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Arts and culture stars who died in 2019 – BBC News

Robert Frank

For all that he’s hardly a household name, Robert Frank was arguably one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century: an artist who redefined what documentary photography looked like, and changed our view of the US, his adopted homeland, for good. Though Frank’s career stretched across the best part of five decades, he will always be remembered for The Americans, a photobook record of road journeys he made criss-crossing America in the mid-1950s. Eighty-three black-and-white pictures, captured in locations as far-flung as New Jersey and Santa Fe, The Americans caused outrage in the US for its unvarnished portraits of America and its people, and for its unblinking portrayal of racism and rural poverty. But, for all its political bite, it is the urgent beauty of Frank’s work that stays with you – captured on the fly, these images are by turns intimate, poignant, joyous and scaldingly sad. No one had a sharper eye than Frank for the cracks in the paintwork of the American Dream; or a kinder one. He died on 9 September aged 94. (AD)

Toni Morrison

Novelist, essayist, playwright and songwriter, Toni Morrison, who died on 5 August at the age of 88, was a titan. Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Ohio in 1931, she fell for literature early, and initially embarked on a career in academia, and then publishing. Her autobiographical first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, but her best-known novel remains Beloved, based on the true story of a runaway slave who killed her daughter rather than let her be recaptured. Morrison’s might as a chronicler of the African-American experience lies not in her work’s intense lyricism but in her determination not to avert her gaze, and she leaves behind pages of indelible, ever-necessary images. She remains the only African-American writer – and one of all too few women – to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (HA)

Albert Finney 

Finney was more than simply a brilliant performer – rather, as one of a wave of working-class actors who rose to the top in the 1960s, he helped revolutionise the profession. The son of a Salford bookmaker, he went to Rada, and after leaving, quickly excelled on the stage in Shakespeare, among other things. The film role that made his name was rather less classical, however: as one of the era’s iconic ‘angry young men’, Arthur Seaton in 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he had a raw, visceral screen charisma to burn. Another career-making part as the roguish lead in Tony Richardson’s 1963 adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones followed, gaining him the first of five Oscar nominations.

Throughout his career, Finney avoided typecasting. His versatility was shown in the range of his performances, from his ripe turns as Hercule Poirot in 1974’s star-studded Murder on the Orient Express, and as an embittered thespian in the 1983 adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, to his more understated work as the cuckolded Classics master in the 1994 take on Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, and a kindly, world-weary lawyer in Erin Brockovich (2000). One of his last great performances came on the small screen: in the BBC/HBO drama The Gathering Storm, he played Winston Churchill to formidable effect. He died on 7 February, aged 82. (HM)

Scott Walker

Scott Walker’s music could be sweetly melodic or utterly startling; it always exuded a strange allure. Born Noel Scott Engel in the US, he relocated to Britain in the mid-60s, initially seizing fame as frontman of The Walker Brothers, whose distinctly poignant strain of pop yielded classics including The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore) and their version of Make It Easy On Yourself; he also hosted his own TV show. Scott Walker’s vocals – richly brooding, often arch – always remained unmistakeable, but his repertoire constantly evolved, moving into increasingly experimental realms through his solo records (such as the surreal serenades of 1969’s hypnotic Scott 4) and collaborations. He was an enigmatic figure, and retired from live performance (even when he curated London’s Meltdown Festival in 2000), yet he was no recluse; he worked with indie acts including Pulp, Bat For Lashes and Seattle avant rockers Sunn O))), was cited as an influence by David Bowie, and continued to release evocative, unpredictable work, whether wielding industrial showtunes (Bish Bosch, 2012) or composing sleek movie scores (Vox Lux, 2018). By the time of his death, aged 76, Walker had established his own creative scene, without limits. (AH)

Agnès Varda

“I’m playing the part of a little old lady,” Agnès Varda says in her wise, lyrical memoir-as-film The Beaches of Agnes (2008). By then the New Wave pioneer had become the beloved granny of cinema, known for fiction and non-fiction alike. No wonder she has more films in BBC Culture’s poll of the Greatest Films Directed by Women than anyone else. Her astonishing range went beyond gender, though, with films that remain startling in their intimacy, innovation and social resonance. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) is a graceful New Wave classic about a woman confronting mortality. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) is a feminist anthem dealing with abortion. In documentaries, like The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda appears on screen, a curious, inviting presence. And Jacquot de Nantes (1991), about her husband, director Jacques Demy, is a beautiful hybrid of memory and fiction. She was creative to the end. Her white hair with a bright red border perfectly captured how Varda acknowledged age but resisted its power to stop her. She died on 29 March at the age of 90. (CJ)

Peter Fonda

The son of Henry, brother of Jane, and father of Bridget, Peter Fonda worked steadily for decades, and was Oscar-nominated for his sensitive performance in Ulee’s Gold (1997). But he will always be associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, when a remark of his – “I know what it’s like to be dead” – was used by John Lennon in The Beatles’ She Said She Said. His defining role was as a philosophical biker in Easy Rider (1969), the radical semi-improvised road movie he made with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. He had enough humour and self-awareness to pastiche that role in Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs (both 2007), among other films, in which his square-jawed Californian handsomeness was as striking as ever. He died on 16 August, aged 79. (NB)

Judith Kerr

In Judith Kerr’s last interview, she told The Guardian her guiltiest pleasure was to drink the dregs of whisky from the night before. Published just days before her death, this cheeky, charming statement was textbook Kerr, symbolic of the character of much of her work. Most famous for her children’s books The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the 17-title Mog series, Kerr spent most of her life in the UK, having fled from Germany with her Jewish family when she was 13. She won a scholarship to the Central School of Art and Design, and wrote more than 30 books, many of which she also illustrated. She was appointed OBE in 2012 for services to children’s literature and Holocaust education, received a lifetime achievement award from the British literary charity BookTrust, and in the week before her death, was named illustrator of the year at the British Book Awards. In a radical move for a children’s author, Kerr wrote Goodbye Mog in 2002, in which the beloved feline dies. In an interview about the book, she told The Guardian “I’m coming up to 80… and you begin to think about those who are going to be left… I just wanted to say: Remember. Remember me. But do get on with your lives.” She died on 22 May at the age of 95. (AC)

João Gilberto

João Gilberto, celebrated as the founding father of Brazilian bossa nova (‘new wave’), and known as O Mito (‘the legend’) had an unusually commanding way with melodies. His softly persuasive vocals and gently lilting guitar rhythms were also fantastically insistent, becoming synonymous with the Carioca chic of 60s Rio de Janeiro. Gilberto himself had been born in Bahia, and also forged a significant bond with US jazz musicians, notably saxophonist Stan Getz (with whom he recorded a series of classic albums), but Rio was the hotbed of his sound, which merged traditional roots such as samba with a contemporary energy. His collaborations with Antônio Carlos Jobim took bossa nova to an international audience, and inspired further Brazilian innovators, such as Caetano Veloso; his 1958 version of Chega de Saudade (‘No More Blues’, with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes) was a crossover smash, and his most legendary track was arguably The Girl From Ipanema, notably a version sung by his then-wife Astrud Gilberto. Gilberto’s dreamy brilliance lingers, like a cool breeze across pop culture. He died on 6 July, at the age of 88. (AH)

Doris Day

Doris Day’s image was so wholesome that even her sex comedies were innocent. Those movies seem quaint now, but in the 1950s and 60s they made her one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office stars. In films like Pillow Talk (1959), Rock Hudson tried to seduce her and never succeeded. The attempt alone was racy for its time. Day started as a singer, whose 1945 hit recording of Sentimental Journey established her style, expressively bringing out the emotions of the lyrics. On screen she brought warmth and freckle-faced girl-next-door naturalness to dozens of films, including the musicals Calamity Jane (1953), and The Pajama Game (1957). Atypically, she starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Her character’s background as a singer gave Day an excuse to perform Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be), which became a pop hit and her signature song. Day said her purer-than-snow image was “more make-believe than any film part I ever played,” but it endeared her to generations of fans. She died on 13 May at the age of 97. (CJ)

Karl Lagerfeld

With his trademark dark glasses, fingerless gloves and white ponytail, Karl Lagerfeld was a master of self-mythology. He was also a genius of design – bringing his irreverent alchemy to all he touched. Born in Hamburg, he moved to Paris as a teenager, and, untrained, worked his way up in fashion. He became creative director of Fendi, and then, from 1983, of Chanel. He transformed the venerable house, and created spectacular catwalk shows. Vogue supremo Anna Wintour said of him: “He represents the soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking and voraciously attentive to our changing culture.” He was well-known for his pithy declarations, among them “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” and “I’m very much down to Earth. Just not this Earth.” He died on 15 February at the age of 85. (LB)

John Singleton

John Singleton was only 23 when his debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, broke new ground in its depiction of ghetto life in South Central Los Angeles. Calling himself “the first film-maker from the hip-hop generation”, he also became the first African-American ever to be nominated for the best director Oscar, and he remains the youngest ever nominee in that category. Singleton went on to direct action movies which appealed more to multiplex audiences than to awards voters (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious), and his career tailed off in the last decade, making it all the sadder that he died at just 51, on 28 April, before he had the chance to make the comeback he deserved. (NB)

Jessye Norman

The US operatic soprano Jessye Norman was renowned for her glorious poise and technical prowess, but she also delivered iconic roles and recitals from Purcell to Bizet, Beethoven and Verdi with an exceptional warmth and emotive drama. She would recollect her Deep South upbringing in her acclaimed 2014 memoir, Stand Up Straight And Sing!, and she also committed to providing inclusive opportunities for youth, by co-founding the free Jessye Norman School for the Arts in her birthplace of Augusta, Georgia. Norman’s numerous legendary performances included her 1989 Bastille Day bicentenary appearance – wrapped in a Tricolour robe, singing La Marseillaise (broadcast to a global audience of around 500 million); she performed Amazing Grace at an anti-apartheid concert marking Mandela’s 70th birthday; she graced ceremonies for presidents and royalty, and her many accolades included a lifetime achievement Grammy (2006). Norman’s immaculate high art appealed emphatically to the heart. She died on 30 September at the age of 74. (AH)

Rutger Hauer

The Dutch actor, is of course, best known for one role: the replicant Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. And his place in cinema history is assured by one iconic, climactic scene in that sci-fi classic: where his dying cyborg character declares in a heart-rending final monologue that all his memories will be lost like “tears in rain”. It’s a parting shot all the more poignant for the fact that the key lines were written by Hauer himself. 

That beautiful moment aside, Hauer had a prolific and eclectic career right up until the end. He first made his name in the 1970s in his home country, forming a rich working relationship with director Paul Verhoeven. His US debut came as the villain in the 1981 Sylvester Stallone thriller Nighthawks, before Blade Runner then firmly put him on the Hollywood map, leading to other memorable roles as a psychopathic hitch-hiker in The Hitcher (1986), and an atypically heroic turn in fantasy drama Ladyhawke (1985). In recent times, he became something of a b-movie icon, mixing cameos in the likes of Sin City and Batman Begins with innumerable roles in grindhouse-style thrillers and horrors. But whatever the scale of the project, Hauer’s intense energy made everything he did never less than compelling. He died on 19 July, aged 75. (HM)

Robert Evans

As the head of production at Paramount Pictures, and then as an independent producer, Robert Evans oversaw some of the greatest films of the 1960s and 70s, including The Godfather, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. But he was almost as famous for a private life, which epitomised the sleazier side of Hollywood glamour. By the time of his death on 26 October at the age of 89, he had been married seven times, been convicted of cocaine-trafficking, and had inspired numerous fictional wheeler-dealers, including Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. His personal and professional lives came together in The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), a documentary adapted from his wry tell-all memoir. It was one of the most entertaining of all the films to benefit from his contributions. (NB)

Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy didn’t start writing until her 30s and published just six books, but her fiction won a wide readership, and had an outsize impact on British publishing, forcibly demonstrating that stories with black protagonists could have universal appeal. Born in 1956 to Jamaican immigrants of mixed descent, and raised in a north London council flat, her awareness of her own ethnicity was awakened by a racist slight in young adulthood. It brought urgency to her warm, funny prose, and galvanised her award-winning break-out novel, Small Island, which gave an irrepressible voice to the Windrush generation of which her parents were a part. It has since sold over a million copies in the UK alone. Levy died on 14 February at the age of 62. (HA)

IM Pei

IM Pei was a Chinese-American architect whose bold geometries and dazzling use of glass and concrete earned him great acclaim. Born in Canton in 1917, Pei grew up in Shanghai, then studied architecture in the US, where he stayed. Among his most famous buildings are the beautifully-crafted, modernist East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the sharp, sky-high Hancock Tower in Boston. In 1983 he won the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture. In 1989, the Louvre Pyramid was completed, and the stunning glass-and-metal structure has since become a famous Paris landmark. Pei said: “If there’s one thing I know I didn’t do wrong, it’s the Louvre.” He died on 16 May at the age of 102. (LB)

Terry O’Neill

O’Neill was a photographer from another era: a member of the British Fleet Street paparazzi who rose from photographing celebrities to become a kind of celebrity himself. A jobbing snapper who found that his Cockney gift of the gab meant he could charm rich and famous folk into posing for him, O’Neill photographed anyone who was anyone in the 1960s and 70s. Among those he shot were The Rolling Stones, Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch, Elvis, David Bowie and a small galaxy of starlets (a number of whom, he liked to boast, also ended up in his bed). As well as his instinct for finding a fresh angle that could jump off a magazine page, it was O’Neill’s talent for photographic flattery that paid off. Though his images are often candid – a moody Bowie dwarfed by his barking dog, Faye Dunaway hanging out with her Oscar by the pool – his subjects never lose their all-important allure. He died on 16 November at the age of 81. (AD)

Mary Oliver

One of America’s most popular poets, and certainly its bestselling, Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, where the need to escape a dysfunctional childhood made her first a reader and then a writer. Her muse was the natural world, and over a career spanning more than 50 years and laurels aplenty, she hymned the owls and frogs and wild geese of New England, where she settled with her lifelong partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook. The sheer accessibility of her generous work sometimes made critics leery, but beneath its calm surface there pulses a luminous life force, and it wasn’t unusual for fans to credit her with teaching them how to live. She died on 17 January at the age of 83. (HA)

Stanley Donen

Director Stanley Donen made the camera his dance partner, and helped shape the singing, dancing, gleeful Hollywood musical at its best. His films include some of the most iconic moments on screen. Co-directing with Gene Kelly, he turned splashing around in puddles into the joyful Singin’ in the Rain (1952). As a solo director, he had Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951), and singing to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957). His musicals were groundbreaking in the fluid way he made choreography and songs truly cinematic. In the 1960s, he directed sophisticated dramas, two with Hepburn, the thriller Charade (1963) and the bittersweet marital saga Two for the Road (1967). Inspired by watching Astaire on screen, Donen arrived in Hollywood as an aspiring dancer, but his best move was to glide behind the camera. He died on 21 Feb at the age of 94. (CJ)

Michel Legrand

The French composer Michel Legrand created some of most memorable, romantically lush film scores of the past 50 years. If you happen to hear The Windmills of Your Mind and it lingers in your head, you’re hearing Legrand’s legacy. He won an Academy Award for that song, from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and for the scores of Summer of ‘42 (1971) and, in a less romantic vein, Barbara Streisand’s Yentl (1983). Beyond Hollywood, he was a prolific pianist, arranger, accompanist and singer throughout his long career. He began as a jazz pianist and arranger, whose acclaimed 1958 album Legrand Jazz featured performances from some of the greats, including Miles Davis and John Coltrane. From the 1960s on, he composed elegant scores for his friends in the French New Wave. Jacques Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) includes what would become one of Legrand’s most famous songs, I Will Wait for You. Like so much of his music, its melody, full of yearning and heartbreak, lingers. He died on 26 January at the age of 86. (CJ)

Written by: Hephzibah Anderson, Lindsay Baker, Nicholas Barber, Amy Charles, Andy Dickson, Arwa Haider, Caryn James and Hugh Montgomery.

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