Cloris Leachman: 1926-2021

Robert aldrichMike Hammer’s brutal, rough and shameless 1955 film “Kiss Me Deadly” opens with a frenzied woman running down a dark road wearing nothing but a trench coat. The soundtrack filled with his terrified growls and the sound of his bare feet slapping the asphalt. After trying to point out several cars, she is almost run over by the hero of the film, who reluctantly takes her. As the credits roll across the screen rather than up, the scared woman’s pants and laborious moans mix badly with the Nat King Cole song playing over Mike Hammer’s car stereo. The juxtaposition seems obscene, and the ultimate fate of this doomed lady is beyond horrific. But what an opening scene it is, marking the unforgettable big-screen debut of Cloris Leachman.

Since 1947, Leachman has amassed 285 credits on stage and on screen, some comedy, some drama, and many of them brilliant. There’s a pretty good chance that she’s appeared in some of your favorite movies and TV shows. During her illustrious career, she has won eight Emmy Awards, an Oscar, endless laughs and more than a few tears. She’s done sitcoms, dramas, exploitation footage, broad yet subtle comedies, and sometimes cartoons. Much like the Method herder that she was, she worked until the very end which unfortunately happened on January 27, 2021. She was 94 years old.

Cloris Leachman has played consistently convincing characters, which is no small feat appearing in one of the most disturbing episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” In 1961’s “It’s A Good Life,” Leachman is once again impeccable at projecting fear and worry, this time as the mother of a villain’s horrible kid played by Bill Mumy. TV Guide voted this number 31 on their list of the 100 Most Memorable TV Episodes, and its popularity ultimately led to Leachman and Mumy reuniting in 2002 for a sequel.

Being convincing is also not an easy task when your director is Mel brooks to its more zani and more parody. Leachman created a trio of deranged and determined characters for him, utilizing masterful comedic timing, extreme physical appearances, and exaggerated accents for each. The madness started with the years 1974 “Young FrankensteinWhere she played Frau Blücher, the strict and imposing German whose name frightens the heart and the neighs of horses within earshot. Frau Blücher’s job is to welcome Gene Wilder“Dr. Frederick Fronkensteen ”at the property of his grandfather, the site of these experiments Mary shelley wrote in his book. Frau Blücher hilariously gives her some fashion advice (“I suggest you put on a tie”), does product placements for Ovaltine and, in the movie’s biggest read, throws Frederick’s grandfather’s dirty bomb, Victor: “Yes! Say it! He… see… my… LITTLE FRIEND !! Leachman delves into that accent too, turning the word “traitor” into a more ominous threat than the staircase she describes.

Then there’s Nurse Diesel, the evil Nurse Ratched from Brooks’ 1977 tribute to Hitchcock, “Strong anxiety. On a scale of 1 to 10, Leachman’s clothes, hairstyle, facial expressions and accent are all clicked up to 11. Her nurse hats are gigantic, her face is eternally scowling, and she isn’t. not below the BDSM whims of his colleague, Harvey korman. While she’s incredibly funny, Nurse Diesel is also a freak who doesn’t like it when her period is broken. “Dinner is at 8 pm,” she told Brooks’ hapless and anxious protagonist. “Those who are late do not get a fruit bowl.” And she thinks it! While trying to stop Brooks from solving the movie’s asylum mystery, Leachman uses his accent to commit line reads that get burned in your brain. In a nod to ‘The Cobweb’, Nurse Diesel mentions an argument about the curtains, saying, ‘Oh yes, Dr Ashley felt that color … has a lot to do with well-being. … emotionally disturbed people. “The way she says those last four words is indescribably delectable.

Last but not least, there’s Madame Defarge from “Histoire du monde Partie I”, whose inn has been serving the scum of Paris for over 300 years. “Hi scum!” she said, greeting the people who will provoke the French Revolution. Leachman’s costume and voice here are a little less extreme, but she’s armed with a great knitting needle accessory that she uses to knit imaginary yarn (and accidentally deflate her ample cleavage). “We are so poor,” says Ms. Defarge, “that we don’t even have a language! Just that stupid accent! She’s also selling one of Brooks’ most obvious jokes: “Let’s end this on a high note,” she tells her constituents before, you guessed it, hitting a positive note.

Another Brooks gifted him with one of the most memorable characters from the 70s sitcoms. As a member of Mary tyler moore Show,” James L. Brooks created Phyllis Lindstrom, the neurotic and often naive friend of Moore’s Mary Richards. Phyllis can be extremely unlovable at times, but Leachman finds her heart pounding beneath her character’s many layers of self-protection and social awkwardness. In Phyllis, we can find the origins of later sitcoms like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which might explain why her MTM spin-off only lasted two seasons. But the role proved fruitful for Leachman, earning his two Emmys and several nominations.

Although Phyllis is off-putting, she’s still quite funny and, at times, even touching. For example, in “The Lars Affair,” Mary Richards learns that the never-before-seen dermatologist Phyllis’ husband, Lars, is having an affair with Betty whiteIt’s Sue Ann Nivens. Ed. Weinberger’s screenplay gives Phyllis a variety of rhythms to hit: denial, comedic attempts at reinvention to save her marriage, rage, anxiety, and revenge. Leachman plays them all thoroughly, culminating in a slapstick-inspired track that flattens the soufflé. On the aforementioned TV Guide Top 100 Episodes list, this one came in at number 27.

I could go on and on by mentioning Leachman’s work in “Malcolm In The Middle” and “Raising Hope” on television and in animated films like “The iron giantOr the one who traumatized me for life, “The Mouse and Her Child.” And my garbage-loving heart would love to become poetic on “Crazy Mama”, the 1975 Jonathan demme movie she made with Ann sothern, Mr. Magoo and Ralph Malph from “Happy Days”. You owe it to yourself to see this. Same “Bad santaDeserves some consideration.

However, I’ll end this tribute with the role that showed just how versatile Leachman was as an actor, his Oscar-winning performance as Ruth Popper in Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich‘s “The last picture show. Neglected by her football coach husband, Popper enters into an affair with one of her players, Sonny Crawford (Timothy’s bottom). She knows it’s a bad idea, and so does he, but really, what else is there to do in this town? The film is blunt in its sexuality, showing how carnal acts can ward off an unbearable feeling of hopelessness for a while. Bogdanovich loves Leachman’s face, letting his camera drink it because it says a lot about pain or relief. You can see little sparks of joy dancing in his eyes as the rest of his physical being telegraphs careful reserve and restraint. We feel her pain when she is knocked down by Crawford for her crush, Jacy Farrow.

Yet Popper’s narrative arc refuses to make her an object of pity or tragedy. Instead, in the film’s final scene, she becomes a vengeful angel wielding white-hot rage and calming mercy in equal measure. Leachman finds an amazing balance here, running through his emotions with impunity, ending on a note of cathartic grace. Watch how she takes Bottoms’ hand in the final scene and listen to how she delivers her final line of dialogue. The emotional complexity is amazing enough to make you cry. It’s as beautiful an acting game as I have ever seen, a testament to what I will miss most about her.

Rather than saying “Rest in peace”, I will scare the horses by simply saying “Good night, Frau Blücher”.

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