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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.

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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 "Vertigo?"

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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