Monday, 21 July 2014

The liberal James Garner

There are actors who are associated with parts at odds with their own personal convictions. Conservatives James Stewart and Gary Cooper in their heyday starred in liberal classics of the big screen, while John Wayne was often the mouthpiece for the radical writer/director John Ford. Complementary examples are harder to find, and are mostly in the ranks of character actors. (One such is Norman Lloyd, who played a Nazi saboteur in Hitchcock's 1942 film of that name and a few villainous capitalists after that. A socialist who survived the witch-hunts of the 1950s largely it seems through going into production, I see that he is in "A Place for Heroes" due to be released in his centenary year. Typically, his character is said to have a "checkered past".)

James Garner, as this obituary by Robert Sellers in the Indy shows, was, like his mentor and friend Henry Fonda, in the opposite category. He "seemed to epitomise the honourable man in a dishonourable world" and "roles like Maverick and private eye Jim Rockford [...] worked because they were so close to the real person". Indeed, probably his least successful part was as the buccaneering capitalist F Ross Johnson in "Barbarians at the Gate".

It did not surprise me to learn that according to IMDb, "He and his wife Lois Clarke were married at the Beverly Hills Court House just two weeks after they met at a political rally", "was involved with many humanitarian causes", "was a volunteer of Save the Children" and "had helped organize Martin Luther King's famous 'March on Washington' civil rights demonstration". My favourite of his later film rĂ´les was in the satirical thriller "My Fellow Americans" which teamed him with Jack Lemmon as ex-presidents, Democrat and Republican respectively, reflecting each man's own politics. Also interesting was "The Skin Game" which made some keen points about slavery and racial politics through the medium of comedy. Even his biggest success, the Rockford Files had a liberal message at its heart, in that the hero was an ex-convict who made good. (Given the trouble that Garner had with gaining anything like his true worth in earnings from both "Maverick" and "Rockford", I wonder whether the conniving Angel in the latter came to embody untrustworthy Hollywood executives.)

An intriguing series, which I wasn't aware of until searching the IMDb entry because it wasn't shown over here, was "Nichols". The summary storyline reads: "In 1914, Nichols, a soldier, sick of killing, returns to his Arizona home town, named after his family, and is strong-armed into serving as sheriff by the Ketcham clan, who run the area. Nichols, who doesn't believe in toting a gun, scoots around via an Indian motorcycle. The Ketchams install as deputy their relative, Mitch Mitchell. The nasty deputy has a dog named Slump, and Mitchell is very dumb. A business-savvy local gal has an undefined relationship with Nichols, but it's obvious there's lots of action in the back rooms of her saloon. The strict moral lines of traditional Westerns are absent in this very Vietnam War era show's view of the Old West's dying days: the Ketchams aren't all bad, and little-respected Sheriff Nichols wouldn't mind ripping off the town to head for Mexico." I wonder if Warners can be persuaded to make the DVD available over here?

Garner was dismissive of his own acting ability. Maybe like Cary Grant and  his friend Paul Newman the range of parts he played was limited.  However, the true test is surely whether you could believe in the person you saw on the screen, and Garner passed that with flying colours. He seldom had the chance to play emotional parts, but I challenge anyone not to be moved by "The Notebook" in which he partners a dementia victim played by Gena Rowlands.

But in the end politics and dramatic criticism must give ground to the pleasure which Garner gave to two generations of viewers.

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