Paul Newman and Charlton Heston — two of the five late cinema legends honored with tribute screenings in AFI Fest’s “Milestones” sidebar — led such long, productive lives that their deaths, while a loss to us, were valedictory for them: Both had given their work their all, and retired in peace. Sidney Pollack, however, was nowhere near retirement (with one acting and four producer credits this year alone), while for Heath Ledger and Anthony Minghella to be cut short in their primes robs us of what might have been. As if to defy their deaths, AFI honors these artists at their least predictable.
Take Paul Newman as the self-defeating pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961). We can never tell from one instant to the next whether Eddie is going to embrace the love that’s being offered (by girlfriend Piper Laurie), grab the wealth dangled his way (by cutthroat manager George C. Scott), or rebel three times over by taking his world down with him. Newman could be amazingly sweet-spirited even when the men he played were doing repugnant things — the gateway to an enormous range. Likewise, Charlton Heston, whom Orson Welles fondly called “a big American heroic actor,” was at his least predictable playing an obsessed cavalry commander in Sam Peckinpah’s jinxed (but now restored) epic, Major Dundee (1965), leading a rebellious posse into Mexico for vengeance against a renegade Apache chief. Heston’s characteristic singleness of purpose becomes a form of madness as Peckinpah reveals it amid a chorus of superb supporting performances from Richard Harris, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), a Depression-era tragedy set in a marathon dance hall, broke Jane Fonda out of her Barbarella period, won Red Buttons an Oscar, and established the then 35-year-old Pollack as a major director. Set in a world where dancing and falling in love — two of the sexiest and most life-affirming activities — are cruelly mated to a whole society’s nightmarish downward spiral, Pollack’s adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel makes us see this world unforgettably. Anthony Minghella’s directing career was even briefer, but he blazed a beautiful path whose signature highlight was the Pollack-produced The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Ripley — the diabolical sadist and sufferer created by suspense master Patricia Highsmith — had been superbly realized on film twice before (by René Clément in Purple Noon and by Wim Wenders in The American Friend), but Minghella illuminated unexpected layers of passion and agony, even a tragic capacity for love, in this would-be Lucifer.
Heath Ledger’s death is still too painful to think about. In that astonishing moment where he embraces his dead love’s cast-off shirt at the end of Brokeback Mountain, Ledger’s genius gave us the exposed nerves of a live soul communicating itself, free of either histrionics or inhibition. In the little-seen Ned Kelly (2003), the native Australian got to play the titular bandit and folk hero. Directed by Gregor Jordan, the movie bursts with youth, and vitality. Fittingly (in this context), its Ned has a sense of his own legend but with the ever-present risk of a tragic demise shadowing his every step.
All screenings in AFI Fest’s “Milestones” sidebar take place at ArcLight Hollywood: Major Dundee, Fri., Oct. 31, 7 p.m.; The Hustler, Mon., Nov. 3, 3 p.m.; Ned Kelly, Tues., Nov. 4, 12:15 p.m.; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Tues., Nov. 4, 3:15 p.m.; The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tues., Nov. 4, 7 p.m.