While I really should be packing for my week in Provincetown, where I’ll be doing a program at the Tennessee Williams Festival and launching my new book, Tennessee Williams and Company, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the 90th birthday (on September 23rd) of Mickey Rooney, the perennial teenager of the Andy Hardy pictures and all those musicals with Judy Garland, colossal moneymakers for MGM in the late thirties and early forties. Though Rooney will always be linked with Garland as one of Hollywood’s beloved teams, it is shocking to think that Rooney is headed toward living a life twice as long as the life lived by Garland, who died at 47 in 1969. They were never better together, or more eternally youthful, than when singing “How About You?” to each other in Babes on Broadway (1941).
No one has had a career like Rooney, from child star to teen superstar to has-been to comeback kid to has-been again to TV and Broadway star to all-around legend. He got a special juvenile Oscar in 1939, then an honorary one in 1983. Plus he got four nominations, two for Best Actor (for Babes in Arms in 1939, and The Human Comedy in 1943) and two for Best Supporting Actor (for The Bold and the Brave in 1956, and The Black Stallion in 1979). If that weren’t enough, he was also briefly married to goddess Ava Gardner!
From his Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) to his recent appearance in the hit comedy Night at the Museum (2006), Rooney is the essence of the showbiz trouper. He was the biggest star in the world in the early 40s, then utterly washed-up by the decade’s end. But he waited out the lulls, taking any work he could get. He never really went away, too consumed with the love of performing ever to vanish for good.
He acted alongside Spencer Tracy in both of Tracy’s Oscar-winning performances, in Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938), and he gracefully took a top-billed backseat to Elizabeth Taylor in the wonderful National Velvet (1944). The Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music (1948) was a box-office success, but no one liked Rooney’s Larry Hart, even though it wasn’t his fault that censorship led to ruinous alterations in Hart’s story. Instead of addressing Hart’s homosexuality, the script turned his story into that of a man deeply unhappy about being short. Much later, he was the worst thing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor.
When I saw Rooney with Ann Miller in Sugar Babies on Broadway in 1980, it felt like a last-chance opportunity to see two of the great stars of MGM musicals. Who knew that thirty years later Rooney would still be going strong? That Andy Hardy fellow ended up having quite the life, didn’t he?