This is meant as no disrespect to either the families of those affected by these losses or of the many other industry-related deaths that occur every year. Nor should this be seen as a slight to any of the names and faces who have appeared on the Oscar’s annual In Memoriam segment who do not also appear here. Hopefully, in one way or another, every death is meaningful, but in Hollywood it becomes clear over time that some of these talented people truly are, and in every sense of the word, irreplaceable. Here are five such individuals, and, no, none of them are prematurely included.
Roger Ebert (1942-2013), America’s Critic
Perhaps this is entirely too soon to say, but last Thursday our culture lost the people’s cineaste in Roger Ebert and with him a career that is unlikely to be duplicated by any future film critic. That isn’t meant to disparage anyone writing today, in print or online (and especially not here), but it’s doubtful anyone of us remaining can ever have quite the reach or the impact that Ebert had. For an admirably long period, from the 1970s through the 2000s, at least, Rogert Ebert, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Gene Siskel, served as the most prominent voices in film criticism. Without them, but especially Ebert due to his longevity, it’s entirely probable that many of us would be doing something very different with our time. In the end, it’s unlikely any of us will ever get to say we helped create a whole new line of work for a very specific group of people.
Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), America’s Sweetheart
Oh, sure, the star-making factory-like parts of Hollywood churn out newer and younger actresses on a yearly basis; always pushing their older peers nearing 30 out of any non-basic cable roles. For every Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman, there are dozens of ingénues like Jessica Biel, Rachel Leigh Cook, or Winona Ryder who were destined for greatness but were forgotten almost as quickly as their rise to celebrity. And yet, college students are still buying posters and prints for Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Roman Holiday or Sabrina to hang on their apartment or dorm room walls. Audrey Hepburn is absolutely a relic of the past, and yet her appeal as is still undeniably strong amongst both sexes. It’s arguable America hasn’t replaced Marilyn Monroe as it’s national sex symbol, either, but people she’s more art than arousal now. On the other hand, we’re still falling in love with Holly Golightly.
Jim Henson (1936-1990), America’s Fairy Godfather
Jason Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin did a fine job with The Muppets in 2011, and Jim Henson probably would have liked it more than some of the mid-to-late 90s Muppet offerings. But Henson was more than just the mind behind Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Big Bird — as if that’s anything to scoff at — he also helped create some of our favorite childhood fantasies. “Fraggle Rock,” “Storyteller,” and The Dark Crystal still resonate today as loudly as they once did and it’s not because nobody has yet done puppetry better. Henson’s ideas were bigger than one man or one generation, and while there is decent children’s programming on TV now, nothing quite lives up to his example of sincere wonder and little-to-no condescension. But then, those are very big, floppy, furry shoes to fill.
Phil Hartman (1948-1998), America’s Funnybone
Of course, I’m not making the argument that there aren’t anymore funny men and women. As sad as the murder/suicide of Phil Hartman and his wife is, laughter didn’t, ultimately, die that day. But as hilarious as Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Melissa McCarthy, and the rest of the new golden age of comedians are, not one of them has quite the range and comedic dexterity of Hartman. From “Saturday Night Live” to “The Simpsons” to “Newsradio” and all the bit parts, villains, and fathers he played in movies, Phil Hartman could basically do anything and make even the worst material in a script the best part of the final product. Steve Martin would come close, but he’s from a previous generation and basically retired from comedy to (brilliantly) play his banjo. We still laugh, but maybe not quite as hard as we used to.
Stan Winston (1946-2008), America’s Dream Maker
We give so much praise to filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott immense credit for being the architects of our deepest fantasies. And it’s true that big projects need big picture visionaries to understand the whole structure and drive its schedule, but without artistic geniuses and craftsmen like Stan Winston, so many of their visions could never be fulfilled. Except, there really never was (or is) anyone else quite like Winston, the preeminent special effects wizard from the 70s until his death in 2008. Genre film fans owe the aliens from Aliens, the terminators from The Terminator, the Predators from Predator, and the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park to Winston and his studio — live-action creatures and make-up effects that hold up equal to, if not surpass, even the best CGI of today. It would be easy to say, well, without him, somebody else would have been hired to work on these films and so Hollywood wouldn’t really be out anything. But all you have to do is look at the mostly unoriginal and uninspired creations in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror since his death to see that no one had quite the subtle permanence of his unique fingerprint.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. Saying goodbye to Ebert and his grandfather in the span of two weeks really shines a light on the indiscriminate nature of the universe.