He was the quiet “everyman,” one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and yet perceived as the the boy next door. He’d won an Academy Award by portraying what many thought of as his own personality.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to speculate about the guy above — yes, it is James Stewart — and whether he got a lot better as he aged. We believe he certainly did, perhaps radically so.
After studying architecture at Princeton, Stewart joined a theatrical troupe that included a young Henry Fonda, and made his movie debut in 1935 director Tim Whalen’s The Movie Man. A year later he shared the lead with Eleanor Powell in Born To Dance.
Three years later he was hitting his stride as the lead in several hit pictures including the classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, directed by Frank Capra. His 1940 turn as Macauley (just call me “Mike”) Connor in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story won him his best actor Oscar.
The mixture of slow, self-spoken sincerity and comic physical awkwardness made Stewart very endearing and gave his work a greater sense of provincial naturalism than was usual in 1940, writes British author-critic David Thomson.
As the Forties pushed on, things began to change. Yes, he remained the doggedly virtuous good guy by in another Capra classic, 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life (made after the actor’s distinguished stint in the Air Force during World War II). Alfred Hitchcock showed up to claim Stewart for a somewhat bland and functional role in 1948’s Rope.
Then the Fifties brought westerns notably Winchester 73, calling for the actor to portray more intense characters. Working with director Anthony Mann, Stewart starred in Bend of the River, Thunder Bay and The Far Country. (One of our favorites, 1954’s The Glenn Miller Story, still featured the softer, likable Stewart of Thirties and early-Forties vintage.)
But those Westerns displayed a different side of the actor. He was now revealed as a colder, more pained and selfish man, who was often made to suffer and put to a brutal test of courage and honor, observes Thomson.
To finish the transition, Hitchcock cast Stewart as the voyeuristic photographer in 1954’s Rear Window who imposes his own kind of brutal test onto a ravishly beautiful Grace Kelly. The following year brought The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day. What clinched the deal, of course, was 1958’s Vertigo opposite Kim Novak.
A masterpiece by any terms, writes Thomson, Stewart’s portrayal of the detective who loses his nerve and then become entranced by the two forms of a mythic Kim Novak is frightening in its intensity: a far cry from a man who talked to rabbits (as Stewart did in 1950’s Harvey).
Vertigo was just voted “the best film ever made” in the once-a-decade poll of international critics conducted by British movie journal, Sight & Sound, superseding Citizen Kane. That could not have happened without Stewart’s amazing performance.