“Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life—the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60—died on Sunday,” writes Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times. “He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in Sugar Babies at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.”
Just last week, we noted that Mickey’s Circus, a 1927 short featuring a six-year-old Rooney, is among a collection of American silent films to be rediscovered in Amsterdam. His first film role, according to Carmel Dagan in Variety, was “The Nephew” in the 1926 silent short Not to Be Trusted, but he’d already “made his stage debut at age 15 months in his family’s vaudeville act, Yule and Carter, as a midget in a tuxedo.” Among the projects he was working on when he died yesterday at 93 are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Fragments from Olympus: The Vision of Nikola Tesla. Dagan: “His performance in the 1943 version of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy brought a second nomination, and he played his first adult role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet…. Rooney also tried directing, helming 1951’s My True Story, with Helen Walker as a jewel thief, and 1960’s The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, a complex comedy in which he also starred.”
“During his initial burst of fame,” writes Valerie J. Nelson in the Los Angeles Times, “Rooney broke through as a dramatic actor playing the young tough in the 1938 film Boys Town and starring with Judy Garland in a series of popular musicals that included 1939’s Babes in Arms, which brought him the first of four Oscar nominations. Between 1937 and 1946, Rooney portrayed the relentlessly positive Andy Hardy in 15 MGM feature films that presented an idealized portrait of American family life…. A story the late director Billy Wilder often told illustrates how important Rooney was to MGM. Wilder witnessed studio chief Louis B. Mayer—who was unhappy with Rooney’s off-screen antics—grab the teenage star by the lapels and yell, ‘You’re Andy Hardy! You’re America!'”
By the 1980s, notes Stephen Miller in the Wall Street Journal, Rooney “had by then had eight marriages, including a brief one to Ava Gardner and another to a former Miss Muscle Beach who later died in a murder-suicide with her lover. He had become a born-again Christian. He had lived through bankruptcy, drug dependency and even playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. ‘I am what most people would call a survivor,’ he said at the time.”
Updates: “Andy Hardy was an iconic middle-American kid, like Archie Andrews or Beaver Cleaver, and Rooney played him with his heart on his sleeve,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “Andy’s confidence was infectious, and his heartbreak devastating. Even though Rooney had been trained to playact almost since birth, his Andy Hardy never seemed phony—or at least no phonier than Rooney himself. Rooney was someone who always seemed to be ‘on,’ like Andy. It’s what made him one of the most popular actors in the world, while he was still in his 20s, and it’s what sustained him for decades after that star had dimmed. And now, with Rooney’s death, Hardy passes too.”
Joe Leydon “will continue to remember Rooney best for two of his finest achievements as a character actor: His brutally effective turn as the title character in Don Siegel’s gritty gangster biopic Baby Face Nelson (1957), and his hilarious portrayal of a pompous retired movie star who makes the wrong people nervous when he announces plans to pen a tell-all autobiography with the help of a ghost writer (Michael Caine) in Mike Hodges’s comedy-drama Pulp (1972).”
“In his early years Rooney worked for a number of studios and was eventually placed under contract by MGM because David O. Selznick thought he would be ideal to play Clark Gable as a boy in the film Manhattan Melodrama (1934),” notes the Telegraph. “MGM guaranteed him 40 weeks’ work a year but reserved the right to loan him out to other studios. One such arrangement, with Warner Bros, resulted in the best performance of Rooney’s career, as the mischievous Puck in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Barely 15 at the time, he was perfect casting—impish and with a gurgling laugh that might be construed as innocent or knowing; it was hard to tell.”
“To glance at him onscreen,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “was to wonder what he was thinking, what he was feeling, what he’d do next—above all, to have the sense that he was running on bigger, wilder, stranger currents. And the less he did onscreen, the greater and more irresistible the wonder.”
And he points us to Bill Goodykoontz, who remembers a 2005 gather of TV stars and producers: “Among the group was Rooney, along with Red Buttons. For whatever reason, the two of them started going after each other, in something just a hair past a friendly way. Buttons was on the offensive, making fun of Rooney for everything—his age, the age of his much younger eighth wife, whatever he could think of. Rooney gave back as good as he got, and it was tremendous. About 30 seconds into it, it was clear what made these people famous. They could bring it. They were in their 80s, and they were cracking wise with a quickness and wit that seemed impervious to aging. This was genius at work, and we knew we were lucky to see it.”
“If Rooney’s career had peaked when he was 21, he made up for it over the rest of his life through sheer persistence and work ethic,” writes Gary Susman for Vanity Fair. “Explaining his indefatigable work ethic, the 78-year-old Rooney said in 1998, ‘Look, I come from vaudeville, I come from burlesque, I come from heartaches, I come from sadness, I come from gladness, I come from work and sweat and respect for the craft.'”
At Movies.com, Erik Davis posts a few more quotes, among them: “Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch weaker, the gods kinder, the dice hotter—it might have all ended up in a one-sentence story.”
“Courtesy of our parent company SnagFilms, a collection of some of his most celebrated titles are available online for free,” notes Taylor Lindsay at Indiewire. Meantime, the Guardian‘s collected a dozen clips.
“‘He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge,’ said Ava Gardner of Mickey Rooney, whom she’d married when she was 19. It may seem disrespectful to dwell on this aspect of Rooney’s reputation so soon after his death, but it was hardly a secret in his lifetime: he was notorious.” Gaby Wood elaborates for the Telegraph.
Aisha Harris gathers musical numbers at Slate.
Farran Nehme has posted a typically wonderful must-read tribute. No single snippet will do it justice, but: “Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss agrees that “the Rooney engine, once gunned, could never be turned off. A month before his death, the Mick was shooting scenes for Night at the Museum 3. This man, this eternal kid, said his lifelong mission was to make ‘em laugh. Yet many saw more. To Laurence Olivier, the preeminent classical actor of the 20th century, Rooney was the finest American performer. Cary Grant called him ‘the most talented man in the history of the movies.’ Tennessee Williams said, ‘There’s only one great actor in the United States, and that is Mickey Rooney.’ Gore Vidal, citing Williams’s testimonial on Turner Classic Movies in 2007, added his own praise: ‘He sings, he dances. He can make you weep, he can play tragedy, he can play comedy… He’s formidable. He can do anything, and effortlessly.'”
“I tried, and failed, twice to write a story about Mickey Rooney,” writes Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair. “He learned to play the banjo—scarily well—in a day. He played the drums like a pro. He was an expert golfer, a champion ping-pong player. He composed a symphony, Melodante, which he performed on the piano at Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Inauguration Gala. Mickey was some kind of beautiful, talented monster.”
Updates, 4/8: “If you want to see great acting with no fuss,” writes Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com, “just watch the scene from The Human Comedy where Rooney reads a telegram out loud from his brother, who is afraid he might be killed in World War II. Rooney knows this is a set piece and an opportunity for him, but he doesn’t milk it for applause or easy tears. He knows just how serious it is, and so he just tosses it off and breaks your heart with it.”
For Variety‘s Scott Foundas, two post-WWII performances are standouts, both set in “the seedy, downtrodden world of film noir.” Drive a Crooked Road (1954) “reveals a darkness in the actor that no movie quite had before,” while Baby Face Nelson (1957) is “an unsparing, startlingly violent film that in many ways anticipates Bonnie and Clyde by a decade… and Rooney is absolutely terrifying in it: shifty, seething with rage against the world, primed to explode.”
In the New Republic, David Thomson argues that “it is not enough to say that we have lost an actor, a vaudevillian, an artist, and a national treasure. It is the force that is gone, and the sense of that force as part of our history…. Mickey Rooney was the last male left alive who had been a true star and a phenomenon in the 1930s, when Hollywood believed it ran the show and had established the idea of some spunky, brilliant kids doing it.”
Esquire‘s posted a previously unpublished 2006 interview.
Update, 4/9: “As Ty Burr put in Gods Like Us, his recent book on movie fame, ‘There’s a distinct possibility that Mickey Rooney is the history of American movie stardom.'” Wesley Morris at Grantland: “You never cared that a lot of Mickey Rooney movies were made of cardboard and cheese, because Rooney was made of flesh, blood, caffeine, and magic. He was the quintessence of a star. He didn’t just walk or dance or descend a staircase. He sprung.”
Updates, 4/10: Time‘s posted a beautiful remembrance from Olivia de Havilland. I’m not going to quote from it. It’s brief. Just go and read it.
TCM will be screening Mickey Rooney movies all day Sunday, beginning at 6am.
Bright Lights has reposted Jim MacEachern‘s profile: “For a long time, I looked upon my fascination with the career of Mickey Rooney as a kind of guilty pleasure. It was nothing to be taken seriously…. For a generation he seemed to make a career out of getting married and talking about his past.” But “although he was not well educated, he was, and always has been, a genius performer.”