I read in the paper yesterday that Charles Blackman is having a new exhibition of previously unseen work. Blackman is probably best known for the Alice In Wonderland series he created in the 1950s, and he was also one of the creators of the Antipodean Manifesto – a reaction against the rise of abstract expressionism and non-figurative art. Not that Blackman‘s work was that literal – in 1959 critic Bernard Smith described it as “dreams that break off only half-remembered: the deep questioning of eyes in shy faces, the pleasure of simple things, like a bunch of flowers, in a world fed on the sensational and horrific.”
By all accounts Blackman hasn’t been well these last few years – since he had a heart attack in 1994 he hasn’t been able to paint, although he can still draw. The reason I bring all this up, though, is that on reading the article my first thought wasn’t “great, new work to see of Charles Blackman“. My first thought was “wow, Charles Blackman isn’t dead”.
I don’t think I’m alone in this – I think many of us assume if someone’s out of the public eye for long enough they must be dead. There’s a default in my brain that automatically marks people as “died in 1973”, regardless of how not-dead they might actually be.
When singer Peggy Lee died in 2002 I had a similar reaction. Not “my god, Peggy Lee has died” but “my god, Peggy Lee was alive up until yesterday”. I think I feel cheated in a way – I can’t properly mourn someone if they’ve been dead for 35 years. Even if they haven’t.
Now when Isaac Hayes died on Sunday, that was a surprise. We all knew he was kicking around. Hayes obviously liked to work, and the scatter-gun approach he took to his career was incredibly endearing. Musically he would go from unbelievably funky to immensely saccharine, often on the same record. He was the voice of Chef on South Park until they made fun of Scientology, at which time he issued a press release declaring “There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins.” (Matt Stone responded that Hayes didn’t seem to mind when they were “making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons or Jews”). He wrote classic hits for Sam & Dave, created the mighty Theme from Shaft, set up a charity foundation, was international spokesman for the World Literacy Crusade and yet still found time to appear in Escape From New York and episodes of The A-Team, Miami Vice, and Stargate SG-1. He even appeared in Sliders (curiously, so did Mel Torme – maybe Peggy Lee should have considered that career option). You can’t imagine Hayes saying “no” very often – in many ways he was the black Denholm Elliot.
So here’s my idea – either we force aging celebrities to stay active so we can properly mourn their passing, or we all petition news services to add a “not dead yet” segment at the end of their bulletins. I would imagine it going something like this:Man: “But Billy the Panda did complete the sudoku… on the second attempt.” Woman: “Better late than never, eh Keith?” Man: “That’s right, Gabby. Now here’s a list of celebrities who aren’t dead yet.” Woman: “Ooh, Vernon Wells!”
It seems that entertainers often fade away, discarded by society. When the actor James Stewart died in 1997 (and not 1973) it was a shock to discover he had spent 20 years doing only the occasional TV spot or minor movie. How could it be that the star of Vertigo and Harvey wasn’t still in the limelight? How could the Hollywood icon of Rear Window and It’s A Wonderful Life end his career as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West? Maybe Stewart was no longer interested in Hollywood – when he appeared in 1978’s The Magic of Lassie he claimed it was the only script he had been offered without any sex, profanity or graphic violence in it. A canny investor, he could easily have retired, but he took these demeaning roles when offered. Did he worry if he stopped working he would disappear? Why else would a man who was already a millionaire agree to do voiceovers for Campbell Soup?
There’s a saying you sometimes hear in film-making – “if it didn’t happen on film, it didn’t happen”. We like to pretend that’s a joke, because we know it isn’t. Everyone’s after immortality, but the truth is that eventually we all go to that 1973 in the sky.