Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #1

It has been a long road, but we have finally arrived at the greatest movie actor of all time.  To recap, we've had:

25 - Sean Connery
24 - Gene Hackman
23 - Ed Harris
22 - Ed Norton
21 - Denzel Washington
20 - Bill Murray
19 - Liam Neeson
18 - Robert Downey Jr.
17 - Alan Rickman
16 - Jim Caviezel
15 - Kenneth Brannagh
14 - Anthony Hopkins
13 - Russel Crowe
12 - Geoffrey Rush
11 - Ian McKellen
10 - Ben Kingsley
9 - Jack Lemmon
8 - Kevin Kline
7 - Mel Gibson
6 - Tom Hanks
5 - Daniel Day-Lewis
4 - Johnny Depp
3 - Gary Oldman
2 - Charlton Heston

And now we have come to the #1 spot.  The greatest movie actor of all time:

Jimmy Stewart.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 
 Anatomy of a Murder 
 Rear Window 
It's a Wonderful Life 
 The Philadelphia Story 
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

There is a reason why Stewart was a leading man in Hollywood for years along with John Wayne and Spencer Tracy.  There is a reason that the great Alfred Hitchcock cast him in several of his movies.  There is a reason why people remember him with fond memories.  Most people probably think it was because of his affable on screen personality.  But that does this great a actor a disservice.

Stewart is obviously not a chameleon actor like Gary Oldman.  No matter what movie you saw him in, he was always Jimmy Stewart.  But being a chameleon is not the end all be all of great acting.  If we go back to when I started this list last August, I wrote:

So what makes a great actor?

The one key factor I have found is this: believability in the role.

The actor needs to inhabit the character in a way that we believe in their reality.  They can accomplish this by disappearing into a role like Johnny Depp or Gary Oldman.  Or they can bring their use their own life to make the character tangible, like Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart. 

Believability means that I the performances should make me emotionally invested in the character.  Investment should also come about through directing and story, but a great actor will pull you in with their performance.  Their journey should move you to love, hate, heartbreak, fear... whatever the story requires.

Believability also means that you shouldn't catch the actor "acting."  The words and actions should feel like they are coming spontaneously from the mind and heart of the actor.  Some actors simply put on a persona and go through the motions.  Samuel L. Jackson has had some amazing performances.  But often you see where he simply acts lout and large to make a big show, instead of simply inhabiting the character.  The same is true of Johnny Depp and Adam Sandler.
Finally, the mark of a great actor is if they can bring that believability to several different roles.  Acting is not only a talent, it is a skill.  And if you have a good technique, you should be able to summon your talent at will.  One of the marks of a poor actor, even one very talented, is one who cannot give a good performance because they aren't "feeling it."  A great actor will be able to perform well in several different projects.  Also, it is possible for a great director to cobble together a good performance from reams of footage.  A great actor should be able to work with several different directors and still make his performance shine.

And this describes Jimmy Stewart perfectly.  I think the reason people still have an affection for him is that they believed him in whatever role he played.

People remember his utter sincerity as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Taking another look at the performance, it is not as one-note as people might think.  His Smith is a man of straightforward honesty, but that translates often in to explosive anger.  You can feel him drowning in political corruption and despair as he desperately tries to understand why people don't simply see what is good and right and true.  Watch his performance as he embraces despair in the form of fake letters telling him to quit, but he simply smiles and continues on.

He also had a knack for doing great comedic and dramatic work.  This won him an Oscar when he was acting opposite Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.  Between those two powerhouse actors, Stewart not only held his own, but showed some nice comedic timing and was a believable competing love interest against one of the silver screen's most charming actors.

And it was this believability that sold his performance in Harvey, the story of a man whose best friend is an invisible 6-foot rabbit.  Stewart does not play him as particularly crazy or as horribly sane.  It would be easy to play his character as a child-like simpleton.  But Stewart does not take the obvious route.  He is too good for that.  He plays him as a man who honestly believes that there is nothing unusual about his relationship with Harvey.  And it is because Stewart does not add unnecessary affectation onto his character, but reaches through the screen with true belief, the magic of the movie as the audience not only wants to believe but actually comes to believe, even before the matter is settled.  

But this sincerity was not an indelible mark on his acting.  He could play cynical with the best of them.  Watch his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  He plays an ivory tower academic who speaks boldly and shockingly about killing other people.  He sounds very much like a man who thinks his theories are bold and brilliant and he gets a kick out of shocking the bourgeois guests at the dinner party.  But watch as the sober reality sets in.  His practiced cynicism cracks when he comes to understand the real-world consequences of his nihilistic world-view.

You can also see the frustration and power in his performance in Rear Window.  Robbed of a lot of his trademark physicality, Stewart had to rely on a limited palate to create a flawed but insightful character who eats away at the audiences tense nerves with his own fear.  You can even see his homespun "aw-shucks" demeanor used by his character to great effect in Anatomy of a Murder.  There, Stewart uses his own natural like ability as a shield for his own character's crafty nature.

One of his most intriguing performances to me was as Ranson Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  When you watch the beginning scenes, it is strange because Stewart plays his character as a pompous blowhard with way too much obviousness.  At first I thought that this must have been one of Stewart's off performances.  But as the movie unfolded you saw that his early moments were a mask.  And that mask was an ugly one at that.  We see you righteous anger and corruption found cracks into his soul in a way that is all the more tragic because it is not.

But the greatest performance of them all is of course the one he is most famous for: George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.  The movie is magical.  Frank Capra wrote a movie so inspiring that I can watch again and again and it still feels fresh.  But it really is Jimmy Stewart that puts it over the top.  

Watch every frame of the movie that he is in and you will see genius.  Stewart inhabits Bailey at every moment, every high and every low.  He plays him an idealistic, adventure seeking young man.  We see him as someone helplessly and unwillingly in love.  We see him as a man on the brink of full despair.  We see him as a crazed madman.  We see him as a man in love with life.  None of these moments are the same and all of them ring with absolute truth.  The transformation that he goes through in George Bailey's life is astounding.  And he does it without putting on unnecessary layers to his character.  We feel his age.  We feel his heart.  We feel for George Bailey because when we watch Stewart's performance, we are George Bailey.

Watch again his prayer in the bar.  I have never seen anything like it before:

And I don't think I will again.

And when we get to the end of the movie, George's explosion of joy could have fallen flat.  But Stewart earns every moment of joy and fills your heart with delight.

The mark of a great actor is believability.  Stewart took it a step further.  I not only believed that Stewart had the ability to play the character.

I believed in Jimmy Stewart.

And that is why he is the greatest actor of all time.

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