Monday, December 16, 2013

In Threes?...

There's this thing that is sometimes called the "Rule of Three", which states that celebrities die in groups of three. People are always pointing this out, and sometimes it seems to really be a thing. But is it, really?

I've always figured that this mostly has to do with the human habit of finding patterns in things, and to impose them even when they aren't really there. There are lots of examples of this; constellations of stars and seeing images in places like tree bark and grilled cheese sandwiches are only two of many.

In Western culture, the number three has assumed a certain significance, and so we tend to see patterns of three. We list things in threes - morning, noon, and night, for example. We've got "The Three Bears" in fairy tales, "Three Blind Mice" in children's rhymes, and the Triple Crown in horse racing. In the Christian religion, there is the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Among Wiccans, there is the Threefold Law that states that whatever you put out to the universe, good or bad, will come back to you three times. I could go on. "Three" is a really big thing, culturally speaking, and that probably has transferred to the Rule of Three.

But, there are problems with the rule of three. How do you define who counts as a celebrity? Does the person have to have actually done something to earn their celebrity, or do you count people who are famous for being famous? Can the person be someone who has been famous for Warhol's fifteen minutes, or do they have to have been famous over a particular period of time? How long does that have to be? Do you only count entertainers, and are athletes considered entertainers or not? Or, do people like politicians and famous scientists and people famous in other fields count as well?

What about time frame? Do the three celebrities have to have died on the same day? Within a few days? If so, how many? Is three days too long? Is a week too long?

As you can see, it can be complicated to analyze whether the Rule of Three is valid, and if it is in operation in any particular circumstance.

And what in the world brought this up, you might be thinking right about now.

In reading the news from the past few days, it seems as if the Rule of Three - if you believe in it - has been in operation once again, specifically in the film community. In the past few days, three actors have died: Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin. Depending on how old you are and what kinds of films you watch, you might or might not be asking "Who?" about one or more of these names. All of them have made a mark, however, of some kind in film. Fontaine was an Academy Award-winning actress, the only person to have won an acting Academy Award for work in an Alfred Hitchcock film, and also one-half of the only sisters to have both won Academy Awards (her sister is Olivia de Haviland). Peter O'Toole holds the record for the number of times he was nominated for an Academy Award without winning one (he was nominated eight times in his career), but he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2003 for his body of work. And Tom Laughlin...well, his film work never won any awards; his films generally didn't even get that many positive reviews, but how he marketed some of them are credited for changing the way films are marketed and one of his films, "Billy Jack" was, as of 2007 at least, the highest-grossing independent film in history.

So, do these deaths count as fulfilling the Rule of Three? All three have clearly made their mark in the film industry. But their deaths came over four days, with Laughlin passing first, on December 12 at age 82, followed by O'Toole on December 14 at age 81, and Fontaine on December 15 at age 96. Or are we once again, just creating a pattern where there really isn't one?

Here is a trailer for Suspicion (1941) which starred Fontaine and Cary Grant and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock:

Although she continued to do television until the mid 1990s, one of Fontaine's last film roles came in the science fiction film "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961), in which she played a doctor studying stress on the crew of the nuclear submarine Seaview. Here is the trailer:

One of O'Toole's Academy Award nominations came for 1968's "The Lion in Winter", a brilliant film with brilliant performances from both O'Toole and his co-star, Katharine Hepburn.

In "A Lion in Winter", O'Toole plays Henry II, the same role he had played four years earlier in "Becket" (1964). Since "The Lion in Winter" is one of my favorite historical dramas, here is another scene:

O'Toole also played the title role in the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia", which is considered by many to be one of the most influential films ever made. It was one of O'Toole's first film roles, and it brought him his first Academy Award nomination, although he lost the award to Gregory Peck, who won for his role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird":

In "Billy Jack", Laughlin played a half-Native American Vietnam veteran who has taken on the task of protecting an alternative school that the local powers-that-be want closed. Although the school is all about love and peace and non-violence, Billy Jack isn't shy about using violence to defend the students and the school's headmistress, played by his real-life wife, Delores Taylor. This scene shows some of that violence, which came in for a lot of criticism from critics at the time the film was released in 1971:

Made for a budget of just $800,000, "Billy Jack" had earned $32.5 million as of 2005, largely due to Laughlin's innovative marketing of the film after he won back the rights to the film after Warner Brothers' marketing of it didn't please him on it's first release, which had come after American International Pictures had reneged on its agreement to distribute it because Laughlin wouldn't de-politicize the film.

Looking back now, "Billy Jack" was a naïve film in many ways, a product of its times. It probably wasn't a "good" film, however one assess and defines that. But, I have to admit that when I saw it as the second feature with another film that I can't even recall now, when I was in high school, I went back to see it twice more in the week before it moved on to the next theater, back in the days when most films only played for a week in any one theater.

So, I guess the question of the day is, what do you think? Is the "Rule of Three" a thing, or is it an artifact of our culture and our human need to impose patters, and meaning, on the universe?

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