A day of mortality and immortality

On the 11th of June 2015 we saw three entertainment legends exit the stage all at once, but the lasting legacy they leave means that they are as close as it comes to real life immortality.

In that vain, it’s perhaps most fitting to talk first about the man who found fame by portraying the undead on the silver screen. Chrisopher Lee, who died yesterday aged 93, led an extraordinary life, which besides several outings as an unlikely heavy metal front-man, and literally living as a bona fide Nazi hunter during the second world war, will be best remembered for playing some of the most iconic villains known to 20th century cinema.

Whilst modern audiences might better know him as Saruman (Lord of the Rings) or Count Dooku (Star Wars) – Lee initially rose to prominence starring in Hammer Horror films, most iconically, the Prince of Darkness himself (not Peter Mandelson). Lee’s portrayal of Dracula is still seen as unsurpassed, despite the character being reinvented time again long after hanging up his cape – as he so effortlessly encompassed the still-hearted essence of the character. He was capable of bringing a suave air of sophistication to the role but underwrote it with a genuine brutality that meant his screen presence was able to reflect the cultural fear of vampirism – of an exploitative ruling class – in a way never equalled in cinema. As a result, Lee is an essential part of a social myth that will live on in our nightmares long, long after he has left this world.

At the other end of that spectrum, we also heard of the sad news that “The American Dream”, former championship wrestler Dusty Rhodes, passed away at the age of 69. In amongst the history of professional wrestling, there have been many who have modelled themselves on ‘commonality’ in order to curry favour with a global working class fan-base – but Dusty Rhodes was the archetype. Rhodes achieved a colossal popularity in the sport, not through allying himself with some steroid-addled, vitamin swallowing, real American jingoism like the Hulk Hogans of the world, but by placing himself in opposition to “Nature Boy” Ric Flair – an embodiment of the wheeling, dealing, limousine riding bourgeois that was the real natural foe of every worker in America.

I would say that Dusty’s “Hard Times” promo is the stuff of legend – but such is the stratospheric stature of those beautiful three minutes of proletarian rage, that ‘legend’ would fail to do it justice. If you haven’t seen it before, watch it. If you weren’t a wrestling fan before, you will be. “[Ric Flair] put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.” Those lilting Southern words, delivered as ever with an unpolished, but unashamed lisp, giving voice to the concerns of millions living through real hard times connected Dusty with his fans, and the world, in a way that can only be described as revolutionary within the industry – and modern every-men Steve Austin and Daniel Bryan undoubtedly owe a lot to Rhodes. But beyond that, we all owe a debt of gratitude to someone willing to put their body on the line in the name of entertainment, night after night, to make our hard times feel like good times. Like Lee’s Dracula, Rhodes’ Common Man will live on, as a part of modern folk-lore, as long as there are folk alive.

Finally, Ron Moody, the ultimate incarnation of Dickens’ Fagin, died aged 91. Moody was iconic in the famous Oliver!, the beloved musical reworking of Oliver Twist, in a part that by today’s standards is riddled with controversy. In Dickens’ book, Fagin is a deeply unsympathetic character, described as miserly, exploitative, and occasionally violent – all summarised by his being referred to as “the Jew”. The anti-Semitism at the heart of the character is summarily skirted around by Dickens’ fans – but the musical is an entirely different beast. Moody brought a pathos to the role that would be incredibly hard to imagine on the basis of the source material – he had a swagger, a gleam in his eye, and a roguish grin that carried the picture to lighter places than the squalor and desperation of the story might otherwise of allowed. More importantly, Moody utterly steals the show with two songs that expose why he behaves the way he does. Without a performance of this calibre, the character might still have fallen flat.

Firstly, “You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two” we see him question why thievery is seen as dishonest when the alternative is to “break our backs” labouring before being taxed into poverty. Then in “Reviewing the situation”, Moody’s Fagin flits about the grim London skyline whilst imagining the pittiful life he could lead if he ‘straightened out’ he delivers a truly pitiful reprise “There is no in between for me, But who will change the scene for me? Don’t want no one to rob for me. But who will find a job for me?” Moody – self-described as “100% Jewish”, whose birth-name was Moodkin before his father Anglicised the family name – transforms a dislikeable Jewish stereotype into a living character, with feelings, regrets. The writing of the piece might still have reeked of stereotyping for the still plainly “Jewish” caricaturing of the character, were it not for his performance, and whilst it might be wrong to reduce a man’s life to one performance, this one will define him, because it re-defined a previously damaging piece of mythology in plain sight for the public.

Each of these men may ‘only’ have been a performer then, and they may never have controlled the industries they came to the forefront of (though Dusty was an immense booker and promoter in later years). We can take inspiration in our own lives when we feel powerless, because that didn’t stop them impacting on millions of lives in their own way, long, long after their passings. They are all gone now, but they are all still, very much alive too.

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