Two Fond Farewells

I’m about to say something that may get me banned from the geek community: The Empire Strikes Back is not my favorite Star Wars film.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Empire, and looking at it objectively as a cinematic achievement, I would say it probably is the best film in the series. I just don’t get as much fun or enjoyment out of it as I do from A New Hope–and neither did most critics when it was first released.

But then, that was kind of the point. It was the dark second act of the story, ending on the “All is Lost” moment that so many screenwriting texts are fond of mentioning. And while it doesn’t feature much of the swashbuckling fun of the original, it features deeper characterizations, more dramatic tension, and a plot twist that was considered the gold standard until The Sixth Sense came along. And while there are a lot of people who helped make this movie what it is–including, yes, George Lucas–it definitely needed a strong director to make it work.

That director was Irvin Kershner.

Kershner had a long career, and he’d probably pick another of his many films as his personal favorite, but Star Wars has a way of overshadowing all that. To most of the world, he will always be the man who made the best Star Wars film. Even though I’d rather watch A New Hope for fun, it was Kershner’s entry in the series that taught me that even a fun, goofy adventure story needs dark, serious moments and dramatic stakes for us to care.

We lost Kershner last night, alongside another man involved in films that influenced me at an early age, Leslie Nielsen.

One of the reasons the films of Seltzer and Friedberg infuriate me so much is that I have a genuine love for good spoof films, and Nielsen was in some of the best. If Kershner taught me that serious moments help make a fun story work, Nielsen taught me that a serious tone helps make a silly comedy work.

Nielsen knew how to deliver the most ridiculous lines absolutely convincingly, because for years he was a dramatic actor. He had a very specific serious image for most of his life, and managed to spin it into a new image as an oblivious deadpan in a world of absurdity. He was able to be a silly comic when playing against a straight man like George Kennedy, and able to be a straight man when playing against an already-ridiculous situation. His comedy helped a young me learn how to take silliness seriously.

Everyone’s watching Airplane, Police Squad/Naked Gun, and (for Sci-Fi fans) Forbidden Planet in his honor today, but I choose to remember one of his more underrated roles: Buzz Brighton in the M*A*S*H season one episode The Ringbanger. This was before his reinvention as a comic actor, but it’s still a brilliant comedy performance as a reckless colonel caught up in the confusion perpetrated by Hawkeye and Trapper. Yes, it’s far more farcical than most of the show’s later episodes, but it’s very enjoyable, and hints at Nielsen’s then-upcoming second career.

Rest in peace, Kershner and Nielsen. You both influenced my sensibilities in similar, yet completely different ways.

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