People who only know Mickey Rooney from recent public
appearances understandably sized him up as a bombastic, living relic of
Hollywood’s past. Colleagues and critics were often guilty of taking him for
granted. But MGM director Clarence Brown, who worked with the best and the
brightest, and made such classics as National
Velvet, once told Scott Eyman, “Mickey Rooney is the closest thing to a
genius that I ever worked with. There was Chaplin, then there was Rooney. The
little bastard could do no wrong in my book. I don’t know how he did it because
he never really paid any attention. Between takes he’d be off somewhere calling
his bookmaker, then come back and go into a scene as if he’d been rehearsing it
for three days.”
Watch him with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, in scenes that call for real emotion, or with that most honest of actors, Spencer Tracy, in Boys Town, and you’ll see what Brown is talking about. He expressed real depth of feeling, and could bring you to the brink of tears when the occasion demanded. Decades later, in The Black Stallion, which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, and Bill, the TV movie that won him an Emmy, it was clear that he hadn’t lost a thing since those golden days at MGM.
A few years ago, at the annual Noir City Film Festival at the American Cinematheque, we saw a minor Columbia programmer from 1954 called Drive a Crooked Road, co-written by Rooney’s old friend Blake Edwards. In it, he plays an auto mechanic whom life has beaten down. He is terrific because you believe him, not just in the story’s big dramatic moments but in the mundane expository scenes: he’s completely convincing as a mousy mechanic and works under the hood of a European sports car as if it’s all he ever did.
Mickey Rooney had a gift that I suppose was inborn, and like many people who possess such a gift he never gave it much thought. It all came easily to him, and he had little patience for costars who had to expend great effort to attain the same results. (In his first autobiography, i.e., he mocked Audrey Hepburn for having to build up to a scene in which she had to cry in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)
Perhaps because he was so casual about his work, he was a frustrating man to interview. I was fortunate because he took a liking to me and knew that I appreciated his career. (Others who weren’t so lucky got a long-winded lecture about his years as America’s number one box-office star.) He had a good memory, but when I asked for specifics—about his brief directing career in the 1950s, or his impressions of the great actor Rex Ingram, who played Jim to his Huck in the 1939 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—all I got were generalities and platitudes.
He could be reflective, as he proved when he published his first memoir in 1965. “This isn’t a once-upon-a-time story,” he wrote on the first page, “although it might have been. Lord knows but it might have been. Had I been brighter, had the dice been better, had the gods been kinder, this could have been a one-sentence story.” It wasn’t, of course. There were all those women, all those marriages and failed business schemes.
He also wrote, “My story is a love song to show business, sung at times off-key… It’s the paradox of a child who was a man and a man who was, or tried to remain, a child. At the age of fifteen months I was working in burlesque and by the time I was two, I was ad-libbing scenes. But at thirty I was still shockingly immature, a con man’s delight, a con woman’s pot of gold. The honey pot of Hollywood.”
A paradox indeed, but one of entertainment’s brightest lights. He could be endearing at one moment, infuriating the next—but he never let an audience down in his 90 years of performing. His career was unique, dotted with extreme highs and lows. At some other time we can discuss the missed opportunities and “what if” moments. For now, let’s remember the talent, and the gift, that made Mickey Rooney one-of-a-kind.
Here'a another piece on Mickey Rooney, with another perspective by my friend and colleague Pete Hammond.