Hooray for Hollywood!
November 22, 2001
I love old
movies. Not just the classics recommended by the best critics, but good old
vulgar Hollywood studio productions with big stars. Im fascinated by the
world they reflect. Think of a country in which the top box-office attraction was
Mickey Rooney! How weve changed.
I grew up accepting the notion that a movie
star is a very different thing from a great actor. Clark Gable was a big star, it was
said, but he always played himself; Alec Guinness was a great actor because he
could lose himself in a character, so much so that he might be unrecognizable from
one role to the next. Laurence Olivier was the rare performer who could handle
both the romantic lead and Shakespearean tragedy.
But Ive come to believe that this
distinction sells the movie star short. It takes a special talent to create a durable
persona that can carry film after film, and not every great actor has that talent.
Even John Gielgud couldnt do what Humphrey Bogart did.
I used to hate Bette Davis and James Cagney. I
thought they were ugly and abrasive, and I marveled that they had ever been
popular. Now I watch them with appreciation. True, they didnt have
conventional good looks; but how they could rivet the viewer! They moved superbly,
often using only their eyes to dominate the screen; and they could deliver a line
with the force of a harpoon.
One of the secrets of every great movie star
is the voice. It neednt be a resonant or powerful voice, but it must be
distinctive. More important than its timbre is the way its used. If its
intonations are predictable, we forget it; the great old stars all had peculiar, and
memorable, ways of speaking. They made their lines their own, even if the script
was written before they were cast.
Spencer Tracy is widely hailed as one of the
great Hollywood actors, and he was also a star. Again, he wasnt especially
blessed in his looks and voice; his style was understated; he wasnt terribly
versatile. But he made you watch, listen, and believe. His work holds up even now,
and it always will.
William Powell, one of the great stars of the
Thirties, would probably be unemployable in todays Hollywood. He looks
very dated. You can hardly imagine him without his elegant suit and mustache. His
looks were far from glamorous, and his voice, though fine, was a little stagy. But
his delivery was forceful and witty. For films of his period, he was perfect. He
deserves to be seen and appreciated in his element, even if its long out of
Joan Crawford is another who used to repel
me, and of course her posthumous reputation has been damaged by her adopted
daughters memoir, Mommie Dearest. I wouldnt call her
beautiful. Her large-shouldered glamour looks silly now; it cries out for a female
impersonator. For all that, I love her bold-lined face and the way she uses her
eyes. The less pretty she got, the more she seemed to own the screen.
Hollywood usually cast Claude Rains as a
villain, with his swirling hair, his ominous brows, and his insinuating suavity; but
what a delicious villain he was, often stealing the movie from the hero. He always
gave the same performance, but it was always note-perfect, and I never tire of it.
Much the same is true of George Sanders, the cads cad.
Nobody in movies spoke with more silken
grace than James Mason, whom Ive always thought extraordinarily
handsome; his sad eyes reminded me of my father. Hero or villain, he conveyed
intelligence as few actors did. I never fully admired Cary Grant as a screen actor
until I saw him steal scenes from Mason in North by Northwest. I
didnt know it could be done.
Charles Laughton showed how interesting an
ugly face can be. He could get the most out of a line with an off-hand growl. As
Quasimodo, the hideous hunchback of Notre Dame, he abandoned his greatest asset,
his rich voice, and still managed to give one of the most heart-breaking
performances ever filmed.
These are only a few of my personal favorites.
Each of them illustrates the genius it takes to project an enduring personality
onto the big screen. Many other stars of their era have faded; these wont.