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In Memory of Oleg Yankovsky
The death of Oleg Yankovsky is an event which, as strange as it might seem, is difficult to describe according to the rules that generally apply when famous performers pass away. His role in the arts and, most importantly, his place in modern life, do not fit into the now familiar pattern. Perhaps it was not apparent during the scenes of mourning on television or during the readings of the numerous obituaries. Oleg Yankovsky’s talent and the memorability of his many roles cannot be disputed. However, it is precisely this inability that presents the main difficulty.
From what we know about Oleg Yankovsky’s life, there is perhaps only one event that has no direct relationship to his actual creative work. He was the last People's Artist of the USSR. This title was conferred to Yankovsky by Gorbachev just several days before the president’s resignation in December 1991. Perhaps now, when everything connected with Soviet symbols and regalia is becoming a subject of sentimental discussion, one can imagine how much inspiration for this outpouring can come from the loss of the “last people’s artist.” It could have given such inspiration, but it did not give it – simply because there are no forces that can bind Oleg Yankovsky to the Soviet era and, therefore, to Soviet nostalgia. Hardly anyone, though, will ever think that he did not deserve the honor, which can be considered paradoxical in a way. This is especially true if one recalls that in December the same title was conferred to Alla Pugacheva, who can be remembered for a variety of reasons, not excluding Soviet nostalgia.
Incidentally, the comparison with Pugacheva explains quite a bit. In order to become an “iconic figure,” one’s professional activities are far from the most important thing. The most important thing is the tail that follows such a “figure.” This tail can consist of almost anything – rumors, public statements, life events and participation in high-profile events. In some cases, for actors it can be sufficiently formed through work in several high-profile projects. Sometimes all it takes is a single one. The role needs to be remembered and become legendary. These legends, by the way, are often the result of a confluence of happy circumstances.
The uniqueness of Oleg Yankovsky is, perhaps, the fact that in his case there is no tail to speak of. Yankovsky was never a hero of any social events. Hardly anyone remembers his commentary on political or social issues. If there were any, it is unlikely that they played a major role in shaping his image. The personal life of Oleg Yankovsky was never discussed anywhere – simply because there was nothing that could have caused sensation. He was long and happily married to actress Ludmila Zorin.
Yankovsky will be remembered for the massive number of roles he played, although none of them will become his eternal mask and the single thing for which he is remembered. Even The Very Same Munchhausen, which was mentioned in each and every broadcast on his death, did not provide him this role. Yes, everyone remembers his role and loves the movie, and scenes of the Munchhausen rising into the sky was apparently the first thing that came to television viewers’ minds on the day of mourning. But why Munchhausen and not Andrei Nekrasov from Two Comrades Were Serving? Or Sergei Makarov from Dream Flights? One can spend quite some time listing all of Yankovsky’s good and memorable roles. This is not to mention the fact that we haven’t even seen some of his most recent works. This year we will get to evaluate Yankovsky’s performance of Metropolitan Philip in the film Tsar and of Karenin in Anna Karenina by Sergei Solovyov. This situation won’t change much, though, as Yankovsky will be remembered as a very good actor. Determining which of his roles was best is difficult, as he simply knew how to act.
No one can attribute a “target audience” of fans to Yankovsky either. He played in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Vlyublyon po sobstvennomu zhelaniyu. Any one of his roles can hardly cross out another. In Yankovsky’s life it is difficult to see a different frontier that shows up in the lives of all famous actors from the Soviet period, which is, in fact, the onset of the post-Soviet period.
Apart from the fact that Yankovsky was the last People's Artist of the USSR, we are simply unable to distinguish between those roles that he played before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. He never became a forgotten name – a master who does not fit into the new reality. But he did not conform to the requirements of the “star” that were formed in the new reality. He never became the socialite, although he seems to have been involved in various parties. He never missed the festivals, and he generally didn’t disappear from the society columns. He simply wasn’t noticeable there. He was not filmed in advertisements, although his line “smile, gentleman!” could have done very well in toothpaste advertising. He never tried new things like opening theatres or a production studio. He played in the Lenkom Theatre and continued to star in films, just as he had done in previous years.
When Oleg Yankovsky died, it turned out that the only thing that could be discussed were the roles he would be remembered for. In other words, we could only talk about that which needs to be discussed when a famous actor passes away. He managed not to leave a single unnecessary “trace.” And this, perhaps, is an enviable fate indeed.