“Gray skies are gonna clear up”
“Put on a happy face”
“Brush off the clouds and cheer up”
“Put on a happy face…”
[Lyrics of the song, “Put on a Happy Face” from the musical, “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960)]
This month’s post is going to be a little different. For one thing it will be a bit shorter because I just don’t want to completely spend my Summer (or Fall or… you get the picture) writing long posts while developing a skin tone that looks paler than one of Dracula’s kids. Second, this post will be specifically focused on a feeling or action that one can ascribe to a specific actor. What do I mean by that? Well, not to sound like a psychologist, but certain actors can evoke a feeling or an adjective that they are synonymous with.
For example, if you mention actor, Robin Williams, how would you label him maybe in one word? I would label him “manic” for example since that adjective defines someone who is “showing wild, apparently deranged, excitement and energy.” This definition you can find online and you could definitely see Williams, or Jim Carrey fitting into that category even though they were good enough actors to step outside of that classification at times. As another example, what one word could you use to label an actor such as James Cagney? Here I would label him as “animated” since the adjective defines someone who is “full of life or excitement; lively” (another online definition). Cagney was animated as Hell and it showed in his performances both as an actor and also in roles where he danced which people tended to overlook even though he won an Oscar playing George M. Cohan in the movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) and in which he also did a number of dance routines.
“OK”, you may be saying! “So What?” Well here is where this post may start to get a little bit more intriguing. The examples that I just mentioned are pretty easy. However, what if I used a term to apply to an actor that you never would have thought of? Well besides telling me that I am full of it, wouldn’t it be interesting if I then tried to prove it? That is why this post will be shorter. It will be because I’m trying to prove it to you for just one particular actor.
Now who would that actor be? It would definitely have to be someone well known to you all. It would also have to be someone that you would probably never think would be labeled by a particular word that I would use. Now first, what would that word be? If you haven’t paid attention, I’ve already used the word in this post. As a matter of fact, I used the word in this Post’s “Heading!” That’s right (as you all just looked up), the word is “DESPAIR”.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of “despair” as a noun is:
“The feeling of no longer having any hope” or “someone or something that causes extreme sadness or worry.”
What actor could that ever apply to? More importantly, why would it ever be an actor that you would like or enjoy (unless you have a fetish for watching performers in Ingmar Bergman movies). Oh, and as an aside, remember when in my original first Blog post I mentioned that the “three biggest ass-hole big name directors of all time were Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, and Robert Altman? Well, I apologize. I should have said the “four” biggest ass-hole big name movie directors of all time and included Ingmar Bergman in that bunch. I think the “Ring” horror movie franchises were based on people watching Ingmar Bergman movies. That was why they were all dying so soon afterwards. They were all dying of BOREDOM! Now that I’ve got that on off my chest, back to this post.
This actor would never be confused with being perfect for starring in an Ingmar Bergman movie, but he was perfect for portraying such emotionally tormented characters. You just wouldn’t think that this person would ever be someone named…
That’s right, Jimmy Stewart. Usually in most people’s minds he was viewed as that down-to-earth, sometimes akward, lanky middle-class everyman, with a drawl and a smile. However, he had a darker and, at times, a more gloomy side in his acting performances by showing a hopelessness and frustration moving towards deep sadness. In his first great performance as a naïve first term Senator, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), he is at first laughed at and then later betrayed and framed for corruption by his idol and his idol’s corrupt political boss’s organization. His despair at the betrayal and his later despair while filibustering on the Senate floor with everyone against him culminating with stacks of letters (supposedly) from his home state of people demanding his Congressional expulsion is truly powerful.
The next great example was in his first movie after he came back from World War II combat service with the US Army Air Corps. That movie was a little thing called, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Stewart, who probably suffered from PTSD due to his prior combat experiences, gave a truly dark portrait of a man who, despite giving up his youthful dreams to help others, now found himself facing ruin so severe that he wished that he was never born. As we all know (unless you have been living in a cave all of your life), director Frank Capra presented one of the greatest dark visions of a nightmare scenario of life ever filmed in the last third of the movie when Stewart’s character, George Bailey, sees what would have happened to all of those that he loved if he had never been born. Stewart’s overall rage, anger, frustration, fear, and ultimate despair is so raw and real as he begs his guardian angel to take him back to his own prior life that every time I see this movie I sit there stunned by his performance (Yep, I can still watch it and come on, most of you can too!).
By the end of the 1940s Stewart once mentioned that he had to change his choice of roles from what he was doing in the past. He took on a tough, edgier, more inner tormented, and harder characterization to his performances especially in regard to a series of five Westerns (1950 to 1955) that he did with the underrated and still under appreciated great director, Anthony Mann. However, his expressions of despair were also apparent in his performances too which he used to great effect in Mann’s terrific Western, “The Naked Spur” (1953).
Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a bounty hunter who captures a dangerous killer, Ben Vandergroat (the always great Robert Ryan) along with a girl (Janet Leigh) and with the assistance of an old prospector and a disgraced ex-Union officer. The rest of the movie concerns Stewart trying to bring his prisoner back with Ryan trying to manipulate everyone against each other while planning his escape with Leigh. It is also revealed during the movie that Stewart was betrayed by his former fiancé who sold his ranch and ran off with someone else while he was away fighting in the Civil War. Ultimately the betrayals reach a climax with Stewart having to choose in the end whether to take his potential bounty back (I’m not revealing any spoilers here folks. This is a great Western! See it!) or ride off with Leigh who has fallen in love with Stewart even though she betrayed him earlier, just like his former fiancé did. In the end, Stewart’s cathartic release where he is nearly in tears, need, and despair over his past misfortunes and betrayals make this film something special.
During this period of time in Stewart’s career he also began another fruitful collaboration with another great director, Alfred Hitchcock. Stewart did four films with Hitchcock but the two I want to mention are “Rear Window” (1954) and “Vertigo” (1958). Both films captured Stewart’s great skill of non-verbal acting with just his facial expressions. If Jimmy Stewart was born 20 years earlier, he could have easily been a great silent film actor. In “Rear Window” I feel that not enough praise has ever been given to him for his performance. As photographer L.B. Jeffries laid up in a wheelchair with a broken leg in a cast, Stewart is completely restrained in his apartment looking out of his window and reacting to the various actions of his apartment neighbors with no dialogue spoken. Such a situation also highlights his restraints and helplessness which manifests his despair when he later sees his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) in danger after she is caught in the apartment of a possible murderer who then begins to attack her while Stewart can do nothing about it. What is unique here is that you identify right along with him which is due to Hitchcock’s great direction and Stewart’s great acting.
However, with “Vertigo” Stewart ramps up the emotional darkness and perverse obsession with maybe the gutsiest performance of his career. As Scottie Ferguson, a just retired police detective due to his acrophobia, he helps an old college acquaintance by following his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who may be mentally unstable and suicidal. This allows Hitchcock to have long sequences of Stewart following Novak while slowly becoming obsessed with her through just his facial reactions. Ultimately, they actually make contact and slowly he starts to fall in love with her. Unfortunately, (OK, this time there will be Spoiler Alerts for anyone who has never seen this movie…) she appears to take her own life by running up and jumping off a church bell tower with Scottie helpless to stop her due to his acrophobia. His guilt and remorse (Ding! Dong! Despair Anyone?) causes a nervous breakdown with Scottie alternatively depressed and borderline catatonic. The rest of the film concerns his obsession with a new romantic interest, Judy Barton (Novak again), who looks like Madeleine and his increasingly disturbing need to make her his new Madeleine. Stewart crosses into some scary emotional territory as someone now mentally unstable who ultimately discovers that he was actually betrayed by someone he deeply and obsessively loved. In the end, his final confrontation with Novak back up on the bell tower is both devastating and sad.
Betrayal of something that Stewart’s characters believed in was always at the heart of all of his performances that I have previously mentioned either of an emotional or of a physical kind. He could use that feeling of betrayal to fuel despair like no other actor that I have ever seen. He constantly did that in other movies too such as “Carbine Williams” (1952), “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957), and “Shenandoah” (1965). So Dear Reader, with the end of my post (even though it was still longer than I expected), did I prove my point that James Stewart was the Master of Despair?
Whether I proved it to you or not doesn’t really matter. However, I think one thing we can definitely agree upon is that James Stewart was a “great” actor!
One thought on “The Master of Despair!”
Stewart had a much darker side after the death of his son in Vietnam.