Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jimmy Stewart – A Wonderful Life

"What was most heroic about Jimmy Stewart was he never tried to be a hero."

In a career spanning half a century, Jimmy Stewart has drawn an indelible portrait of the American man, and proven that regular guys can be heroes, too. He talked to Bart Bull about his long and wonderful life.
published in Vogue)

The milkman is making his delivery – eggs and butter and quarts of milk stacked neatly in his wire basket. There was a time when salty jokes were made about milkmen and their midday deliveries, back in the days when wives stayed home alone and lonely while husbands marched off to work, but those days are gone, long gone, like the milkmen themselves. Gone and nearly forgotten, except here at Jimmy Stewart's house, where the milkman's white truck is parked in the driveway.

It’s a beautiful day, a wonderful day. “A great day for sightseeing buses too,” says Mrs. Stewart. A pair of tour vans has stopped in the middle of the street in hopes that Jimmy Stewart will come out to greet them in person. “He’s the friendliest, most accommodating star in Beverly Hills,” say the Hollywood star maps, telling how often he steps outside to chat with his fans. “You can hardly get your car up the street,” growls Gloria Stewart. At the moment Jimmy Stewart is in his backyard, trying to get his dog to cooperate while their picture is taken. Baron is looking at everything but the camera, cheerily wagging his tail all the while. “Never seen him act like this,” Stewart says, genuinely baffled, truly perplexed. “He’s a terrible ham,” Gloria cracks. “The dog, I mean.” Her timing is as good as Jimmy’s.

He gets up from his chair in the shade of an orange tree, stooping low, bending nearly in half to keep from scraping his head, legs every bit as long as you’d guess, maybe even a little longer. Half a century’s press clippings have ritualized the litany of words to describe him as he walks Baron back inside to look for a leash—”gawky,” “gangling,” “lean,” “lanky,” “awkward”—and for the way he folds himself into the family den when the photos are finished and it’s time to talk. It’s a comfortable room, crowded with books and photos and flowered cotton couches, not much different from most family rooms as long as you don’t notice who the people in the photos are or that those gold statuettes on the shelf are Academy Awards. Presented with an honorary Oscar in 1985 for fifty years of distinguished work in over eighty films, he was nominated five times in the best-actor category, winning in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story.

"My dad called me the night I got the Academy Award, called me at four-thirty. He never got the idea that our time out here was so much earlier than it was back there. It was usually when he got to work that he called me.” Stewart folds one full- length leg over the other slowly, purposefully, with deliberation, a man with all the time in the world, who’s never heard that life is a rat race, a man who learned his ways in Indiana, Pennsylvania. “He got there at seven-thirty.

“He said, ‘I heard on the radio you got some kind of prize—what was it, a plaque or what?’

“‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s a gold statue.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘why don’t you send it back, and I’ll put it in the window of the hardware store.’ So I packed it up and it was there in the window for twenty years.”

To trace Jimmy Stewart’s life from Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Beverly Hills is to risk all our hard-won skepticism about movie stars. The most fully realized personality in film history, he has played the widest range of roles of any American actor, roles so central to the times that to examine Stewart is to consider the American man. He’s played senators and lunatics, cowboys and test pilots, regular Joes and G-men, all of them different, each a lot like Jimmy Stewart.

What set him apart from the rest of Hollywood’s leading men was that in decade after decade of larger-than-life screen stars, he was invariably just the size of Jimmy Stewart—tall perhaps, but far too slender to punch his way through the plot. He was usually just a little too sensible for the grand gesture, and when he lost his senses, he was still too skinny to push anybody around. Besides, that wouldn’t be fair, and he was always very fair. A man left the movies feeling less capable than Clark Gable, less of a lady-killer than Cary Grant, but you never left a Jimmy Stewart movie feeling diminished. Nobody was less capable or, apparently, less of a ladies’ man. Instead, you reckoned that you or any other regular guy endowed with enough all-American virtues would have handled things just about the way Jimmy Stewart had. What was most heroic about Stewart was that he never tried to be a hero.

It’s a quality that extends into his own life, his offscreen life. At eighty-one, with an old man’s bushy eyebrows and age’s ruddy complexion, he stammers as he always has, and remembers everything. Son of the owner of the oldest hardware store in town—"I was born in 1908; it had been going since 1870, or 1860, something like that" —he had just about the most average of American boyhoods. He collected stamps, built model airplanes, practiced the accordion. A Boy Scout — ‘The most steadfast boy I’ve ever known,” declared Mrs. Addie Rose, his next-door neighbor — he ran the movie projector in the town theater, cranking the reels by hand. “I remember they did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—very popular movie—and with the box of film came a green lens, there was a thing up on the reel that said ‘Green,’ and as you saw this, you put up the green lens. This meant they were going underwater. I suppose I was doing colorization even then.” He had a job one summer painting white lines on the highway.

Prepared at prep school for nothing much in general, he went to Princeton and lackadaisically acquired a degree in architecture. The day he graduated Josh Logan invited him to join Henry Fonda and a few others in a summer acting troupe, offering to let him paint sets and play accordion for tips in the tearoom. With little chance of practicing architecture at the height of the Depression, he opted for acting. Acting troupes led to brief walk-on roles on Broadway, and after a few years, New York led to Hollywood. Within four years, he’d made twenty-five movies; in six of those twenty-five, he played a newspaperman, then as now a sort of movie shorthand for brash, footloose young man. Already a Jimmy Stewart type was evolving: stammering, sincere, optimistic, perhaps a touch naive, but willing and honest and true. A voice that quavered, that couldn’t decide between high and low.

“You worked all the time. And you learned your craft. You worked all the time, in all sorts of parts.” He walks, hands hanging straight down at his sides, over to pull a picture of himself from off the wall, a black-and-white photo in a battered red frame. “I always show this. All sorts of parts.” Somebody who looks a little like young Stewart is looming, tall, bald, pigtailed, oddly slant-eyed. “The Good Earth. A very good picture. I think in ‘36, ‘37. They didn’t ask you, ‘Would you be interested in doing a Chinese part?’ They said, ‘Report to us on Stage Such-and-Such for a test with Paul Muni.’ And Muni looked at me and said, ‘He’s awful tall for a Chinaman.’” A pause. “So they dug a trench.” Another pause. “Didn’t get the part. They gave it to a Chinaman.”

All the same, he misses the old contract system, the way the studios used to make movies. “It was like a big family. When you’d go to work at the studio, you knew everybody, and everybody knew you. It was wonderful. You went to work, got there at eight o’clock in the morning, left at six, and you did that six days a week. Not five—six. That’s why Saturday night was such a big night, and everybody collected down at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard. It’s not there, hasn’t been there for years, but there’s a big empty spot where it was.’’

And while it may require a leap of imagination for younger generations used to thinking of him in milder terms, Jimmy Stewart was known for more than a decade as “Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor.” “Well,” he drawls, “if you’re not married, you’re an eligible bachelor. It’s that simple.” Maybe.

Kim Novak remembers him even now as “the sexiest man who played opposite me in thirty years.” But he was romantically linked, as the gossip columnists put it back in those semi-delicate days, to a long list of notable beauties, including Olivia De Havilland, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Loretta Young, and Rita Hayworth. He and Cary Grant once threw what the papers called a “boisterous, midget-ridden super stag party,” sipping champagne from the slippers of the glamorous women in attendance, some of whom secured admission on the basis of their impressive measurements. And in a very well-documented story from the set of Destry Rides Again, Marlene Dietrich simply got fed up with waiting for what she wanted and locked them both into his dressing room. “I was too busy,” Stewart rumbles.

Bachelorhood may have kept him busy, but as soon as he hit Hollywood, he got his pilot’s license and bought himself a Stinson airplane. “First thing I did when I got my first check.” Always an aviation buff, he went on to work for his commercial pilot’s license, despite the fact that the war was imminent and commercial pilots were among the first to be drafted. Thirty-two and already a major star, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, and The Philadelphia Story among his credits as a leading man, he entered the service in March 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He failed his first draft physical—too skinny—but he force- fed himself to make the minimum weight. His income plummeted from nearly three thousand dollars a week to twenty- one dollars a month. He sent his agent a check for $2. 10.

Among the very few movie stars to serve in World War II, he flew twenty combat missions over Germany—”Nine Yanks and a Jerk” was painted on the cockpit of a B-24 bomber he flew—entering the Army Air Corps as a private and leaving five years later a full colonel. He avidly avoided publicity throughout the war, but when it was over, he feared his career was finished, too. “It was a very insecure time. My contract had run out during the war. And nobody. . . nobody remembers you. That’s why I thank Frank Capra in prayers every day. ‘Cause he just out of the blue called me up and said, ‘I got an idea for a story, and why don’t you come down to the house?’ And he started with this story, and I was so wrapped up I didn’t pay too much attention. He said, ’You’re gonna commit suicide and an angel named Clarence who hasn’t won his wings yet, he comes down and saves you, and you say you wish—I’m not tellin’ this very well. . . '

“And I said, ‘Frank, when do we start—I love the picture.’ It’s a Wonderful Life was the first production of a new film company Capra and a few other directors had established. “Frank and I and so many of us had such great faith in the picture. Our hearts were all in it, the crew and everybody so. . . so overcome with the meaning of the picture. And the picture was a failure, and caused the failure of the company.” His long reflective pauses are even longer at times, long enough to gather words that will say enough, that won’t say too much. “Looking, looking back over it, I can just see that the picture meant more to me than any other.”

Still single, still a Hollywood heartthrob (“What. . . gives Jimmy Stewart the power to tie the American woman into emotional knots?” Woman’s Home Companion wondered, vastly underestimating the power of innocence), he married for the first and final time at the age of forty-one; slow-going deliberation is more than just the way he speaks. “The first few times I went out with Gloria, we went golfing. Finally she said to me, ‘I eat too, you know,’ so l took her to Chasen’s.” One of his perfect-timing pauses. “We’re still going to Chasen’s.”

In the bargain, he acquired two sons; soon after, he became the father of twin daughters. He became precisely the family man the movies had shown us all along. But having taken his familiar Joe Average character to the brink of suicidal despair in It’s a Wonderful Life, he began to unveil more complex emotions in his characters. Although Harvey had a pre-war sweetness to it, the story of a madman whose hallucinations overpower everyone around him has a particularly postwar feel. In three Alfred Hitchcock films, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, Stewart’s affable all- American male is wound much too tight, traveling far past the breaking point. And in a long series of Westerns, first with director Anthony Mann and then with John Ford, we saw both a new West and a new James Stewart, angry and edgy, dogged and bent on bitter revenge. If all this seemed a shock at first coming from sweet-natured Jimmy Stewart, it would have seemed more shocking as time went by if he had stood still in a harsh world of change, ever the fresh-faced idealist.

Some things remained in place as the times changed. As a good luck charm he wore the same hat in almost every one of his Westerns. “I have that thing. I had a big argument with John Ford first time we worked. He said, ‘That’s a terrible hat.’ We were shooting it down in Texas somewhere—Two Rode Together, I think it was called. Next picture we did, he wouldn’t let me wear a hat at all.”

On the wall nearby is a precisely rendered watercolor of a red-brown horse, a little swaybacked with age, standing alone outside a weathered stable. He stands up to gaze at Henry Fonda’s painting of Pie, the horse Stewart rode in movie after movie. “This is when he was—he had to be, had to be twenty-eight years old. Half quarter horse, half Arabian. I rode him for twenty years. Hank Fonda did this on his days off, and I didn’t know anything about it. That was Pie.” They were making Cheyenne Autumn in Santa Fe, and the air was too thin for the old horse, the altitude too high. “He couldn’t make it. He couldn’t make it.”

Staring at a friend’s portrait of another friend, he can’t help but admire it once more. Fonda and Stewart were practically the last of their generation, and now there’s just one of them left. But there’s more to it than that. “This friendship with Fonda over the years was tremendous. I valued it so much. Tremendous friendship, tremendous admiration for him. He was good at his job if anybody ever was good at his job. It was a terrible thing to lose him. Which happens so much, you know. I think about it every once in a while—I try not to think about it. I’ve lost so many—I’ve lost so many people. You think of somebody and then you think, ‘When did she die?’

The rims of his eyes go moist, nearly wet, not quite. Not quite. He won’t cry, not here, to be observed and written about in a magazine. Instead, he speaks, quickly now, to distract himself. “But Fonda was a wonderful, close friend.”

Now he is the last one left, the last star of his era. He doesn’t know why it’s worked out that way, and clearly it bothers him, confuses him just a little. When he was headed off to England during the war, his father slipped the Ninety- first Psalm into his hand—”For He shall give His angels charge over thee.. . . “—and maybe that helps explain it some, but it’s hard not to wonder. His last movie was made half a decade ago, but even as the unseen voice on the current Campbell’s soup ads, he moves miles past the typical too- sweet lemonade commercial grandfather, lulling us with that querulous voice and then always adding more edge than we expect. If he were sent the right script, something he could sink his teeth into, would he be ready to do another picture?

“Sure,” he answers. Not a moment’s hesitation, none of his legendary pauses. “Sure.” No stammer, no stutter. “Sure. Sure.”

He considers a moment. “Can’t play cowboys anymore.”


Pat said...

I couldn't stop reading this one front to back.

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