Christine Cavanaugh: 1963 – 2014

Actress Christine Cavanaugh passed away on December 22, 2014 at the much too young age of 51.  Cavanaugh’s career as an actress spanned from 1988 to 2001.  She appeared in a handful of live television shows & movies during this time.  The majority of her work, however, was as a voice actress.  In this capacity, Cavanaugh gave a number of wonderful performances over the years, portraying several famous characters.

Christine Cavanaugh

Her most prominent performance was probably in the 1995 movie Babe.  She voiced the title character, the sweet and innocent Australian piglet Babe who becomes a sheep-herder.

Cavanaugh worked on a number of animated series throughout the 1990s, among the Darkwing Duck, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Powerpuff Girls and The Wild Thornberries.  Her two most significant roles were on Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory.

I always found Rugrats to be a bizarre but funny show.  It is one of those series that was very much for all ages.  Young kids enjoyed it for the cute & goofy humor, while adults appreciated it for the comically skewed perceptions of the world as seen through the toddler characters’ eyes.

Cavanaugh was the voice of Chuckie Finster, the nervous orange-haired two-year-old with glasses.  Her delivery of Chuckie’s dialogue was both poignant and humorous.  Chuckie always reminded me a bit of myself, so he was something of a favorite character.  Cavanaugh portrayed Chuckie on the Rugrats television series from 1991 to 2001, as well as in the two animated films The Rugrats Movie (1998) and Rugrats in Paris (2000), the latter of which featured a central role for the character.

Rugrats Chuckie Finster

The other animated voice role for which Cavanaugh was known was Dexter, the main character from Genndy Tartakovsky’s series Dexter’s Laboratory.  Cavanaugh voiced the diminutive boy genius from 1995 to 2001, bringing to life the character with an iconic performance. She gifted Dexter with humorous self-involvement, as well as an almost tangible frustration at having to co-exist with his annoying older sister Dee Dee, who kept invading his secret lab, mucking about with his ambitious experiments.  I’ve always enjoyed Dexter’s Laboratory.  It was another offbeat but humorous series that appealed to viewers of all ages.

Cauvanaugh’s vocals as Dexter were also featured on the 1998 soundtrack album Dexter’s Laboratory: The Musical Time Machine which compiled several songs from the series.  Among these was “Breathe in the Good Sunshine” from the episode “Just an Old-Fashioned Lab Song,” with Cavanaugh performing alongside singer-songwriter Paul Williams.

Dexter's Laboratory The Musical Time Machine

Cavanaugh retired from acting in 2001.  She moved back to her native Utah in order to spend more time with her family.

Until I read about Cavanaugh passing away late last month, I had not actually realized who she was, and the same actress had voiced Babe, Chuckie and Dexter.  Voice acting is often low-profile work, and is really not appreciated anywhere near as much as acting in front of the camera.  But it definitely requires real talent.  Bereft of the use of facial expressions and body language, the actor must rely solely on their voice to bring a character to life, to convey emotion, to deliver performances that must be humorous and dramatic, broad and subtle.

Christine Cavanaugh was certainly capable of all that.  She brought to life a trio of iconic fictional characters with her wonderful abilities, delighting millions of fans, young and old.

Paul Williams and Tracey Jackson at Barnes & Noble

This past Thursday evening my girlfriend Michele and I were at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway in Manhattan. Singer, songwriter & actor Paul Williams and author & screenwriter Tracey Jackson were at the store to do a reading, Q& A and signing of their new book Gratitude & Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life.

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and www.vanityfair.com
Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and http://www.vanityfair.com

Michele and I are both fans of Paul Williams. He is an amazing songwriter and singer.  I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I do have a fondness for sappy, sad, wistful love songs.  Williams has penned many memorable tunes of that sort.  I always seem to get at least a little misty-eyed whenever I hear Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection,” co-written by Williams and Kenneth Ascher, for which they deservedly earned Ocsar nominations.  More recently, Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.

Williams also starred in, and wrote the music for, the superb cult classic movie Phantom of the Paradise which I’ve blogged about previously (here’s a link). Among his other acting credits that I’ve enjoyed were his portrayal of Virgil the scientist/philosopher orangutan from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, appearing as himself on The Odd Couple and The Muppet Show, voicing The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and playing an animated version of himself on Dexter’s Laboratory.  I’m probably forgetting a few other good ones.

For a number of years Williams struggled with alcohol & drug addiction. He has been sober since March 15, 1990.  Since then, he has been active in the recovery movement, working as a Certified Drug Rehabilitation Counselor.

Author Tracey Jackson is, on the other hand, not an addict, at least as far as substances such as booze or pills are concerned. But for many years she found herself trapped in a pattern of repeating a variety of self-destructive behaviors to compensate for and avoid dealing with her unhappiness.

I enjoyed hearing Williams and Jackson reading from Gratitude & Trust, and listening to their Q & A. I had a great deal of identification with both of them, and I felt they offered very helpful suggestions for people who are in recovery.

Photo courtesy of www.gratitudeandtrust.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.gratitudeandtrust.com

It is true that you do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be an addict. And once you put down those substances you can still end up not having a sober mindset if you merely substitute your addition to those for other things.  Even if you do not have a problem with mind-altering substances, there is so much out there to become addicted to: food, money, shopping, sex, work, gambling, fame, anger, the Internet, etc.  And, yes, that includes comic books and caffeine, I acknowledge with a definite self-awareness!

I do not know if it is a quality of Western society or of humanity in general, but we often cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction via outside remedies or distractions. We seek material possessions and the validation of others over addressing the defects of character that lie within us.  Instead of addressing our flaws and working to put behind us the traumas of our pasts, we look for ways to get out of our heads.  It is actually understandable, because it is far easier, at least in the short term, to grab hold of something that will give us momentary satisfaction, than to commence at the hard, unflinchingly honest work that is necessary to address our underlying unhappiness.

Perhaps there is also that impetus of self-reliance, the myth of pulling yourself up by your boot-straps, at play, upon which much of Western society is rooted. We are more likely to try to solve problems on our own than to turn to others for assistance, seeing that as a sign of weakness.  But often there are tasks and struggles we cannot overcome without the help or advice of others.

And then there is the issue of God. I can definitely understand why many people recoil at that word, and at the thought of praying to some nebulous deity for strength & assistance.  There are so many examples of organized religions acting in an imperious, oppressive manner throughout the world, movements and organizations rife with hypocrisy & corruption, so much so that we often wish to slam the door on God.  But it is a fact that some people do find great comfort in their faith.  I am a firm believer in the vital importance of individual spirituality.  What works for me may not work for you.  Each person should be free to work on developing their relationship with the Higher Power of their understanding.

Williams and Jackson definitely address these concepts within Gratitude & Trust. The book is their attempt to take the principals of recovery that have been utilized by alcoholics & drug addicts over the decades and demonstrate how these can also be utilized by others to improve their lives, to find serenity and peace of mind.  I certainly applaud their efforts.  I’m looking forward to reading their book.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put these suggestions into practice into my own life.

Photo by Michele Witchipoo
Photo by Michele Witchipoo

So, yes, it was definitely very cool meeting Paul Williams at Barnes & Noble. I’m afraid that I was terribly nervous, and I forgot to tell him how much I was a fan of his acting & music throughout the decades.  But I did let him know that I appreciated that he and Tracey Jackson penned this volume.  I hope he heard me, since I was probably mumbling a bit!

Anyway, I think that Gratitude & Trust is worth a look. Considering how many of us attempt to look for relief in a bottle of whiskey or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a shopping spree at Macy’s or whatever your particular vice is, this book offers a more constructive alternative to the very difficult task of living life on life’s terms.

Phantom of the Paradise: a reflection on today

I recently saw the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise when it aired on the Sundance Channel.  I had first seen it quite a number years ago on television, and I remember being struck by how incredibly weird and eerie it was.  Re-watching it now in 2013, I definitely developed a real fondness for it, as well as realizing just how on-the-money writer/director Brian De Palma was in his dark satire of the music industry.  In certain respects, the film was ahead of its time.

Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom
Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom

Phantom of the Paradise is the story of Winslow Leech (William Finley), an ambitious composer who has written a lengthy, epic cantata based on the legend of Faust.  He is overheard performing part of it by mega-successful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli).  Swan immediately decides that he wants Winslow’s music for the opening of his high-profile concert hall the Paradise; he doesn’t, however, want Winslow himself.  Philbin gets Winslow to give him the only copy of the cantata, promising that Swan is going to look it over and get right back to him.  A month passes, and Winslow finally realizes he’s been tricked.  He sneaks into Swan’s mansion, where auditions are being held for the opening of the Paradise.  Overhearing dozens of would-be songstresses slaughtering his music, one voice captures Winslow’s attention: the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper).  Coming up to her, Winslow begins singing with her, and he realizes that Phoenix is the perfect voice for his cantata.  There is also an instant attraction between the two.  However, when Winslow attempts to speak with Swan, the producer has his thugs beat up the composer, and arranges for the cops to frame him for drug possession, landing him a life sentence in, appropriately enough, Sing Sing.

Six months later, Winslow breaks out of prison.  During an attempt to destroy Swan’s Death Records manufacturing plant, Winslow’s head is caught in a record press.  Horribly scarred, Winslow makes his way to the Paradise and, donning a cape & mask, begins to terrorize the concert hall.  When he tries to attack Swan, though, the icy producer is unperturbed.  Swan convinces a reluctant, wary Winslow to work with him in completing the cantata, promising that Phoenix will sing it.  Swan, though, later decides to replace Phoenix with a glam rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) and once the cantata is completed has his men brick up the entrance to Winslow’s room.  In a superhuman rage, the composer breaks out.  Winslow threatens Beef in the shower, attacking him with a toilet plunger.  Beef tries to back out of the show, but Philbin strong-arms him into going on.  During the subsequent performance of Faust, Winslow hides in the rafters and hurtles a neon lightning bolt at Beef, spectacularly electrocuting him on stage.  Philbin realizes that Winslow is loose and, to prevent any more deaths, brings Phoenix on stage to perform the unedited version of the music.  The crowd immediately falls in love with her, and Swan promises to make her a star.

Winslow is horrified that Phoenix is falling under Swan’s spell.  He drags her to the rooftop of the Paradise and tries to convince her that Swan will destroy her, but she won’t listen; she’s already enthralled by the lure of the audience worshiping her.  Following Swan and Phoenix back to the producer’s mansion, Winslow spies on the two having sex.  Utterly distraught, he plunges a knife into his heart.  Soon after, Swan comes up and approaches Winslow’s body.  Plucking the knife from it, he informs the still-living Winslow that as long as he is under contract to Swan he cannot die.  Winslow attempts to murder Swan, and is shocked when the knife won’t penetrate his body.  Swan enigmatically comments “I’m under contract too.”

Sometime later, as Phoenix’s Faust tour is winding down, Swan proposes that the two of them get married in a lavish ceremony on live television.  While Swan is busy arranging this, Winslow breaks into his mansion.  He discovers a film recording from twenty years ago made by Swan himself.  The producer was despondent at the thought of growing old and losing his good looks, and was ready to slit his wrists in the bathtub.  However, via Swan’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, the Devil offered to keep him eternally young in exchange for his soul.  As long as the recording exists, Swan will not age a day.  Winslow then discovers that Swan is planning to have Phoenix killed by a sniper during the wedding.  In a rage, Winslow sets fire to Swan’s entire file room of contracts.  He then arrives at the Paradise in time to deflect the gunman’s aim so that Philbin is shot instead.  Fighting through the frenzied crowd, Winslow stabs the now-mortal Swan, killing him.  In turn, his own wound re-opens.  As Winslow lies dying, his mask falls off.  A shocked, saddened Phoenix at lasts recognizes him, and she cradles his lifeless body.

As I said, when I first saw Phantom of the Paradise many years ago, I was almost overwhelmed at how bizarre and freaky it was.  As I recall, the flashback scene where Swan makes his deal with the Devil via his own reflection was especially unsettling.  The film still very much possesses that distinctive atmosphere for me, with its strange characters & unusual visuals.  And it was certainly a judicious move by De Palma to have Rod Serling voice the opening narration, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire story.

The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek
The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek

Re-watching Phantom of the Paradise now, I also see what an incredibly prescient quality there is to it.  Yes, back in the early 1970s, the music industry was already very commercialized.  But it has become infinitely worse since then, with record labels, radio, and television all churning out & promoting generic crap from pretty-looking but talentless hacks, appealing to the lowest common denominator.  At the same time, you have American Idol and its countless imitators, where publicity-hungry people flock on to television making fools of themselves in their efforts to seize their fifteen minutes of fame.

In planning Phoenix’s murder, Swan comments “An assassination live on television coast to coast? That’s entertainment!”  I don’t know how that line came across to audiences four decades ago, but nowadays it sounds frighteningly plausible.  The audience erupting into hysterical applause at Beef’s on-stage death also seems like it could really happen.  There is so much insane, degrading material broadcast on both the 24 hour news cycle and so-called “reality television” in order to generate massive ratings.  No actual contract murders that I can think of, but at least a few hundred hellacious catfights and drunken blow-ups have graced TV screens in recent years.  Kim Kardashian may not have arranged to have Kris Humphries killed on television, but her 72 day marriage to him apparently netted her several million dollars.  And after it was all over, I bet there was a part of Humphries that wishes he had just been shot dead at the altar.

As for the character of Swan, he is just plain creepy, a total immoral bastard.  According to a few sources, Swan was based on infamous music svengali Phil Spector.  I’m not sure how much of Spector’s dark side, such as his abusive & controlling behavior towards his wife Ronnie, was known to the public at the time that Phantom of the Paradise was made.  But in later years Spector definitely took a total dive off the deep end, culminating in him shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his conviction for her murder several years later.  Talk about life imitating art.

In any case, Paul Williams gives a really sinister, memorable performance as Swan.  Williams also wrote the music & lyrics for the film.  Phantom of the Paradise may have been a dud at the box office, but at least Williams received a well-deserved Oscan nomination for his music.

The satanic svengali Swan
The satanic svengali Swan

Another thing that I picked up on is that Phantom of the Paradise has an almost Objectivist aspect to it, albeit one that seems to be a send-up of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Winslow Leach possesses certain parallels with Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead.  Both men are passionately concerned with maintaining the purity of their artistic vision, and adamantly refuse to compromise their ideals.  Roark dynamites the building he designed after it was altered without his permission.  So too does Winslow attempts to use dynamite to demolish Swan’s Death Records plant, and he later successfully blows up the Beach Bums, the bubblegum pop band that Swan initially wanted to perform Faust at the Paradise.  He also commits several subsequent murders.

Of course, there is a real difference between the depictions of the two men.  Rand very much regarded Roark as a flawless, noble hero.  In contrast, even at the start of the movie, Winslow comes across as both overzealous and naïve.  By the time he assumes the identity of the Phantom, it is very clear that Winslow is quite insane.  In his efforts to destroy Swan, Winslow kills a lot of other people.  Yes, Beef was a prima donna egotist, and the Beach Bums were cheesy hacks, but did they all deserve to die?  And Winslow’s relationship with Phoenix is also problematic.  I do not think he truly loved her.  It seems much more a case of obsession, driven by Winslow’s belief that only she could ever properly sing his music.

Yes, Swan seems very much to be one of the “parasites” that Rand so despised.  He is a monster who steals Winslow’s work and utterly destroys his life.  Yet by embarking upon his mission of vengeance, Winslow himself becomes a sort of monster as well, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s warning concerning those who fight monsters.  I think that the Howard Roarks of the world may start out as romantic idealists, but their unyielding convictions might very well lead them to the same fate as those who have exploited them.

Analysis aside, Phantom of the Paradise is a great movie.  Brian De Palma directs the hell out of it, with some truly amazing, dynamic shots.  As I said before, the music by Paul Williams is fantastic.  It’s unfortunate but, in retrospect, not surprising that Phantom of the Paradise initially failed in the theaters.  It is a very difficult movie to classify, simultaneously horror, comedy and musical.  But it often seems like these sort of offbeat films are the ones that stand the test of time, and nowadays it is considered a cult classic.