The Reactionary Utopian
                       May 1, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     Thirty years ago, Laurence Olivier said a startling 
thing. He'd just seen the musical SUGAR BABIES, starring 
Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, and he pronounced Rooney 
"my favorite actor."

     I thought Olivier was joking, or maybe sarcastically 
putting down his rivals in the classical theater. I took 
Rooney for a minor Hollywood has-been, more notable for 
his eight marriages than for any achievement. (N.B.: 
Rooney is now late in his ninth decade, and as far as I 
know his eighth marriage is still going strong.)

     But Lord Larry was serious, and he was right. He 
knew what it takes to go out on a stage and lift an 
audience's hearts. When he saw Rooney, he recognized a 
greatness that deserved honor.

     Mickey Rooney, born in 1920, was a child prodigy of 
entertainment -- singing, dancing, acting. By 1934 he was 
a movie veteran who had done Shakespeare -- starring as 
Puck in Max Reinhardt's excellent film of A MIDSUMMER 
NIGHT'S DREAM. A couple of years later, still in his mid 
teens, he was featured in what became the immensely 
popular Andy Hardy series, often co-starring with another 
amazingly versatile young talent: Judy Garland.

     Rooney and Garland were synonyms, and close pals. 
Today she is the legend; he is all but forgotten. He was 
Hollywood's top box-office draw for five straight years, 
against competitors like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. 
He was world-famous and an Academy Award winner by age 
20, long before Olivier, 13 years his senior. He could 
hold his own in straight drama with Spencer Tracy, his 
Oscar-winning co-star (as Father Flanagan) in BOYS TOWN; 
the five-foot-three Rooney played the defiant juvenile 

     Right after adolescence he commenced his eventful 
connubial life. His second wife was the big, voluptuous 
Ava Gardner. Many years and several wives later, he 
remembered her fondly. He showed up drunk on the old 
TONIGHT SHOW. It was broadcast live in those days, and 
any host but the flamboyant Jack Paar would have had the 
tact to whisk him off during a commercial break. 
Remember, this was the dull, repressed 1950s.

     Instead, Paar took advantage of the moment to ask 
the question on everyone's mind: "Tell us, Mickey, what 
is Ava Gardner really like?" Rooney did not disappoint. 
"Jack," he slurred, "Ava Gardner is more woman than you 
will ever know." The audience went berserk.

     Rooney was no longer a superstar by then, but people 
still remembered when he had been. Now he was taking any 
role he could get. He was too old to play Huck Finn, too 
small for Coriolanus. But he could play Baby Face Nelson. 
Or whatever. And whatever he did, he did it well -- 
drama, comedy, musical, dancing. Audiences remembered him 
and were glad to see him. He'd never stopped being a 
lovable, gutsy performer. Give him an audience and he was 

     Critics didn't adore him the way they adored Chaplin 
or, in France, Jerry Lewis. It might have jump-started 
his fading career if he'd become at least a victim of 
McCarthyism. No such luck. He just seemed to fade away in 
plain sight, for no better reason than that a whole style 
of cheerful entertainment had gone out of fashion. It was 
the era of Brando, except that Brando could make a 
comeback after a long slump and he'd still be hailed as a 

     Not Rooney. He'd still show up for the Academy 
Awards ceremony every year, like an inexplicably jolly 
ghost from another epoch, bald and chubby. Now and then 
he even got a break, as in THE BLACK STALLION in 1979, 
where he was still brilliant and moving; and in SUGAR 
BABIES he showed on the stage that he was also still much 
more than a fine character actor on film. If the greatest 
actor in the world was in the audience, after all those 
years Mickey Rooney could put a lump in his throat and 
make him grateful to be there.

     Olivier said he never really learned to act until he 
realized he had to love both his character and his 
audience. Is there any really great performer of whom 
that isn't true? You can see it even in brief film clips 
of little Mickey Rooney tap-dancing. That tiny boy had 
already learned the secret so many never learn. Love is 
the secret it does no good to keep.


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