Still Alive: Mickey Rooney

He was Andy Hardy and Judy Garland's best cinematic pal. He was a fresh faced short guy who was the biggest movie star in the world when being a movie star really meant something. And he's Still Alive.

This month's Still Alive column will be necessarily short so it's only fitting that we salute the very short, very necessary Mickey Rooney.

Hollywood as our parents and grandparents knew it is gone forever. It cannot ever come back. There's a motion picture industry of a sort that has taken its place, but calling it Hollywood is an insult to the hard-working, brilliant people who made old Hollywood Hollywood.

Mickey Rooney is that Hollywood. His roots were in vaudeville. He got his start in one of the many short subject series that the studios used to build talent and fill the evening-long bills (they also included features, newsreels and cartoons). The public liked the brash little guy and asked for more. With the Andy Hardy series, they got a whole fleet of Mickey Rooney star vehicles. With Judy Garland he became a leading musical star. He provided  expert star support for young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

These were massive successes. It's hard to appreciate the scale of his popularity in those years. When virtually everyone in the nation went to the movies at least once a week, Rooney was the number one star in the world, eclipsing Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple and all the others.

When television came around he switched media with great success. Later he became a valued character player. No one else could play on heartstrings with such consummate mastery. In real-life matters of the heart he was certainly prolific, marrying 8 times. He was married briefly to the teenaged Ava Gardner (!), actress Martha Vickers (google her if you have low blood pressure) and a number of other hot tamales.

While I enjoy Mickey Rooney in anything he does, I have to confess a special regard for his performance in the unbelievably weird film The Manipulator, where he plays an unhinged Hollywood has-been who abducts a young woman and "directs" her through a maniacal psychodrama. This is Mickey Rooney with the gas pedal strapped to the floor, he overacts, sings, dances, rants, feeds his prisoner baby food and delivers a performance that Dennis Hopper was never able to top, though he certainly tried.

At 91 years of age he is still alive and working and still beloved. When he goes, so do all those acres of tinsel, those gorgeous silver shadows and the beautiful beating heart of the Hollywood that was and never was.

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