OBIT, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Like journalistic cousins of the late Rodney Dangerfield, the writers who staff the obituary desk at The
New York Times get no respect (the headline for his obit: “Rodney Dangerfield, Comic Seeking Respect, Dies at 82”). People tend to avoid them at parties, fearing that something may be catching. And yet, says Margalit Fox, one of the younger members of the department, obituaries have “next to nothing to do with death. And in fact, absolutely everything to do with life.” The subjects who make the cut in the obit section of the paper of record are people whose lives have had an impact large enough to at least make a ripple with their passing. The inventor of the Slinky and the inventor of the wireless TV remote rate a mention, along with bigger fish like statesmen and movie stars.
They don’t have to have been good guys. As with Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” they may have been villains or monsters, but they were significant ones. They can come from the worlds of politics, art, show business, literature, journalism, industry, medicine, sports, society, and anywhere else that earns the attention of the public and the news media.
“Literally,” says Bruce Weber, a former Times theater critic and culture editor now manning a desk in Obituaries, “I show up in the morning, and I say, ‘Who’s dead?’ ” Weber is the writer who provides a through line in this generally captivating documentary compiled by Vanessa Gould (director of Between
the Folds, a documentary that won a Peabody Award in 2010). The movie kicks off with Weber interviewing a widow over the phone, checking facts. The subject turns out to be William P. Wilson, who served John F. Kennedy in the then little-known role of television consultant for the fateful Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. Wilson, thirty-two at the time, advised his client on everything from clothes and makeup to what podium to use. Many observers credited Kennedy’s appearance on TV with swinging the election.
The movie covers a broad and fascinating range of departed personalities and their accomplishments, but it keeps returning to Weber as he sweats over the Wilson piece. Eventually it runs — and he has gotten something wrong. “Too many facts,” he observes ruefully, enunciating one of the acknowledged pitfalls of the trade.
Although the documentary’s range covers notables from the stripper Candy Barr to the sainted Mother Teresa, the obit section has traditionally been devoted disproportionally to white men. When people challenge her on this and ask why, Fox tells them, “Ask me again in a generation.” The issue, she explains, is that with regard to the generation that has reached obituary age — the octogenarians and nonagenarians — newsmakers were overwhelmingly from that demographic. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s and the women’s movement in the ’70s began to change that, but the effects won’t be broadly felt in the section for a few years yet. And one suspects that the people involved are in no hurry. Gould inserts the Roz Chast cartoon of a man perusing the obit page, with headlines reading, “TWO YEARS YOUNGER THAN YOU,” “FIVE YEARS YOUR SENIOR,” and “YOUR AGE ON THE DOT.”
In the paper’s morgue, as a news organization’s vast filing system of old clips and photos is somberly called, there is a section devoted to “advance obituaries.” These are folks who have reached an age at which death would not be unexpected, or people whose body of work is perceived as being completed. Thus Elinor Smith, a pioneer aviator who earned headlines as “The Flying Flapper of Freeport” and was at sixteen the youngest licensed pilot in the world, had her advance filed in 1931, when she was twenty, presumably considering the risk factor of her line of work. She died in 2010 at the age of ninety-eight.
The people who check out suddenly, unexpectedly, in the full flush of a career, are the tough ones. “Those are the nightmares,” says Weber. Michael Jackson caught the department by surprise. They were ready for Farrah Fawcett, who had been ailing, but when the news filtered in the same afternoon of Jackson’s death, it set a wild scramble in motion to make the paper’s deadline. The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan caused a similar turmoil. “Whether you voted for him or not,” says one of the writers, they were rooting desperately for him to pull through. A word of advice with regards to dying without warning: Do it early in the day, to give a poor obituarist a chance to get something down by the time the paper goes to press.
Once a graveyard for old journalists on their way down or talentless hacks being sent a message, the obituary department has gained in stature and respectability in recent years. Although it still features a lot of gray hair, younger faces like Fox are increasingly turning up among the older ones, like the wonderfully named Peter Keepnews. They all acknowledge one basic fact of obit life: Writing for the section makes them more keenly aware of their own mortality. — Jonathan Richards
Remembrance of people passed