Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 14, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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