… do you first think of the people who act in your favourite films? Or does your favourite person have a specific memorable persona which enriches all the films he or she appears in?
It’s an interesting question. Ever since the Academy Awards were initiated in 1929 to celebrate Hollywood films, actors have always been included within the prize-giving. However, it is an accepted part of the Hollywood story that for a long time actors were much less important than studio bosses, producers and directors. In those early days (and we’re talking about US cinema, of course, because that country produced the majority of films which ordinary people saw), actors were employed by specific studios and therefore often appeared in similar genres of film. Even if they were loaned out to other studios, the tastes of producers and fans were sometimes conservative. Only in the 1950s did the successful performers begin to understand their commercial and artistic worth and to take independent steps such as negotiating for better roles and setting up their own production companies.
So if you’re thinking about great film performers, I think you’ve got to admire especially those people who worked during those very different periods of production and employment. While there are many men and women who started in films in the 1930s or 1940s, who worked regularly for thirty or forty years, and whose films are still watched and enjoyed, I think the one with the most varied and impressive CV is James Stewart.
At time of writing, eight of Stewart’s films feature in the IMDB website’s top 250. The American Film Institute decided that five of his films were among the top 100 ever made in the country. One of his films has been rated by the distinguished Sight and Sound poll as the best film ever made.
Stewart’s movie persona is often described as an “everyman”, but that term underestimates him. In my opinion, it only really applies to his two famous Frank Capra films : Mr Smith Goes to Washington, where Stewart earned his first Oscar nomination as the idealistic senator challenging big government’s vested interests, and the Christmas favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, with its warm message about every individual’s potential influence on his or her community. Elsewhere in those innocent pre-war days, although Stewart’s marshal in Destry Rides Again appears to be a small quiet man triumphing over the violent bullies, he does display some striking skill with firearms and then wins over his doubting townsfolk with distinctive personal skills, while in The Philadelphia Story, his journalist starts off as toughly intrusive and comes out likeably at the end of the film partly because of the plot’s romantic complications and partly because of the gold-standard co-starring pair of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
The change which took place in Stewart’s post-war film persona has been widely commented on. His characters look the same, and they often retain some of his pre-war charm, but they are also tougher, more intense, more prone to anger or anxiety, often materialistic and embittered by past experience. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life definitely has some of those qualities, although I’m not a great fan of the film, despite its many strengths, because of its sentimental ending. An interesting counterpoint to It’s a Wonderful Life is Magic Town where his Rip Smith, for a time, exerts the same influence over a community which George Bailey has, but one which is less benign.
Stewart’s five Westerns with Anthony Mann are a significant part of this post-war oeuvre. In each of Winchester 73, Where the River Bends, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie, his characters are driven, selfish, usually seeking revenge, even if at the end they enjoy some redemption or reconciliation.
Then of course there are the Hitchcock films. Stewart’s detective in Vertigo is prone both to a physical fear of heights and deeper psychological obsessions, and his performance has been thrown into greater relief as the film itself has gradually grown in critical status. It first appeared in Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of greatest films in 1982, two decades after its release, and was voted number 1 in the 2012 list. A similar trajectory can be seen in the American Film Institute lists : in the poll of 1998, Vertigo had the lowest position of the five Stewart films which were included , yet, nine years later, it had become, overwhelmingly, the most popular of those five.
In the other Hitchcock films, Stewart is generally regarded as brilliant as the wheelchair-bound Peeping Tom in Rear Window, and although Rope is usually criticised as too stagey, I like his portrayal of the suspicious, cynical older friend of the two gay killers.
Two more performances of this period which can be bracketed together are in films which aim (appropriately in black and white) to present a bleakly realistic view of crime and justice : as a reporter in Call Northside 777, and a lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder.
At least in the middle of all these was Harvey – but, although this is usually seen as family entertainment, let us not forget that Stewart’s character in this wackily amusing comedy is an alcoholic fantasist whom his family try to have certified!
In the 1960s, Stewart finally got to work with John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Referring back to my earlier point about whether your favourite actor is the person who plays in your favourite films, I do share the popular view that this is a great Ford film in its dramatisation of the dichotomies of old West v new, and of legend v truth, but I do feel that Stewart is a weakness in the film because he is at least 20 years too old for his lawyer character in the main part of the narrative. I prefer his contribution (although much shorter) in a later film for both himself and John Wayne, Don Siegel’s The Shootist.
In addition to all that creative work, Stewart served for several years in the US air force during World War Two. I don’t know much about the details of his service, but it is frequently mentioned that he was promoted several times, ending the war at the rank of Colonel. It’s important not to confuse the person and the performances, but, for me, it is a pleasing irony that Stewart, who is often remembered as the gawky, drawling innocent he played in some of his films (a persona he did tend to play on in TV interviews in his later years) should have behaved so dramatically different in real life.