Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Day in Film History (Birth of Robert Mitchum, Postwar King of Cool)

August 6, 1917— Robert Mitchum, whose image of anti-heroic cool made him an emblem of postwar disillusionment even as it masked his very real concern for his work, was born in Bridgeport, Conn. 

Mitchum’s list of noteworthy quotes is long and often hilariously crusty (e.g., “Young actors love me--they think if that big slob can make it, there's a chance for us”), and Lee Server's 2001 biography was titled, all too appropriately, Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don't Care.  The actor’s contempt for filmmaking as a haven for bullies and pretenders was real enough. In these circumstances, it was better that he never give such individuals the satisfaction of thinking he cared about the work. 

Except that, sometimes, it leaked out. While directing Mitchum in El Dorado, an astonished Howard Hawks exclaimed, “You’re a big phony—you’re one of the hardest-working guys I ever saw.”

“Don’t tell anybody,” Mitchum said wryly.

Even industry talent who could not overlook Mitchum’s flip remarks or his penchant for spectacular hellraising still found it hard not to acknowledge what he brought to the screen, such as director Don Siegel, who, in a 1968 interview included in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1997 Who the Devil Made It, recalled their work on The Big Steal (1949), made after the actor’s arrest and conviction for marijuana usage:

“When Mitchum wasn't drunk, which was infrequent, I got along very well with him. He has his own inimitable style. It's impossible to give him a reading and one shouldn't, because his delivery is entirely different. I have a great deal of respect for him—I think it's his privilege and he's very successful doing it. He leads a very strange life. Maybe next week I'll be working with him. I don't look forward to it.”

The fact that Siegel thought he might work with him again said something about the actor’s enduring appeal, not just to audiences but to a variety of directors who employed him in a surprising array of roles. 

Before WWII, Mitchum’s famous sleepy-eyed appearance (“Old Rumple Eyes” was one of his nicknames) might have led him to be typecast simply as a hood. But the horrors of a world lurching out of control led audiences to see him as an Everyman just trying to hold his own, and the actor’s own difficult background (poverty in Bridgeport, arrest as a teenage hobo that led to work on a chain gang, that aforementioned pot bust) gave him an instinctive feel for his characters (often drifters and loners) that compensated for his lack of thespian training. 

In particular, in film noir (Out of the Past) and neo-noir (Farewell, My Lovely), Mitchum seemed such an archetypal representative of a world he never made that many would have been surprised to learn he hadn’t been born in a raincoat, fending off dangerous women. 

In the end, consider his range: romantic lead (Two for the Seesaw), alcoholic sheriff (El Dorado), sensitive middle-aged Irish schoolteacher (Ryan’s Daughter), small-time hood (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and an insolent, terrifying sexual predator out for revenge against the lawyer who helped put him away (Cape Fear). Above all, there is his breakout role as the war-weary but thoughtful Captain Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which landed him his first and only Oscar nomination. His company commander--weary beyond all measure, but committed equally to achieving his mission and looking out for his men--is a virtual prototype for Tom Hanks' similar role in Saving Private Ryan.

Mitchum passed away in 1997, only one day before his co-star in the 1978 Philip Marlowe mystery, The Big Sleep, James Stewart. The two embodied two powerful images of the American male: one, of the devil-may-care variety; the other, of American decency. But maybe they had more in common than might at first appear. In both actors' films, their American male comes under enormous pressure, and audiences believed instinctively that each was reacting according to his nature.

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