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    Remembering and Celebrating a Few Greats

    By Jan Wahl–

    From Ruth Bader Ginsburg to John Lewis, Max von Sydow to Kobe Bryant, 2020 has been a challenging year of loss.  I am usually optimistic, but this year has been one to deeply challenge all of us. We had to reach down and find our forgiveness, humor, and any thoughts we can dig up. Here are a few I personally like to remember and celebrate.

    Terrence McNally was a playwright, librettist, and screenwriter who has been referred to as The American Bard. Over six decades, his work has elevated theatre, musicals, operas, and movies. When I was young, I saw his Love! Valor! Compassion! and walked out of the theatre transformed. The relationships of eight gay men were told in humor, empathy, and biting wit. Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, Master Class, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (he also wrote the screenplay for the film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer), and Broadway’s The Full Monty were other McNally memorable films, to name a few. His work with HIV/AIDS subjects in his art and in life helped to shed light in the darkness. When McNally was given the Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2019, he began his acceptance speech with: “Lifetime achievement. Not a moment too soon.”    

    Kirk Douglas will remain one of our most important actors and producers. He appeared in many great films, but when I interviewed him, I narrowed it down to my favorite: Ace in the Hole. He was proud to bring that disturbing story of a ruthless journalist to life (with help from Billy Wilder!) and launched into tales of political relevance in his movies. He kept reminding me of June Carter Cash’s quote: “I’m just trying to matter.” We saluted Spartacus, where offscreen he fought to reinstate blacklisted Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter. Give yourself a Douglas Film Festival: Paths of Glory, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, and Seven Days in May, to name a few. Douglas was a true progressive. He was also determined to live a full life, learning to speak again after a debilitating stroke, had a Bar Mitzvah late in life to reaffirm his love of Judaism, and wrote one of the best autobiographies, Ragman’s Son.

    Laughter is essential, and 2020 gave us thousands of reasons to need it! Carl Reiner provided moments of warm humor and out loud guffaws. Writing for Your Show of Shows and the Sid Caesar Hour, Reiner created the classic 2000-Year-Old Man sketch with collaborator and lifelong friend Mel Brooks. After creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reiner took to film directing with hits like the under-rated All of Me, Where’s Papa?, The Jerk, and Oh, God! In my favorite, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, he pays homage to film noir when modern day detective Steve Martin interacts with Bogart, Mitchum, Gardner, and Bacall. Carl Reiner was an author, actor, director, comedian, and screenwriter, and he did it all very well.

    The Snake Pit terrorized us, while many loved kind-hearted Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Then there was holding her own with Errol Flynn and protecting her daughter as the fierce mother in The Light in the Piazza. I am, of course, referring to Olivia de Havilland, who gave us performances to connect with and believe in. My favorite is a little known of her many movies: The Strawberry Blonde. She portrays an early suffragist with wit and wisdom. She made it all look easy, but that’s the key to the greats.

    Famed composer Ennio Morricone, Little Richard, Buck Henry, Fred Willard, Alex Trebeck, Brian Dennehy, Rhonda Fleming, and Terry Jones are a few more lost but never forgotten.

    We’ll close with Sean Connery, 007, who was determined to break out of James Bond and give us powerful characters in The Man Who Would be King, The Hunt for Red October, Robin and Marion, The Name of the Rose, and Finding Forrester, among others. Spending time with him on The Rock will remain a highlight of my life, discovering a funny, sensitive man under the gruff image. He said that Robin and Marion remained a favorite, though all of us have our own!

    Hats off to all of these and the others. They left us with their gifts to enjoy forever.                                   

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Learn more at

    Published on December 17, 2020