Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: Them's the breaks

Sad to hear of the death of Leslie Nielsen, an actor I always enjoy watching, whether it's in Forbidden Planet or The Poseidon Adventure or Prom Night or The Naked Gun or Columbo.
His career tells an interesting story about Hollywood, and what actors call 'the breaks', and a nice story at that.
We only tend to notice the breaks when they go against someone: the star that never made it, the poor mug who made it once and never clawed their way back, the silent legend killed by the microphone, or what seems to us the patent absurdity that such charismatic legends as Lugosi, or Buster Keaton, or Louise Brooks never got their second chance.
Them's the breaks, kid, them's the breaks.
But then you look at Nielsen.
Imagine going up to Nielsen in the mid-seventies, when he was guesting in every tv show under the sun, just making a living but hardly a face too many people would be able to instantly put a name to.
Imagine telling that guy that his obituary will be headline news all over the world, that thousands of movie fans will feel the loss, that tributes will spring up listing favourite moments from his films, or even, indeed, the simple fact that still to come in his career will be several huge box-office hits in which he will be lead star and principal attraction. And strangest of all, almost all of those obituaries will call him a comedian.
How did this happen? Just the breaks.
Look again at Airplane.
Nielsen is cast as the doctor in Airplane for the same reason that Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack and Peter Graves are there: because of their reputation for slightly stolid seriousness in melodrama and disaster movies.
Nielsen's first appearance in the film is interesting in this regard. The crew are looking for a doctor among the passengers, and we cut to Nielsen for the first time, who says he is a doctor. The sudden cut to his character is not really meant to announce the arrival of a well-known actor; that it's Nielsen is at best a sort of in-joke for film buffs. The main purpose is to deliver a joke: he has a stethoscope around his neck.
But to audiences today the abruptness of the cut seems to say here comes Leslie Nielsen, with precisely that buzz of excitement that accompanies our first glimpse of Orson Welles in The Third Man. The film cranks up a gear - great, says the audience, here comes Leslie Nielsen.
His presence announces comedy, where it was intended to announce, if anything, authenticity. The stethoscope, and the fact that it is joke, tends not to be noticed at all. All we see is that absurdly handsome face, and what now seems like its obvious promise of masterfully delivered laughs.
And masterfully deliver laughs is precisely what he goes on to do. He cemented this new reputation with the various incarnations of Frank Drebin and never looked back. Now he's a comedian, and that very deadpan quality that characterised his straight work becomes his trademark in comedy. He gets to play a live action Mr Magoo; he gets to play Dracula for Mel Brooks. No matter how bad the film is, he's always value, and he's lovable; one of those actors we think of as pals rather than idols. He gets to spend the last twenty years of his professional life as a beloved star, as a face everyone can instantly put a name to.
And he gets to be a loss that thousands of film fans feel.
Them's the breaks.
Leslie Nielsen, 1926 - 2010