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The Dimming of the Stars

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES December, 2005

BY COINCIDENCE I was watching “Bend in the River” on AMC one morning, at the same time thumbing through Peter Bogdanovich’s recent book Who the Hell’s In It and came across his piece on Jimmy Stewart. This work, essays on Hollywood stars of the Golden Age, is a sequel to his Who the Devil Made It – both are well worth reading, especially for the old time, Golden Age film viewers. Mr. Bogdanovich very much mourns the demise of the big studio days and the consequent loss of what was once known as “Star Quality”. This last is that magical and unique screen presence that marked the actors that are included in Mr. Bodanovich’s book.

What struck me in particular was Mr. Bogdanovich’s imitation (in print) of Jimmy Stewart’s distinct manner of speech, something he called a Mid-Western “…nasal, stuff-jawed voice.” Even the reading sounded like Stewart. He did much the same in an essay on Cary Grant, noting Grant’s emphasis on random words and syllables in sentences, all in an unidentifiable British accent. The most widely imitates was his “Ju-dy, Ju-dy, Ju-dy’ from “Only Angels Have Wings”. While not in fact a line from the film it was popular with impressionists. Now, ageing relics can easily recall the early days of television variety shows and the almost inevitable impressionist act and the impersonations of film stars. Frank Gorshin was one of the best; he could not only sound like Kirk Douglas but screw up his face to look like him. Rich Little, the comedian, was good as well and one of the last impressionists I can remember seeing. Gorshin wound up as the Riddler on the Batman TV series, Little went on to small parts in film.

A contemporary impressionist, if one or two are still in business, would have a hard time finding material among film actors currently on screen – Jack Nicholoson, maybe Clint Eastwood, the one-liner of Arnold Schwartzenegger, ‘I’ll be back’ – there are few among the younger actors who are like the highly individualistic stars of former times. And as the Cagneys, Gables, Stewarts, Fondas and all have faded out so has an audience that is old enough to recognize the singular qualities that had made them stars. Consider the difficulty, if not impossibility, of working up a credible impersonation of Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman. You might try grinning furiously to conjure up a Tom Cruise but that’s as far as you’ll get. Those memorable distinctions of voice, speech and gesture that marked the old stars are seldom present in the new ones. Nor, in truth, can the new ones afford to cultivate such.

Once actors were held in contract to the major studios, their individuality cultivated and exploited in scripts written for them, parts selected that best suited their screen images, screen plays and roles advanced to accommodate their advance in years. You could age right along with John Wayne, you and he winding up in your twilight years with “Rooster Cogburn”. Gone also are the studio ‘B’ films where a young unknown might be tested to gauge any potential star quality – there is little difference now between an A or a B film. To keep on working today actors take what comes along. So Nicole Kidman goes from “Cold Mountain” to an embarrassingly inferior film as “Stepford Wives”; Michael Caine, one of the last of the old breed, accepts a part in a low humor Austin Powers film; Albert Finney in the maudlin “Big Fish”. If there is no one writing screen plays just for you then it becomes necessary to avoid being type cast – after all, look what happened to Tony Perkins following “Psycho”.

‘Star Quality’, a term seldom heard anymore, was real enough in the Golden Age. It referred to that indefinable electric presence on the screen, larger than life yet still believable and permeating all roles. How many young males in the 40’s yearned to be a Cary Grant, style themselves along the lines of Bogart (didn’t we become quinty-eyed smokers, cupping the butt in the palm of the hand – you bet we did)? How many today see themselves as Jude Law, hope to appear as Leonardo Di Caprio? What is there to copy?

I’m with Mr. Bogdanovich on this. There is a sadness at the loss of these nearly mythic figures. A bit of this appears now and then to remind us what it was once like. For me it’s when I catch a glimpse of Steve Buscemi. However briefly his moments in a film I immediately fix on him, hangdog face, gravelly manner of speech. I experience the same with Hope Davis; ever confounded by knowing she is not a beauty by the female film standards that prevail yet she seems beautiful. There is something of the old star quality there, though, by-and-large, it’s gone forever. We have celebrities now – not stars.

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