[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Gary Cooper visits John Wayne on the sets of Rio Bravo

Film actors are always cursed. Not just the second fiddles, but the most famous ones too. Especially the most famous ones, I’m tempted to say. Indeed, their reputation is tied to two primordial elements: first of all, their private lives. That’s to say, their loves, their death. If one had to find an animal that symbolizes the media (just like the squirrel evokes saving, the lion MGM, or the donkey stupidity), it would be the hyena: death gives its victim a dignity, a gravity, a timelessness the person never had during his lifetime. Respect comes automatically: we never dare to speak ill of the dead, especially not immediately. With our praise, we seek to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in the past, sometimes imaginary. We’re ashamed to be living while he isn’t. Nothing like a premature, accidental and especially dramatic death. Valentino, Dean, Monroe… Can we imagine James Dean attaining eternal and universal celebrity if, on 30 September 1955, instead of getting killed in a car, he had simply retired? Marilyn Monroe would probably have lived in people’s minds anyway, but her supposed suicide (nothing more mediatized than this sustained uncertainty), her supposed affair with a president of the United States (with a death no less mysterious), and her measurements contributed much more to her survival than her exceptional work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Bus Stop. Of course, talent helps, as the cases of Dean and Monroe prove. But it doesn’t turn out to be indispensable: had he lived on, Valentino would’ve remained in obscurity alongside other ham actors of the twenties.

The second important element is commercial success. Here, we clearly see the discrimination that exists between filmmakers and actors: directors like Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini or Samuel Fuller, who didn’t have a single real success at the box-office, are the subject of a number of monographs. Cults form around their name and their body of work. If not for La Grande Illusion and French Cancan on one side, Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the other, we could’ve said the same of Renoir and Godard. Such a contradiction is impossible with actors: if, in place of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I had told my editor that I’d like to write a book on Dominique Laffin, Denis Lavant, Claude Melki and Jean-François Stevenin, I’m absolutely sure that, with due respect, he would’ve pulled a face this long—or even longer—even though the second set of four aces has nothing to envy the first as far as quality of work is concerned.

In short, what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.

That’s why I said that great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons. Which means that we can lump together Gary Cooper with Valentino or Peck or Schwarzenegger… This contempt, this misunderstanding doesn’t exist with great secondary actors like Jean Abeillé, Walter Brennan, Hume Cronyn, Serge Davri, Mercedes McCambridge, Michael J. Pollard, Kurt Raab or Dominique Zardi. We can like them only for the right reasons. And if we don’t like them, it’s probably that we don’t know them. No one knows about Walter Brennan’s love life or the circumstances of his death, and it’s for the better.

Of course, the media have their own excuses, bad excuses I must add.

First of all, for forty years, thanks to the work of critics (partly my mistake then), directors have stolen the limelight—all of it—and actors have found themselves behind curtains. In the case of Bringing Up Baby, we don’t call it, like we once did, a Cary Grant film or a Katharine Hepburn film, but a Howard Hawks film. Room for One More is thus not a Cary Grant film, but a film by Norman Taurog, in reality a yes man at the mercy of Grant. The personality and the influence of some great—and very rare—directors, quite involuntarily, won them the game, a triumph that also passed on to countless little drudges planted behind the camera. The cattle-actor evoked by Hitchcock remains mostly an excellent witticism. We critics should’ve qualified our comments, shown more interest in multiple testimonies of directors who reconstructed the structure, script and dialogue of their next film in entirety following an actor change. But the idea of the director being the only master after God, or the one in his place, was an unshakeable, wholly convenient premise that laid the foundation for a hasty judgment: as Godard might say, it’s called the press because it consists of people pressed for time.

Finally, and most importantly, actors were placed at a disadvantage by their abundance. In contrast to the director, an actor doesn’t take part in the editing of a film and only collaborates during a brief period of its creation. So James Stewart could act in six films in 1939, while his directors Capra and Lubitsch had time to make only one film that year. It’s obvious that an actor’s career necessarily contains a good amount of trash, whereas a director can avoid these flops almost completely. Naturally, all these bread-and-butter works—which make for excellent training for the actor (just like advertisements are today for directors, with the added advantage of anonymity)—won’t be without inflicting damage at the time of audit.

An assessment reveals an average of eighty films for the stars mentioned here (Grant – 72, Wayne – 147) as opposed to about thirty-five for their favourite directors (McCarey – 24, Hitchcock – 53). That is something to wrap our heads around. And numerous monographs on these actors are generally satisfied with stringing together the synopses of these eighty films, their credits down to the thirty-ninth role, including the name of the character (even if this actor has no scene with our star), extracts from the press, a blank space at the end of every last page dedicated to each of the eighty films, and the book wrapped up even before the author has started writing it. A small biography, a lot of repetition from one film to another, nice photos, and the work is done… Most editors of these albums being American, they detest—as far as our four greats are concerned—auteur films admired by faraway Europe that were box-office failures (The Fountainhead, Good Sam, Man of the West, for Cooper).

Apart from a few interesting studies like the one by Stuart M. Kaminsky on Cooper, no analysis of details in performance, in a shot or in a sequence, no general study on the work of the actor. Nothing but dissipation.

There is worse: in his Cooper, though published by the very serious and very catholic Éditions du Cerf, Lucienne Escoube [1] dedicates a chapter to the actor’s affair with Lupe Velez, who made just one film with him, one of little interest, and doesn’t even mention The Fountainhead, one of the peaks of his career.

I thus have the pleasure—and the responsibility—of venturing into a little-explored territory. I’d even say a virginal territory with respect to Stewart (who, it’s true, has had the misfortune of not yet being dead as I write these lines). Ditto for Wayne, Grant being in a slightly better situation.

I promised myself one thing: “Luluc, you must never use the word myth in your book. Not even once.” When I hear the word myth, I reach for my revolver… to shoot myself if it’s me that said it. Indeed, in the domain of film criticism, the reference to myths has always seemed to me to be the gold standard of sham. What pretty turns of phrase it allows for! If one forgives my wordplay, I’d have wanted to be Monsieur Naphthalin. Well, that’s the end of that. It’ll indeed often be a question of myths. This failure has perhaps to do with my personal shortcomings. In my defence, I’d say that there is often a play on myths in the work of an actor (and with the actor), which is rarer in the work of a director (Bergman or Renoir, for example, avoid them). I discovered that there is, at times, a study to be done on an actor’s myth by getting your hands dirty, through a close engagement with the shots.

Cooper, Wayne, Grant, Stewart… why not Fonda?

I think he stands out a little too much from the quartet. My chosen four dedicated their entire careers to cinema, while Fonda abandoned it for theatre for seven years. The band of four leans right, Fonda leans left. These are actors of genre films (Westerns, detective movies), while Fonda is, first and foremost, an actor of “psychological dramas” like they would say in Pariscope (Jezebel, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Fugitive, War and Peace, Advise and Consent). In this respect, he has aroused the interest of critics more than his colleagues. And I don’t have much to write about him that’s not already been said—innocence, always innocence, or its opposite—be it on paper or on film (I’m thinking of Godard’s Letter to Jane). And I wonder here: is it possible to speak of Henry Fonda without speaking of Jane Fonda? That will take us far away. Besides, after giving an orientation to the work of his friend Stewart in its early phase, Fonda ended up copying him a little too much.

Unlike a Bogart, my four actors are all very tall: they range from 184cm (Grant) to 193cm (Wayne), through 189cm (Cooper) and 190cm (Stewart). We’ll see that this external characteristic is very important. They were all born during a brief interval of seven years at the beginning of the century. They had their real start in the thirties. Each one worked with Cecil B. DeMille (a number of radio programmes in the case of Grant). Three of them were used by Hawks, Capra, Sternberg, Preminger, Hathaway and Walsh.

Their osmosis surprises us: Wayne replaced Grant in The Flying Tigers, a “remake” of Only Angels Have Wings. Capra hesitated for a while between Cooper and Stewart before making Mr. Smith. I remember that, in 1955, Hatari! was announced in Hollywood Reporter, not with Wayne, but with Cooper under the title Africa. Before going with Wayne, Hawks proposed the script of Red River to Cooper, and also—for the role finally given to John Ireland—to Grant.

There is then a whole series of bridges between these four actors who, we will see, nevertheless have totally different personalities and acting styles.

Before going into the details, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to compare, even in a cursory manner, the behaviour of human beings in real life and the performance of a film actor.

I’ve often engaged in this comparison while watching people in the streets, at cafes or even at their homes. And I noticed that most people have a very reserved attitude. They externalize rarely, or only from time to time. It depends on individuals, of course, and their nationality. There are exceptions. But modesty dominates, except in kids and that too till a certain age and when they aren’t intimidated. I saw my grandmother learn of my grandfather’s unexpected demise. Her attitude was absolutely unlike the one we’re used to observing in cinema in a similar situation: in place of the explosion on screen, the reality of life offered me an inexpressive, frozen face. Explosion, if it happens at all, occurs after reflection, hours, days or weeks later. In general, at the heat of the moment, the near and dear of the deceased are rather dazed, surprised. They don’t believe it, or don’t want to believe it.

When you talk about the lack of reserve in actors, directors of traditional films tell you that cinema is not a recording of life, it’s art: one must recreate. Yeah… but most often, this effervescence of actors remains the only work of stylization and creation in films in which everything else is tritely naturalist, without any accent on image, sets or movement. Wanting to be Ophüls doesn’t make you Ophüls… Not wanting it, even less so. This is our standard French film, the one with late-period Jean Gabin or Annie Girardot, among others.

Gabin amps it up in Archimède le clochard, Les Vieux de la vieille or L’Age ingrat. And his co-stars imitate him. He thus loses even the possibility of becoming this exceptional case I mentioned, the rare bird who externalizes permanently in real life.

Annie Girardot, in Jambon d’Ardenne and in films by Leo Joannon or Audiard, expresses as much as she can in every scene without an arc of progression. Her characters therefore give the impression of hypersensitivity bordering on madness. But none of the individuals around her consider her crazy any more than the scriptwriters do. That brings us, beyond the usual formal wilderness, to a surprising alliance between two contradicting negativities: such fury is in no way a reflection of real life. And at the same time, it’s in no way an artistic creation: imagine the monotony of a concert comprising only of the clash of cymbals!

From the discussion above, one might think I’m a victim of a persistent prejudice against showboating, over which I’d systematically prefer self-effacement, underplaying always trumping overplaying, since we’re dealing with American actors. Nothing of that sort: I feel the greatest admiration for genius performers like Vittorio Gassman, Goldie Hawn, Emil Jannings, Denis Lavant, and Michel Serrault. But they are exceptions. They work in a realm far from naturalism, close to phantasmagoria, thanks to which they arrive paradoxically at a kind of secondary, superior realism.

I’ve possibly laboured the point, but I wanted to assert underplaying as the most natural, the most normal route for an actor to take. Even if one contests this fact, it’s undeniable that it constitutes an entirely honourable and respectable principle of work that has nothing to envy other acting styles.


Why does it constitute the essential base of American cinema, and why does it remain less evident across European cinema?

It perhaps harks back to the history of acting in North America. Let’s not forget that the first American play that has survived remains Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, dating back to 1920. The first great American film is The Birth of a Nation, made in 1914. I’m aware that there were theatres in New York and elsewhere much before 1920. But the repertoire was essentially made of imported plays, especially British ones. In short—and it’s not very kind to David Belasco and his buddies—one could say that there was no American tradition of theatre until the end of the First World War. American cinema thus preceded American theatre. At the beginning, there is hence hardly any influence of theatre on cinema. Maybe it was the other way around, but nothing allows us to verify it.

A completely new situation then, diametrically opposed to the one in Europe.

In France, the deformation of theatrical acting naturally overcame the handicap of visual and sonic distance. Gestures were amplified, murmurs were to be heard forty meters from the stage. And clearly, comparable transpositions were required when a more serious handicap had to be overcome: the absence of sound in cinema. The exaggeration of European silent film actors, which could be justified until 1929, were carried over without any valid excuse into the first years of the talkies. To be sure, the truth is not so simple: there were Yankee ham actors right from 1914—like Wallace Beery or John Barrymore—and there were simple and discreet French actors even in silent films, like Charles Vanel and René Lefèvre. But I’m speaking of general tendencies.

It’s curious to note that American film acting is based on sobriety whereas the national cinema was launched by two renegades of the theatre, Griffith and DeMille, who even brought illustrious stars of Broadway to Hollywood. Truth be told, the two men were failures in the theatre, almost pariahs. In their films, we sense their literary origins, not so much in the performance of actors, but in the often overblown and ridiculous nature of their intertitles. More than actors—even if they did act—they were dramatic writers, unpublished poets, and hardly original ones at that.

This was confirmed in the early years of the talkies, when the text gained more prominence, Griffith and DeMille had serious difficulties in sustaining themselves: Abraham Lincoln oscillates between a very novel mythological formalism and an academic verbalism that’s far less novel. The Crusades remains bad theatre, and DeMille practically never regained in the talkies the splendour he had discovered in silent cinema.

One must also take into account the fact that the first American cinema was a cinema of exteriors, of space, and one understands very well that actors—from Broadway or not—had no desire in these new places to reproduce a theatrical practice that was either unknown to them or related to the evocation of an art specifically English or European. After all, in DeMille, the only real ham actors are the foreigners, Sessue Hayakawa, Theodore Kosloff and Charles Laughton, who play great villains. There is here a massive xenophobic amalgam of Evil, the Foreigner and overplaying.

Smart alecks can surely point to Soviet cinema to deny the link between the sobriety of acting and the absence of a theatrical past: the underplaying in Russian cinema is close enough to American underplaying. It’s habitually said that the two global superpowers are also the ones offering the highest quality of acting. Now, Russia has a very strong theatrical tradition… That’s not the question: it’s Soviet cinema which possesses this quality. Its refusal to accentuate personalities and grimaces—with the exception of some Bondarchuks—is based on the categoric refusal of tsarist art, and thus of its theatrical past.

I don’t think I’ve wandered too far off my subject: the reader will have guessed that these commonplace ideas on an actor’s self-effacement were invoked only to better bring out the connection between the most logical art, acting in nascent American cinema and the work of the greatest champion of underplaying, Gary Cooper.



[1] Gary Cooper, le cavalier de l’Ouest, Lucienne Escoube, Éditions du Cerf, 1965.