-great "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"

The great Jonathan Winters in the not-so-great “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

In past years I have taken the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to task for the ethical breach of ingratitude and disrespect, as the honor roll of the year’s deceased film notables have omitted important figures who deserved their final bows. Omissions are inevitable, I suppose, but some of the past examples were unforgivable—last year alone, for example, the Academy snubbed Ann Rutherford, Andy Griffith, R.G. Armstrong, Russell Means, Harry Carey, Jr., and Susan Tyrell. 2012 was worse.

2013, however, shows that the Academy is being more careful, and Oscar deserves credit for cleaning up its act. I have ethical and historical objections to bestowing the prestigious final slot on actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, dead prematurely of self-inflicted drug abuse, when a genuine, bona fide Hollywood legend, Shirley Temple, was on the list. I understand the thinking: Hoffman had friends and colleagues in the room, and Temple is of another generation; his premature death was a tragedy, and she lived a long and productive life. Still, the priorities and relative values such a choice exemplifies is disturbing. Great actor that he was, Hoffman was a criminal, an addict, and left his children fatherless. Shirley was the greatest child star who ever will be, a ray of sunshine in the dark days of the Depression, a one-of-a kind talent and icon, and later a lifetime public servant who raised a family. She represented the best of Hollywood and the profession; Hoffman represents its dark side. Naturally, he’s the one who received the greatest recognition. I will suppress my dark suspicions that Shirley was docked because she was a Republican. A  Facebook friend actually wrote that Shirley deserved to be penalized because some of her movies were racist. My response to this slur was not friendly. Continue reading

Shirley Temple Black (1928-2014)


Shirley Temple Black, perhaps best known to most of us as Little Miss Marker, Curly Top,the Littlest Rebel, Heidi, or, most of all, Shirley Temple, died overnight. I learned of her passing this morning in a Facebook update from child performer advocate Paul Petersen, like Shirley a distinguished and successful former child star who has dedicated his post-performing career to important causes. He wrote:

SHIRLEY TEMPLE passed in the night. She was 85…and no age at all. What a life. What a treasure. A woman of amazing courage and dignity.The world was enriched by her accomplishments. She will always be a part of us. Rest now, Shirley Temple. We love you.

There really isn’t too much more that needs to be said.  Few human beings ever began having a positive impact on society so soon in life (she began making adults smile at the age of three, when she made her first film) and continued to do so for so long. From show business, a profession that so often leads to ethical rot,  and a rarefied corner of it infamous for leaving its practitioners spoiled, narcissistic, addicted to fame and dysfunctional, Shirley Temple emerged as an adult who was industrious, courageous, intelligent, compassionate, and dedicated to public service. Often dismissed and mocked as a washed-up child star, she proved again and again that her detractors were not just wrong to pre-judge her, but spectacularly wrong. She excelled as a diplomat, serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, using her Hollywood fame to open doors and hearts, and also as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Temple never played the celebrity: my favorite Shirley moment was when she returned, in her seventies, to join a large group of former Oscar winners (hers was a special award, at the age of six) on the stage of the Academy Awards. As they announced the names of the famous performers and the camera panned the group, it was Shirley who received the most loving response from the Hollywood crowd, which stood and cheered. Shirley looked genuinely surprised, beamed, showed those famous dimples, and handled it, as she always handled everything, with charm and poise.

A proto-feminist, Shirley Temple was one of the first celebrities to go public with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and raised national awareness by promoting a frank discussion of mastectomies. In her autobiography, she also had the courage to point out the predominance of sexual predators in the the Hollywood power structure and culture, recalling that MGM musical unit head Arthur Freed*, whose career is celebrated in “Singing in the Rain,” exposed himself to her in his office when she was barely 13. (She laughed at him; he threw her out of his office.)

Historians credit Shirley Temple with saving the movie studio RKO and raising America’s spirits during the Great Depression; she also was a Cold Warrior, a mother, the inspiration for a best-selling line of dolls as well as the alcohol-free cocktail that still bears her name, and one of a kind. It is fair to say we will never see her like again.

Late in life, she told an interviewer, “If I had it all to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” How many of us can say that sincerely?

Paul was right. What a life!

Take a curtain call, kid…

* The original version of the post incorrectly referred to Arthur Freed as Alan Freed, who was an  influential disc jockey in the early days of rock and roll. I apologize to both of them.