Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn't. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
On the one hand, it’s easy to shift a little blame Irving Penn’s way for all the awful photography shows you’ve been to, where you’re asked to contemplate how a garbage can “casts a dramatic, portentous shadow over a crack in the sidewalk, signifying encroaching urban ruin” or some such nonsense. After all, Penn was one of the pioneers of recasting the mundane as art, as with his infamous 1975 show at the Museum Of Modern Art, where Penn displayed 14 large prints of cigarette butts and was all, like, “Yeah, think about it.” But on the other hand, Penn was a true trailblazer in the field of portraiture—especially fashion photography, which before he wandered into the position at Vogue in 1943 was all about making sure the model had plenty of props to play with to keep her from getting bored and aimlessly wandering away in the middle of the shoot, and loading up the background with lots of gaudy wallpaper or fake ferns to distract from the drabness of yet another A-line dress. Penn changed all that, preferring a severe setting with clean backgrounds that put the focus on the clothes, or strikingly simple arrangements that nevertheless carried a lot of impact—like his famous debut cover featuring a purse, scarf, gloves, and some oranges and lemons in the shape of a pyramid. (Hey, it was the '40s. A lot easier to blow minds back then.)
Penn eventually moved on to photographing celebrities like Miles Davis, Spencer Tracy, Georgia O’Keefe, and Pablo Picasso, once claiming that he usually got the shot he wanted by photographing them for hours on end until they finally let their guard down. But he wasn’t just about glorifying the bold and beautiful: Penn loved working in far-flung locations, and was equally famous for taking everyone from “New Guinea mud men to San Francisco hippies” out of their natural environment and putting them against a stark studio backdrop in order to truly examine them. At one time he was producing more than 300 fashion pages annually for Vogue while developing his eye for the “real” on the side; his work is housed at the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other prestigious places. He died this week at the age of 92. Here are a few of his photographs to illustrate the breadth of his work: Pablo Picasso, Kate Moss, and “Cuzco Children, Peru, 1948.”
The official “story by” credit on Coming To America still reads “Eddie Murphy,” but after a seven-year legal battle in the late '80s and early '90s, Paramount Pictures was forced to admit that, okay, it may have come from a much more unlikely source: the writing team of newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and his producing partner, literary agent Alain Bernheim, who sued the studio for $5 million in 1988, alleging that the film was based on a treatment they had sold them five years earlier. Paramount eventually settled for $825,000, and the scandal has quietly faded into movie history, but the effect on Bernheim’s movie career was enormous. Prior to that he had served as an executive producer on the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau-starring Buddy Buddy—better known as Billy Wilder’s last film—and produced the Sean Penn/Nicolas Cage dramedy Racing The Moon, but following the lawsuit he only returned to film once more, as a producer on 1998’s mostly forgotten Return To Paradise. But then, movies weren’t really Bernheim’s le bag, anyway: After fleeing France to New York during the German occupation—and briefly returning to fight as part of the Free French forces—Bernheim moved to California and started a career as a talent agent, representing writers like Gore Vidal, Pierre Boulle, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who was probably a total joy to work with. Shortly thereafter he began taking on directors like Jules Dassin, Louis Malle, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, and John Frankenheimer, establishing himself as one of the most trusted men among the old lions of entertainment. But then, he dies this week at the age of 86, and his obituary headlines pretty much all reference Coming To America. C’est la vie.
To a certain raised-on-VHS generation, Mimi Weddell is a familiar face for roles in low-budget horrors—and horror spoofs—Dracula’s Last Rites and Student Bodies, where she played the tightly buttoned school matron, Miss Mumsley. (“Homosexuality is the up-and-coming thing!”) Of course, her acting career didn’t begin until she was well into her 60s, and while she also had a memorable cameo in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and is probably famous to someone for playing the grandmother to token “gay best friend” Stanford on Sex And The City, Weddell is even better known for simply being herself—an eccentric grande dame whose willowy, proudly wrinkled features and chin-held-high elegance has been featured in print ads for Burberry, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Juicy Couture, and which spurred New York Magazine to name her one of its “Most Beautiful New Yorkers” in 2005. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the 2008 documentary Hats Off revealed: The film about Weddell’s charmed, quirky life chronicled her unlikely second-wind career while focusing on her overwhelming obsession with ostentatious hats, following her as she strolled the streets of Manhattan through various auditions, dance lessons, and visits to the beauty salon. In short, it demonstrated that Weddell was a character in a movie that was far more interesting than any she’d acted in: her own weird, beautiful life. Sadly, that movie finally came to an end this week when Weddell died at the age of 94.
Cecil B. DeMille once called Frank “Junior” Coghlan “the perfect example of a homeless waif”—and while that sounds like an insult, it was actually high praise during the silent film era, when homeless waifs were the must-have movie accessory that the “pudgy, foulmouthed, slightly misogynist best friend” is today. (It also came with a five-year contract, so you know… call us a homeless waif any day.) Coghlan’s acting career started at the age of 3, when he had a “crawl-on” in the Western serial Daredevil Jack, and before he was even a teenager, he’d amassed dozens of credits opposite actors like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Bette Davis. In 1928, he was recognized as one of the (if not the) most famous child actors in the world, so famous that the Los Angeles Times regularly provided updates on his schooling—although by then, Coghlan was already whining at the age of 11 that he really wanted to move on to more "grown-up" roles. He got his wish playing the tough-talking child version of James Cagney’s character in The Public Enemy, then slowly began amassing more challenging fare like The Last Of The Mohicans and 1936’s The Little Red Schoolhouse, which starred Coghlan as a 17-year-old runaway.
Unfortunately, we already know how this story goes. He played his last role as “Junior Coghlan” in 1939, demanded to be treated like an adult, and faded quickly thereafter: His most notable appearance for a couple of years was an uncredited role as a wounded Confederate soldier in Gone With The Wind, during which he uttered the word “damn” many scenes before Clark Gable did—making it the first instance of the word “damn” on film—but much to his dismay, it was cut from later prints. Fortunately, Coghlan got a second chance at fame in 1941, when he took on the role of “Billy Batson” in the Adventures Of Captain Marvel serial. Though Coghlan was 25 at the time, he was still slight enough to pass for Batson who, after uttering the word, “Shazam!” is transformed into Captain Marvel (played by Tom Tyler). It proved to be Coghlan’s most enduring role, as he continued to tour the convention circuit meeting fans until very recently—and apparently loved the attention so much, his car bore the license plate, “SHAZAM.” Not long after, Coghlan joined the Navy during WWII and spent a subsequent 23 years as an aviator, serving as commander of the Navy’s motion picture liaison program in the 1960s, working as a technical advisor on military films like PT 109 and The Bridges At Toko-Ri, and seeing combat in both Korea and Vietnam. He returned to acting in the ’60s with guest appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies and bit parts in films like Valley Of The Dolls. His last credited role, bringing it full circle, was as a security guard in the 1974 Captain Marvel reboot, Shazam! Coghlan died this week at the age of 93.
We were out last week, which means we missed reporting on the passing of old-school hip-hop legend Mr. Magic, né John Rivas, who was the first commercial DJ to broadcast a show specifically dedicated to the burgeoning art form with his “Rap Attack” hour. As the New York Times illustrates, Mr. Magic was to hip-hop as Alan Freed was to rock ’n’ roll—a champion of a type of music that made various Mr. Suits all fluttery and nervous, but reflected what was going on in the streets. Beginning in the late-’70s, Mr. Magic began programming the earliest rap records during the wee hours on a New York public access station; both he and hip-hop blew up in 1983, when mainstream station WBLS gave Mr. Magic his own time slot. Not long after, he sparked a friendly feud with Kool DJ Red Alert, who hosted a similar program over at KISS-FM. The two enlisted several of the brightest hip-hop stars of the day to battle each other on and off the air—Red Alert had Boogie Down Productions in his corner; Mr. Magic brought in a larger collective that included Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and Kool G Rap to form his “Juice Crew”—with each side recording diss tracks aimed at the other. Despite the huge cult following, WBLS decided it wanted to abandon rap in 1984, and offered Mr. Magic the chance to stay on if he would play softer R&B; Mr. Magic balked (reportedly saying, “If I stop playing, rap will die”), and returned to his public access station. WBLS quickly realized the error of its ways and rehired him the next year, where he remained until 1989.
Like Freed’s influence was to rock ’n’ roll, the importance of Mr. Magic to hip-hop cannot be overstated. In the early days of his career, he paved the way for rap on radio stations all over the country by bringing the show to them, touring with manager Fly Ty and his “Engineer All Star” Marley Marl. He pioneered the in-studio live mixing that’s still a staple of hip-hop stations like Hot-97 (where he worked in the ’00s), showcasing Marl’s “dirty basement sound.” And it must be said that he broke more rappers than just about anybody, in return for which he was name-checked a bajillion times in songs by guys like Nas (“I gots to have it / I miss Mr. Magic”), 2Pac (“I remember Mr. Magic, Flash, Grandmaster Caz”), and, of course, Biggie Smalls (“Every Saturday, Rap Attack / Mr. Magic, Marley Marl”) to name just a few. He even had an entire song dedicated to his story in Whodini’s “Magic’s Wand;” you don't see that very often. Mr. Magic died last Friday of a heart attack at the age of 53.
Have a super weekend!