I wasn’t planning on watching the Oscars, mainly because I hadn’t seen any of the movies that were up for awards. But I ended up tuning in because of the one segment I always look forward to, in a bittersweet sort of way: In Memoriam, a tribute to all the actors and other members of the motion picture industry who passed away in the last year.
Somehow that portion of the show affects me deeply. As the photos of the deceased flit by to beautiful, gentle music—this year it was Billie Eilish singing “Yesterday”—I find myself uttering an incredulous “No!” as someone I didn’t know had died appears.
“Not Doris Day!” I couldn’t believe it. Doris Day, whom I’d just seen a day or two previously on TCM. Doris Day, whose irrepressible energy and sense of fun seemed like they’d go on forever. Dead at 97.
And Peter Fonda. Jane’s kid brother. She called him “my sweet baby brother, the talker of the family,” and said he “went out laughing.” He died of lung cancer at 79.
Danny Aiello. He was gone? One of my all-time favorite character actors. Who could forget him in Moonstruck? Or Once Upon a Time in America? He made it to 86.
The oldest to go was Kirk Douglas, at 103. Now that was a career.
When a star from our past dies, it’s a reflection of how old we’ve all become. It’s also as though something in us has died, a little piece of our youth and the sense of immortality the young possess.
And yet, at the same time, because they are screen characters, film actors never die. They’ll be present and uniquely alive for as long as the earth exists.
The motion picture was the phenomenon that changed the traditional concept of mortality forever. The fact that it’s all a deception is utterly irrelevant, that what we’re witnessing is merely a series of images, speeding by at so many frames per second to create the illusion of motion.
A film strip is an inert, dead thing. But thread it through a projector, turn it on, and it becomes alive. Nothing quite so amazing has been seen before or since.
So, we feel as though we know these great names and faces, grew up with them, loved them, even had crushes on them—when in truth they were only a series of still pictures on a strip of celluloid.
It is, indeed, a strange kind of immortality.
And when you actually knew the actor, and really did grow up with him or her, it’s even stranger.
My late husband, Adam Shields, was the son of the well-known character actor Arthur Shields and the nephew of Arthur’s brother, Barry Fitzgerald, the most famous Irish actor in Hollywood. Barry’s real name was William Shields, but he took the name Barry Fitzgerald because the two brothers were prominent in Dublin’s Abbey Theater and didn’t want to have two Shields on the playbill.
If you know old movies at all, you’ll remember Fitzgerald for the role that won him an Oscar in 1945—the old priest Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way, with Bing Crosby. He was in quite a few movies until he died in 1959—I just saw him the other night in The Naked City (1948), in which he played a veteran police detective, sort of like Father Fitzgibbon without the cassock and collar.
As for Arthur Shields, well, he was a taller, thinner version of his brother, whom you’ve probably seen in dozens of movies without knowing his name. His most memorable role was the minister in The Quiet Man (1952), starring John Wayne, and he was a featured player in many John Ford films.
Arthur went to Hollywood in 1939, leaving his wife and little boy—Adam—in Dublin. A week later WWII erupted, and for the next five years civilian international travel was suspended. So throughout the war, Adam only saw his father onscreen, at the Saturday matinées. He said he would sit through the movie two or three times because it was the only way he could be with his father.
Arthur sent for Adam after the war. By this time, Adam was 17, another person entirely from the 11-year-old his father had left. Adam went to Los Angeles and enrolled in Hollywood High, where his best friend was a shy freshman named Carol Burnett.
Anyway, when I met Adam in 1992, his dad had been dead 22 years. But not really. One night we turned on the TV and there was Arthur, in some movie or other, big as day.
He had an unforgettable voice, beautiful, rich, a real actor’s voice.
“How does it feel, when you turn on the TV and hear your dad’s voice and see him?” I asked Adam.
“Oh, it’s kind of nice,” he said. ‘I’ll think, why, there he is!’ And it’s as though he’s alive again.”
Not only was Arthur Shields not dead—he was young and handsome, not the withered old guy who’d expired from emphysema. It was just like what they say about heaven—everybody’s young and healthy again.
I envied Adam. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to turn on the TV and see my father, who’d died four years earlier of lung cancer, in the prime of life. And what would it be like, I think now, if my mom, Hazel, who died almost four years ago, was a famous star like Bette Davis and I could see her alive and gorgeous, in movies from the 1930s or 40s, before I was born?
That’s the eerie immortality of the silver screen. To literally be able to travel back in time and, essentially, defy death.
Anyway, I’ll miss knowing that Doris Day and Kirk Douglas and all the rest of them are still present and accounted for on terra firma. But since I only knew them through the movies, how can I really miss them when I can go to TCM or Netflix and find them as young and vibrant as ever?
Oh, to be a movie star…