Thursday, May 29, 2014

Leading Men: An Appreciation of Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck

Kirk Douglas

William Holden

Burt Lancaster

Robert Mitchum

Gregory Peck
Several of my favorite movie actors come from a generation of leading men who got their start during the 1940’s. I’ve always grouped five of them together in my mind: Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck. Of course there were many other excellent actors from that same generation as well, like Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, and Dana Andrews. But Douglas, Holden, Lancaster, Mitchum, and Peck have always been my favorite actors of that period. I watched a lot of their movies during the late 1990’s, when I was in high school, and to me they were sort of masculine ideals. I wanted to grow up to be as charming as William Holden, as confident as Kirk Douglas, as dignified as Gregory Peck, as insouciant as Robert Mitchum, and as graceful as Burt Lancaster. 

Douglas, Holden, Lancaster, Mitchum and Peck were all part of the same generation, born between 1913 and 1918. All of them burned brightly on the silver screen, bringing us many memorable characters, from Elmer Gantry to Atticus Finch. They were all unique actors, but one thing they had in common was that they all shared the same star quality, the magnetism that truly makes a movie star. And they were all supremely talented actors as well as movie stars who made high-grossing films. 

All of them bloomed very quickly as actors. William Holden had appeared in just a few stage productions when he was picked to star in “Golden Boy.” Burt Lancaster appeared in one off-Broadway show when he was spotted by a talent scout and signed for his film debut in “The Killers.” Robert Mitchum got his start in bit appearances in westerns and war films, making his first movie in 1943, but within two years he was playing leading roles. Gregory Peck made his first film in 1944, and was nominated for an Oscar just a year later. Kirk Douglas made his film debut in 1946, and scored an Oscar nomination for “Champion” in 1949. 

Ironically enough it was William Holden, who perhaps made the biggest splash with his first movie, “Golden Boy,” who then had the most difficulty following it up with another hit. Holden had started in movies earlier than all the others, making “Golden Boy” in 1939, and yet by January of 1950 the other four actors were all very successful while Holden’s career was languishing. Holden, who was just 21 when he made “Golden Boy,” quickly found himself typecast in boring juvenile roles. Holden said in a 1962 interview, “I was always that damned boy next door. I went to college in ‘Those Were the Days,’ grew up in ‘Our Town,’ was an air cadet in ‘I Wanted Wings.’ The name of my character was Smilin’ Jim. I hated his guts.” (William Holden: A Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, by Will Holtzman, 1976, p.54) Blessed with handsome All-American looks, Holden was stuck with bland and boring parts in movies like “Apartment for Peggy” and “Father is a Bachelor.” But thankfully, in 1950, along came Billy Wilder and “Sunset Boulevard,” the part that firmly established Holden as a great actor. Holden was finally able to play a character with some depth, and showed that he was up to the challenge. 

What made each of these actors special?

For Gregory Peck, it was his nobility, his inner goodness that comes through so strongly in his most famous role, Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Of course, Peck had the range to play villains as well, and he did so memorably in “The Gunfighter” and “The Boys From Brazil.” But moviegoers liked Peck the most when he played someone we could look up to. Tall, dark, and handsome in the Cary Grant/Rock Hudson manner of leading men, Peck actually had an early screen test rejected by one studio because his ears were different sizes! (His right ear was smaller than his left. Or, if you prefer, his left ear was larger than his right.) But female fans didn’t care about Peck’s ears, especially when they were attached to such a finely chiseled face. 

Even though Robert Mitchum played mainly good guys throughout his career, he was so electric when he played villains in “The Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” that those have become two of his most famous performances. Mitchum brought a sexy, devil-may-care attitude to both his films and his personal life, as he was famously busted for possession of marijuana in 1948. Mitchum was probably the least conventionally handsome of the five actors, with his cleft chin, extremely sleepy eyes, and broken nose, but when he was on screen you couldn’t look away from him. With a very distinctive walk and voice, Mitchum was someone who made a big impression on the screen.

Kirk Douglas summed up his own career very well when he said “I’ve made a career out of playing sons of bitches.” Douglas had a confidence on screen that lent itself very well to playing arrogant, head-strong characters. With a strong dimpled chin and the dynamic intensity of a coiled spring, Douglas was the most intense performer of the five actors. Who else could have played the tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh? But Douglas could also keep it in check when he needed to, like his excellent turn in “Seven Days in May,” opposite his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster. Douglas’s own favorite among all of his movies was “Lonely Are the Brave,” in which he gives an outstanding performance as a loner trying to do his own thing in the world. 

Burt Lancaster was sheer grace, pure poetry in motion. The director John Frankenheimer once said “Just Burt walking across a room was a thing of beauty.” Lancaster’s charm, his charisma, and his athletic physique all made him a magnetic actor. All of his gifts were showcased very well in “Elmer Gantry,” which he deservedly won an Oscar for. I think Lancaster was the most versatile of the five actors, as he constantly strove to play different parts and resist any kind of typecasting. He had charm in spades, but he could turn it off and be cold as ice water when the part demanded it-like playing unsympathetic roles in “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Seven Days in May.” One of his best performances is in “The Swimmer.” Lancaster was in his mid-50’s when the movie was made, but he looks like a Greek statue come to life. 

William Holden blended all-American handsomeness and charm to become an immensely likeable performer. Like Lancaster, Holden was graceful and athletic on the screen. I can still remember the insipid wording of a Premiere magazine article from 1996 or so about the 100 Greatest Movie Stars, which said about Holden that he was “neither dashing nor movie star handsome.” What?? Have you ever SEEN William Holden? Watch “Sabrina” and “Picnic,” to name just two movies, and then tell me he wasn’t dashing or handsome. Holden almost always played sympathetic characters, and he was always likable, even when playing cynical characters. 

These five actors were all extremely gifted men who became great film actors, even if they entered the profession with little or no acting experience. They all brought intelligence and dedication to their craft as actors, and they left us with some of the greatest movie performances ever.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Movie Review: Robert Ryan in "The Set-Up" (1949)

Robert Ryan in "The Set-Up," 1949.

Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter.
“The Set-Up,” is a taut film noir thriller from 1949. Running just 72 minutes, the story takes places in real time, one of the earliest movies to use this narrative technique. “The Set-Up” was expertly directed by Robert Wise, who started doing odd jobs in movies and eventually became an editor.  He edited the first two films directed by a young theater director, Orson Welles. Those two movies were “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” By the mid 1940’s Wise had become a director, and he had an extremely successful directing career, helming a number of notable movies in disparate genres, from science fiction, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to blockbuster musicals like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.” (That was back when there was such a thing as a blockbuster musical.) Wise won 2 Best Director Oscars for his work on “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” and won the Academy’s lifetime achievement award at the ripe old age of 52. 

“The Set-Up” tells the story of an over the hill 35-year-old boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson, who is supposed to take a dive in a fight against a much younger opponent. The fix has been arranged by a gangster, and Stoker’s manager is in on it. The only problem is that he neglects to tell Stoker about it before the fight. 

The always underrated Robert Ryan played Stoker, and he did an excellent job. Ryan was 6’4” of lean muscle, and he had the right physicality to be very believable in the role. Ryan was a heavyweight boxing champ in college at Dartmouth, so he knew what he was doing inside the ring. Before he became an actor Ryan worked on a ship for two years. He also worked on a ranch in Montana, and he was a Marine drill instructor during World War II. So, yeah, he had the right tough guy credentials to play the part. Ryan had an interesting film career, giving excellent performances in many well-known movies, yet major stardom seemed to elude him. 

Audrey Totter plays Stoker’s wife Julie, and she delivers a compelling performance. It’s easy for the audience to sympathize with her desire to have Stoker quit boxing. She recites the names of drab towns that they have just been in before this fight in Paradise City, and it’s clear that Stoker’s best days are long behind him. Totter has an interesting face, with extremely high and prominent cheekbones and a pointed nose.

“The Set-Up” expertly takes us into the world of prizefighting, as every boxer in the movie, Stoker included, thinks he's just a few punches away from a shot at the title. Even Gunboat, the sad old stumblebum fighter, keeps reciting the name of a fighter who lost 21 fights in a row before he became a champion. You can see in Ryan's eyes that even though he thinks the other fighters are deluded for thinking the way they do, he knows that he’s just the same. 

Wise depicts the boxing fans as a bloodthirsty mob, the descendants of those people who happily cheered on the gladiator fights during the Roman Empire. Seemingly meek women turn into heartless harridans screaming "kill him!" Wise keeps showing a fat guy in the audience who just keeps eating. Every time we see him, he’s devouring a new food item. That's what the fight is all about, selling popcorn. It's bloody entertainment, even though these men are fighting for their lives.

“The Set-Up” is an excellently made film noir, and I would recommend it highly for any fans of the genre. Robert Ryan’s performance is superb, and fans of his will enjoy “The Set-Up.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Movie Review: Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952)

Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in "The Bad and the Beautiful," 1952. Understatement of the day: wow, she was beautiful.

Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner, and Dick Powell in "The Bad and the Beautiful," 1952.

“The Bad and the Beautiful,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a look at a callous movie producer who makes great films but destroys the lives of those around him. Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast as the producer, and garnered his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for the movie. As Douglas himself once said, “I’ve made a career out of playing sons-of-bitches.” And Jonathan Shields, the character Douglas plays, is certainly a son of a bitch.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” is told largely in flashback form, as director Fred Amiel, (Barry Sullivan) leading actress Georgia Lorrison, (Lana Turner) and author James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) meet in producer Harry Pebbel’s office. (Pebbel is played by Walter Pidgeon.) Pebbel tells them that Shields, who is living in France and hasn’t made a movie in years, wants them to work with him one more time on a new project. As they all wait for the trans-Atlantic phone call to be connected, they each tell their memories of Shields, and how he screwed them over. However, Pebbel is quick to point out when each of them have finished their stories that Shields’s bad behavior actually helped them to become the successes they are. 

The acting in “The Bad and the Beautiful” is superb, with strong performances from all of the leads. Kirk Douglas had the perfect blend of seductive charm and arrogance to pull off the role of Jonathan Shields. Lana Turner was excellent, and her scenes with Douglas crackle with dynamic energy. Turner, always known more for her gorgeous looks than her acting talent, shows that she was much more than just a pretty face. Turner also looks beautiful throughout the film, making the title quite apt. Barry Sullivan gives a nice performance as Shields’s early friend who is soon left by the wayside. Walter Pidgeon does a good job as Pebbel, who gives the slick-talking young Shields his first real job in the movies, and Pidgeon projects his usual air of calm authority. Dick Powell is also excellent as Bartlow, the cynical and jaded author. Powell had a very interesting movie career. He began as a musical star in light comedies during the 1930’s, starring in movies like “42nd Street,” (1933) and “On the Avenue” (1937). When it seemed as though his days as a romantic leading man were numbered, he tried to broaden his image. While he lost out on the lead in “Double Indemnity,” (1944) he landed the role of private detective Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet,” also known as “Farewell, My Lovely” (1944). That role led to many more dramatic roles, as Powell made the successful transition to dramatic actor. Powell starred in many TV shows during the 1950’s, and also directed five films during the mid-1950’s. (One of those was the ill-fated “The Conqueror” starring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn.) Powell’s second wife was the actress Joan Blondell, and his third wife was June Allyson. Powell died of cancer in 1963, at the age of 58. Gloria Grahame took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Rosemary, even though she’s only onscreen for 9 minutes. But it’s an excellent performance, no matter the length. Grahame’s stormy personal life would soon overshadow her fine acting ability, though. Grahame was married four times. Her second marriage was to the director Nicholas Ray, who had one son, Anthony, from a previous marriage. Ray and Grahame also had one son together before divorcing in 1952. In 1960, Grahame married her former stepson, Nicholas Ray’s son Anthony. Grahame then had two sons with Anthony Ray. Weird.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” set a record for most Oscar wins for a film that was not nominated for either Best Picture or Best Director, winning 5 of the 6 Oscars it was nominated for. Douglas was the only one to come home empty-handed, losing out to Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” It’s surprising that Minnelli wasn’t nominated for his excellent directing. Fresh off his success with 1951’s “An American in Paris,” Minnelli created vivid compositions with rich black and white photography. It’s odd to see a Minnelli film in black and white, since he’s so known for his rich color palettes. Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas must have enjoyed working together, as they would later team up for two more movies, 1956’s “Lust For Life,” which starred Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, in one of his best performances, and 1962’s “Two Weeks in Another Town.” There’s a good amount of humor in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” which makes it a delight to see, even today. There’s a parody of a fussy English director, which is a jab at Alfred Hitchcock, amid other Hollywood in-jokes. 

There are no tales of outrageous behavior from the set, as producer John Houseman wrote in his autobiography, Unfinished Business, “I have never produced a film on which there were fewer problems.” (P.319) Kirk Douglas, in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, spends just a page on the movie, writing, “When they announced that Lana Turner was the ‘beautiful,’ the paper were filled with ‘When these two get together…’ I was ready for it. But she was going with Fernando Lamas, who was terribly jealous. He was always around. Nothing happened. I liked Lana, and I thought she did one of her best pieces of acting in that picture.” (P.171) Given Douglas’s reputation as a ladies’ man, I think Fernando Lamas was very smart to not let Lana spend any time off-set with Kirk. 

If you’re a fan of movies about Old Hollywood, or any of the leading actors, you’ll definitely enjoy “The Bad and the Beautiful.”