2016 was a tragic year that saw the loss of many legends across a variety of industries, from Prince to Muhammad Ali. We’d like to take a moment to honour those who lit up the silver screen and remember their greatest career achievements.
Gene Wilder (1933-2016)
The manic genius of comedy; Wilder’s career was built on the solid foundation of just a handful of key performances that established his greatness and ensured his lasting presence in Hollywood, even if his grip threatened to weaken as the 1980s rolled in.
Roles like Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, Dr. “Frunkenshteen” and The Waco Kid have become synonymous with Wilder’s distinct mannerisms – and they’re probably the parts we remember the easiest – but his career began as a serious minor character in a serious film, playing a hapless hostage in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I’m not sure what Mel Brooks saw in that performance, but he cast Wilder in The Producers just a year later as the squealing, obsessive-compulsive accountant Leo Bloom. And just about all at once, Wilder’s comedic entourage was on the road.
It is true he never quite managed to top the brilliance of his fruitful collaborations with Brooks; Young Frankenstein (1974) was his last charge before smaller, more peripheral roles became the norm. And while he is known far and wide as a comedian, quieter, more intimate films like Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) displayed his range as an entertainer of immense empathy. You can see his influence now, in roles like Frasier Crane and those of Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell. Wilder introduced a new kind of comedy, one far crazier and simply of better class than his peers.
David Bowie (1947-2016)
David Bowie’s colossal career as a musician needs absolutely no introduction, though it is little known that his songwriting breakthrough is in fact predated by his work as an actor. His early roles were mostly limited to brief appearances in British television series, then following his success on the charts, the Starman took his first lead, quite fittingly, as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s surreal cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. Since, he’s appeared semi-regularly on the silver screen, unquestionably with much more finesse and grace than most fellow singers/actors.
Bowie’s been a go-to supporting star for some of cinema’s most prolific directors, lending his eccentric attributes to Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Agent Phillip Jeffries in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Not above self-deprecation either, he’s done cameo performance several times; most amusingly in Zoolander. Bowie’s most beloved character, however, is the mystical Jareth, the Goblin King of Jim Henson’s classic Labyrinth. Bowie admitted in an interview that kids would still approach him every year and recognise him as “the one from Labyrinth”.
Before his death, quite some time had passed since his last on-screen appearance, though he had expressed interest in reprising his role in Lynch’s upcoming Twin Peaks revival. Bowie will be remembered as the voice of a generation to many; perhaps the most prestigious voice to ever guest star in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
Alan Rickman (1946-2016)
An actor of fine talent , Alan Rickman was presented with his best opportunity at a ripe age. Starring as the sinister Hans Gruber in John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), the role enveloped Rickman’s penchant for deep tones and snide asides. It remains his strongest performance among many strong performances, and is notable for his cool control of a character who’s not meant to carry John McClane, but accompany him.
Rickman was forty-two by the time Die Hard crashed into his career, having spent many of his younger years traipsing about the curtains and modest cameras of British stage and television. And yet his career in acting seems fully formed, robust and everlasting, as if he had been a Hollywood mainstay for eons.
Rickman is most remembered now for his long-enduring turn as the wizard Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films (which may account for his ubiquitous popularity), but my favourite performance of his has to be from Galaxy Quest (1999), a role of tremendous versatility and personal depth. He was also downright hilarious.
Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)
Tragically, the list of talented actors and actresses taken long before their time grew even longer in 2016, with Russian-born actor Anton Yelchin passing away aged just 27, leaving behind a body of work that brimmed with potential and, sadly, unfulfilled promise.
Having worked regularly across both TV and movies since his early teens, Yelchin had forged a diverse and admired filmography. Most of us, myself included, would be most familiar with his work in the three rebooted Star Trek films kickstarted by JJ Abrams back in 2009. Yelchin played Chekov and brought warmth, energy and earnestness to the role. He also rose above the murkiness of 2009’s Terminator Salvation, eagerly reviving the iconic role of Kyle Reese.
His work in mainstream blockbusters series’ allowed him to expand and diversify his range as an actor on the side; roles in independent critical darlings such as Only Lovers Left Alive, Like Crazy and most recently Green Room won him a lot of fans from film buffs the world over; a group that Yelchin would have no doubt considered himself a part of.
He was one of those rare actors who had quietly been making a name for himself since childhood, seemingly on the brink of a breakthrough at any given moment. For a young child actor (check out his performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 miniseries Taken), he was grounded, talented and certainly would have continued to impress in the years and decades to come.
Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)
Just as our wounds began to heal, the end of 2016 gave us the biggest sucker punch we could imagine by snatching Carrie Fisher away.
The 60 year old actress, author and activist, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, continued to star as magnetic supporting characters in films such as Drop Dead Fred, When Harry Met Sally, Fanboys, as well as voicing Peter Griffin’s boss, Angela in Family Guy.
Books like Wishful Drinking and The Princess Diarist detailed her fascinating life, especially her mental issues and drug use. She was very open about her life and supported others with similar issues, so much so that she was awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. In recent years, Fisher was often seen with her support dog, Gary, now in the care of her daughter, Billie Lourd.
What may have been most shocking about Fisher’s passing is that it was quickly followed by her mother, Debbie Reynolds. The multiple award winner, known for such films as Singin’ In The Rain, Charlotte’s Web and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was 84 when she died just one day after her daughter.
Carrie Fisher’s inevitable appearance in Star Wars: Episode VII will be bittersweet for millions, but with her snarky humour and grounded outlook on both life and herself, she gave us the exact same thing her iconic Star Wars character did. Hope.
Images courtesy of United International Pictures, BEF Film Distributors Australia, Roadshow Films, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Lucasfilm