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Dizzy dancer, iconic director

Two Hollywood greats - an acrobatic dancing star and a controversial director - passed away over the last weekend. Here's a look at their memorable moments.

Donald O'Connor (right) in "Singin' in the Rain" with Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly.

IF DONALD O'Connor had never made another movie, he would still have staked his claim to a corner in the Hollywood Hall of Fame on the strength of one screen performance alone: his exuberant, dizzying, dance routines in the company of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in what is one of the greatest film musicals ever made - 1952's "Singin' in the Rain".

Last year, on the golden jubilee of this evergreen movie masterpiece, the film was digitally restored and reissued as a DVD — to entertain a new generation of film fans who were not born when this quintessential Hollywood entertainer was first released. In addition to partnering Kelly in a couple of frenetic tap dancing duets, O'Connor has his signature number, "Make 'em laugh", where he improvises some amazing movements with a prop dummy for partner. It was his own creation - he was handed some music and encouraged by co-director-actor Kelly to ``see what you can come up with''. The result was one of cinema's most inspired moments.

O'Connor died this past Sunday aged 78. Through most of the 1950s, he was a firm family favourite as the sidekick of Francis the `Talking Mule'. Together O'Connor and Francis made six pictures. Then he quit because as he explained self-deprecatingly, "The mule got more fan mail than me''. He also appeared in multiple-star films such as "There's No Business Like Show Business" and in a fictionalised story of the great Silent comedian in "The Buster Keaton Story". He came out of retirement 10 years ago to play Robin Williams' father in "Toys". But for millions of moviegoers Donald O'Connor will forever remain frozen in a time warp bounded by the 1950s - with his cheerful puckish smile and his twinkle tap dancing toes.

On the sets of "The Last Tycoon" ... Jeanne Moreau, Robert De Niro and Elia Kazan (right).

Elia Kazan, who died on September 28, within hours of Donald O'Connor, at the age of 94, was one of cinema's influential practitioners - and one of the most controversial. He brought to the stage and the screen the literary works of such towering American writers such as John Steinbeck ("East of Eden"), Arthur Miller ("Death of a Salesman") and Tennessee Williams ("A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof").

He is considered an `actor's director', having propelled to fame stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Vivien Leigh. Brando's screen career was supercharged after he appeared as Terry Malloy in the gritty 1954 Kazan film, "On The Waterfront". And again, as the brutal Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar named Desire". The film also saw Vivien Leigh deliver a wrenching performance as the tragic Blanche Dubois. James Dean's performance in "East of Eden" was one of the highlights in the all-too-brief life of this Hollywood icon. Elizabeth Taylor established her claim to be taken seriously as an actress after she partnered Paul Newman in the steamy "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof".

However, Turkey-born Kazan blotted his personal copybook and outraged an entire generation of liberal-minded filmmakers when he turned informer on so-called Communist sympathisers during the notorious Joe McCarthy-inspired witch-hunts of the early 1950s. He was ostracised by fellow Hollywood directors and made only the occasional film in later years. These included "The Arrangement", based on his own novel, in 1967, and the critical failure, "The Last Tycoon", based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, in 1976 with Robert De Niro in the title role.

In 1999, the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, but the wounds had not yet healed and some boos and hisses were heard as he received his statuette from Martin Scorsese. Even as they mourn the passing of Elia Kazan, it seems, the old controversy refuses to go away.


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