A Great American Actor
Thirty years ago, Laurence Olivier said a startling thing. Hed 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 audiences 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 Reinhardts excellent film of A Midsummer Nights 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 Hollywoods 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 delinquent.
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 everyones 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. Hed never stopped being a lovable, gutsy performer. Give him an audience and he was magic.
Critics didnt adore him the way they adored Chaplin or, in France, Jerry Lewis. It might have jump-started his fading career if hed 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 hed still be hailed as a genius.
Not Rooney. Hed 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 isnt 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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