Thursday, May 29, 2008

James Stewart: He Only Made It Look Simple


He belonged on a stamp. Ask a random bunch of Americans who represents them best, some
will say the still controversial John Wayne, others might name the somewhat unjustly forgotten
Gary Cooper, but James Stewart probably came closest to playing the classic American better than anyone.
Stewart was born one hundred years ago on May 20, 1908. Only yesterday, literally and figuratively, yet a world away from this time and place.


Through the odd alchemy of his nature, his subtle art and the long memory that film has given us, this man’s work and life has a resonance that still touches many of us. Though I’m not given to compiling top ten lists, several of his films are inevitably among the top ten on almost any list of great American movies. Among them are his iconic roles in Vertigo (1957), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Winchester ’73 (1951), and Rear Window (1956). Ford, Hitchcock, Capra, Cukor, Mann, and Preminger were among the top
rank directors who were lucky enough to have the man as their star.

Look a little closer at that image he projected in his films and, for that matter, on that stamp that the USPS issued last year to honor the actor. That’s his endearing, familiar likeness there, but there’s a shrewd glint of canniness in his eye as well. The “aw-shucks” persona that he is fondly remembered for always had a bit of steel beneath it, and as he grew more in control of his own, hard-to-define gifts, a darker, more complex side would emerge on screen. He may conjure up what has come to be termed “Americanism”, but there was always an ambivalent aspect to his behavioral acting. Once directors such as Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock tapped into that dark vein in his characters, the results had a truly dark edge of willful, sometimes comic, and often tragic madness in films such as Harvey (1950) and Vertigo (1957)...More on the TCM Movie Morlocks

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