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American Film (1976) - Aren't You... Jimmy Stewart?




Aren't You... Jimmy Stewart?

Like "Pie," his favorite horse, he was his own personality and still likes to be in front of the pack.

When James Stewart talks, he holds out his right hand and moves it slowly, grasping at the air, as if trying to coax the words out. The hesitations and pauses which impressionists love to mimic — and which Stewart himself kids about, saying of Rich Little's imitation, " 'S amazing... I just... I enjoy it very much" — seem the result of a genuine bewilderment in trying to understand the ways of the world. It's a quality of boyish curiosity he somehow manages to retain at age sixty-seven, in his fortieth year as a screen actor. Stewart may be one of the few truly innocent people left in Hollywood. That is what makes him so appealing to young audiences today, as evidenced by the tumultuous response to his Frank Capra films at a retrospective of the actor's work last year in Los Angeles.

In conversation, Stewart works hard to talk about his career, but he also insists that it's futile to expect the "magic" of screen acting to come across in words. "I've looked upon it as a skill rather than as an art," he says. "And part of the skill, I've always thought, is to make it so the acting doesn't show. As the skill develops, the acting...shows less, and believability comes sneaking into the thing. This is the magic. People just can't put their finger on it, and it really drives 'em right up the wall because they can't. I hope they never can, because this is one of the fascinating things about the business."

Stewart recently played his first screen role in more than four years as John Wayne's doctor in The Shootist, a Western directed by Don Siegel. On the set, waiting for the technicians to set up the equipment for his first scene with Wayne, Stewart sat quietly in his chair, lost in thought, while Wayne played chess in his dressing room.

Once described by journalist Pete Martin as the "shyest guy in Hollywood," Stewart later spoke softly with Siegel and Wayne between takes, seeming intense and absorbed, devoting careful attention to familiarizing himself with his medical props. Wayne, by contrast, was boisterous and blustery, cracking loud jokes with the crew. The two veteran actors used a kind of shorthand with each other, conferring mostly on timing and other technical points. Siegel, when he finally called for action, added, "please."

Though good film roles for Stewart have admittedly been "hard to come by" in recent years, thus making him devote much of his time to television and theater, the adulation he's been receiving for his stage performances and his role in The Shootist have been a tonic for him. " It was a very pleasant experience," he said after finishing the brief part. "It was like not having been away at all. If this trend in Westerns is really an authentic thing — and I believe it is — we're going to get some more roles. I think there's room for characters my age, not living in the past exactly, but trying to cope with change while living in the legend of the past." Stewart regrets that so much of the spirit has gone out of Hollywood today, with the demise of the old studio system and with its replacement by the bitterly competitive system of independent deal making.

Ironically, Stewart helped to pioneer the modern profit participation and salary deferment payment method for stars, through the deal Lew Wasserman (then an agent, now head of MCA, Inc., which runs Universal Pictures) made for him on Winchester 73 in 1950. But the only complaint Stewart has in retrospect about the old studio system is the way it bound actors to long-term contracts. Of his days as an MGM player in the 1930s, he has only fond memories, and he ridicules the contemporary notion that MGM was an impersonal factory.

"As young as I was, and as inexperienced as I was in the business, it was perfectly obvious that this just wasn't true," Stewart says. "The people not only were given the chance, they were encouraged. And the people that had the ability...why, they gave 'em the studio! They could do anything they wanted to. I think what it all comes down to is a love of the motion picture. In all those studio heads there was a tremendous judgment, as far as what people would like. They had taste, in a curious way. The executives today — I'm not saying they don't measure up, talent-wise, business-wise, and judgment-wise — but the business is such that it's hard for them to develop this absolutely genuine love and affection for the idea of the motion picture and for what effect it has on the audience. This was brought home to me by John Ford more than by anybody else. If there's a love there, then there's respect, and if there's respect, then you... you want to improve. You want to work harder at the craft. And as a craft, it's something that you never...finish learning."

Cntic Andrew Sarris has called Stewart' 'the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema," and one of the reasons he merits that description is his exceptional record of collaborating effectively with a widely varied list of first-rate directors. Stewart has worked for more good directors than probably any other American film star, a list which includes such contrasting stylists as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra and Anthony Mann, Ernst Lubitsch and George Stevens, Frank Borzage and Billy Wilder, Clarence Brown and Henry Hathaway, W.S. Van Dyke and Cecil B. DeMille. In the delightful piece on Stewart included in his book Pieces of Time, Peter Bogdanovich quoted Ford as saying, "He was good in anything. Played himself but he played the character. People just liked him."

Talking with Stewart about his directors, one is led to believe that he worked the same way with virtually all of them, feeling his way through the role, not verbalizing much, not going into long huddles about motivation ("I've heard tell... y'know... about the long conferences before a take or before a scene... I've heard about this"). Stewart also prefers directors who "don't move the camera much," and professes to find that quality in Hitchcock as well as Ford. Generally, when pressed on how specific scenes were planned and filmed, Stewart will reply with an amusing anecdote which doesn't really answer the question. A mention, for example, of the moving scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington of Stewart breaking into tears of disillusionment at the Lincoln Memorial elicits a story about how Frank Capra, denied permission to film there, decided to "steal" the scene anyway.

It's frustrating to find that Stewart, with his unique experience, isn't able to say much in differentiating his directors' working methods, but that very fact is revealing of Stewart's intuitive approach to acting. His ability to fit with ease into so many directors' worlds attests to the strength of his personality and also to its depth; within the Stewart "image" there are many Stewarts, but ultimately there is only one, underlying all of the roles. In talking of how he made a conscious decision to toughen up his roles around 1950 (starting with Winchester '73), Stewart insisted, nevertheless, that no fundamental change in his character occurred. "They were still vulnerable," he says of the characters he played for Anthony Mann.

"Vulnerable" is the word Stewart uses most frequently in describing his screen image, whatever the role. His favorite film, Capra's/r's a Wonderful Life, is the story of a small-town family man, George Bailey, whom Stewart calls "the plodding vulnerable man beset by all the frustrations, crises, and troubles we all have in everyday life." Its lack of success at the box office, and the subsequent commercial failures of Magic Town and Harvey, were, says Stewart, factors contributing to his decision to play a gutsier kind of role. "Gosh, Winchester 73 was a lifesaver. It rescued me from a very serious situation. The audiences weren't accepting the sort of muddled, slow-talking, vulnerable, small-town-boy, hem-and-hawer type of comedy that I had been doing before the war. After the war they just didn't accept that."

Capra tells a story of Stewart being so shaken by his war experience (Air Force bombing missions over Germany) that during the making of It's a Wonderful Life he wanted to quit acting because it wasn't a "serious" enough profession. The way Capra tells it, Lionel Barrymore gave Stewart a pep talk and renewed his enthusiasm for the craft. Asked about that now, Stewart embarrassedly changes the subject, but he will admit to being changed by the war. "I've often thought about what it did I... I don't know really. People say, 'You matured.' Well, you're supposed to...you're five years older... you're supposed to be more mature. Being away that long, having the experience that I had... I have a feeling that it was to my advantage as an actor, but I don't know how to go much further than that."

In the eight films he did with Anthony Mann (his favorite was The Man From Laramie), Stewart evolved into an ornery, often neurotic antihero, an embittered man hardened by failures and betrayals. By the late 1950s, when he did Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, the Stewart image had ripened further into that of a deeply complex, worldly man far removed from the early "hem-and-hawer" roles. By 1961, with Ford's Two Rode Together — in which, some Ford intimates suggest, Stewart played a character closely resembling the crotchety old director — the ever-growing disillusionment in the Stewart image had darkened into nearly total cynicism.

"The thing works both ways," Stewart muses. "Now, Duke Wayne...Duke has the strength, the capability of strength which everybody recognizes, just like everybody recognizes weakness. He's also capable of getting over to people with less strength that he also is vulnerable, which I think is one of the reasons for his indestructibility. It keeps him from being so far away from them... y'know... that they can only dream about it... he keeps that from happening by vulnerability showing up every once in a while.

"But when Duke gets into a fight, you're pretty sure he's going to win....Unless somebody really double-crosses him, it's going to be all right. With other people...with me...y'know...they're not sure if I'm going to win it or not. But in a way... they relate to that. That's fine — this is a vulnerability that everybody has to face. And the fact that every once in a while I come out and really go beyond myself, as far as strength and positiveness and directness and everything, this also is all right. It sort of takes 'em back a little, but they say,' Waall, this could happen to me.' Mean, or nasty, or belligerent... this is all part of the game."

From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance until The Shootist, Stewart's only meaty film role was the grizzled old pilot in Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix. Most of the other films in that period were second-rate rehashes of films from the past, including several Ford pastiches by Andrew V. McLaglen. Both of Stewart's excursions into TV series, "The Jimmy Stewart Show" and "Hawkins," were short-lived, though "Hawkins" was an interesting attempt to plant the old homespun Stewart image (in this case a lawyer from West Virginia) squarely in the midst of seamy contemporary situations.

Stewart found it hard to deal with the shooting pace demanded by television; he had trouble memorizing the scripts in the short time allotted him, and when told he could use cue cards, he retorted, "Ican't see the cue cards." But he enjoys watching his old films on television, finding some actually improved by the more intimate TV format, and he observes, "Television has really given me an entirely new audience. I got an awful lot of mail in England when I was there last summer doing Harvey on stage; I read it and answered it all. It's just amazing the knowledge they have of my pictures. They even sent me stills to autograph, and I wish to hell I had some of those. Y'know, you take the time after a scene to take a still, and you never see the thing again."

Stewart found his theater run tiring because it made him become a "night person." He adds, "Fonda makes me so goddamn mad, because it doesn't faze him. He has a big steak ten minutes before he goes on, gives a wonderful performance, then comes back and has another steak." Still, the stage experience was something Stewart valued, because it gave him the chance for personal contact with an audience.

"Ted Healy once told me, 'You never should consider the audience as customers — you should think of the audience as partners.' I've never forgotten that. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Aren't you...Jimmy Stewart?' 'Yuh.' 'I thought you were. 'S amazing. 'S amazing. I thought it was you.' That is the thing...the magic. They've seen you in the movies, but they're not sure, completely, if it isn't just sort of a machine that can make these shadows. You do things that they like, and that they don't like, that are believable, that are phony... and that's fine... but what they're not sure of is what they would think of you if they met you. It always gives me a feeling of...responsibility."

That seemed a good point to call a halt to the serious gabbing, and Stewart told a story about a horse which Henry Fonda had given him as a gift. The story Stewart related, if you read between the lines, tells a lot about himself:

"My dad always had a horse in back of the hardware store. I guess I shoveled manure more than I learned how to ride, but I learned to be around horses, y'know, so this was a great asset when I started doing Westerns.

"When I did Winchester'73, they had a horse for me, and I wasn't sure about it. I rode this horse around and he seemed fine...but he sort of loafed...I wasn't really satisfied. Then I saw this horse peeking around a corner of the barn out at Universal, and I said,' Whu...what's thathorse?' They said, 'He's got a mean streak in 'im, he's hurt a couple of people, but if you want to see him....'

" Waall, I had a hell of a time getting on him, because he didn't particularly like me...he was shaking me, y'know. But in about ten minutes I said, 'This is the horse I want.' It's almost like two people who are sort of wary of each other, have their own ideas, what they like, what they don't like, and so on., .finally he sort of said, 'Waall, m'be this'd work out all right.'

" I had that horse for twenty years. Pie...Pie was his name. He developed from a sort of mean damn horse, a maverick, to a horse that was still on the feisty side, but...m'God...he was alert. Smart as a whip. He knew when that camera started, even with all the soundproofing and everything. He knew; I could feel him under me. His head would go up, his ears would go up... and the other horses didn't know what was going on... so he'd stand out.

"When he got older, I'd see him with a lot of younger horses, and they were trained to do so-and-so, but they'd sort of sit around, y'know. Pie... when we'd have to go out on a dead run, he didn't like to be in the pack. He liked to be out in front...whether we were supposed to or not...he wanted to be out front. Wonderful horse. Wonderful...."

Joseph McBride is a California-based writer and film critic.