Some Thoughts on an Idiot and His Breakthrough Performance: Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

I know that Jimmy Stewart is a pile of dimes next to the hundred-dollar bills most people pull out when they want to talk about the Great Institutions of American Cinema, but those legends are built upon wailing histrionics and an unmitigated contempt that critics, in their yearning for validation for the cultural norms that both disdain and blindly ascribe to, mistake for gruff masculine discourse. It is the tricks and manipulations of the Actors who came before him and who came after him, most of whom were slick men in better suits with pug noses and mainlined accents better suited for movieland mummification, that serve as the basis of their iconic status. But Jimmy—he’s just this absurd slope-jawed little hickory stick of a man who can’t hold his hat and who’s losing his hair without dignity. He’s completely unaware of the shades and perversions that make him so rounded, so whole, and that seep out of him in his best moments and his worst. He’s a man who thinks he made Vertigo when Vertigo made him. He is a profoundly frail creature who, after Gloria’s death and at the end of his own life, walls himself up in his home and retires into darkness and his own loneliness, taking his leave of the world at a suitably conflicted time in his myopic America: his own legacy is solid and unwavering, bolstered by both public sentiment and the acceptance of the intelligentsia, but his work has been stripped of its context.

There is nothing to compare it to; most films of his peak years lay forgotten, and from that he gains this status as a beacon where he was once a mere bellwether. There is a short list of survivors of the golden age, and he’s one of a handful of stars from the razed lots whose passing will be noted by the world at large. But it is less surreal for him–and for his fans–than for others because he has, since he was very young, embodied that America. That loss is a part of him.

But you can still hear it in his voice, as in the case of the audio introduction to the home video release of Harvey. This breaks my heart because here he is faced with the idea that his work, and not his image, has weathered—and can weather—these fluctuations, and one could postulate that he may very well be amazed by it for reasons he doesn’t consciously understand. With an eye turned to history, there’s a fairly simple explanation: it lightens the burden of being a symbol. It’s like when the biographical information on a noblewoman in a famous fifteenth century painting comes to light—she is no longer something precious to project upon.

So with the nominal classic film revival that comes at the end of his life, jimmy becomes—for the first time in half a century—part of a greater history. His life is no longer written in shorthand—he is not Hitchcock-Capra-and-Mann; he’s not even Jimmy Stewart. He is 1942, and he is 1956 and 1964 and 1938—he is MGM at high tide and at low. He is no longer a hollow icon. He is whole.

I regret that maybe he never truly came to see that.

But letting this fall aside—when we talk about Jimmy Stewart in the context of Hollywood history, Jeff Smith counts among a score of performances that galvanized a new way of acting. There are Streetcars and Nurembergs and some pretty powerful Grapes in there, too, but none of them shake me the way he does here, and with what—pigeons, lampshades, hats and telegrams? A plot imbued with love that threatened to burst with sentimentality–averted by an actor of that incomparable caliber and of that almost comically narrow range? When we talk about the titans of film acting, Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate persona-projection, the aw-shucks gold-plated distillation of the studio era and its artifice, rarely comes into the conversation. The world afforded Jimmy Stewart sainthood, but not distinction within his craft. What is it about Jeff Smith—and about Stewart himself–that is conducive to canonization, but not to pure art?

The truth is that he and he alone can imbue the crumpling of a paper with the dramatic weight of a thousand pert comebacks, the components of Bigger Films, Better Films, movies that are not outright condemned and warped and made bare and obscene by our fear that we are not as immovable as we think we are. That’s the fear that cut Mr. Smith off at the throat and kept him rasping in movie houses endlessly reel after reel after reel before the occupation came to the theaters of France and bleating on like an injured lamb in stadium-sized government classes across the United States. A performance like this, motivated by that kind of uproar and that kind of urgency, could descend into camp—for an older actor, for a more assured actor, it could become self-parody. But for the first time in his young screen career, there was nothing pitiably pat and charming about his work. It wasn’t yet pervaded by that sadness that came to him later, that edge of—desperation, maybe? In some of his later films, you can feel the tatters, mentally and physically.

Not to play lot doctor here–though isn’t moviegoing always an exercise in amateur psychoanalysis?–but do I think that while a contented and secure man, he was afraid, deeply afraid and deeply mistrustful, of his own sadness. He couldn’t embrace suffering and apply it to art—instead it escaped from him at inconvenient moments. Sometimes that subconscious expression worked in his favor, lending an air of genuineness, for example, to his contemplation of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life. But the majority of the time it came instead involuntarily, most commonly taking form in twinges of pain—this is displayed in the bar booth scene in Harvey, a performance distinguished by both great sensitivity to his environment and an almost excruciating lack of self-awareness. Not to conflate character and actor, but Jimmy’s Elwood is infused by a palpable amusement concerning his own suffering and his own weakness. All he knows is that there’s a camera (in Elwood’s world perhaps the eyes of others), there’s a script (Elwood is directed and misdirected by the offscreen and onscreen whims of others), and there’s this bundle of neuroses between him and the profound, sophisticated things he’d like to express to it. and he can’t, so it comes out instinctively—it comes out raw and disjointed and unpolished. It comes out as Harvey. Is this why critics are torn as to whether Jimmy did his best work as a novice or as a veteran? The callousness that makes L.B. Jeffries so seductive was mangled into glorious screwball fluff in It’s a Wonderful World fifteen years prior. The paranoia, detachment, and infectious bouts of vulnerability and earnestness–they were central to Jimmy’s screen persona from his earliest years. There is no distinguishable pattern of growth apart from the most subtle and minute refining. There’s only a splintering. A sadness.

But back to Smith. There were many men who came into fame like lightning, and after four years in Hollywood with nothing substantial to show for it—a nod and a song here and there, made to dance, made to sing, made to play a killer in a silk necktie—Jimmy wasmost definitely going nowhere. Because there are boys who can tie their shoes (this is how my mother has always summed him up, as a man who needed someone else to tie his shoes) and hold their own in a foxtrot, too, and really, what chance does he have?

He was not a natural to fame, but he was a natural to the screen—even at his most contorted and awkward, there is something in him aside from that widely lauded “likability” and “honor”—there’s magnetism. Magnetism! If you’d told him he had magnetism, he’d laugh—magnetism is a thing for vampy Latin lovers with dandified mustaches. He’d liken whatever quality he had to a vulnerability—a weakness, and certainly not one that he attributes to actors who he admires. But there is nothing more natural, more mesmerizing, than that horrible pressure he can exert on your heart by dropping his hat and mumbling low “Cluh-riss-a” and by the way he gestures to the side with his fingers held together, close, tight—the only sign of restraint in his entire performance, and one that he does not employ often—what a rich array of mannerisms for a man giving himself in totality!

He doesn’t hide in them, which is what we see from other Actors with a capital A—that jaw swipe with the back of the hand supplied for lack of a suitable reaction in dialogue, a half-smile with shifting eyes to announce to the audience that a very odd little game’s afoot—actors I appreciate and actors I love, but none of whom knew how to restrict their gestures because they were not plagued by that awful gawking presence through which by magic, by talent, by genius, Jimmy Stewart communicated something of a man adrift—of all men adrift. This wild loose-limbed little thing was made to bear that aforementioned burden—the burden of America. And those other Actors took on the mantles of Film, of Hollywood, of Passion or Doubt—while here was a man made to stand for the weight of a country and of an eragenerations packed in backwoods and fifth street theaters trusting him with the expression of their backwards glances and grammar school ideals—and for what? Are those paper to them, too? Most people have little to no substance—what made them prop him up as their spokesman when there were vessels better suited to that purpose, whose throwback quality of gee-mary homespun awe had no darker impulses pulsating beneath?

Mr. Smith may have had an honorary appointment, but America chose jimmy. He has become the elected representative for millions who are long gone and who left no trace but some shadows, some celluloid, and some moth-eaten ticket stubs for theaters no longer standing. To think that a man could outlive not only the bulk of his own filmography and the brick and plaster that spun them but the American people itself.

What a wonderful, terrifying, horrible thing. And what a pity for anyone who can’t catch his significance glittering in some far reach of their own America and in the dim ideals slowly erased and engulfed by the grain of subpar film stock and of the passage of time itself–because he is so much more than a movie star. He was a human being in the most inconsequential sense of the term—and somehow he was able to give enough of himself, and give it blindly, for us to manipulate him into standing for something greater—but maybe, and I think this is the root of it here, maybe he always stood for that. Maybe he was marked out at the beginning to be more, and maybe at some point that shifted into representing more because of our own fear and inadequacy.

We adopted him as a shield with which to face both our inherent flaws and our uncertain place in the world. And as we look back to where his beatification began in 1939, I wonder what that says about America.

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