Friday, January 9, 2015

Where will you leave Jimmy Stewart?

William Goldman, screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery and many other terrific movies, used to write for The New Yorker during the 90s. His columns are collected in a volume called The Big Picture, an entertaining look at Hollywood in a transitional period in its history. One of the columns reprinted in this book, "And Where Will You Leave Jimmy Stewart?" concerns an interesting idea about movie stars and how we remember them:
...I believe this: that the great stars provide us a legacy, a blizzard of images to remember. But one of those images - and it's a different one for every fan - is most important to us. And it is in that place that we park the stars, until we need to summon them back into memory.
There's definitely something to the notion. The right movie, at the right time and place, will imprint itself on our psyches, and a certain performance - framed and lit a certain way, solo or with other actors - can certainly become that go-to image whenever we think of the actor, whether they've had a long and prosperous career or became one-hit wonders. It's worth thinking about if you're a cinephile...

...and so I have thought about it. Next year I'll do the modern version, with living actors (although Goldman said that living actors might go on to do something even more memorable, which is true), but here and now, here's what I came up with for some of the classic actors:

Some would leave him with Lauren, learning how to whistle, or perhaps with Ingrid, about to get on that plane. But I think one of the all-time great movie tough guys should remain in the San Francisco fog, smacking around Dan Duryea, intimidating Peter Lorre, matching wits with Sydney Greenstreet, and wondering what the big deal is about a statue of a bird.

Maybe I haven't seen enough of her movies. Entirely possible - after all, she certainly wasn't known for comedy. But first impressions last a long time, and I saw this before the movies that made her reputation, and to her credit, I didn't need to know her reputation to appreciate and love her performance here. So I'll leave her in that restaurant, with Melvyn Douglas trying to tell that lame joke.

I almost went with his first appearance in Stagecoach (the perfect bookend!), but this movie looms larger in my mind, in part because of his role in the comic book Preacher, which I talked about when I wrote about this movie. Strangely enough, that book helped me understand the man's legend as much as his movies, and there's a visual homage to this moment near the end. Maybe if I had grown up with his movies, I might leave him somewhere else, but hey, at least he's in Monument Valley where he belongs.

Billy Wilder lived to regret the wig. The story goes that he tried to justify it after the fact by saying it was intentionally bad. I admit, it took me awhile to get used to seeing her as a brunette after watching this, but remember what I said about first impressions? And besides, that really was one honey of an anklet. So yeah, the stairway, the towel, Fred MacMurray leering at her as she descends the stairway... and the wig.

The two of them together is a given, for me at least. This moment, and this movie as a whole, represents for me the ease and intimacy with which they worked together. Separately, they were fantastic, but together... well, can you imagine him slapping Bette Davis' ass, or Joan Crawford's, as hard or as loudly? Not only did he know how far he could and should take this scene, but she was willing to leave herself this open and vulnerable. Both cases speak to the professionalism they both exhibited throughout their careers, so in my mind, this is the perfect place to leave both of them.

And as for Jimbo? Well, the image at the top says it all.

Care to offer up a few of your own?


  1. Jimmy for me is in the rocks at the end of "Winchester '73" nearing the end of his quest. Haunted and alone.

    I'll leave Bogie where you put him. I love that freaking movie.

    I'm with you on "Ninotchka", but she is fixed for me before she cracks and laughs. I have great admiration for the stoic, dry delivery of lines like "The mass trials have been a great success. There will be fewer, but better Russians." and "Must you flirt?"

    Duke for me is in "Rio Grande" sneaking a look through a window at the newest recruit, the son he hasn't seen since he was a baby. The expression on his face a mixture of regret and pride.

    As you say, this is an interesting exercise, and an enjoyable one.

  2. I think I saw WINCHESTER '73 once, but that was so long ago I don't remember much about it. I'd like to get better acquainted with his westerns. I've seen LIBERTY VALANCE, of course, and I know I wrote about BEND OF THE RIVER here, but that's about it.

    Great point about Garbo in NINOTCHKA. Her deadpan delivery helps sell her character.

  3. Wonderful post!
    For Jimmie, I'll have to go with his drunk character carrying Kate Hepburn and singing Over the Rainbow in The Philadelphia Story.
    For Bogie, I choose him always having Paris with Ingrid Bergman.
    For Garbo, when she looks at the mirror wearing a ridiculous hat in Ninotchka.
    I don't think I have a scene for Barbara, but whenever I wear an anklet I feel like Phillys Dietrichson!
    And for me beloved Cagney, him walking in the rain after a shooting in The Public Enemy.

  4. Hmm. I think I need to watch THE PHILADELPHIA STORY again. I don't remember that scene!


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