Classic Ellis: Mitchum and Stewart, July 1997

There are movie stars who are lucky and movie stars who are special. Among the lucky I would count (in no particular order) Tom Cruise, Tab Hunter, Bob Wagner, Kim Novak, Jane Fonda, Liz Taylor, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Bogart was special. Tracy. Wayne. Henry Fonda. James Earl Jones. Bergman. Hepburn. Both Davises. Both Grants – no, make that three (I’ve just read Richard E’s diaries and they’re superb). And Mitchum of course, and Jimmy Stewart – both, in a devastating double whammy (devastating for those of a certain age), gone from us this week – though always present, I suppose, as push-button ghosts.

I drank with Al Clark and Richard Brennan and Ross Matthews the day after Mitchum went and we’re gathering on his eightieth birthday next month toast him a bit and eat a meal and see Rachel and the Stranger in which he sings like Crosby. He was an interesting man, a published poet and Oscar-winning songwriter (Thunder Road) and the actor that Charles Laughton most wanted to see play Macbeth. A fatherless quarter-Indian who rode the rails in the thirties and as a Los Angeles bartender served whiskies to Raymond Chandler and as an assembly-line worker befriended Marilyn Monroe’s first husband Jim Doherty and went home with him sometimes for ill-cooked meals that Marilyn, eighteen then and bigger in the nose than she was to be, often burnt. He got his start in Hopalong Cassidy one-reelers, an Oscar nomination for The Story of GI Joe, and, in his own words, ‘never looked back’. He was a devoted family man and (in a not unusual combination) a tremendous womaniser (I remember with pleasure Edna O’Brien’s flushed response on a Parkinson show to Mitchum’s ‘How is it, doll?’), a serious drinker of spirits and early fan of marijuana, famously gaoled for it once, but was never out of work because, he explained, ‘I work cheap.’

The character he provided, quintessentially in Out of the Past and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (ruefully sobbing as he undressed the feverish nun), was working-class America’s best image of itself – reined in, self-knowing, fond of the odd glass, graceful, sardonic, the graduate cum laude of a sinful past. In Cape Fear a woman goes to bed with him and afterwards he asks why. ‘I just wanted to know,’ she says, ‘what it was like to know I couldn’t sink any lower.’ He reacts, characteristically, with one of his well-thank-you-kindly-ma’am-and-fuck-you-too inclinations of the head, a gesture that fitted him well to play an Australian, as he did unerringly in The Sundowners, giving in it, in a character that predated Jack Thompson in Sunday Too Far Away by fifteen years, the best rendition yet on film of The Wild Colonial Boy.

He dignified the underclass, who adored him for it, as for a moment Sylvester Stallone later did, and Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen for longer and John Williamson in our country. He was a one-off and, as Al Clark said, ‘living proof, while he lived, that you can abuse your body to hell and live a long time if you’ve got a good constitution to start with.’ And so it goes. I hope we give him a good birthday party.

Jimmy Stewart, who almost certainly topped himself (as he was threatening to do all last year), was different; not least in being the best, most naturalistic English-speaking screen actor probably ever. Only three other screen performers, and all to a lesser degree, emulated what he could do: Kristin Scott Thomas, Hugh Grant and Noah Taylor. This capacity to be wholly alive and seemingly spontaneous before the camera, he pretty well invented.

He was both subtle and theatrical, with twitches and yelps and hand flutters and heavy hysterics his friend and room-mate Henry Fonda, for instance, would have found undignified. He brought male neurosis to the screen and a tight-coiled feline readiness to do ill, to rage and threaten murder. You remember with a frisson his denunciation of his former pupils in Rope (‘You’re gonna die, Norman!’) and his relentless dragging of Novak up the stairs at the top of which he plans to kill her in Vertigo. But he could be poignant too. His arrival in the devastated house of his dead children in Shenandoah, and his picking up of the surviving infant and his whimpering utterance, ‘It’s good to have a baby in the house’ (or words to that effect), I rank very high (along with Brando’s ‘Stella! Stella!’) in cinema acting.

He came from the other side of the tracks from Mitchum. WASP. Scottish. Semi-prosperous, with a shopkeeper father (who displayed his son’s Oscar in his shop for forty years), he was a university graduate in architecture and a simple-hearted, eventually Goldwaterite patriot not far in his naivety from his Mr Smith, who put himself on the line for his country like Gable and Olivier and Niven and Guinness (while Wayne and Mitchum and Reagan skulked in Santa Monica), flying bombers over Germany and rising to the rank of brigadier general and because of his values losing a son in Vietnam. His film roles reflected this a bit – The FBI Story and The Spirit of Saint Louis and Strategic Air Command and The Glenn Miller Story, though his left-wing friend Henry Fonda in what was clearly an ad lib in The Cheyenne Social Club accused him of voting Democrat all along and Stewart said, ‘No c-c-comment’, or words to that effect.

And so it goes. It’s curious how little all this matters when an actor gives you so much of your memory – the jaded lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, the suicidal good man who has quietly changed the world for the better and does not know it in It’s A Wonderful Life, the voice of the doddery bloodhound deputy sheriff in Feivel Goes West. Like the very few Hollywood great actors (Newman, Fonda, Hepburn, Streep) Stewart returned again and again to the legitimate stage (the last time for a year in Harvey) and was of course magnificent on it, that extraordinary voice cutting through the footlights like a hot knife through butter.

And so it goes. The era is nearly done. Bacall is alive and working and Hepburn not dead and Sinatra sourly hanging on and Rooney still absurdly tapdancing and Ronald Reagan pretty well embalmed. But we will not see its like again. No-one will write of Arnold Schwarzenegger the way they wrote of Bogart. The actors will mean less as the technology overwhelms them and television crowds them out of consciousness. They were all of our dream life once, of those then glad to be alive. And now no more.

And so it goes.

  1. A little postscript. The morning after the Parkinson show I saw Robert Mitchum on the 22 bus from Putney Common. Edna O’Brien lived near Putney Common. And so it goes, some would say.

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