Cloris Leachman — RIP

A particular 1970s humor depended on the late Cloris Leachman’s adaptability. Flitting from film to TV with an élan many contemporaries lacked, the actress had a rare talent for using comic chops to build the long, meticulously designed arc of a dramatic performance. She could have played The Last Picture’s Show‘s neglected wife Ruth as a wilted violet; Leachman, though, shows a woman who remembers the moves she thinks made her absent husband happy, learns new ones, then learns they’re still not enough for callow, well-named Timothy Bottoms. When her meltdown happens, there isn’t a hint of Oscar-approved fragrance. Mel Brooks understood: in Young Frankenstein (1973) and especially in High Anxiety (1978), Leachman played two kinds of addled with aplomb, but this was, after all, an era when Hollywood allowed fortysomething actresses still to kick up their heels. Her nurse in High Anxiety frightened me as a kid, thanks to her lockjawed intensity — a send-up of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, no doubt. Her Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show needed more of it.

The last two decades of her career consisted of solid yeoman’s work: Emmys for Malcolm in the Middle, voice work in the English version of Ponyo. I had to be reminded she had a recurring role in The Facts of Life.

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