I was about to say let’s take time out to mourn the deaths of artists, but came to my senses just in time. It made me wonder what had happened to me taking politics to be the more serious preoccupation, and art, well, something to take time out for. Art is in fact the more serious thing. The deaths of artists are a cause for the world to stop, the deaths of politicians are a cause for the world only to bring out the champagne.
This year has been particularly cruel to artists. We’ve barely gone past the halfway mark and already the body count has mounted.
Chief of them among popular musicians. Everyone knows that Whitney Houston, Donna Summer and Robin Gibb have died. Houston was an exceedingly gifted singer with a voice as limpid as water and that soared to breathtaking heights with ease. Certainly she did not make the hairs on my body stand the way Celine Dion does. Summer was the summery queen of disco, and Gibb was the wintry king of the falsetto, the man who, along with his brothers, helped popularize the “boses pusa” way of singing of bands like the Boyfriends and VST and Co. of the ’70s.
Less well-known is that 2012 has also claimed the lives of Davy Jones of the Monkees and Etta James. James is the one I particularly mourn, the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards who sang the magnificent “At Last.” Not as well-known as Dinah Washington or Nina Simone, she was just as formidable. I caught her more than 10 years ago in Hollywood Bowl, and when she sang that song I felt goose pimples all over my body, and it wasn’t from the cold in the open air which a copious supply of wine had helped dispel.
Closer to home, only recently film and theater suffered tremendous losses. Theater lost Tony Espejo, director, teacher, and founder of Gantimpala Theater Foundation Inc. He was best known for the last, which he founded in 1978. Bulwagang Gantimpala, as it was originally known, was a small theater arm of the CCP that produced award-winning plays of young playwrights. It was there that directors Joel Lamangan and Soxy Topacio, and Dindo Angeles and actors Pen Medina, Spanky Manikan, Frannie Zamora, Ronnie Lazaro, Malu de Guzman, Amable Quiambao, Mia Gutierrez, Grace Amilbangsa, and Susan Africa cut their teeth. They were at his wake to acknowledge their debt to him.
Espejo was only 64 when he succumbed to heart failure on June 21. Speaking of debt, the loved ones he left behind are hard put trying to raise the money for his hospital fees. Such is the plight of artists in this country and such is the gratitude we show them for what they have done. Tragedy is not limited to theater.
Film lost Mario O’Hara, the actor and director who was the antithesis of show biz for resolutely refusing to draw attention to himself. His following was small but influential, his movies often being dark and lacking in commercial appeal. I saw “Mortal” in the ’70s and admired the guts of the producers for taking that kind of risk. O’Hara remained true to his artistic vision to the end.
He, too, was relatively young when he died, a “mere” 66. Shortly before he did, he was all set to work on a restaging of his original musical, “Stage Show,” which tells of aging vaudeville performers caught between art and survival, craft and commerce. A plight not just of bodabil veterans but of artists in general in this country.
Meanwhile, Dolphy is in intensive care refusing to go gentle into the night, raging, raging against the dying of the light.
Even closer to home, at least the home of my heart, this year has been cruel to writers. Last May, the world of letters lost Carlos Fuentes. Along with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, he led “El Boom,” the explosion of Latin American literature in the ’60s and ’70s. The world best knows him as the author of “The Old Gringo,” largely because that novel was made into a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. The novel is great, the movie is not.
Last month also saw the death of one of my all-time favorite writers, Ray Bradbury. Thankfully, he died after a long and full life at 91. To say that Bradbury was a brilliant science fiction writer is to say that Mozart was a brilliant musician. Bradbury elevated science fiction to great literature, giving his works the strangeness not of something otherworldly but of life itself. “The Martian Chronicles,” which tells of the colonization of Mars but which might as well have told of Western colonization in general, is an awe-inspiring work of imagination and poetry.
And finally last week saw the death of one of my sentimental favorites, Nora Ephron. While my all-time romantic movie remains “Casablanca,” whose every line brims with wit, much of which has entered current idiom (“Round up the usual suspects,” etc.), I’ve found Ephron’s movies no poor second. I’ve included her among the writers and not filmmakers because writing was her exceptional talent. More than anyone among her peers, Ephron made it such a joy to watch “chick flicks,” certainly over testosterone-filled Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone movies.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” but, like “Casablanca,” each time I do I marvel at the script. Who can forget that scene in “When Harry Met Sally” when Meg Ryan simulates an orgasm in a café and the elderly woman seated next to them tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having!” That famous line, though, as Ephron herself revealed, was not hers but Billy Crystal’s. But, hell, the entire movie was grand. What can I say? If you’re an aspiring writer, young or old, like I am, you’d like nothing better than to tell heaven, “I’ll have what she had!”
Milestones, the passing of every one of them.
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