I had to write up this movie for TCM last year, a Wayne Newton movie from 1969, 80 Steps to Jonah. It’s a pretty awful movie but it has an amazing cast. Aside from the talented Mr. Newton, who does a hell of a lot better in the lead than you’d expect, and of course sings a couple of songs, it has Jo Van Fleet, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Sal Mineo, R.G. Armstrong, and in a small role as a drunk, Mickey Rooney.
Mickey Rooney did about 11,948 movies in his unbelievably long career, which, relatively speaking, spanned only slightly less time than the history of cinema, so I can write about his performance in 80 Steps to Jonah with confidence that no one else is going to cover this one. If they do, my hat’s off to them for sitting through it without any contractual obligation to do so.
Now you might be thinking, and who could really blame you for doing so, that I mention this movie because Mickey Rooney is a singular beacon of light in an otherwise dimly lit crevice. Well, sort of. Rooney hits not a single note of subtlety in his two brief scenes in the film, both of which involve him as a drunk who is, in fact, very drunk. Based on how Rooney’s performance plays to the other actors’ performances in the film, it is clear that he ignored any and all advice from the director and shot for the moon, as if the actual audience were located there and, just to be sure they could tell his character was drunk, played it big enough to be seen from the deep end of the Sea of Tranquility. So he’s not so much a beacon of light as a raging bonfire, projecting enough residual heat to melt nuance upon contact.
So why am I writing this up? Because that son of a bitch never phoned in a single line or gesture or raised eyebrow. If he was taking your money for the job, he gave you a performance. He earned every goddamn paycheck like he was working overtime to pay backrent for last three months (and sometimes he was). Occasionally, that over-projection got him into trouble with the kind of people who don’t or didn’t or won’t understand the philosophy behind the phrase, “give ‘em their money’s worth.” But Mickey didn’t care and neither do I. He never ran into trouble with me and a year later, he’s the only goddamn thing I remember about that movie.
He’s the only goddamn thing I remember about a lot of movies.
Because he’s worth remembering.
And always will be.