When it Comes to Mickey Rooney, I’m With Marlon Brando: Rooney Was Underrated. Here’s Why.
By Chuck Ross – April 7th, 2014
Marlon Brando, who knew something about acting, wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”: “As I’ve observed before, acting talent alone doesn’t make an actor a star. It takes a combination of qualities: looks, personality, presence, ability. Like Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo wasn’t much of an actress, but she had presence. She probably played the same character in every film she ever made, but she was beautiful and had an unusual personality.
“Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is an unsung hero of the actors’ world. He never become a leading man — he was too short, his teeth weren’t straight and he didn’t have sex appeal. But like Jimmy Cagney, he could do almost anything.”
The late James Agee, who may have been the toughest movie critic I have ever read — when he was writing columns about the movies for The Nation magazine in the 1940s — wrote this in 1944: “I am quite sure about Mickey Rooney: He is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles …”
Four years later, in 1948, Agee wrote about “Killer McCoy,” which was Rooney’s first adult role. Rooney plays the “Killer” of the title, a boxer. Agee said he found the film “almost … likable,” though he also said it was “a harmless, worthless movie about prize-fighting” — I told you Agee was tough. However, about Rooney’s role in “Killer McCoy,” Agee nailed it when he called it “a coolly magical performance.”
The late director John Frankenheimer worked with some of the finest actors ever, from Burt Lancaster to Robert De Niro, from Frederic March to Robert Ryan. Yet it was of Rooney that Frankenheimer said he was “the best actor I ever worked with.”
Frankenheimer was specifically talking about Rooney’s performance in a classic 1957 “Playhouse 90” program titled ‘The Comedian.” The teleplay was by Rod Sterling, who adapted an original story by Ernest Lehman. Rooney played the title role, a comic named Sammy Hogarth, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. Rooney’s kinetic, manic portrayal is spot on, as in his mania we fully understand both his cruelty and his insecurity.
The critic David Thomson, in the 2002 version of his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” writes about the actor, “Do we laugh or cry for Rooney? … Mickey Rooney is important, and yet he is ridiculous … .”
I think a lot of people have thought that about Rooney, though, most probably, few have even thought of him at all in recent years. Rooney died yesterday, April 6, 2014, at the age of 93. I must add, I was a fan, and, like Brando, always thought Rooney was underrated. No doubt that was because of the many “Andy Hardy” movies Rooney made at MGM in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And while Brando says Rooney never became a “leading man” in the same sense as a Clark Gable or a Gary Cooper, during Rooney’s heyday at MGM he was “one of the most popular stars in the world,” as Thomson notes.
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