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December 10: Happy Birthday Kenneth Branagh and Michael Clarke Duncan

1210branaghduncan

Sir Kenneth Branagh is celebrating his 56th birthday today.  Born in Ireland, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and immediately on graduating started to make a mark in British theater.  By 1987 he was not only starring in major productions, he had co-founded his own theater company.  As you might expect if you are familiar with his career, a good deal of his stage work, although far from all of it, involved Shakespeare.  Likewise, when Branagh first became known to movie audiences, it was in a Shakespeare adaptation:

Branagh was nominated for Oscars for Best Actor and Best Director for Henry V.  He has made four additional Shakespeare films—Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It (acting in all but the last as well)—and also played Iago in Oliver Parker’s film of Othello.

Branagh also has an impressive non-Shakespeare filmography, both as actor and director.  The individual films haven’t always been impressive, mind you—he’d probably prefer that we all forgot about Wild Wild West–but he has done a wide variety of work.  In 2002 alone, he played Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and A. O. Neville, Chief “Protector” of Aborigines, in Rabbit Proof Fence.  His directing output includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thor, and last year’s live-action Cinderella.  Next year he will appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and will direct and star (as Hercule Poirot) in a new production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Michael Clarke Duncan (1957-2012) did not begin acting until he was nearly forty.  He worked for many years in a variety of blue collar jobs—ditch-digger, bouncer, bodyguard, etc.  A few of his first movie roles were bit parts as bouncers or bodyguards.  In 1998 he had a more substantial part in Armageddon, followed by his breakthrough role in a Stephen King adaptation, a sort of prison drama/fantasy genre blender:

Duncan was nominated for an Oscar and a lot of other acting awards for The Green Mile.  What’s striking is that his post-Green Mile career is not terribly impressive—when one of your high points is appearing in Daredevil, you don’t have a lot of career high points.  Nevertheless, he remained an easily recognizable presence on film.  In the summer of 2012 he suffered a heart attack; although he survived the initial seizure, he died of complications several weeks later.

Raven-Symoné, who turns 31 today, made her acting debut when she was just three, as Olivia Kendall, Denise Huxtable’s stepdaughter, on The Cosby Show.  The former child actress has gone on to a respectable adult career as an actress, singer and television host.  Emmanuelle Chriqui, who celebrates her 39th, is best known as Sloan McQuewick in the series and film EntouragePatrick Flueger, who stars on NBC’s Chicago P.D. as Adam Ruzek, is 33 today.  Xavier Samuel also turns 33.  He has something in common with one of our headliners today; like Kenneth Branagh, he had a substantial role in a Frankenstein movie, playing the monster in a 2015 direct-to-video version.  Our sports birthday today is NHL Hall-of-Famer Rob Blake, one of the top defensemen in the league for most of his career.  Blake turns 47 today.

Actress and R&B singer Nia Peeples, who is turning 55, plays Pam Fields on Pretty Little Liars and had a #12 hit in 1991 with “Street of Dreams.”  Susan Dey, who turns 64, made her acting debut as Laurie Partridge on The Partridge Family.  Unlike many of her cast-mates from that series, her career had a substantial second act, as a Golden Globe winner and three-time Emmy nominee as Grace Van Owen on L.A. Law.  Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan is 75 today.  A regular in American film and television, she won an Emmy for the 1970s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.

In music, today was the birthday of two of France’s leading composers.  César Franck (1822-1890) was actually born in Belgium, but spent almost all his career in France.  He was the composer of a symphony, a set of Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, and a body of organ music that leads some to call him the greatest composer for that instrument since J. S. Bach.  Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was also a noted organist and composer for the organ; he is also noted for his Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed while in a Nazi prison camp, for the only four instruments the prisoners had available: a cello, a clarinet, a piano and a violin.  Other music birthdays include Meg White, who turns 42.  She is a four-time Grammy winner as half of the rock duo White Stripes (she is the drummer and shares the vocals).  Sarah Chang, who turns 36, is a Korean-American violinist who made her first album when she was ten, and has been performing and recording with orchestras all over the world ever since.  Alexander Courage (1919-2008) had a long career as a composer for film and television that included composing the theme music for Star Trek (the original series, that is).

Una Merkel (1903-1986) was a prominent film actress in the 1930s, known especially for her catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.  She also worked on stage, winning a Tony in 1956.  Dorothy Lamour (1914-1996), known as the “Sarong Queen” for her roles in films like The Jungle Princess, is best remembered for starring in the Road to… pictures with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.  Anne Gwynne (1918-2003) was a contract player at Universal who was something of a “scream queen” of the 1940s, appearing in horror films like Black Friday and House of Frankenstein.  Actor Chris Pine is her grandson.  Dan Blocker (1928-1972) had been acting for only a few years when he was cast as Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza, the role he will always be remembered for.  Mako Iwamatsu, usually billed simply as Mako (1933-2006), played Asian characters of all nationalities for over 40 years.  He was Oscar-nominated for The Sand Pebbles and played Akiro, the wizard, in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the DestroyerHarold Gould (1923-2010) was a five-time Emmy nominee in a long television career; one of his best-known roles was as Martin Morgenstern, father of a young woman named Rhoda.

Two actors who were well-known to viewers of family-oriented entertainment of the 1950s and early ’60s were born on the same day.  Tommy Rettig (1941-1996) appeared in films like River of No Return, where he played Robert Mitchum’s son, but was best known for playing Jeff Miller, a boy who had a dog named LassieTommy Kirk, who turns 75, appeared in several Disney features of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, and The Swiss Family Robinson.  Both actors eventually went into other lines of work, Rettig as a database programmer, and Kirk running, of all things, a carpet-cleaning business.

Our literary birthday today is the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).  Almost unknown during her lifetime—only a handful of her poems were published prior to her death—she is now ranked as one of the greatest American poets.  Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson in a biopic, A Quiet Passion, which is currently making the rounds of film festivals.

Some readers may recall one of our ongoing Movieline series posts from several months back about depictions of Ireland in film.  Some of the films discussed in that article starred Victor McLaglen (1886-1959).  McLaglen starred in the silent classic What Price Glory? and was one of the leads in Gunga Din in 1939, but many of his best-known roles were in films directed by John Ford.  McLaglen starred as Gypo Nolan, and won an Oscar, in Ford’s The Informer, played a boisterous, hard-drinking sergeant in the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy,” and had a very famous brawl with John Wayne in The Quiet Man.

If today is your birthday, congratulations on sharing your big day with these notable names.  Birthday wishes to everyone celebrating a big day today.  Come back tomorrow for more celebrity birthdays.

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Posted on December 10, 2016, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Fun fact, I still haven’t learned the proper spelling of Kenneth Branagh’s name. Have to copy and paste it every time. Like most Americans, I became aware of him when he made Henry V – which impressed me because usually the fifth movie in the series is pretty worthless. Can I get a rimshot for that one? No? Okay. I remember liking Dead Again and thinking that Branagh had a really promising future in movies. But then he kind of imploded. His Frankenstein was wretched. He’s bounced back as a director for hire, but I don’t think anyone would have expected him to end up directing Thor or Cinderella back when he began. We recently ran a Movieline interview with Branagh from those early days.

    I first noticed Michael Clarke Duncan in Armageddon. Man, did that movie ever waste a talented cast! Anyway, I learned his name when he had a more substantial role in The Green Mile, which was like the Shawshank Redemption only too long and not as good. But Duncan was great in it. After that, he kind of struggled. I can’t imagine there are a lot of roles for a guy with a unique look like Duncan. But he was always a welcome presence and he will be missed.

    I don’t think I have ever seen anything Raven-Symoné has ever done, but I am aware of her. She really broke out doing That’s So Raven. It’s impressive that she has managed to continue to grow up with her fans. Not a lot of child actors can pull that off. I watched Susan Dey on The Partridge Family, but I was too young to really give her much thought. In the 80’s when she starred on LA Law, a had a bit of a TV crush on her despite the fact she always seemed so dour on that show. Come on, get happy, Susan!

    I had a real fondness for the “Road To…” series which of course extended to Dorothy Lamour, the girl Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were always fighting over. I liked Mako in the Conan movies.

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    • Marvel Studios Directors – Kenneth Branagh

      http://www.pajiba.com/film_reviews/marvel-studios-directors-kenneth-branagh.php

      Hiring British actor/writer/director triple threat Kenneth Branagh was a savvy move on Marvel Studios’ part. Thor is one of Marvel’s more … esoteric characters (which is truly saying something) what with being a magical alien Norse god who lives in another dimensional plane and uses a literal rainbow bridge to travel to Midgard aka. Earth. Thor was the first big non-Iron Man Marvel film (everyone ignores The Incredible Hulk) so there was a lot riding on it to do well and further expand the MCU.

      By recognizing Thor’s complicated family drama as Shakespearean in nature and drawing upon his vast experience in acting and adapting Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, As You Like It), Branagh pulled off one hell of a feat in grounding Thor in terms modern audiences would connect with and understand. The familial space drama aspect definitely clicked with audiences. Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth (The Perfect Getaway), Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), opened in May 2011 and made $449 million worldwide. The film attracted new fans, kept Marvel and comics fans happy, and solidified Loki as pop culture’s favorite new Draco In Leather Pants, crowning Tom Hiddleston as the Internet’s New Boyfriend.

      While Branagh opted not to return to direct the Thor sequel, he did choose to try his hand at the franchise business with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Released in January 2014, the film was Paramount’s attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise, starring Chris Pine (Star Trek), Keira Knightley (Atonement) and Branagh as the Russian villain. But alas poor Yorick, Shadow Recruit was doomed to become yet another casualty of Hollywood’s full-throttle strip-mining of intellectual property and determination to reanimate franchises from the dead. While the film did make $135 million worldwide on a $60 million budget, it only made $50 million domestically, which was not a good sign for a potential all-American spy hero franchise. In the light of day, Shadow Recruit was nowhere near as bad as other blockbuster attempts in recent years (cough, cough, RIPD/The Lone Ranger/the entire Transformers franchise cough, cough). It was simply average and generic enough to not leave much of an impact, good or bad.

      Branagh went back to Disney to gain some studio goodwill by directing Cinderella, starring Lily James (Downton Abbey), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones). I don’t believe anyone thought Cinderella would be bad per se, but the frothy, colorful fairytale exceeded everyone’s expectations and helped to further fuel Disney’s gung ho determination to make live action adaptations of all their animated classics. The film succeeded in giving its traditionally passive and flat heroine a backstory, personality and agency to a degree, while making the “evil” step-mother and the prince more rounded and developed characters. Released in March 2015, Cinderella was a smash, making $543 million worldwide on a $95 million budget. Branagh’s adaptation of the beloved fairytale was like a lush storybook come to life, and is destined to become a classic childhood film and watched in very heavy rotation by children generations hence.

      All of that Cinderella cash gave him the juice to tackle a remake of Murder on the Orient Express, famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. If one strips the Imagine Dragons song out of the trailer (I’m all for anachronistic song usage in trailers but that was noooooooot the right song), it makes a very impressive case as an awards player for 2017. I could definitely see multiple nominations for the cast, which includes Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Penelope Cruz (Volver), Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), Josh Gad (Frozen), and Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), with Branagh playing detective Hercule Poirot himself (HOLY MUSTACHE!!!!). I don’t know how he puts up with the magnificent furry prosthetics on his face. If I were him, I would be ripping it off as soon as every scene ended. Murder on the Orient Express will be released November 10, 2017.

      Verdict: 8/10 Branagh was in no career slump directorial or otherwise prior to Thor, but the film provided him with a springboard into the new era of intellectual property-based filmmaking dawning at the beginning of the 2010s. He is an example of a director who walks the very delicate and tricky line of making studio fair while pursuing potential awards projects and non-franchise or IP-based films, a rare accomplishment in the volatile film industry these days. The projects he has in development reflect this balance. Branagh is attached to adapt Eoin Colfer’s popular YA series Artemis Fowl, which has been lying in development limbo for years at Disney. If he could crack the series, Artemis Fowl could be a potential hit, but there is a large chance of the series becoming yet another Beautiful Creatures or Percy Jackson. Branagh is also slated to star in and helm Keeper of the Diary for Fox Searchlight. He will play Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank, who in the aftermath of World War II is struggling to find a publisher for his daughter’s diary and is aided by young junior editor Barbara Zimmerman, who would become the founder of the New York Review of Books.

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  2. I still can’t believe Michael Clark Duncan is gone, he came off as such a vibrant, healthy man. I’ve certainly never had a muscular physique like he did.

    Even if I didn’t know who he was back then, my first introduction to Michael Clark Duncan was his bit part in the comedy classic Friday. The first time I truly became aware of him though is probably where we all became aware of him: in Armageddon, which was the biggest box office hit of 1998. It was a cheesetastic pop corn film, but enough of us saw it at the movie theatre to make it the biggest film of the year. Come on own up to it, you saw it on the big screen too.

    The Green Mile is where Duncan separated himself from other muscular beefcakes by actually displaying a heart and soul in his performance. The Oscars rewarded him with an acting nomination.

    Duncan’s post-Green Mile career probably didn’t go exactly as he imagined it, but he still appeared in several high profile films like Planet of the Apes. Daredevil and The Island (which I think is a bit underrated).

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    • The first half of The Island showed a lot of promise. The second half is where the movie remembers it’s a Michael Bay blow-em-up and it falls short of the potential displayed in the first half.

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  3. Yeah, I know Kenneth Branagh from his Shakespeare work and I’m fond of “Dead Again”, but he’s kind of lost me with the rest (I borrowed the Frankenstein film from a friend about 17 years ago and recall that it didn’t really click with me, but I borrowed “Very Bad Things” too, and that did).
    Michael Clarke Duncan I know best from “The Green Mile” ,”The Whole Nine Yards” (which I like), and he voiced Benjamin King (until he passed, then it was Terry Crews) in the “Saints Row” video game series (the 4th game is dedicated to his memory). The man had a cool voice and an imposing figure.
    I’ve seen some episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” over the years, so I know Nia Peebles best from that. I think she’s pretty sexy.
    Susan Dey, I liked her in “Looker” (that film could’ve explained itself better, but otherwise I like it. I think Albert Finney made for an interesting hero there). I know she was in “L.A. Law” too, but I haven’t viewed much of that series.
    I remember Mako from appearing in shows like “The Incredible Hulk”, “Magnum P.I.” and “The A-Team”, along with the Conan films and 1989’s “Taking Care of Business” (every way); I thought he was cool.
    I like some of Emily Dickinson’s work.

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