FARAI CHIDEYA: HAROLD PERRINEAU
First let me flip the script a little bit and name a genre rather than a person. As a big science fiction freak, I found my “matinee idols” to have often been people who could convince me that on-screen depictions of other worlds were at least as interesting as the ones I could conjure up by reading a book. Among my favorites were George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu in Star Trek, Michael Rennie as Klaatu (“Klaatu barada nikto,” remember? Oh, never mind) in The Day the Earth Stood Still and yes, the Trinity of Carrie-Anne, Keanu and Laurence in The Matrix. Now it’s rumored that Harold Perrineau (The Best Man; the complex narrator on HBO’s Oz) will be joining the cast of The Matrix 2.
Perrineau in particular qualifies as a modern-day matinee idol on the rise. The stellar and full-frontal Oz, which shows his character showering in his wheelchair next to other inmates, manages to diminish neither his dignity nor his sex appeal. In film roles he’s played the mercurial Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, a tranny in Woman on Top, a black New York intellectual with a white roommate and girlfriend in A Day in Black and White and a rather whipped member of the black bourgeoisie in The Best Man. Certainly he can do justice to other realms of time and space as well.
Farai Chideya is author of The Color of Our Future and editor of PopandPolitics.com.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: VERA PAP
It was in London in 1979, when the thunder of Thatcher was still curtain-raising for Reagan. I went for a serious evening of cinema with some comrades of the New Left Review. This was no mere outing; it was an investigation of new tendencies in Hungarian film, at a period of molten tendency in the glacier of Eastern Europe. The Magyar practice is to invert first and second names, so that Gabor Pal’s film about the life of the innocent young militant Vera Angi was titled Angi Vera. In the dark and among friends I suddenly felt myself alone and under a spotlight. Vera Pap–the ingenue caught in the realist machinery–was suddenly discovered in some Mitteleuropa steambath. Jesus, I thought profanely (and irrelevantly), I know it’s supposed to hurt, but does it have to hurt this much? I think I knew then what I had only believed theoretically theretofore; that the Wall would fall. If she could burn such a hole in that screen, anything was possible. In other words, I really thought she was signaling to just me…the prerogative of the movie sap throughout the ages.
A decade later I was in Budapest, on my way to Romania for the final fall. I went to the Gellért Hotel, site of Hungary’s most famous vaporbath, but didn’t dare enter. I went to an actors’ bar to talk revolution, but she wasn’t there and I got trapped by a man who’d once played the cat in The Master and Margarita. Now it’s more than two decades later and I haven’t trusted myself to go and see Félválófél or Esti Kornél csodálatos utazása or any of her other films. The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, but if by any chance Vera Pap, or Pap Vera, is reading this…
BARNEY FRANK: JIMMY DURANTE
Remembering Bill Clinton’s insistence on carefully defining a question before answering it, I note that by “matinee idol” I mean the entertainer whose role in a movie has made me likeliest to want to see it. For me, it was Jimmy Durante. What I want most out of entertainment is humor, and I found Jimmy Durante to be the funniest actor around. That is, with his personal style and delivery he added more comic value to whatever was happening than anyone else. As I think about why I enjoyed him so much, which I confess I have never done before your asking me to respond to this question, I think an added factor was his complete and total unconventionality. His voice, his appearance, his diction–none of those comported with the classic definition of people successful in those fields, and he turned what might have been disadvantages into enormous comic assets. Finally, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” still strikes me as the best public expression of deep sentiment I’ve ever encountered.