Two years ago, a former coworker and pal named John walked up to my desk and handed me a DVD. He’d taken it upon himself to transfer his collection of VHS cassettes to discs. Some of what was on the tapes was television he’d recorded, and some of the recordings were from TNT, back when TNT would show what we loosely refer to as the “classics,” along with football and blocks of Charles Bronson movies. My gift disc contained three Andy Hardy movies: Judge Hardy and Son, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, and Life Begins for Andy Hardy — from 1939, ’40, and ’41, respectively, as part of the “Party Hardy” marathon, starring Mickey Rooney.
When I asked John, who’s a few decades older than I am, “Why Rooney?” he replied, “No one doesn’t love Rooney.” John also assumed I’d never be able to find those movies (you can now) and had never seen them. Rooney made more than three dozen movies before he was 30, and even more after that. And it wasn’t as though he ever changed. He was always 16. So I’d seen Mickey Rooney. I’d seen him because basic-cable programming used to be like the radio: a format that rewarded restlessness.
The “C” in AMC stands for classics, and there was a time when it honored the old, because people like my mother paid the cable bill. And my mother loved — loved — Mickey Rooney, especially in anything he did with Judy Garland, who matched him in a few exuberant musicals and spent three Andy Hardy movies as poor Betsy Booth, a girl with a terminal crush on our hero. The crush wasn’t a mystery. Rooney had great charisma, nonstop energy, and amazing hair that mirrored his state of mind. When it was mussed, so was he.
You’d never know it to watch the movies, but his non-movie life was tabloid grist. Stars don’t get married eight times anymore. But Mickey did. His first marriage was to Ava Gardner, when he was 21 and she was 19. It lasted barely a year. A few of the others, to starlets and beauty queens, didn’t last much longer. He drank. He spent all his money. As Ty Burr put in Gods Like Us, his recent book on movie fame, “There’s a distinct possibility that Mickey Rooney is the history of American movie stardom.”
Rooney was born in Brooklyn and started acting when he was a toddler. At 7, he played a midget in 1927’s Orchids and Ermine, a vehicle for the wholesome star Colleen Moore. From the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, he was a sensation, as wholesomely girl-crazy as Moore was blissfully lovelorn. Rooney was one of a small handful of stars who let you see his work — Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, and James Cagney also come to mind — and the work gave the acting a real emotional punch. You never cared that a lot of Mickey Rooney movies were made of cardboard and cheese, because Rooney was made of flesh, blood, caffeine, and magic. He was the quintessence of a star. He didn’t just walk or dance or descend a staircase. He sprung. He never seem to stop springing. Judge Hardy culminates with Andy blubbering to God for his gravely ill mother and then to the family doctor, gripping him by the lapels. You’ve never seen crying like this, the woe, the lack of enunciation, the snot.
The public found it impossible to see him as anything other than young and perfect. Audiences didn’t turn on him so much as wait for him to discover some other aspect of himself that probably didn’t exist. He never stopped working. He still managed two or three movies a year. But at that point he’d morphed into the character the evolution of movie stardom demanded of him. So there he was, memorably, regrettably embodying the racism of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, donning buckteeth and a baroque accent to play Audrey Hepburn’s cartoon of a Japanese landlord. That was a part that, as recently as 2008, he was still defending. The retired jockey he played in 1979’s The Black Stallion was the first time I’d ever seen him. (He made more than 200 movies; he was jockey or trainer in a more than a few.) I was small, too, but he made an impression — not a figure of wisdom, per se, but as someone who’d made his peace with age. There are some stars who seem permanently old. Even when you catch them in their young primes, you don’t sense youth. Not with Rooney.
We talk today about once-in-a-lifetime stars. Even in 1939, there didn’t seem to be anybody like Rooney. He just had the misfortune of having to endure and survive obsolescence. It was certainly better than death. But tragic mortality lent the Garlands and James Deans of the world a permanence that never came easily to Rooney. Like Shirley Temple, who died in February after a comparably long and vast life, Rooney lived as a vestige of his former self. Temple diversified. He doubled down. He seemed to love being who he was born and trained to be. That’s what kept him young. He had a twinkle that, on a clear night, you can still see. Just look up.