Mickey Rooney, who in many ways was the embodiment of Hollywood, was sometimes too simple: energetic, laughing, sentimental. But the legendary movie star of many talents, who died Sunday at 93, never crossed the border into ridiculousness. His talent was always evident, even in his most insubstantial films.
Rooney, a remnant of yesteryear who carried the cultural tradition of the past into the present, was no one-hit wonder. He could dance and he could sing, he could be a comedic actor and a dramatic one, and he was one of the best at all those things. Sometimes we were amazed he was still alive, and sometimes we thought he would live forever.
Actors who can do it all sometimes combust from an overdose of talent and an inability to fulfill their vast potential — and there were chapters in Rooney’s life when it seemed that could have been his fate.
His career in the movies, which started when he was 7 and did not end until his death (he last appeared in the new movie version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) had the ups and downs of a roller coaster. He has appeared in more than 300 movies and television shows, as well as in the theater.
From the end of the 1930s to the mid-1940s, Rooney was one of the most popular movie stars in the world, and was nominated for an Oscar twice in that period. Toward the end of the 1940s his career faded, and he went from starring in the most successful movies to appearing in far less prestigious ones. But he survived and was nominated for an Oscar twice more, in 1956 and 1979.
In 1983 he was awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement. His survival may have been the biggest achievement of all.
Rooney’s personal life also moved at a dizzying pace. Despite his successes, he went bankrupt a number of times, was married eight times — his last marriage was the longest, lasting from 1978 until his death — and he could have become a broken actor, like Judy Garland, his most famous film partner. But that never happened.
Unlike Garland, Rooney was never the object of pity, even when he hit bottom. Until just a few years ago, he was an annual guest at the Academy Awards and the cameras always spent a bit of time lingering on him as the audience applauded.
Magnificent and grotesque
Rooney was just 5 feet 3 inches tall (157 centimeters), and there are some who claim the secret to his movie star personality was his low stature. There may well be a measure of truth in that.
The ball of energy that was Mickey Rooney was a way of compensating for his height. In many of his movies he played the short American wheeler dealer. Even when he was older, he remained an adolescent of sorts, and this combination gave a couple of his later appearances a somewhat bizarre tinge. But his talent was always obvious, and he represented the magnificent and grotesque aspects of his era of Hollywood, perhaps better than any of his contemporaries.
Rooney was very much a product of the American entertainment industry. He was born Joseph Yule, Jr., in Brooklyn, New York, on September 23, 1920. His parents were vaudeville performers, and he appeared with them for the first time when he was only 17 months old. After his parents’ divorce, he moved to Hollywood with his mother and started to receive small parts in movies. From 1927 to 1936 he appeared in more than 70 short films that were part of a series, in the role of a naughty young boy named Mickey McGuire.
In 1934 MGM gave him a contract and he had small roles in prestigious films such as “Manhattan Melodrama,” in which he played Clark Gable as a boy. The movie became notorious when wanted gangster John Dillinger was caught by the FBI leaving a showing of the movie — accompanied by a lady in red — and was killed in a gunfight. In 1935 Rooney played Puck in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s film version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and it was this performance that marked his talent and maturity as being far beyond his years.
Rooney became a star in 1937, thanks to “A Family Affair,” the movie in which he played Andy Hardy for the first time. Rooney’s character was the son of a judge in a small American town, the classic boy next door: mischievous, lively, ambitious, knows how to get what he wants. The movie was a great success and led to 13 more films in the series, in which Rooney acted opposite stars such as Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson and Garland.
Garland and Rooney were also cast together in a series of musicals, which were an incredible success. These included “Babes in Arms,” which earned Rooney his first Oscar nomination, in 1939. A year earlier he was awarded a miniature honorary Oscar, the Academy Juvenile Award, which was given at the time to actors under 18. Rooney and Garland also appeared together in the sequels “Strike Up the Band” and “Babes on Broadway.”
In 1938 Rooney appeared in “Boys Town,” in what was probably his most famous dramatic role: a young criminal in a home for underprivileged and delinquent boys run by a priest played by Spencer Tracy.
Other successes for Rooney in the 1940s were “Young Tom Edison” (1940); “The Human Comedy” (1943), based on the book by William Saroyan; and “National Velvet,” the 1944 film that turned Elizabeth Taylor into a star. But his career started to deteriorate during that same decade, as did his dramatic private life. In 1942 he was married for the first time, to the beautiful soon-to-be-star Ava Gardner, but they were divorced in a year. (Gardner later married Frank Sinatra.)
Starting in the late 1940s, Rooney mostly played guest roles in musicals, starring roles in unimportant films or supporting roles in more prestigious films such as “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” starring William Holden and Grace Kelly. Rooney was, however,nominated for an Oscar in 1956 for his supporting role in “The Bold and the Brave.”
In 1958 he tried to restart his career and once again played Andy Hardy, but this time as a 30-plus man, in a movie called “Andy Hardy Comes Home.” But late 1950s America was no longer interested in that particular boy next door, and the movie was a flop. One of Rooney’s most embarrassing appearances, though, was in a movie that was actually a great success. In 1961 he played Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and was accused of racism for his role in the film.
Rooney also appeared as a guest star on a large number of television shows, so he never disappeared from public view. In 1980 he was once again a candidate for an Oscar, that time for best supporting actor for his role in “The Black Stallion.”
Mickey Rooney was Hollywood, and Hollywood was Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s life and career, with all their twists, are a significant and indivisible part of the history of American cinema.