Jump to: navigation, search

Philadelphia Inquirer (30/Sep/1983) - A movie legend stars once again in unaccustomed setting



A movie legend stars once again in unaccustomed setting

"Three minutes for shots," announced Richard Roud, festival director, as a highly unusual standing ovation greeted the 75-year-old Stewart at the beginning of a traditional post-screening press conference. About 200 members of the film press had just laughed and oooohed through a showing of Rear Window, the 1954 classic starring Stewart and Grace Kelly, which marks the first of five rarely seen Alfred Hitchcock films that Universal Pictures will re-release across the country, beginning next month. (It will arrive in Philadelphia next Friday.)

From the background shot of Hitchcock himself, to the smart repartee between Stewart and Kelly, there was no doubt that the light-hearted murder mystery not only still stands up - it positively dazzles. And since many of the jaded film critics don't even sit up during these things, one could forgive the normally poker-faced Roud for his pleasure at the standing reception.

"As a longtime associate of Alfred Hitchcock," came the first inquiry, "were you conversant with the dark side of his character as revealed in a recent biography (The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto)?"

The actor, lean as ever in a maroon jacket, his hair now completely white and never changing in style, paused only a moment before answering. "No, I wasn't aware of it," he replied, "because I don't think it was there."

The audience applauded, chiding the questioner and reminding him of an old rule of film journalism: One doesn't put an American movie legend on the spot; one dotes on him.

Another person wanted to know Stewart's opinion of a famous Hitchcock chestnut that "all actors are cattle."

"He corrected himself," advised the star of four of the Hitchcock films to be re-released. (The others are Vertigo, Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much; the fifth movie, The Trouble With Harry, stars Shirley MacLaine in her movie debut, and John Forsythe.) "He said actors aren't cattle, but actors should be treated like cattle.

"If that was his view," said the winner of an Oscar for best actor (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) and the recipient of four other best-actor nominations, "I think Mr. Hitchcock deserves a place in the Cowboy Hall of Fame."

In the face of such languid, gently funny and hesitant phrasing (Stewart, after all, has been talking like an old man all his life), the speech-making that often prefaces questions at festival press conferences barely surfaced. On the contrary, when the retired brigadier general asked if he had correctly understood an inquiry about the enduring value of Rear Window, the questioner shot back a "Yes, sir!" like a Boy Scout to his troop leader.

So dote they did. The assembled reporters and critics wanted to know about movies he regretted passing up (Designing Woman, starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall), his favorite role ("It's hard for me to pick out a favorite"), why some Hitchcock films have long been unavailable ("a combination," he explained, of litigation and Hitchcock's own choice) and the mood of Hitchcock's set ("completely relaxed").

Stewart treated the questions evenly, whether fawning or foolish. When one man described him as the greatest actor in the history of American movies because of his ability to create moments of "psychological detail," Stewart shifted much of the credit: "More often they're created by the cut."

When another man nearly shouted that "there's a theory going around that Mr. Hitchcock made his least interesting films when he was going on a diet," Stewart dismissed it in a line: "Alfred Hitchcock didn't know the meaning of the word 'diet.' "

With similar easygoing authority, he rejected questioners' premises right and left. To the notion that Hitchcock and Frank Capra worked in different styles, making Stewart's success with both of them a sign of sure versatility, Stewart demurred. In fact, he noted, both always started with "a complete knowledge of the story, the way they wanted to tell the story on the screen."

Hitchcock, Stewart indicated, often did no more on the set than frame a scene with his hands, leaving it to others to shoot the "square" he had marked off. "I've never seen Hitchcock look through a camera," he said to slight gasps in the audience. "I know a lot of directors who almost never stop looking through a camera."

The point that Stewart wanted to stress was Hitchcock's ability to tell a story through the images that people would see. "One of the reasons the western has been so successful so long around the world," he added, "is that no one says anything in a western."

Only one question, in the end, seemed to stymie the movie great - a query so simple that a moment's doubt seemed to arise about Stewart's memory.

A technical buff wanted to know if it was difficult for Stewart to do Rear Window's penultimate scene, in which he falls out a window.

The actor, who arrived after the screening and who, for the first time in 20 years, will see the film at a public showing tonight, could not recall the scene. Finally, he realized why he was having trouble, and he restored faith in both himself and the ways of Hollywood.

"Actually," Stewart said, "it was very easy. Because it wasn't me."