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Hooray for Hollywood!

November 22, 2001

I love old movies. Not just the classics recommended by the best critics, but good old vulgar Hollywood studio productions with big stars. I’m fascinated by the world they reflect. Think of a country in which the top box-office attraction was Mickey Rooney! How we’ve changed.

I grew up accepting the notion that a movie star is a very different thing from a great actor. Clark Gable was a big star, it was said, but he always played himself; Alec Guinness was a great actor because he could lose himself in a character, so much so that he might be unrecognizable from one role to the next. Laurence Olivier was the rare performer who could handle both the romantic lead and Shakespearean tragedy.

But I’ve come to believe that this distinction sells the movie star short. It takes a special talent to create a durable persona that can carry film after film, and not every great actor has that talent. Even John Gielgud couldn’t do what Humphrey Bogart did.

I used to hate Bette Davis and James Cagney. I thought they were ugly and abrasive, and I marveled that they had ever been popular. Now I watch them with appreciation. True, they didn’t have conventional good looks; but how they could rivet the viewer! [Breaker quote: Learning to love 
Bette Davis]They moved superbly, often using only their eyes to dominate the screen; and they could deliver a line with the force of a harpoon.

One of the secrets of every great movie star is the voice. It needn’t be a resonant or powerful voice, but it must be distinctive. More important than its timbre is the way it’s used. If its intonations are predictable, we forget it; the great old stars all had peculiar, and memorable, ways of speaking. They made their lines their own, even if the script was written before they were cast.

Spencer Tracy is widely hailed as one of the great Hollywood actors, and he was also a star. Again, he wasn’t especially blessed in his looks and voice; his style was understated; he wasn’t terribly versatile. But he made you watch, listen, and believe. His work holds up even now, and it always will.

William Powell, one of the great stars of the Thirties, would probably be unemployable in today’s Hollywood. He looks very dated. You can hardly imagine him without his elegant suit and mustache. His looks were far from glamorous, and his voice, though fine, was a little stagy. But his delivery was forceful and witty. For films of his period, he was perfect. He deserves to be seen and appreciated in his element, even if it’s long out of fashion.

Joan Crawford is another who used to repel me, and of course her posthumous reputation has been damaged by her adopted daughter’s memoir, Mommie Dearest. I wouldn’t call her beautiful. Her large-shouldered glamour looks silly now; it cries out for a female impersonator. For all that, I love her bold-lined face and the way she uses her eyes. The less pretty she got, the more she seemed to own the screen.

Hollywood usually cast Claude Rains as a villain, with his swirling hair, his ominous brows, and his insinuating suavity; but what a delicious villain he was, often stealing the movie from the hero. He always gave the same performance, but it was always note-perfect, and I never tire of it. Much the same is true of George Sanders, the cad’s cad.

Nobody in movies spoke with more silken grace than James Mason, whom I’ve always thought extraordinarily handsome; his sad eyes reminded me of my father. Hero or villain, he conveyed intelligence as few actors did. I never fully admired Cary Grant as a screen actor until I saw him steal scenes from Mason in North by Northwest. I didn’t know it could be done.

Charles Laughton showed how interesting an ugly face can be. He could get the most out of a line with an off-hand growl. As Quasimodo, the hideous hunchback of Notre Dame, he abandoned his greatest asset, his rich voice, and still managed to give one of the most heart-breaking performances ever filmed.

These are only a few of my personal favorites. Each of them illustrates the genius it takes to project an enduring personality onto the big screen. Many other stars of their era have faded; these won’t.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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