Tuesday, May 20, 2008

James Stewart Turns 100

Today marks the 100th birthday of American screen legend James Stewart, who passed away in 1997, over a decade ago. It seems as good a time as any, then, to ask which Stewart performances you most treasure.

Among the great actor's many career highlights: Stewart's "aw shucks" performances immortalized by Frank Capra, his gritty post-war Anthony Mann western efforts and his sometimes imbalanced or at least slightly askew Alfred Hitchcock turns.

I'm personally a big fan of his performance in Mann's The Naked Spur, which casts him against type as a ruthless bounty hunter trying to bring in bad guy Robert Ryan for a handsome sum. Ryan was sometimes a showman of an actor, and Stewart lets him chew some scenery while he quietly burns. It's a perfect case of an actor allowing another to hit the broad beats as he soaks up all of the nuances of the yarn. As Stewart's character is the morally conflicted of the two, and therefore somewhat at war with himself, this only makes sense. And it befits Stewart's persona.

Stewart was a leading man all the way, and many of his films rested on his slender shoulders. Yet he never seemed to approach his roles with even the slightest bit of self-absorption, but rather with a limpid, determined teammate's perspective.

The late Charlton Heston said to TCM host Robert Osborne that at the 1960 Oscars, when he and Stewart were pitted against one another for the Best Actor prize (Stewart nominated for Anatomy of a Murder while Heston, who went on to win, was nominated for Ben-Hur), before the show began, Stewart approached him, held his arm and flatly but friendly said, "I hope you win." Heston told Osborne, "No other actor would ever say that." Stewart said it and he meant it, and Heston noted that it still caused him to choke up, and indeed it was making the star of Planet of the Apes choke up while telling the story.


sartre said...

Alexander, did you read Mick LaSalle’s insightful recent celebratory piece on Stewart in the Chronicle? I want to throttle LaSalle more often than not but he has moments of real quality.

As for Stewart, it’s hard to highlight one top notch performance over so many others. But if a gun was held to my head then I’d go for the Capra Christmas classic. He shows a terrific range, his character convincingly journeys from youthful optimism and confidence to a middle age heart of darkness -bleak, cynical, and defeated – before recognizing and making peace with his wonderful life.

Daniel G. said...

Wow, tough one. I'm a pretty big fan of his turn in Rear Window, though Jefferson Smith and George Bailey are two pretty iconic characters.

Alexander Coleman said...

No, Sartre, I'll have to grab an edition of the Chronicle for that. I had no idea. Sometimes LaSalle can be surprisingly good.

Sartre, I like your description of Stewart's character's arc in It's a Wonderful Life.

Alexander Coleman said...

I've always liked his Rear Window turn as well, Daniel. It was brilliant casting by Hitchcock because for one thing Stewart has that naturally salving screen presence that feels naturally protective. In other words, in the face of a possible murder across the street, he gives off a comforting aura.

sartre said...

Here's the link, Alexander.


Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Sartre!

Anonymous said...

Loved the Stewart. What a great actor. I've always adored him in ROPE, which some say he was miscast in as an intellectual professor, but I buy him all the way. And you haven't lived until you've heard me doing my best Stewart from the film:

"Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought?"

And for the recorrd, Stewart's finest acting moment is at the end of VERTIGO when he's dragging Kim Novak up the stairs:

"You were a very apt pupil, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil..."

Alexander Coleman said...

Christian, I too love the Rope performance. Somehow, despite being cast so against type as an intellectual professor, Stewart makes it work entirely. I love how he's confronted with his own ideas and I'd love to hear your Stewart asking Brandon that question.

His Vertigo performance is stellar. A lot of critics didn't like him in that film for a long time but today it's regularly picked as his best.

Daniel G. said...

Great line, Christian. AMC or TCM (can't remember which) ran a Stewart marathon last night and I caught the last hour of Vertigo. I forgot how...old he looks in it, though I guess he was 50 or so. Just didn't remember that look. Granted, it was a pretty tortured character, so his great acting may have helped add some years.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, I've always been a little struck, sometimes more than at other times, at the Stewart-Novak age gap in Vertigo. She was, apparently, twenty-four when that film was made. He was just around fifty. Hey, that's fine, it's just something that is interesting about the film in my opinion.

cjKennedy said...

Put me down for Rear Window and Philadelphia Story for mainly sentimental reasons.

Anonymous said...

He was indeed wonderful in The Philadephia Story, but Hitchcock had a way of bringing other sides out. He was fantastic in Vertigo, and I thought he was great in Rear Window and Rope, too.

Although it's not my favorite, I have to agree with sartre's assessment of his character arc in It's a Wonderful Life. It's spot on.

Alexander Coleman said...

If you like Stewart in Hitchcock films, and if you haven't seen him in Anthony Mann westerns, Alison, I certainly recommend them.

Winchester '73 is kind of shocking in how malevolent the Stewart character is, and it's the film that is credited with introducing the revisionist aspect to the entire Western genre.

Of course, you very well may have seen it, and other Mann-Stewart pairings, but thinking that maybe you haven't, offered me the psychological rationale for writing about it!