When famous people pass, you sometimes want to give them their due for the nature of their fame and celebrity, to be able to say: this is the nature of the loss, this is what made them special, this is how they were present in and sometimes altered the world they lived in.
With singer Nancy Wilson, who died Dec. 13, her fame was a question of category, an issue which in the end she reserved for herself.
With actress and film director Penny Marshall, who died four days later, it was about category but also about boundaries — and busting through them.
With both, it was a matter of originality. People are always being compared to other people, when in truth nobody could do things the way they did them.
Wilson, for decades a popular, admired and a busy, busy, hardworking singer, always seemed to be more than the material she worked with, the songs she loved and sang, the world she inhabited. She made the music her own, and altered it in a way that added something, a special sheen and shine, glow and feel.
People always thought of her as being central in the world of jazz, as in “female jazz singer.” She was variously described as a jazz singer, a blues singer, a pop singer, starring in one or the other like a bright light, when she wasn’t any one thing. She liked to say, emphatically, that she was a “song stylist,” which was very much true, in the sense that she brought a certain polished, glowing quality to the songs, making them not baubles but diamonds.
That world of jazz, pop and blues was heavily populated by big name, memorable female vocalists. Among them were Dinah Washington (whom Wilson admired immensely), Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and so on.
Wilson — who loved doing concerts and recording them, who came from a middle-class Ohio background, who was a civil rights activist — sang songs that were familiar, for sure, but which she delivered like a grown-up, even when she was a youngster. She was a knowing, talking and singing voice of experience, no matter what the song. If a chanteuse could be a realist, Wilson was it.
Her songs were always about love, right from the beginning. Her first album, 1960’s “Like in Love,” had heft, containing the music of Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ahmad Jamal, Ralph Freed, Mack Gordon, Harry Warren, Cole Porter and Sammy Cahn. These were show-tune classics, pop smashes, but she made them cross over into jazzy flair. With her voice and emotions, they popped.
She performed all of the time, on television, in clubs, overseas and often at Blues Alley in Georgetown. There is a 1993 copyrighted film, part of the “Jazz on the Screen” filmography by David Meeker in the Library of Congress, called “Miss Nancy Wilson Live at Blues Alley.”
She had an undeniable beauty and way about her. Physically, even as she aged from gorgeous, torchy, zingy young woman to graceful older woman, she was never not beautiful. She sang love songs ruefully, as if all the sad songs, the triumphant songs, the love-gone-wrong songs, the I-want-you-I-love-you songs held a secret key of understanding, and she had that key in her purse.
Watching and listening on YouTube, nothing seems more here-and-now, as well as there-and-then, as “Guess Who I Saw Today?” A video of a glamourous Wilson has her whipping conversationally and sharply through the song about male ingratitude, the answer to “Guess Who I Saw Today?” being: you, with someone else.
Penny Marshall shined in a different light and a different arena: showbiz in its many facets, with audiences (not to mention profits) in the millions. Her brother was the late Garry Marshall, who dominated the big screen and the small screen with his mostly comedic creations that often seemed intertwined — and his sister Penny was in the net.
A busy actress, she had parts in Garry’s “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple,” but busted out starring in the long-running “Laverne and Shirley” with Cindy Williams. “Laverne and Shirley” had Marshall and Williams as working-class best friends who toiled on the assembly line at a beer factory in Milwaukee, in a show both realistic and fantasy-like.
It was when Marshall decided to stop acting and work behind the camera as a director that she made her true mark and proved once and for all that a female director could make a $100-million movie — several, in fact.
Her films — “Big,” with its famous dancing-on-the-piano scene with Tom Hanks, and “A League of Their Own” — were huge financial hits. Less financially successful but still appealing and different were “The Preachers Wife,” “Renaissance Man” and the emotionally affecting “Awakenings,” with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, the latter playing a man waking up from a 30-year coma.
Just as her brother as a movie director seemed to specialize in romantic blockbusters like “Pretty Woman” and “Runaway Bride” with the appealing Julia Roberts, so Penny Marshall, with more diversified and serious interests, managed to touch different emotions. Personally, in terms of enjoyment, emotions, and entertainment, I can’t think of too many movies as pleasing as “A League of Their Own,” about a league of female baseball players.
Marshall was often seen as trafficking in the overly sentimental, but her work in this film (in spite of the presence of Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell), was grounded in honest feelings and by the affecting, solid presence of Geena Davis and grump Tom Hanks. Her movies seemed closer to the ideas of human beings as opposed to stereotypes performing in genre movies.
Both Nancy Wilson and Penny Marshall added a part of their unique selves, brought their special, transformative gifts to the arenas where their light shined: music in Wilson’s case and movies in Marshall’s.