In Remembrance: Cloris Leachman

Cloris Leachman’s professional career, spanning decades across film and television, is memorable for the time she spent as vital company to some of the greatest landmarks of both mediums. She passed away today at the age of 94, which leaves the impression of a life well-lived and treasured by many. She has been such a special part of my experience as a movie fan for years now, the years that have truly mattered; she steals The Last Picture Show, one of my favorite films, in just one perfect scene, and she is just as convincing an actor, so blithely funny in the films of Mel Brooks. Her legacy is present in even the simplest strikes of comedic brilliance–I have adopted and mangled her delivery of “Ovaltine” in Young Frankenstein so many times over the years that it’s hardly recognizable by her perfectly balmy original delivery. It’s hard to measure up to someone of her caliber, even in causal imitation.

About two years ago I wrote about The Last Picture Show, where I mostly talked about Cloris Leachman’s Oscar-winning performance, because it moved me so then, and it moves me so now. I’ve tried not to touch the words since, as they capture just how brilliant she is in her small role as Ruth Popper, how indispensable she is a presence to the film at large:

“I have always found Ruth Popper’s narrative to be the culmination of the film’s perfection: life does not pale in the face of tragedy or plight, it is caring for the smallness of people, for the intimacy of connection may be the answer to any shortcoming. Then, I have always found interest in the ostracized housewife, her divorced notion from a moral concentration or the sentiment of structured living, because for Ruth Popper, as delicately and tenaciously played by Cloris Leachman, the only earthy salvation for her internal struggle is connection. Ruth Popper visits the clinic for some human contact, repeatedly, until she begins and maintains an affair with Sonny Crawford, a high school student. But, Sonny leaves her suddenly for a bored and willing Jacy Farrow, a tryst that ends as soon as it begins. And this reckless abandon is contagious throughout the whole film; the struggle for attention, for salvation, for atonement with long-estranged memories of relationships that had once been, are all to accept what life is, in this small way, in this small town, as the human condition. The Last Picture Show does reap what it sows, in the last scene of the film; Ruth and Sonny meet once again, Ruth sallow and angry for how long she has been left to sit without human contact, Sonny sallow and angry for how life has betrayed him since. Though there are words of betrayal and hurt, there are more importantly words of kind reassurance, as Leachman ends the film, ‘Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.

The camera pans around Anarene once more, as it began, bookending the smallness with the landscape of what is to come, a great beyond that does not need to be discovered in order to be happy, but a great beyond that exists nonetheless. The Last Picture Show decides not that time is wasted in relishing in the antiquity of the American landscape, but that this time alienates, and divorces itself from the turning world. It might be lonely, but it’s real.”

With or without the whinnying of horses announcing her arrival in a film, her presence is always important and special to its cinematic environment. With the words of “Never you mind honey, never you mind,” I pay my respects and a final goodbye to a great woman, immortal in her brave performances of plenty.

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