Repub­li­can role al­lowed Hawk­eye to rein­vent him­self

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

IT’S a strange legacy that M* A* S* H* has left Alan Alda. The usual line about the sit­u­a­tion com­edy is it ran longer than the war it was nom­i­nally about ( 11 years, while the Korean War lasted three), but with the se­ries still run­ning in low- rat­ing slots about 25 years af­ter its fi­nal sea­son, it’s fair to say its legacy will eas­ily out­last even the cul­tural me­mory of the war.

How­ever, al­though Alda’s face may re­main familiar to chil­dren for gen­er­a­tions to come, this kind of ubiq­uity comes at a cost: a sort of counter- in­tu­itive in­vis­i­bil­ity that springs from be­ing a per­ma­nent fix­ture.

For a man of Alda’s range, intelligence and achieve­ment, it seems a shame his name con­jures up lit­tle more than mem­o­ries of a child­hood spent watch­ing M* A* S* H, slightly per­turbed by the sight of his os­trich- like neck thrust­ing at the screen a head with more teeth than a nov­elty comb.

Alda has never been hard up for work, but his fil­mog­ra­phy doesn’t re­ally present much com­pe­ti­tion for Hawk­eye, the char­ac­ter he is so closely iden­ti­fied with.

M* A* S* H* ’ s over­whelm­ing suc­cess means it rep­re­sents just about ev­ery­thing mod­ern sit­coms have turned against, and this com­bi­na­tion of credit and crit­i­cism be­longs in no small part to Alda, who stepped in as creative con­sul­tant and some­time writer and di­rec­tor mid­way through the show’s run.

The show was never re­ally a true ensem­ble piece, but Alda guided his char­ac­ter into a fo­cal point, over­shad­ow­ing the rest of the cast, el­bow­ing out heavy com­edy for in­tense and some­times preachy drama, and grad­u­ally turn­ing his char­ac­ter to the ‘‘ saint in med­i­cal garb’’ role that so strongly, and per­haps pun­gently, lingers in the me­mory to­day.

Read­ing about Alda’s breadth, depth, intelligence and con­fi­dence makes you won­der if he based this mes­sianic im­age on his own vi­sion of him­self.

Whether pre­ten­sion or as­pi­ra­tion, the nicer- than- nice im­age sure left an im­pres­sion that hasn’t given Alda much room for rein­ven­tion, as least as far as main­stream me­dia is con­cerned. Too in­gra­ti­at­ing to be hi­lar­i­ous, too com­fort­able to be sym­pa­thetic, too quaint to be dra­matic, for years Alda’s been the kind of guy we know we should like, the kind of guy we want to like, but just can’t find a place for.

Plenty of Alda’s ap­pear­ances, in­clud­ing a re­cur­ring role on med­i­cal drama E. R. , still seemed to draw on M* A* S* H* . Alda has filled the past decade with great sup­port­ing roles ( in­clud­ing a cel­e­brated turn in Martin Scors­ese’s The Avi­a­tor ) but for too long he looked like a big grin with nowhere to go.

Alda’s role as pres­i­den­tial con­tender Sen­a­tor Arnold Vinick in The West Wing may have changed this. Mak­ing peo­ple laugh is a pre­cur­sor to just about any other emo­tion and es­tab­lished com­edy fig­ures, es­pe­cially those as self- aware as Alda, have al­ways had plenty of po­ten­tial to rein­vent them­selves in other gen­res.

Clearly, Alda had been in no hurry to foist him­self on the view­ing pub­lic, but The West Wing ’ s reliance on pre­sent­ing in­tel­li­gent, rounded char­ac­ters with an un­der­ly­ing streak of no­bil­ity seemed tai­lor- made for his man­nered depths, even if the lib­eral icon had to be­come a Repub­li­can. Kit MacFar­lane

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.