As a child, I hated Mickey Rooney. His Andy Hardy films frequently turned up on the two cable stations that my family got during competing Saturday afternoon movie marathons, which caused me no end of bitter frustration as I wanted Ma and Pa Kettle every week without fail. I’d take Abbott and Costello as a distant second, especially if there were monsters involved. Shit, I’d even accept a run of Laurel and Hardy shorts, and found that duo quite unfunny and unlikeable.
But not as unfunny and unlikeable as the incessantly mugging, showtune-belting, teenaged actor Mickey Rooney. I didn’t find him effervescent or dynamic; instead, I saw him as grating and cloying, imposing a sort of stagey, forced enthusiasm on my rainy Saturday afternoon when all I really wanted was hillbilly hijinks from the Kettle clan.
As I grew older, I simply wrote Mickey Rooney off as an unattractive, overrated teen star who dissipated into a middle-aged alcoholic gnome unable to find purpose outside the sad, has-been shadows of the limelight he’d known decades earlier. His astonishingly racist Japanese caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s still makes me queasy and angry.
So imagine my displeasure, even disgust, when my high school psychology teacher wheeled in the VCR cart and announced that we would spend two fucking days watching the 1981 TV-movie Bill starring you know who as a developmentally disabled older man struggling to make his way in the world. I was well aware of this Emmy-winning performance, having shuddered through constant promos for the original network broadcast, and was filled with dread at having to experience it first hand without so much as bathroom breaks.
“What the fuck? Mickey Rooney aping retarded people’s mannerisms for two fucking hours? How am I going to get myself through this?” I asked myself, grimacing in solitude as the other kids, excited to zone out and stare at a TV rather than create Venn Diagrams about Freud and Jung, raced to pull the shades and cut the lights for the surprise show.
Yes, I would have to talk myself through Bill, but not for the reasons that I’d imagined.
My jaded, withdrawn teenage self, almost a polar opposite of Andy Hardy, began viewing the VHS copy of Bill with a predetermined disdain, but within moments it all toppled into a pool of mush and love for Bill. Not just the character – the actor inhabiting him. I had to face the truth: Mickey Rooney inspired a compassion in me that I’d never suspected lurked in my sulky being.
He acted the fuck out of Bill, which is to say, I let go not just of my Mickey Rooney hatred, but of Mickey Rooney all together. I discovered how invested I could become in Bill, how worried I would be over his vulnerability, how much promise he as an individual held, and how easily such promise could be cast away by the preconceptions of others. Just as some of the characters would have to learn the value of Bill as a person, time had come for me to learn the value of Mickey Rooney as an actor.
But that full realization would have to come afterwards. First, I had to make it through Bill. As the movie neared its conclusion, I felt overwhelmed by a surge of sentiment, not the sickening saccharine variety that I’d braced for, but one born of empathy and investment in a beautifully performed character. Tears welled in my eyes, and it took all of my internal strength to restrain them from rolling down my cheeks. Pigs do fly: Mickey Rooney had moved my supercilious teenaged self to tears in public.
And what exactly was I supposed to do with this personal worldview shift as the classroom lights came on and the shades shot up? It’s not as if I could turn to classmates and announce that my childhood nemesis Mickey Rooney had made me cry – and not because one of the old musicals from his glory days had bumped Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki from the Saturday afternoon cable-TV movie marathon line-up.
No, I was left on my own to sort out the conflicting emotions that Mickey Rooney had left violently churning in my psyche. Had my hatred been built from a childhood-animosity-house-on-sand? To quote Bette Davis speaking to Joan Crawford at the end of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, “You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?”
Mickey Rooney died yesterday at 93. I’ve long accepted his talent as an actor and general showman, and he stunned me once again years after my psychology class awakening with his participation in the brilliant, tragically underrated Babe 2: Pig in the City as a sad sack clown on his last legs.
I never did manage to make it full circle back to those Andy Hardy movies, but perhaps now that moment has arrived. Forgiveness has no expiration date for the forgiver.
And for the record, on one lazy afternoon in late May, my high school psychology teacher wheeled the VCR back into the room and announced that we would spend another two days watching a movie – Bill 2: On His Own. Once again, I knew that I would have to steel myself against Mickey Rooney, not to tamp down disgust, but to hold back the wellspring of emotion that I now knew lay in wait, ready to be sprung loose by the actor’s interpretation of a character all too familiar to me. At least I entered into the sequel prepared, for I was once again moved – deeply!
Bill and Rooney proved no fluke. The revelation of his spotty Hollywood greatness for me simply required a risky, later-in-life performance in a TV-movie. I haven’t watched either of the Bill films since my junior year of high school. I don’t want to discover that my adult self finds them hackneyed crap and interfere with the treasured memory of my caustic, dismissive teenaged self getting his brittle heart wrenched and then melted – by motherfucking Mickey Rooney.