Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Two very sad passings: Gloria Stuart and Sally Menke

The film world has suffered two great losses this week - of a familiar and unfamiliar name - but both were vital in their own ways.

The first loss, was, of course, Gloria Stuart, whom most people know as the elder Rose in Titanic.  She had a solid career in cinema's early days, having appeared in everything from movies with Shirley Temple to James Whale-directed frighteners like The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. She never became a great star, a fact she lamented, but she was always a striking presence in those films. She wasn't quite the tough dame but not quite the damsel in distress, either. She occupied a fascinating middle ground, and had a very striking look.

Perhaps this is suggestion is a little too on the nose, but she had a fascinating life - and you know who I'd like to see play her in a biopic? Kate Winslet. It will probably never happen, but it's a tantalizing prospect.

On balance, though, it's probably better that she wasn't better known, because otherwise, she would not have gotten the part of Rose in Titanic - a part she played beautifully. Her Oscar nomination for that film wasn't just a case of "Let's give the old movie star something before it's too late" - she fully deserved her nod. Again, she struck just the right balance between spunkiness and sensitivity. And if you ask me, she, not Kim Basinger of LA Confidential - should have WON the Oscar. But living to be 100 was a great reward. Wasn't she a dish?

The other passing this week was of a woman whose name few people know, but her work has been seen and admired by millions, even if they don't know what exactly it is they're admiring. Sally Menke, who edited all of Quentin Tarantino's films, perished in a hiking accident Tuesday. She was only 56.

Many tributes to Menke will call attention to big action scenes like the fights in Kill Bill or the car chase in Death Proof - as well they should. Her work on those scenes was among the best of their kind. 

However, I think Menke's best work was in the kind of editing you're not supposed to notice, like the date between Vincent and Mia in Pulp Fiction - and no, I'm not talking about the dance scene or the needle into the heart. I'm talking about the conversations of the date. Check it out again and listen. They're perfectly balanced. Tarantino has said the date was originally much longer, but he and Menke cut it down to perfect effect so it had just the right air of mystery. 

Whenever Pulp Fiction is shown on TV now, it includes a scene excised from the theatrical cut - the "Beatles people vs. Elvis people" scene between Travolta and Thurman. It's a great scene. It's probably the most widely quoted scene that was not actually in a movie. But Menke and Tarantino were right to cut it, because it dispels the mystique around Thurman's character too soon. 

That's where Menke truly excelled. Check out her work in Jackie Brown, which I think is Tarantino's second-best film, and certainly his most mature one. That film juggles multiple characters and subplots, but the movie breathes just right. The viewer never gets lost and gets caught up in the overlapping stories. That's the mark of  a great editor. 

If you have Netflix, check out the editing documentary The Cutting Edge, which has interviews with Menke and Tarantino, and you'll see what I mean. More importantly, you'll learn more about an "invisible" art at which Menke excelled. (Note: The free streaming ends this Thursday, so catch it soon.)

For Sally, for Quentin and for us who love their movies,  final cut has come far too soon. 

Bye Sally.

1 comment:

ME said...

So sad about Sally. Gloria had a very long life. I heard a great interview of her on NPR she was honest and loved stage acting the most.

I expect that there will be a piece soon on Tony Curtis!