Some of you might remember the 1999 Academy Awards, the year the great Elia Kazan was finally given an honorary Oscar
. The decision to honor Kazan was met with controversy and anger, especially among those who pride themselves on their tolerance, open-mindedness, charity
. You see, before Kazan knew better he flirted with Communism, but being a true liberal with an open mind, after learning of the horrors of Stalin's regime he turned against it and then committed a Hollywood sin worse than furthering an ideology responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths, he named names.
Knowing full well what it would mean, it was Karl Malden
, a former Academy President, who proposed and publicly pushed for Kazan to receive this long overdue tribute. And that, along with a 70-year marriage, says an awful lot about the man.
The actor was just as impressive. The simple way to describe him would be as a beefy everyman, but that too easily dismisses a natural and very real screen presence that made him one of the most recognizable faces in the country. Malden worked with some of the most powerful actors of the last fifty years, Brando, McQueen, George C. Scott, Burt Lancaster, and yet he never got lost in the scene. He knew how to watch another actor, he knew how to listen and this kept our eye on him as we waited for what he'd do next.
His voice was also distinctive; one second deep and rich with authority, but on a dime unspeakably cruel towards a Blanche DuBois
or hilariously needy calling after Baby Doll
. Malden had the range of a character actor but could carry a film as well as any matinee idol, and in a career that lasted six decades, inevitably there were duds, but you always felt in good hands when he arrived onscreen.
Malden's performance as the domineering, perfectionist father of real-life baseball player Jimmy Piersall in "Fear Strikes Out
" (1957) is the one that most stands out in my mind. John Piersall may be something of a monster, but Malden never lets us forget he's also a man who lacks self-awareness. Even at his most cruel, Malden allows us to pity a father who might not wake up to the effects of his behavior until it's a too late, and when this moment does arrive, thanks to the back-filling provided by a measured, nuanced performance, it is devastating and unforgettable.
A WWII veteran, Oscar and Emmy winner, Karl Malden died yesterday at home. He was 97.