Posted by Susan Doll on November 4, 2013
George Eells recounts this sad exchange in Final Gig, which is perhaps the only full-length biography of Gig Young, which reveals—or rather exposes—the actor’s tragic life. Between his father who belittled him because his conception was an accident and his mother who withdrew into neurosis, Young experienced insecurity on all fronts. According to Eels’s bio, he spent a lifetime searching for love and approval; his fans, Academy Award, and five wives were not enough. Nothing was ever enough. In some ways, his life seems at odds with his suave, sophisticated star image, but in other ways, it fits.
This afternoon, TCM is airing eight films starring Gig Young in celebration of his 100th birthday. The films are from his earliest career, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a supporting character and his star image was evolving into the affable gent with a debonair smile.
In romantic comedies and dramas, Young excelled at playing handsome gentlemen who were charming, cultured, and witty—in other words, the perfect man. But, that was the problem, he was too perfect. Often, the leading lady preferred the other guy—the one with all the faults. Or, she discovered that the perfect man was more stuck on himself than he was on her. Because his characters did not get the girl, some writers have described his star image as that of a loser. But Gig Young’s characters were never losers. Wendell Corey or Ralph Bellamy played losers, because they were so plain, naïve, or dull they never stood a chance at winning the girl, even if their characters were engaged to them in the beginning. On the other hand, Young was attractive and desirable—a catch for any girl. In rejecting Young, the leading lady was indeed giving up a dreamboat in favor of a more down-to-earth fellow. Having gone for the dreamboats most of the time in my life, I understand their powerful appeal. But, the leading ladies were smarter than me, because they selected the guy who was more suitable for the long haul of marriage, and a good marriage was key in the days when the Production Code influenced perceptions of romance. Oddly, the fact that Young’s characters lose the girl—and the implied home and family that goes with the package—echoes his lonely life in the all-too-real world.
During the Film School Generation, Young won an Oscar for playing the slick, sleazy emcee of a Depression-era dance marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Afterward, Young turned toward darker, sinister character parts that subverted his earlier star image. I was surprised to discover that he appeared in two Sam Peckinpah films, The Killer Elite and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, as well as the Renee Taylor/Joseph Bologna hit Lovers and Other Strangers. Sadly, this career boost did not remedy his lingering personal troubles—a crippling insecurity and the alcoholism that went with it. In 1973, he was fired from the role of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, supposedly because he collapsed from an attack of delirium tremors. By the end of his life, he was reduced to playing in stock theater with an occasional part as a cardboard villain in a genre flick. His last role was in a Bruce Lee movie, The Game of Death. In the fall of 1978, Young married 31-year-old Kim Schmidt. Three weeks later he shot and killed her, then put the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.
But, that is not the Gig Young that I fancy, nor is he the one that should be remembered. To complement the eight films that TCM is airing today from his early days in Hollywood, I offer my list of Gig Young’s best performances from the peak of his career.
They Shoot Horses Don’t They?. In 1969, director Sidney Pollock stole the thunder from John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) with this bitter story set in the Depression. Gig Young costarred as smooth-talking but dissipated emcee Rocky Gravo, who presides over a dance marathon, in which broke, starved, and despondent contestants compete for desperately needed prize money. Pollock originally wanted Lionel Stander for the role, and star Jane Fonda openly objected to Young’s casting. Given Young’s star image, both worried that he would be too lightweight as Rocky. Young himself had doubts about departing from his suave persona, which had been reworked for the television series The Rogues from 1964-1965. But, he connected with Rocky Gravo, who was smooth and glib on the outside but a hardened realist inside. His performance surprised many, including Fonda, who apologized for having objected to his casting.
Teacher’s Pet. At the beginning of this romantic comedy, Young’s character, Dr. Hugo Pine, is an impressive intellectual who is engaged to Doris Day. Day plays an idealistic journalism professor who teaches adults at night school. She doesn’t realize that old-school newspaperman Clark Gable is in her class pretending to be a student. Gruff, working-stiff Gable and handsome, highbrow Young vie for Day’s affections. Young and Gable are as opposite in their star images as their characters are in personality, a good casting strategy for a romantic comedy with a love triangle. Yet, Young steals the film by playing one of those characters whose flawlessness drives the girl into the arms of his rival. For his efforts, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Desk Set. This is my favorite Tracy-Hepburn film, because it is an early depiction of a computer in the movies. Unlike the glorification of technology in today’s movies, the room-size computer in Desk Set cannot compete with the ingenuity of humans. That ingenuity is in the form of a group of formidable female fact-checkers led by Hepburn who are employed at a television network. Of course, the outcome of this film is foretold by the casting of Tracy and Hepburn. No matter the romantic set-up, Tracy’s and Hepburn’s characters will end up together. Young, who plays her handsome, charming boyfriend, is destined to be cast aside. Young’s character is also self-absorbed; he keeps Hepburn on a string by placating her with flowers whenever he cancels a date because of work, or whenever he needs help with his reports. However, the character is not a cad or villain, largely because Young plays into his charming star image. Young accepted the relatively small role for the chance to work with Tracy and Hepburn, and their chemistry together is apparent in the scene in which he discovers Tracy in a bathrobe at Hepburn’s apartment. The clever script by Phoebe and Henry Ephron reveals how dull and dumb today’s romantic comedies have become.
Young at Heart. This 1954 musical remake of Four Daughters represents the epitome of Young’s star image as the too-perfect man who never gets the girl. Young was never more appealing than in his role as Alex Burke, a likable and successful composer who comes into the lives of the Tuttles, a family with three blonde daughters. All three daughters fall in love with the charming, talented Alex, but by the end of the film, they have all married someone else! Early on, he proposes to Doris Day, but she ends up with a gloomy, morose Frank Sinatra, while Dorothy Malone finally chooses chunky Alan Hale, and Elisabeth Fraser marries a plumber! A plumber over Gig Young!
The Twilight Zone, “Walking Distance.” One of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Walking Distance” stars Young as overworked ad executive Martin Sloan, a victim of the rat race that defines the modern world. While driving the back roads of small-town America, Martin stops to have his car serviced within walking distance of his hometown. He strolls into town toward the drug store, where he finds that nothing has changed since he was a boy. He walks through the park, feeling the joy of re-discovering his life from back in the day. He is astonished when he actually runs into himself as a boy. Following the boy home, Martin meets his parents as they were when he was a child. He is saddened because they refuse to believe that he is their adult son. Later, his father tracks down Martin at the park. He advises his son that this is no longer his time, and the happiness and satisfaction he seeks lies in the future—not the past.
Perhaps you have to be from a small-town during a time before video games, computers, play dates, and helicopter parents to understand the pleasure in the pain that derives from revisiting a childhood like the one in “Walking Distance.” It was all about freedom: The freedom to roam the entire neighborhood or town from dawn to dusk; the lure of the woods or parks; the freedom from structure and responsibility. This episode of The Twilight Zone is more than nostalgia; it serves up a sense of loss without the hope of replacement or renewal. “Walking Distance” captures that feeling of permanent loss, and Young plays Martin Sloan with a vulnerability that is heartbreaking. Apparently, the town and park were based on Binghamton, N.Y., where Rod Serling grew up. If you watch this episode, notice how Serling’s voice almost chokes up as he makes his closing remarks.
Celebrate Gig Young’s birthday today by watching TCM all afternoon, then track down any of the movies above. You will be glad you did.
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