You Will Never See Its Like Again

Some actors have careers locked into a specific period of their life.  Maybe they’re a successful child actor, like Tatum O’Neal or Shirley Temple, but nothing really pans out after that or if does, like say, Jackie Cooper, it’s not based around being a star anymore.  Other actors have good careers in their early to middle years, from Jon Voight to Genevieve Bujold, and remain active and employed but past a certain point, no longer stars.   And then some not only stay active but remain superstars right through to the end.  John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn,  Jimmy Stewart and, oh, Bette Davis, today’s star at TCM, all were living legends from start to finish.  There are plenty of Hollywood stars, plenty of Oscar winners and plenty of career actors (Karl Malden and Eli Wallach probably being two of the most impressive in history in terms of both talent and longevity) but few are superstars from start to finish.

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So why, in his last movie before he died, The Shootist, was John Wayne still a superstar?  Oh sure, I understand he wasn’t pulling them in like in his early days by that point but still, right up to the end, he was a star.   I’d wager to guess that the reason certain actors always had stardom had less to do with their talent (again, Wallach is amazingly talented but never a star) and more to do with who they were.  There was simply something about John Wayne that said, “I’m too big to play small.”  Had Wayne not succumbed to cancer, I suspect he would’ve retired on top.  I imagine he would have had two or three more roles before calling it quits but never would he have just become one of those former Hollywood stars now relegated to small tv guest spots.  No, he’d always be John Wayne.

And when you think about it, most of the stars with the lifelong careers had big personalities off the screen that drove the personality on the screen.  Wayne, Hepburn and Davis are three perfect examples of this.  Wayne was no shrinking violet off the screen and Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis were absolutely known for their straightforward, no-nonsense attitudes (Jimmy Stewart did not have a larger-than-life offscreen personality but a quiet charm that worked just as well).   And it wasn’t about whether they were the lead in every single movie (Davis herself had several supporting roles later in life), it’s that when they were in a movie, it was an event.  Their presence was the talking point.

A good example was Burnt Offerings, just written up recently by fellow Morlock Suzi Doll.   I never saw it in the theater upon release but when I did see it on cable a few years later, I was surprised that Bette Davis wasn’t the central character.  Why?  Because we had a movie theater about six blocks from my house that was playing it and all the marquee said was “Bette Davis, BURNT OFFERINGS.”  The ads did, too.  As far as I knew, it was a Bette Davis movie.

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When Ragtime came out in 1981, same thing.  Best I could tell from the publicity, James Cagney had the central role.  His role is pivotal, yes, but far from central.  Yet, that’s all I heard.  James Cagney had come out of retirement to do one last role and, well, that was the news.  And why wouldn’t it be?  It was James Cagney!  And something made James Cagney different from Pat O’Brien or Donald O’Connor, who were also in Ragtime but I didn’t even know that until I saw it because no one mentioned it anywhere.   And Pat O’Brien and Donald O’Connor were two fantastically talented guys!  But they weren’t James Cagney.  Nobody was James Cagney.

As much as I’d like to think it has only to do with the actors, I must admit it probably has a lot to do with the time as well.    There is something different about being from the Golden Age of Hollywood that makes everything different.  I have no doubt that Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep will have movie roles until they decide to quit, even if that’s when they’re in their nineties.  But their presence won’t have the same kind of celebration because they achieved their stardom in a different time, a time where modern communications were all around us and instant television and internet  interviews were a dime a dozen.

For the stars of the Golden Age, it was different.   They were hidden away with publicists releasing tidbits and manufactured stories.  They were created and nurtured to be different than other actors and certainly very different than actors of the next generation of the fifties onward.   If they started out in the forties or before, even as child actors like Elizabeth Taylor (whose appearances in movies had the same treatment as the other superstars mentioned above), they were Hollywood creations more than any actors who followed.   Philip Seymour Hoffman is no Hollywood creation, he’s a superb actor who worked hard in movies for years to get to a point where he sometimes gets leads, sometimes supporting, sometimes Oscar nods and sometimes the award itself.  His career is successful by practically every measure of Hollywood success but no matter what he does, he will never be John Wayne.  Or Bette Davis.  Or Katherine Hepburn.  Or Jimmy Stewart.  I don’t believe we will ever reach a time when, at the age of 90, his appearance in a movie will lead all the stories on the entertainment circuit.  It just isn’t going to happen and not because of him, but because he wasn’t made that way by a studio who mythologized him from the start.

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Today, TCM celebrates one of those mythologized legends, Bette Davis.  Her personality, talent and determination were a perfect match for the Hollywood Mythology Machine.  As you watch her movies, her star power will burst forth from the screen and be as undeniable as it ever was.  Just take a moment as you watch to remind yourself that, thanks to time and place and circumstances, you will never see its like again.

10 Responses You Will Never See Its Like Again
Posted By Emgee : August 14, 2013 3:02 pm

“Nobody was James Cagney”. Well, nobody else was, that’s true.
I guess that’s part of what makes some actors true stars; they’re one of a kind, not an imitation of someone else.
You mentioning Philip Seymour Hoffman makes me think immediately of Tom Hanks. The same applies to him: an award-studded career, far more boxoffice succes than Hoffman, but a true star? Will people consider him a film legend in , say fifty years time?
Personally, i don’t see it happening.

Posted By Unearthed : August 14, 2013 4:37 pm

Bette Davis was a legend, through and through. She didn’t care what anyone thought and put true emotions into all her roles. My favourites of her by far are Of Human Bondage, All About Eve and What ever happened to Baby Jane?

Posted By plum68 : August 14, 2013 5:23 pm

Of the modern actors that you mention, they all do something that most stars of the Golden Age didn’t. They submerge themselves into some roles so deeply that they are completely different people. Unrecognizable. Not just through their acting, but also with costume and make-up. I can’t think of any movies in which you could not recognize Davis, Wayne, or Cagney. They always played a part of their own character rather than developing an entirely different one. Even Davis, who was not above being portrayed as ugly or strange, was still recognizable.

This is not to say that they were lesser actors than the modern ones, I’m sure the studios had something to say about how their stars appeared onscreen. They were all great actors, we just have a different style now, which I think to some degree, is the point of your article.

Posted By Doug : August 14, 2013 8:11 pm

My ‘vote’ for a living legend who will still be a star like Davis or Cagney 50 years from now is Clint Eastwood.
Bette Davis day on TCM makes me wish once more for TV service.

Posted By Gene : August 14, 2013 8:58 pm

There may be Stars today, but there are no more Legends.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 15, 2013 2:26 am

Of course, unlike Cagney, Donald O’Connor and Pat O’Brien had kept working somewhat in the two decades before RAGTIME, so there wasn’t going to be quite that sense of anticipation. (Pat did a marvelous comic turn on WKRP IN CINCINNATI as Jennifer’s wealthy [and, early in the episode, deceased] paramour, who leaves behind a devastatingly sarcastic video will for his sponging relatives.)

Posted By Emgee : August 15, 2013 3:33 am

@Doug: Clint gets my vote too, but then i’ve always considered him the last true iconic movie star.
Robert de Niro, Al Pacino….well, maybe.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2013 8:33 am

It was great watching the clips of Bette Davis with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that also ran on TCM, how she talked about feeling alive in front of the camera, and how seriously she took the work, even though by that point she was probably just getting hired to be Bette Davis. There are very few actors around today that can radiate that kind of intensity of personality on screen or in person.

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 1:47 pm

Will not Brad, George or Angelina be stars until their dying days and garner headlines all the while? It’s possible, but not likely. The old studio system, for all its good and bad points, was able to make true stars out of so many of the actors, but I think what helped was not knowing everything about their personal lives. There was a mystique to the stars of old. More often than not we were not told all of their intimate secrets. Now, we are told everything, and by multiple sources. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Posted By Gene : August 15, 2013 11:05 pm

Even in the 70′s there were still stars after the collapse of the studio system. I think the big thing today is how big the paychecks are and the stars want to be so real they have never cultivated a persona. So when many of them stand on the Red Carpet there is no glamour radiating from the spotlight – just another (fairly humdrum) human being who makes obscene amounts of money. Money does not buy taste nor does it buy allure.

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