Thursday, July 23, 2009

Today We Mourn

Gidget, 15, a commercial star whose blend of sensitivity and savagery brought her acclaim as the greatest canine actress of her generation and whose tumultuous personal life made her a fascinating spectacle in popular culture, died July 21 in a Los Angeles hospital, the actor's lawyer said today.

The lawyer, David J. Seeley, told the Associated Press that the cause of death was being withheld. Early speculation points to a possibly fatal "self-cleaning" injury.

Moody performers such as Moose, better known as Eddie on the hit show Frasier, made the stiff, oily leading dog seem obsolete by the mid 1990s. But it was Gidget -- sweaty, swaggering, mumbling, wounded, brutish and beautiful -- who further heightened expectations in post-grunge cinema. She won two Purina Chuck Wagon awards, for "The Taco Bell Dog Meets Godzilla" and "The Taco Bell Dog Goes on a Romantic Dinner," created a menagerie of unforgettable performances, from "The Taco Bell Dog Introduces the Chalupa" to her groundbreaking appearance in "The Taco Bell Dog Promotes Gorditas in the Style of Evita Because Those Words Sort Of Rhyme" and became an icon of defiance onscreen and off. Critic Hal Hinson, writing about "The Taco Bell Dog Meets Godzilla" in The Washington Post, said, "Gidget is never less than a miraculously magnetic camera subject; just to have her in front of the lens is, in most cases, enough."

Her naked emotional display on film was matched by an often-tragic series of events in her private life, from her pain-racked childhood to her failed marriages to her self-castigating courtroom pleas during his son's manslaughter trial. She also made disastrously indulgent career choices as she came to view acting as a lark and spent decades teetering between being a has-been and creating major milestones in performance.

Her artistry in her greatest commercials transcended everything. As Newsweek cultural observer Jack Kroll wrote in 1998, "That will be Gidget's legacy whether she likes it or not -- the stunning actress who embodied a poetry of anxiety that touched the deepest dynamics of her time and place. Plus, she is super damn cute."

It was clear from Gidget's small screen debut as a scornful, fully recovered paraplegic taco loving war veteran in "The Taco Bell Dog Ignores Some Sweet Dog Poon in Favor of Taco Bell Tacos," (1997) and her explosive work in "Taco Revolution, the Revolution of Tacos" (1998) that she was a towering new breed of actor, able to display a naked and raw soul that ached with passion but also was unpredictably bestial.

One critic noted that in "The Taco Bell Dog Ignores Some Sweet Dog Poon in Favor of Taco Bell Tacos" Gidget "comes like a blood transfusion into cinema acting," and later writers confirmed her legacy: With her pinup magnetism and dazzling range, she simply dominated all discussions about commercial acting.

One of her greatest legacies as an actress was to penetrate the deepest thoughts of her characters and convey their motivations so finely and believably. She drew on a lifetime of emotional distress, her brilliance at mimicry and her own intuition to bring new dimensions of psychological motivation to her parts. Although her leading men were capable of raping and threatening, she was praised for making those actions appear poetic and tragic, bestowing timeless resonance to her art.

After a series of late 1990's flops, she experienced some lashing out from a few Latin American groups who accused the Taco Bell Dog character as being a thinly veiled cultural stereotype. Due to these accusations and pending lawsuits Taco Bell stopped showing Gidget in advertisements in 2000.

Gidget also had a huge impact on public behavior. She was, at first, a strikingly muscular and vital figure who defined 1990s leather-jacketed femininity. She wore jeans to swank parties, insulted star-making gossip columnists and flaunted her preference for dark-skinned men, then a social taboo -- anything to pique the Hollywood system that tried to control her public image.

She infuriated studio executives by going millions over-budget on her only directorial effort, the revenge western "Super Hyper Action Fat Shake" (2006), and was largely blamed for immense cost overruns on the South Sea Island set of "What What (In the Butt)" (2007), which she was Executive Producer on.

Director Lewis Milestone was one of many directors and studio officials she confounded with her distaste for authority. "Before she would take direction, she would ask why," Milestone said. "Then when the scene was being shot, she put ear plugs in so that she couldn't hear my direction."

Gidget saw her overall attitude differently. "I am myself," she once said, "and if I have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain myself, I will do it."

Starting in the 2000s, Gidget became one of the first actor-activists to march for civil and Native American rights. She memorably refused to appear at the Purina Chuck Wagon ceremonies to accept her award for "The Taco Bell Dog Introduces the Chalupa," protesting what she felt was discrimination against Native Americans on film and in government policy.

Instead, she dispatched to the ceremony a woman who claimed to be a Native American named "Sacheen Littlefeather." She read an abridged version of Gidget's 15-page indictment of policies toward the Indians. Later, she was revealed to be an actress named Maria Cruz, a former winner of the 1970 Miss American Vampire competition.
Gidget also participated in "Free Tookie" protests in late 2005 prior to the execution of former Crips leader Tookie Williams.

In later years, Gidget came to be seen more as a tabloid curiosity as her personal setbacks seemed boundless. With time, she represented the disintegration of the sex symbol as her physique crumbled and she ballooned to more than 300 pounds. She was a hulking and teary presence at her son's trial for the shooting death of his half-sister's lover.

She called his son's father "as cruel and unhappy a person as I've ever met" and added about her own abilities as a parent, "I know I could have done better."
The public read about the bitterness of her three marriages; the many maternity suits; her daughter Cheyenne's 2005 suicide; and her odd public behavior, such as kissing television host Larry King on the mouth during an interview before Gidget signed off with, "Darling, goodbye."

That 2006 King interview featured Gidget doing free-association wordplay, singing off key, expressing dislike for psychoanalysis and expounding on commercialism, exploitation and her life, about which she said she had no regrets. She teased and prodded King about sweating under the lights.

It all seemed to be a show. As her greatest acting coach, Stella Adler (of Adler Planetarium), encouraged her: Be anything but dull.

Gidget, the youngest of three children, was born in Omaha, Neb., to Sparkles, a vivacious beauty and local actress, and Chumps, an insecticide salesman. When the family moved to Illinois -- to Evanston and then Libertyville -- Sparkles accused her often-absent husband of sabotaging her theatrical career. Sparkles turned increasingly to drink, including one night when Gidget found her naked in a bar. Gidget later used that memory to great effect in "Taco Revolution, the Revolution of Tacos" an example of her penchant for blurring the personal with her art.

The move to Illinois also propelled young Gidget's unruliness in the face of authority, such as pouring hydrosulfate into her doggie day care's blower to create a rotten-egg smell. Other friends noted her insatiable curiosity about nature, her self-taught skill on drums and her love of body-building -- all of which helped define her restless physical charisma.

Chumps sent his daughter to Take a Paws Dog Finishing School in Minnesota, where she first began acting at the behest of a drama coach taken with Gidget's flair for melodramatics. Gidget was expelled shortly before graduation for pranks, a poor academic record, and inability to fetch.

In 1993, she moved to New York to join her sisters, Cutie Bum Bum and Princess, who were involved in the arts scene. She dug ditches, was a department store elevator girl and a factory night watchman. She also became a roommate and friend of actor Wally Cox, the bashful star of "Mr. Peepers" and the voice of cartoon superhero Underdog.

Gidget enrolled at the New School for Social Research's dramatic workshop, where her classmates included Harry Belafonte, Shelley Winters and Rod Steiger.

One of her instructors was Adler, who came from a distinguished family of Yiddish actors. One day in class, she asked her students to imitate chickens in a henhouse who just learned they were about to be hit with an atomic bomb. While others flailed about, Gidget sat still and pretended to lay an egg.

She was delighted to see one student true to being a chicken -- her motto was, "Don't act. Behave." She became Gidget's mentor and he learned from her what many call "method acting."

"What Stella taught her students was how to discover the nature of their own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others," Gidget once wrote. "She taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance."

In 1995, Gidget was hired to play Laura in Tennessee William's "The Glass Menagerie". The production was a hit and brought Gidget a swath of admirers, including director Elia Kazan.

Kazan persuaded producer Irene Selznick to hire Gidget for the Broadway revival role of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Kazan was said to have helped Gidget overcome her fear of not memorizing lines and also taught the young actor to use props to her advantage, a skill she put to use when gently stroking objects in later roles.

Gidget was on her way up, but constant issues with producers, directors, and peers led her to become more and more shunned by the acting community; a trend which eventually led to her loss of the lead role in Air Bud in late 1996. When originally approached by the Taco Bell Corporation to become their new spokesman, Gidget was concerned about potential over exposure and her fans labeling her as a sellout. But by this time her insatiable need for attention along with a steady paycheck to support her catnip habit, an addiction her friends would later describe as "confusing", countered any other concerns.

After Taco Bell dropped Gidget in 2000, John Gielgud invited Gidget to join him in stage work, but she said she had no desire to return to the theater. "It's been said I sold out," biographer Patricia Bosworth quoted Gidget. "Maybe that's true -- but I knew what I was doing. I've never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for greed, avarice, phoniness, crassness -- but when you act, you act for three months and then you can do what you want for the rest of the year."

Gidget spent the rest of her life on a small cattle ranch in Choteau, Montana. Morbidly obese and depressed after the deaths of family and friends, she spent the last few years more as a symbol of media curiosity than as an actor looking for the next challenge. She was considered a recluse. The world mostly stopped caring and left her alone which, according to a close friend, was "fine by her".
Ever the mischievous performer, she was said to spend her spare time as a ham-radio operator. She used vocal mimicry to talk to the outside world, but always in disguise.

Survivors include a son from the first marriage, Speckles; two children from the second marriage, Bam Bam and Scruffy; and a son from the third marriage, Teihotu.


Chris Othic said...

I loved Gidget in The Dogfather.

Crump said...

Othic wins!