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An unassuming genius

Pete Hoskin on the Hollywood actor James Stewart, who was born 100 years ago

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

Pete Hoskin on the Hollywood actor James Stewart, who was born 100 years ago

The great director and critic François Truffaut once labelled James Stewart as one of those rare actors who could be ‘moving and amusing within the same scene’. Quite so. On the one hand, Stewart — angular, lanky, and awkward in action and speech — was made for comedy. That meandering drawl alone is enough to get punters giggling in their seats, ‘W…w…w…well, golly.’ But on the other, he was capable of such sincerity of expression that none of his physical quirks matters. Make no mistake, he’s a truly great actor. And perhaps the only one who could make us believe in giant invisible rabbits.

Why bring this up now? Well, it’s almost 100 years, to the day, since this unassuming genius was born in his parent’s home — at 975 Philadelphia Street, Indiana, Pennsylvania — on 20 May 1908. He enjoyed an uncomplicated, American upbringing; the best his father, the owner of the local hardware store, could afford. That meant good schooling, lessons in the piano and accordion, and even an extended spell in the Boy Scouts. All of which, no doubt, prepared him for enrolment at Princeton University, from where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture. But, thankfully, Stewart’s ambition lay not with blueprints and buildings, but with stage and screen.

It was thus — as a wide-eyed innocent — that young Jimmy Stewart shuffled into Hollywood in the early 1930s. He made a humble start in the picture business — an uncredited appearance in Art Trouble (1934) — but his ‘Aw-shucks’ personality was quickly latched on to by casting directors. Soon enough, Stewart became the go-to guy for any role that required naivety, youthfulness and bounce. His filmography swelled, and so, too, did the public’s affection for this affable young chap.

What Stewart brought to his early films was empathy. And he brought it by the bucketful. Here was an actor, a personality, whom viewers really cared about. Put him in a cinematic scrape, and they’d bite their fingernails until a happy resolution could be found — after all, who’d want harm to befall someone so gentle-natured? It’s a set-up that was exploited majestically by Frank Capra, the director of Stewart’s first totemic film, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Here, Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, an idealistic politician who gets battered by the entrenched interests on Capitol Hill. Towards the end of the film, Smith approaches despair, until all is resolved in one of cinema’s most moving finales. Because of Stewart’s uniquely meek presence, the film’s ups-and-downs are gut-wrenching. Capra would repeat the trick with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), perhaps Stewart’s most enduring film.

After Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the plaudits came gushing in — Stewart was a somebody. And he became an even bigger somebody a year later, when he won an Academy Award for his performance as Macaulay Conner — a fast-talking gossip writer — in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Not one for all the hype, Stewart allowed the Oscar to be displayed in the window of his father’s store for the next 25 years.

Then came the second world war, during which Stewart matched even Jefferson Smith for patriotic fervour and heroism. Despite being under regulation weight, he talked his way into the Air Force some nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; he took part in dozens of bombing missions; and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre, among other honours. By the end of the war, Stewart had risen to be a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve — the highest rank ever achieved by an actor (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s eventual status as Commander-in-Chief) — and he’d won an even greater slice of the American public’s admiration.

After the war, as Stewart’s hair greyed, he morphed from the child-in-a-man’s-body to every cinéaste’s favourite uncle. Who better to regale us with tales of the good ol’ days? Who better to lead America through the existential briar patch of the postwar years? His acting skills matured as well, as he developed a steelier on-screen persona in a series of westerns that I consider his best work.

That Stewart should find his natural home in the western seems counterintuitive. Hollywood’s American Frontier called for brawn and ruggedness — John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott — rather than a 150-pound reed who spoke in gollies and goshes. But intuition be damned. You only need to watch a few seconds of any of the five westerns that Stewart made with director Anthony Mann to see that he’s more than comfortable in the saddle. The five are: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Of these, The Naked Spur is the finest, and the greatest film that Stewart ever made. In it he plays a ruthless bounty hunter, who, as the film progresses, wanders ever closer to the edge of psychosis. Stewart’s performance is hysterical, brooding and terrifying. Had his involvement in the war left scars that needed to be flaunted on the screen? As always, it’s hard to second-guess an actor’s psychology. But, as the critic David Thomson puts it, Stewart increasingly took on roles that were ‘against his accepted character’.

Hitchcock seized on Stewart’s new screen persona, and dragged it to ever more ambivalent depths. In Rear Window (1954), Stewart’s Jeff is confined to a wheelchair, while a never-more-beautiful Grace Kelly flops around on his bed. It’s sexual frustration writ large across the silver screen — and one suspects his subsequent descent into voyeurism is nothing more than a form of release. This was followed by Hitchcock’s sinister masterpiece, Vertigo (1958). Again, there’s more than an undercurrent of sexual obsession, as Stewart’s character becomes bewitched by the ethereal Kim Novak. Both films make for sadistic but compelling viewing.

The films mentioned above are essential cinema; all among the greatest ever made. And two more of that calibre were to follow — Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But, despite his considerable success, Stewart remained the humble, down-to-earth character who had left Indiana all those years before. He maintained close friendships with many of the people he worked with through the years — including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Henry Fonda — but was never seduced by the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood scene. It’s perhaps the loveliest detail of Stewart’s life that he and Fonda used to sit silently together, painting model airplanes.

The film career eventually fizzled out, but the friendships — and the public affection for Stewart — remained. He died on 2 July 1997. Some years before, he had made a typically straightforward plea: ‘I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job, and seemed to mean what he said.’ Well, Jimmy, 100 years after your birth, you’ve succeeded on both counts.

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