Jimmy Stewart: Embodiment of the American dream
From Movie Reviewer Paul Tatara
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The death of Jimmy Stewart on July 2 wasn't
merely the final curtain for arguably the single most beloved
actor in film history. Stewart will forever remain an
American icon, the embodiment of the dreams and myths of a
now steamrolling country that, as it nears the millennium,
often chooses to trample human dignity and mock the very
concept of a yearning heart.
Although he magnificently portrayed a far wider range of
characters than most people immediately realize, Stewart will
always be remembered for his core decency, an "Everyman" who
was a great deal more than that.
Stewart's most cherished performances represent what the
American Everyman can only hope to be. Good and strong and
honorable, he was a manifestation of our collective dreams.
I never sat down and talked movies with my grandmother, but
she once told me that Jimmy Stewart was her favorite actor.
She was 54 years older than I, but we could share this belief
on a level playing field. Stewart connected with everyone
who dared to hope for love or honor or the sheer perseverance
of the human spirit.
The performances the man left behind are indelible reminders
of what a powerful medium film can be when its practitioners
bravely follow their own hearts. It's impossible to shy away
from superlatives when assessing his career. The list of
outstanding movies is truly staggering, an almost absurdly
varied, dazzling body of work -- "Destry Rides Again," "Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington," "The Philadelphia Story," "The
Shop Around the Corner," It's a Wonderful Life," "Harvey,"
"Winchester '73," "Bend of the River," "Rear Window," "The
Man from Laramie," "The Far Country," "Vertigo," and "The Man
Who Shot Liberty Valance," to name only the most well known.
These examples readily illuminate the scope of his talent.
Most people have nailed his trademark "aw-shucks" drawl, but
Stewart brought a near-miraculous variety of shadings to that
immediately identifiable persona. His career moved through
more phases than the moon, from the camp comedy of "Destry"
to the jingoism of "Mr. Smith" to his down-and-dirty Westerns
with director Anthony Mann.
Who would have thought that this long-recognized symbol of
simple virtue could be capable of so memorably orchestrating
Hitchcock's sexual obsessiveness in "Rear Window" and
Just like the country he loved (he was a much decorated war
hero), Stewart was awash with contradictions, a virtual
primer for the emotional push-and-pull of the American 20th
century. He was a constant reminder of who we are and who we
would most like to be.
The argument can also be made (and I heard Stewart himself
make it several times) that he worked with more great
directors than any other studio-era star, which is to say any
star before or since. Hitchcock, Mann, Cukor, Capra,
Lubitsch, Wilder, Ford. These men are part of the pantheon:
profoundly influential practitioners of a type of classically
drawn storytelling that is now pretty much in its death
throes. People like Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder didn't
work with slouches, and even Hitchcock (who once referred to
actors as "cattle") recognized a good thing when he saw one.
My personal favorite of Stewart's performances is in
Lubitsch's lovely romantic comedy, "The Shop Around the
Corner," but as far as individual scenes go, I can't think of
anything that better illustrates his abilities than his
telephone call with Donna Reed in "It's a Wonderful Life."
Reed and Stewart share the same telephone, trying to carry on
a conversation with her obnoxious suitor. Their only lines
of dialogue are half-hearted mumbles of agreement with the
disembodied voice on the other end of the line, but, as the
two slowly start to crumble into each other's arms, we can
see their unspoken love dreamily revealing itself in tender
increments. Their embrace is the victory of that virtuous
Everyman, unable to speak his love, but still helpless to
conceal it. This is film acting at its finest.
Jimmy Stewart is no longer with us, but he is not dead and
never will be. As long as America fights against itself to
keep looking forward, he will remain a part of our identity.
We are all very lucky to have known him.
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