Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reflections on Gary Cooper, the naif

I've been watching a few old Gary Cooper movies lately, and I was struck by the fact that the roles are so similar. They say the definition of a movie star is an actor who always plays himself, and in that regard Cooper was the quintessential star.

In "Pride of the Yankees," "Sergeant York," "Meet John Doe," "High Noon" and other roles, Cooper always seems to be playing the country bumpkin or otherwise naive character. He gets manipulated and roped into bad things by scheming folks. Even in "High Noon" where he plays a sheriff who's essentially abandoned by the townfolk to a crew of gunmen soon to arrive, there's an almost childlike innocence to the role. With his big, puppy-dog eyes and rangy frame, Cooper resembled a Labrador who was genuinely hurt when he got kicked.

Cooper was one of the few actors who segued seamlessly from silent to sound pictures, although he was mostly a bit player before the talkies came around. His slow line readings and pauses add to his persona as an innocent -- a common sight in all his movies is of Cooper, silent or stammering, his eyes churning as he tries to think of something to say. I don't mean to say that Cooper always played idiots, but his forte seemed to be unsophisticated, simple men who are easily swayed, but with a core set of values in the bedrock of their souls.

Watching "Sergeant York" the other day, I was surprised by how little fighting there is in what is ostensibly a war picture. Most of the Howard Hawkes-directed picture is set in the hills of Tennessee as York evolves from a hard-drinking troublemaker into an upstanding Bible-thumper who initially tries to get out of the World War I draft because of his religious beliefs. Of the 135 minutes of running time, only perhaps 15 deal with actual combat.

According to some accounts, the real Alvin York refused to authorize a movie version of his life unless Gary Cooper was the actor who would portray him.

It's interesting to think about the big male stars of that era, and how they each had such tightly-defined star personas. John Wayne was the big tough cowboy or soldier; Jimmy Stewart was the tenacious, excitable do-gooder; Cary Grant was the sophisticated rogue; and Gary Cooper was the naif. One wonders: Did these profiles emerge from their roles, or were studio honchos actively pushing them into them?

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