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Windsor Star (29/May/1987) - Cotten admits vanity got him somewhere



Cotten admits vanity got him somewhere

In his prime moviemaking years, Joseph Cotten epitomized home-grown savoir-faire — a polished boyishness that he modulated equally well into callowness or poise.

It was a quality prized by great directors like Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Alfred Hitchcock, who in the single decade of the '40s put him into the best American family drama (Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons), the best Hitchcock thriller, at least according to Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt), the best postwar thriller (Reed's The Third Man) and the Great American Movie itself (Citizen Kane).

Cotten's performances in these movies demonstrate how self-trained film stars forged singular, intimate relationships with the camera.

In 1937 he joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theater and in '39 scored a sensation as Katharine Hepburn's ex-husband (the role later played by Cary Grant) in the original stage production of The Philadelphia Story.

But however accomplished he was as a stage actor, when you see him in his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), or in his third film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Cotten seems every inch a movie actor. As Kane's theater critic Jed Leland, Cotten acted drunken, foolish, sappy and gloomy, yet also rose to moments of truth, decision and daring; as auto inventor Eugene Morgan in Ambersons, he was grounded, even adamant, yet also light, debonair and silly.

Cotten has labelled his autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (it's just been published by Mercury House, 235 pages, $17.95 US). The title is self-deprecating, not arrogant. It must have taken enormous drive for this actor, born in 1905 in the Tidewater section of Virginia, to forsake the family destiny of becoming a banker or a businessman — a Virginia gentleman. He set out on a road that led from Petersburg, Va. to Washington, D.C., in 1923 (where he attended the Hickman School of Expression and played semi-pro football), to New York in 1924 (where he worked in a paint warehouse while struggling to break on to Broadway), and, more successfully, to Miami a couple of years later, where he acted in the Miami Civic Theater and occasionally reviewed plays for the Miami Herald.

When trying out for a CBS Radio show in New York, he ran into that fabulous Orson Welles. Welles soon delivered the acute career prognosis that Cotten puts right at the centre of his autobiography:

"You're very lucky to be tall and thin and have curly hair. You can also move about the stage without running into the furniture. But these are fringe assets, and I'm afraid you'll never make it as an actor. A lazy tongue, still with a regional accent, no training in the classics, and a stubborn resistance (he was too charitable to say 'inability') to submerge and twist personal characteristics to fit specific roles. Nope, I'm afraid you'll never make it as an actor. But as a star, I think you well might hit the jackpot."

Welles meant this as a job description, not an affront. He proved it by giving Cotten important roles and creative leeway in all three of the films he made for RKO as Mercury Productions.

Later, in a series of films for producer David O. Selznick, Cotten turned into a complicated figure of romance. No one has been better at portraying innocence lost, innocence regained, innocence preserved.