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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

In loving memory of Patricia Neal
Patricia Neal took her final bow this week. The 84-year-old actress had a long, sometimes incredibly successful, and sometimes heart-breakingly tragic life and career. She starred opposite some of the greatest leading men of her day, won Oscars and Tonys, and then watched her career crash and burn and had to learn to walk and speak all over again after a crippling stroke. What I and most sci-fi oriented people of a certain age will best remember her for, though, is the way she brought a certain quiet, smoky, repressed sexiness and steely nerve to what could have been a simple-minded scream-queen's part.

It was a movie she didn't like, didn't want to make, and is listed as barely a footnote in her official obituary. Yet in it, she ended up delivering what turned out to be one of filmdom's all-time most unforgettable lines:

"Klaatu barada nikto."

Forget the Keanu Reeves remake. The original bears rewatching, if only as a fine illustration of how you don't need eye-popping special effects to make a good SF movie; just a good story, a decent script, and a few good actors. Strange how Hollywood seems to have forgotten that. Maybe it's all Roger Corman's and Vincent Price's fault. Except that Price rises above his usual level, too, in the original film version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend...

Which got me thinking: who else rose to cinematic prominence by way of roles in sci-fi films? Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for Charly, although no one seems to remember now that that one was science fiction. Jeff Goldblum was limited to gawky second-banana and comic relief characters, before The Fly. Before Star Wars Harrison Ford's career high point was American Graffiti, and he was mostly a third-string supporting actor in clunkers like Force Ten From Navarone. Leslie Nielsen---

Sorry, no. After decades of seeing him in Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movies, it's impossible to watch Nielsen in Forbidden Planet and take him seriously.

How about you? Who's on your list of seriously good actors and actresses who you first noticed in a science fiction film?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Better yet, have you got an idea for a UGF challenge you'd like to see? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.
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