Saturday, February 20, 2010

Best American Actor?

Last night I gave the Olympics a rest and switched to a time-worn PBS documentary about my favorite actor James Stewart. My respect for Stewart grew tremendously over the years I taught a high school film course. Whether it was an awkwardly charming and naive young idealist, a grizzled, tough westerner, or a middle-aged man in throes of unexpected passion, Stewart gave perceptively deep performances. Many credit Spencer Tracy as America's finest male actor because of his natural ease on the screen, his lack of "acting." But Stewart is often accused of just being himself, and he is the object of much parody because of his occasional habit of wide-eyed innocence and even stuttering. Obviously, the detractors have not really seen the art of Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart began as a light comedian in the 1930's and became a star when he climbed aboard the Frank Capra American express in 1937's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, a comedy about a family of eccentrics. Stewart plays a stiff blueblood who falls for the only normal member of the family, a spunky Jean Arthur. The film hit big and even won a Best Film Oscar. In 1939, Capra, Stewart, and Arthur collaborated on a much more memorable film in the most memorable year in film history. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON established Stewart as a romantic lead as well as a symbol of the good, unspoiled American. Among many priceless moments is one in which he awkwardly tries to say goodbye to the Senator's daughter, knocking over a lamp and losing his hat in the process. His comic timing is flawless. In 1942, Stewart won his only (!) Oscar as Best Actor for George Cukor's sophisticated comedy of manners THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Katharine Hepburn plays society belle Tracy Lord opposite Cary Grant as her former husband and Stewart as news reporter. Naturally both men want her and spend the majority of the film in pursuit. Stewart's finest scenes come when he is drunk on champagne. After a midnight swim the two spar romantically with some of the best dialogue in all of romantic comedy. But the real pay-off comes when Stewart visits Grant and declares his love for the playboy's former wife. Grant is wonderfully suave and sober opposite Stewart's free-wheeling drunk.

After Stewart's outstanding military service, he returned to film his most iconic role, George Bailey, in Frank Capra's fantasy IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Sporting one of the finest ensemble casts in Hollywood's history, this tale of an ordirnary man who does far more for the world than he knows has now achieved its own sainthood, and the main credit goes to its star. Whether he's playing the cock-eyed optimistic youth who must give up his dreams to save the Savings and Loan or the desperate man attempting suicide after his firm loses its money, Stewart invests his role with a humanity that few actors can muster. Two scenes stand out. George goes to Mary's house and they awkwardly argue. When George's wealthy friend calls, Mary calls him to the phone as her nervous mother listens above. As the friend prattles on, George and Mary close in on each other until he grabs her and denies his affection and then they break into tears and embrace each other. The second comes on Christmas Eve when George thinks he has lost everything. As he walks into his home, he is besieged by his children with Christmas good will, but he finally breaks down, yells at his child, then embraces her before he storms out of the house. There is a ferocity, a helplessness that Stewart pulls out for these scenes that is almost scary.

But it was late in his career that Stewart gave his defining performance. The film was Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO, based on a French psychological novel. Filmed largely in San Francisco and drawing on the city's history and aura, VERTIGO originally puzzled viewers and was not a success with critics or audiences. However, it has reached the status of being on practically every top best films list and is definitely Hitchcock's finest film. The story depicts an aging bachelor cop who has had to retire from the force because of his condition of vertigo. Except for this disablity, he seems steady with his life. All that changes when he accepts a detective's job following the beautiful but strange wife of a multimillionaire. We embark on a dreamlike descent into romantic obsession as Scotty Ferguson becomes obsessed with Madeleine. The film has many surprises and magnificent set pieces. Of the latter, Scotty and Madeleine's embrace by the Pacific sets the mark for all-out romanticism of the old Hollywood style. Of course, the tower scene ranks as one of Hitchcock's most mesmerizing, and we get to see it from three different perspectives, all of them answering but posing more questions. There have been many studies of middle-age crisis, but none probes such depths as this one. That can be seen and felt in Stewart's wrenching performance. James Stewart went on to play many other roles, but he never again received the challenge of VERTIGO.

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