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

The saga of the left profile: Cooper has to always have the most marked face possible… (Sergeant York, 1941)

Gary Cooper became famous, most of all, in uniform: thirty of his eighty-two films present him in attire, starting from Opus 5, Wings (1927), till the penultimate one, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), and we must perhaps also include For Whom the Bell Tolls, where he is in plainclothes but at war. He stands, then, for the conventional, official Right, somewhat perverted towards the end of his career since, in the comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), he plays an officer holding a post that has nothing to do with his capabilities, since The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) shows him as an outcast general criticizing the decisions of the army. And the captain of the Mary Deare, the only man on board the ghost ship that traffics arms, would also go on trial, just like Billy Mitchell.

But more than a moral value, the uniform represents a visual asset: it throws Cooper’s great height into relief. His lean build makes him look almost like a model. All outfits go on him: army, navy, air force, ancient (in Westerns) or exotic (attire of the French legionnaires) uniforms, or both at once (The Lives of Bengal Lancer).

Morocco (1930) is not the first film where he is a legionnaire (there was Beau Sabreur already in 1928), but it’s the one that imposed this brand image. Undoubtedly, the success of Morocco incited lazy producers to cast him as an army man in five consecutive films from 1931 to 1933.

Watching Sternberg’s Morocco, we could say that Cooper is more of a silhouette, a statue, an image, a model, a prop, an element in the general aesthetic of the film. He belongs to the class of Sternbergian strongmen, the giant variety (like John Wayne later) that alternates with the stout variety (Bancroft, Jannings, McLaglen, Beery, Mature), the Mitchum of Macao being both — a predilection that might explain the failure of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov-Peter Lorre being evidently the antithesis of the Sternbergian man.

This mythical aspect goes hand in hand with the spirit of the film. You get the feeling that Sternberg—in this film as in his other works of the period—accepted and even sought out all the already-mythologized elements of convention—a handsome army man, a femme fatale, an impossible love, a rich and wily old French seducer, and the charms and the dangers of mysterious Africa. This strategy allowed him to come out of all charges unscathed: if the film failed, wise guy Sternberg could always claim that it was impossible to make anything from such a ridiculous plot. If the film succeeded, he could boast of having overcome all these superhuman obstacles.

The early years: marks already on the face and the body (Wolf Song, 1929)

Cooper’s mythification in the film isn’t based on the aesthetic alone—the white of his uniform, like the luminous white of Dietrich’s face, violently contrasting the black of the night, the alleys, and the tree leaves—but also derives from movement, from the conception of dialogue and from the role of props and gestures.

Movement: Cooper moves very little. When he does, it’s through a parade of identical strides, which gives the impression of immobility. Besides, Cooper can’t move with ease: he is so tall that he must stoop to go through doors. To underscore his height, he is almost always shown from head to toe. He appears to hardly move during the brief skirmish with rebels: with his immense legs, he needs far fewer steps than other soldiers.

Dialogue: Cooper talks very little. Short sentences, delivered quickly from the end of the lips. It would be glib to attribute this style to his difficulty in remembering lines, which might have thwarted the dialogue writer in his flourishes, or to an intention to help Cooper transition softly from silent era to the talkies. The film was, in fact, conceived for Marlene Dietrich. Now, Dietrich had come from Germany to the United States for the first time in her life and had a very limited knowledge of English. So it was important that she spoke little, with a partner tuned to her range. And it’s highly likely that Cooper’s laconism—his trademark during the bulk of his career—stemmed from this fortuitous meeting, through the success of Morocco. More often than the other three greats, Gary Cooper would find himself working with directors of Mitteleuropa (Lubitsch, Boleslawski, Wyler, Lang, Curtiz, Zinnemann, De Toth, Preminger, Wilder), and also with other Germanic co-stars—Lili Palmer, Maria Schell, Emil Jannings (the coming together of this king of overplaying and the ace of underplaying in Betrayal promises to be exciting, on paper) or from the rest of Europe (Lili Damita, Anna Sten, Ingrid Bergman, Signe Hasso, Denise Darcel). This reduction of dialogue is particularly interesting in romantic scenes. Lines are cut short, at the onset of emotions, by long, awkward silences involving manipulation of props without any narrative reason, and which seems to speak volumes about desire. For what else can there be between these two souls who hardly speak but are nevertheless with each other face-to-face?

Cooper’s props and gestures are fetishist. They are never related to one another in realistic continuity, they are isolated. They may be shown at length (when Cooper eats an apple like a boor, for example) or in brief (blowing on flowers to get rid of the dust deposited on them by makeup items), but they are apparent and are employed to be noticed. There is a play with cigarettes, matchsticks, a fan, a glass, an eyeliner, and there is, of course, the end, which verges on the sublime, existing solely for the benefit of Dietrich, who leaves her shoes behind in the desert to follow Cooper. It could even be argued that the entire film is built around a gesture of Cooper’s: he bids farewell with the turn of two of his fingers in about half a second. When his superior dies in combat, Gary Cooper (the perfect superman, who remains invulnerable even without having to protect himself from bullets) simply offers him this brief, customary salute, which Marlene Dietrich repeats unexpectedly in the last images of the film.

Nevertheless, this macho mythology remains somewhat short and dull, with its template of a handsome and invincible army man always thronged by women: there is a rather disgusting shot where Cooper is surrounded by three women. But I say that perhaps because I’m jealous: before meeting me, my wife was in love with Cooper.

This cliché makes the character go in circles and thwarts dramatic progress as well as our sympathy for Gary Cooper-Tom Brown (a mythical name if there ever was one).

The uniform and the whole range of whites (Morocco, 1930)

In Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), Gary Cooper’s character seems a bit removed, outside of reality, like in Sternberg. But this is a very different world. Here we have a soldier who survives serious injury and miraculously dodges bullets by jumping into the river. But when he returns to his wife, she dies in childbirth.

Black is the preferred tint here. Half of Cooper’s face is often covered in shadow. In the scene where a priest unites the two lovers, the dialogue revolves around war and peace, life and death. The luminous contrast between two parts of the face physically reinforces the tragedy of this duality: we have here at once a man who lives and a man who will die one day. The idea is facile, sure, but it’s expressed with a surprising and moving simplicity.

Or we don’t see Cooper altogether. There is no great spectacle when he is wounded: we see hardly anything of the mortar shell that pins him to the ground. The dialogue with his beloved summarises this strategy: “We always meet in the shadows”.

At times, we see Cooper’s shadow, notably when he is discussing with the man who will be his mediator. The entire scene preceding the surgery is filmed from the point of view of the wounded Cooper, who looks at walls and the ceiling lights, lying on his stretcher. We hear him speak with a composure unexpected of a wounded man—but we never see him.

This obscurity, this relative absence invites certain questions: does the character really exist? In what form? Does he have an identity different from the woman he loves? We may doubt it, since it’s he who should’ve died at least twice, and since it’s she who dies in his place, in a sense.

More than a portrayal of characters, the film is an evocation of characters. What Borzage films, more than human beings, is the mad love that survives the death of one of the lovers and which coincides with a certain religious feeling. This is not a fashionable idea in 1993. Nevertheless, it moves us.

As is usual in Borzage, there are shots of the sky, of what lies near the sky, clouds, birds. The actors are there mostly to prompt the viewer to recognize a religious or a romantic emotion. We understand Gary Cooper’s usefulness in this task: here is an actor who does very little. He serves, in a way, as a passage to the invisible, the soul, the metaphysical. To be sure, he offers a certain physical reality, but just so much as to make us understand that it’s about a human being’s emotions, not more, that is to say, very little. Sternberg’s wounded soldier recovered very fast. For Borzage’s, recovery is slower. We feel his suffering, but not the reality of his injury. Cooper is often frozen in his discomfort, wet, wounded, distressed, his hair dishevelled. Too much realism, too much life would distract us from the essential, namely the immortality of emotions. We’re not so far from Bresson. The director’s skill consists in finding a specific rhythm, stemming from a mixture of realistic description and that which lies beyond, a mixture offered to the viewer through an expert blend of music, props, speech, and noise (the distant whistle of a train).

It can certainly be argued that it’s Borzage who does all the work. But I believe that no other actor could’ve brought buoyant, intelligent presence and extreme discretion at once, qualities indispensable to this tightrope act.

With Today We Live (1933), Howard Hawks takes a stance opposite to that of Borzage and Sternberg. We’re fully in the materialist realm, even if Cooper doesn’t play with props anymore. He works mostly with his face: brief glances to the right or the left towards other places, but never loaded with innuendo. This horizontal gaze remains strictly functional. On the other hand, the vertical gaze, with eyes lowered or raised, contains a more subjective meaning, appreciation or disapproval, agreement or disagreement, an implication that’s true of the minimal smile as well: a brief movement of the right cheek, extending a light fold of the right part of the lips, like in A Farewell to Arms or, if we go by the testimonies of those who know the film, Fleming’s The Virginian (1929). That is, more or less, Cooper’s entire arsenal: he’ll make do with it till the end of his career. Sternberg had made a pretty statue out of Cooper and conceived his lighting around him (and especially around Dietrich). Hawks, in contrast, always places him in character. The film’s plot keeps giving him a reason to move, to act. This, incidentally, is the law of classical American cinema. Cooper is an element integrated into a story. Here, it’s about the absurd rivalry between the air force and the marines, between the Yankees and the Brits.

Very brief shots in the film show him getting dressed and undressed. Tons of rain and sea water are thrown on him.

He must struggle against the wind, against the instability of combat vehicles. He travels miles in search of Joan Crawford. He drinks. He holds a cigarette between his teeth. There is little time for exchanges (dialogue, looks, kisses), except functional ones, unlike in Borzage. The materialism of Cooper the American (when the plane is damaged, he just says “our left wing…”) contrasts with the pompous, abstract, timeless, and ultimately comic quality of the English. His decisions, his words are precise and rapid. They seem to demonstrate a great ability to think in face of crisis: how can he understand everything that’s happening and come up with solutions in such little time? We find here a staple of Hawks’ cinema, in which characters continuously surprise their partners by guessing what the other has done, is thinking or is going to do. It’s with Gary Cooper that this principle works best: this man, who speaks so little and who rarely shows his emotions, must have a very rich inner life… Cooper blends into the reality of the story completely, and at the same time, we grow attached to him because of the mystery he holds. A few rare signs of intelligence, in his glances, in his words, are enough to suffuse his entire character with the same quality.

More than Cooper, it’s the viewer who does the work, but it’s Cooper who initiates the game, a sleight of hand that no other American actor succeeded in, or even attempted. It’s said that Hollywood cinema alienates the viewer, that it spoon-feeds him, that it treats him like an object, like an idiot. But here, it’s the opposite: here is a modern cinema that invites the viewer to do more work than do many progressive or intellectual European films.

One must notice the way Cooper reads his lines, or rather the way he doesn’t. Not only are the sentences short, but they are delivered quickly, from the end of the lips, in an almost atonal manner. Just enough to be heard. The mouth is shut immediately. The spoken moments are spread out. Cooper appears to brush over things. Visually and vocally, he is situated in a lineage of expression at once strong and volatile—strong because it’s volatile—which is the same as that of Mizoguchi or Mozart.

At times, Hawks lets Cooper’s laconism prevail over the golden principle of blending him into character. At the beginning of the film, during a simple bicycle ride (badly done: they don’t go at the same speed in the tight shot as in the master shot—it’s clear that Hawks knew nothing about bicycles), something unexpected occurs: Joan Crawford asks Cooper why he is following her. And Cooper tells her: “Because I love you”, and it all works out between them. We can easily imagine another director including a long scene, preferably situated at the end of the film, to arrive at the same point. Refusal of convention, of placing in character, of believability. But this unusual gesture produces an exceptional shock. It also shows the relativity of human actions and emotions—it’s the time of war—underscored by the somewhat idiotic look Cooper assumes after his romantic confession.

The art of symmetry, and group work (Design for Living, 1933)

The same year, Lubitsch gives Cooper a totally different orientation in Design for Living. He is one of the three lovers of Gilda, who keeps circling between them, successively and even simultaneously. To get such amorality through the American censors, Lubitsch designed his film like an unreal fantasy, a kind of ballet without music. Cooper’s performance is hence perfectly in tune with his co-actors’. Cooper, who is defined elsewhere as an individualist estranged from his community, starts walking along a train on the railway platform, from right to left and vice-versa, in sync with his co-actors Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, in a lively but hardly realist manner. There is a similar walk a little later in the apartment, with only Hopkins, where he has his head lowered—in contrast to his brand image that requires him to be ramrod straight—and which reveals their shared uncertainty regarding their romantic imbroglio. Cooper is thus one in a group of actors, an experiment he’ll never undertake again.

He plays an impulsive man, always in need of action, who has no qualms trading blows, a kind of “noble savage”. And he is involved in a love triangle, even quadrangle, which overwhelms him and which he can’t get a hold on. His performance is hence based on the comical succession of hesitations and rapid, abrupt movements, all the more surprising when they occur at the beginning of the shot or when the shot captures them midway. It may be that the character seeks to overcome a certain helplessness or a certain timidity by walking fast or acting abruptly. What great contrast within a single shot, where he starts by hurrying up, then adopts a rigid position as though thwarted, his tongue into his left cheek or his hand on the forehead. These movements also stand out because of their rarity: Cooper often stays immobile. In his book Gary Cooper, le cavalier de l’Ouest [1], Lucienne Escoube writes that, for the early shots where Cooper is asleep, Lubitsch asked him to sleep for real: “Gary, remember that you are sleeping, but also that you are dreaming, sweet, pleasant dreams; let it show on your face.” And Gary woke up after the “Cut!”. Of course, this direction of performance is in sync with the complementary, parallel or contrasting instructions to his two co-stars.

In most of the shots, like in reality, Cooper is taller than March by about ten centimetres. But there is a moment where, without any realist alibi, just in order to underscore the rivalry between the two men, Cooper appears shorter than March and so hoists himself on his feet to be taller than him: everything is image, stylization. Towards the end, the heads of the two men swap their positions behind the changing screen of the bridal chamber (the foursome is thus evident) from one shot to another, contradicting all logic. Lubitsch, who had had a great career in silent cinema, directed his actors as if they were in a silent film (albeit a talkative one). It’s truly commedia dell’arte with, through the person of Cooper, a number of contradictory tos-and-fros, military movements that are surprising in the vaudeville, hand gestures, and lowly attitudes. It’s the film where Cooper performs the most. He’ll go on to narrow down the range of this classical performance, but we must admit that it’s brilliant here. Many people claim that Gary Cooper is misplaced in a comedy because he is an action star. But nothing is funnier than this movement, this playing against type. We find here a dialectic progression which, in one form or another, proves to be essential to great performances and avoids the redundancy of actors expressing only a single particularity. A dialectic progression is what is missing in contemporary actors, from Bernard Giraudeau to Jean-Marc Barr.

After Gable’s success in New York-Miami, everyone dabbled with moustaches, even Cooper (Three Lives of a Bengal Lancer, 1935)

Lubitsch and Cooper would work together in two other films, but with a different acting style. I consider Desire (1936) more a film by its producer Lubitsch than by its director Borzage: it’s closer to Design for Living than A Farewell to Arms, notwithstanding a clear evolution in the scope of the actor. In Desire, Cooper is much less active than in Design for Living. He is not part of a group, of a perfectly synchronized trio. The duo he makes with Marlene Dietrich is in fact essentially marked by individualism. It’s a duo of shot-sequencing, not a duo of actors. To start with, scenes featuring Cooper alternate with those featuring Dietrich. There is a clear and ironic parallel between their actions: how he drives his car, how she drives hers etc. Dietrich’s car honks continuously. He repairs the horn. She leaves without thanking him. He makes the horn go off again, waiting for her to ask him to fix it. She does so. He repairs it, and so on. This recalls Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century to an extent. It’s only at the end of the film that they perform simultaneously, not one after the other or one against the other anymore: the parallels continue when they are in bed. Like in Sternberg, Cooper’s face is drowned in white. But once again, it’s a device intended to make Dietrich look better.

Cooper plays a simple-minded American who is taken for a ride by a European robber—a rough sketch for the naïve character of Mr. Deeds.

At the beginning of Desire, Cooper says that he doesn’t like pyjamas. It’s again the pyjama pants refused by Cooper, allergic to this accessory, that facilitates the meeting of the two protagonists in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, made in 1938 by Lubitsch. Earlier, Anna Sten wore Gary’s pyjamas in Vidor’s Wedding Night (1935)…

In Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, there are hardly any parallels, except on a superficial level. The film is constructed around the many directions Cooper follows in the most noticeable way possible. The self-assured billionaire he plays is characterized by, among other things, his ultra-rapid gait. Additionally, when we see the back of a man rushing towards the apartment where his wife is frolicking with her purported lover, we automatically think it’s Cooper. Wrong, it’s David Niven, to whom Cooper lends his performance: effect of contagion.

It’s not Laurel and Hardy who are the models here, but billionaire Buster Keaton. Cooper tries to be totally impassive. He even moves around in a gondola without casting a glance at Venice. He makes his face as thin as possible. The aesthetic of his performance still harks back to the silent era. Besides, in a number of scenes, like at the beginning of Desire, Lubitsch poses himself the challenge of conveying everything without words and, when Cooper talks, it’s in a cursory and casual way, all the more striking because he speaks of very important things. Lubitsch plays on contradictions. This important capitalist magnate speaks in onomatopoeias such as “Ya… hu… hu” like a kid from the Bronx. And Lubitsch has him wear very posh, urban clothes, even in a beach full of bathers…

As a matter of principle, I don’t talk about an actor’s flops or failures. But I’ll make an exception for Peter Ibbetson (1934) because it reveals—negatively—the range within which Cooper must evolve and outside which it’s dangerous for him to wander.

The film is doomed from the start: it’s a sad love story where reality and the hero’s (or the author’s) dream become undistinguishable: separated in life, where we see them dying, the lovers appear to be united in a world hard to identify. Fascinating subject, but it was assigned to an excellent journeyman of standard American cinema, Henry Hathaway. It’s as though The Tidings Brought to Mary were entrusted to Raoul Walsh or Don Siegel…

It’s clear why Cooper was called in. An American idol, he is the man who never dies, even when he flirts with death. The survival of romantic sentiment beyond death was already the subject of A Farewell to Arms. Can we, for that matter, imagine a subject better suited to Borzage? Immortality and resurrection would be among the themes of The Story of Dr. Wassell, of Unconquered (the victory parade of the dead, the crossing of a variant of Niagara unscathed), of The Plainsman, where he is the lone survivor of a battle despite his stunning risks, the last three films being made under the direction of that great specialist of reincarnation, Cecil B. DeMille. And the exploits of the soldier from Morocco and Sergeant York have nothing to envy those of hero of The Plainsman. Capra filmed a scene of his suicide (Meet John Doe), but excluded it from the final cut, where Cooper decides against killing himself. The “young” Burt Lancaster produced and acted in Vera Cruz alongside the “old” Gary Cooper, who kills his producer in the final duel… Only five deaths in his whole career as a star (Plainsman, Beau Geste, Pride of the Yankees, Ten North Frederick and the suggested death in For Whom the Bell Tolls).

The glitch in the phantasmal universe of Peter Ibbetson is that Cooper is never in character, he is unable to. All through his films, his claim to myth is hinged on a certain physicality that rejects explicit fantasy. In a shot of over one minute, the camera is fixed on him, alone on his deathbed. He murmurs a long, poetic and abstract text—with which he is uncomfortable as an actor—while pretending to suffer from his wounds—repetitive, banal realism aggravated by the length of the shot. Since we’re not sure if this is a dream or reality, how could we identify with his suffering? Each one keeps destroying the other, and the film with it, especially since the dream is realized with very slick photography, but without great imagination. In Borzage, idealism is only suggested, with the help of an understated realism. Here, the failure stems from the fact that both are over-the-top, and even interconnected, a reflection of commercial Hollywood maximalism (for which realism equals violence).

The count dies from an accidental gunshot during a quarrel with his wife and Cooper, soon to be the lover of his wife. Cooper glances briefly at Ann Harding, as if to say “What’s happening. Is he really dead?” This pragmatism provokes unintentional laughter, while the ambiance is of a serious scene from the third act…

The influence of Keaton (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936)

Cooper would attain the highest rank, nationally and internationally, with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), where Frank Capra, like in his subsequent films, works off the master-formula of American classical cinema: the naïf, the innocent man, who prevails over great rackets of the political or financial world, or at least of a hostile and complex world he was unaware of.

One perhaps finds here the trajectory of Capra himself, a Sicilian who emigrated to America at the age of four, even though he got a handle on things very quickly. In any case, we must compare this theme with his beginnings in pure comedy, since the naïf is the key character of slapstick comedy, from Buster Keaton to Harold Lloyd through Chaplin, Raymond Griffith, and Harry Langdon, whose best films Capra directed.

The naïf might be a countryman lost in the modern world, generally represented by the big city (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, Sergeant York, The Cowboy and the Lady), or an intellectual who has his head in the clouds (Bringing Up Baby, Vivacious Lady, Ball of Fire), clear speciality of Hawks, or both (Deeds is also a poet), an unemployed outcast (John Doe), an average man falling prey to unforeseen circumstances (Lang’s version of Fury and You Only Live Once), the perfect Good Samaritan (It’s a Wonderful Life, Good Sam), an American lost in a foreign country (Desire), an individual out of place in a family of loonies (Arsenic and Old Lace). All the way until Fonda and Hitchcock’s Wrong Man which falls under the same category. We could argue that it’s this formula that launched the real careers of Cooper (Deeds) and Stewart (Smith), and which allowed Cary Grant to find his most successful role (Arsenic). All three were directed by Capra, whom we can then describe as the father of American talkies. Even old John Wayne would later be promoted to the naïf class in a very perverse way.

We don’t see Cooper-Deeds until five minutes into the film. This is the principle of delayed entrance, frequent in Capra and often repeated after him. It’s always an excellent idea to have the second of the two protagonists enter, not at the beginning, but twenty minutes after the entrance of the first. This prevents viewer fatigue from having to absorb too many characters simultaneously, and helps the film draw new blood. But it’s wholly unusual to defer the entrance of the film’s only hero, who is moreover a top-billing, a famous star. Besides, the success of American cinema lies in the fact that we identify with the protagonist, who generally appears from the very first shot. Delayed entrance would go on to become a system, harnessed with increasing audacity: we see Mr. Smith, in 1939, only after eleven minutes, and John Doe-Cooper, in 1940, after a quarter-hour. And to be sure, in each of these films, we hear a lot about this invisible man throughout the first reel. Everybody drools waiting for him… The record would be smashed in 1949 by Carol Reed with The Third Man, where the third man, Harry Lime-Orson Welles, is constantly talked about, but isn’t seen until a quarter-hour before the end. How shocking it is when we finally see this Harry Lime, supposedly dead, whom we thought we’ll never see. The most ruthless in this regard remains Hawks, who, at the end of thirteen minutes, only lets us glimpse York-Cooper (clearly a recidivist) from afar. Is it really him, holed up in the left corner of the background? No, you don’t treat a star this way. The viewer questions himself, pays close attention to each shot and its depth of field—the viewer at work, once again. From time to time, the camera slowly approaches Cooper, and the first time we see him up close, we’re not sure of his identity: he is unshaven, hairy, drunk, the exact opposite of his brand image.

Mr. Deeds is the unexpected heir to a colossal fortune linked to a so-called philanthropic foundation; an heir the members of the foundation want to get rid of because he intends to distribute his money to the needy.

We notice Cooper’s extreme sobriety. His sparse acting strategy reveals the inner nature of the normal Deeds as he lives in the countryside: when he plays the tuba (or pretends to), when he moves a finger to signal his disagreement, or when he briefly takes his hand waist-high to say something to the effect of “I don’t give a damn”. There aren’t many such gestures. In contrast, the people of the city pile up useless words and movements: the journalist Lionel Stander, Capra’s doppelganger, constantly waves his hands at Cooper when he brings him the newspaper that labels him ‘Cinderella Man’. Deeds makes just one gesture during the sequence. At the trial, his detractors and the judge make a large number of gratuitous gestures, produce abstruse and disturbing doodles, and fidget with the pencil, which Deeds denounces verbally (and which the others try to repress in a clumsy and very funny way). The proliferation of gestures reveals abnormality and urban stress. Their absence, on the contrary, points to a positive character. Underacting thus acquires a moral value in contrast to overacting.

The same goes for words. Capra’s film draws its power from a paradox: Deeds’ trial starts seventy-five minutes into the film. We look forward to a nice verbal spar that will show Gary Cooper in a good light. Well, it’s the opposite… Everybody speaks for a good twenty minutes, save for Deeds whom we hardly see except in some cutaways where he is immobile, in profile, with the judges in the background. This immobility, this silence, this calm, this absence finally attracts the attention and sympathy of not just the viewer but also that of the courtroom audience, much more than any brilliant polemical intervention might have. They feel that this shy, innocent man is going to be chewed raw by specialists. They plead to him. A new form of delayed entrance, which makes sure that Deeds, when he speaks, has practically already won.

Capra even prepares us for this effacement, after one hour of the film, through shots of considerable length, where Gary Cooper is seen from the back either in the obscurity of the night or with backlighting (in the scene at the prison), at times next to his co-star Jean Arthur, who is well-lit. This way, he resurrects the myth of the ideal average American, or creates a Gary Cooper myth.

In Borzage’s films, obscurity is used to diminish the body’s physical reality to the benefit of emotional expression. Here, on the contrary, it’s the mythicizing darkness that glorifies the character, raised to the status of a symbol.

In Deeds, as is his wont, Cooper restricts himself to certain gestures and movements, carefully deployed to assure us of the character’s intelligence, and in the rest of the time, avoids everything that could contradict this impression of intelligence, never doing anything more than that.

Such a modern performance—originating from, it must be said, a fascinating character and a moving script—could’ve unsettled the audience. Well, no. Gary Cooper won the New York Critics’ Award, which he’d win again three years later (for Sergeant York, Pride of the Yankees and For Whom the Bell Tolls) before taking the Oscar for York and High Noon. Rarely has a jury been as clairvoyant and… daring. For Cooper’s artistic success has something immoral, scandalous and unfair about it: he attains perfection without great effort, while some of his peers lose twenty kilos to suit the role or rehearse their character and their lines for a year, only to produce mediocre hysteria or soporific grandiloquence.

With Walter Brennan, the perfect foil (The Westerner, 1940)

This art of withdrawal returns in Meet John Doe, made by the same Capra in 1940: like he would do at times in Deeds with secondary actors, Cooper withdraws frequently behind an invasive ham, Walter Brennan, his annoying, talkative friend. Brennan gets on the nerves with his overwhelming presence and makes the taciturn Cooper even more interesting. We thus understand the reason behind such a faithful pairing, from The Wedding Night (1935) to Task Force (1949), through The Cowboy and the Lady, The Westerner, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees. Stewart (The Far Country, How the West Was Won) and Wayne (Dakota, Red River, Rio Bravo) would also go for the Brennan effect. To return the favour, John Wayne went to the extent of producing a film with Brennan as top-billing (Goodbye, My Lady). And in these small roles, Walter won three Oscars for Supporting Actor in four years—an unbroken record. And if the skinny Brennan isn’t available, it’s the fat Tamiroff who plays the foil to Cooper (Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The General Died at Dawn, Desire, Northwest Mounted Police, For Whom the Bell Tolls). The method works well enough in all these films, except maybe The Westerner and For Whom the Bell Tolls, where we see the performance of our two guinea pigs for a little too long. It’s a game of losers keepers. I discovered this kind of reversal with my film Anatomy of a Relationship, where many viewers preferred my co-star—despite her obvious shortcomings—over me, who was more professional and did too much.

To paraphrase Oliver Goldsmith, I’d say that the motto of a good actor could be “he stoops to conquer”, or if one prefers the Holy Scriptures, “the last shall be the first”. He must look for a role that puts him at a disadvantage, especially with respect to another actor or the viewer: Gary Cooper (or Stewart, or Wayne) is very tall, very handsome, and very strong. But, to compensate for this advantage and to surprise the viewer who pleads and wishes for him to return to normalcy, he must be a little dim-witted, or emotionally backward, or have a physical handicap (the disabled man from Pride of the Yankees). The average viewer will then be less jealous of his external superiority. Depardieu the colossus was never as impressive as in the scene in Choice of Arms, where the armed bandit he plays is snubbed by a little old lady…

This subtle dialectic progression is typical of our great American actors, who, by fair play but also by cunning, make way for their co-stars (Stewart would at times be inexpressive while Grace Kelly acts away to glory, or would keep himself to a corner of the frame), and contrasts with unproductive, vulgar egocentrism of certain European stars like Gabin or De Funès who make sure they have co-stars who are somewhat colourless (Claude Gensac, Geneviève Grad) or withdrawn (Michel Galabru, Jean Lefebvre, André Pousse, Robert Dalban).

The physical (and moral) handicap in Meet John Doe is that Gary Cooper plays the role of a tramp—a tramp who becomes a national sensation because the press portrays him as a man supposedly driven to suicide. He is unshaven, hungry, out of place (like Deeds, but differently) in a posh urban milieu: he looks at his nails, he speaks while eating, he smokes his cigar the wrong way, he marks it with his teeth. Since the journalist Barbara Stanwyck has him play a role, he plays it with an obvious, very amusing awkwardness that the viewer credits to Cooper’s skill.

The film has two strengths: while there was a risk of rehashing the system Capra invented in Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, the pitfall is partly avoided thanks to the film’s shift from a comic to a dramatic register: is Gary Cooper going to kill himself?

The other strength lies in the range of Cooper’s performance. Until now, he was the man of action who spoke little. In John Doe, he conducts a veritable press conference. Some critics reproached him for this: “the man of the West” shouldn’t have left his home base for blah blah. That is prejudice, an easy labelling, moreover unjustified: if Cooper made twenty Westerns, there is only one masterpiece in that list, I’ll come to that later. His best work is outside of Westerns.

Adding to Cooper’s advantage is the surprise he gives the viewer by speaking so much, this unexpected renewal of his character. And there’s also is the quality of his diction. He is far from a traditional orator with a gift of the gab. He is infinitely better than that. Each sentence, spoken quickly, without emphasis, without particular tonality, is carried through by the novelty in speaking style, by the silences between parts of the speech. He has a touch of the oracle of Delphi, a touch of Sphinx, even when he speaks a lot. He hesitates at first: Capra seems to have even retained a bad take, or the hesitation was unintentional. It seems so natural that we believe it right away: to hell with rhetoric, which gives way to an invisible super-rhetoric. The speech also stands out in its contrast to the predictable norm, be it Cooper’s habitual silence, or his supersonic talk about baseball.

Discreetly anticipated by the last scene of Deeds, where it was intercut with corresponding shots of the audience’s gestures, the Cooperian monologue would be repeated for our pleasure in Sergeant York, The Fountainhead, The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell and The Wreck of Mary Deare, and in various courtroom scenes he’ll promptly be entrusted with, through which he’ll establish his manifesto.

Is it the actor or the character delivering this flashy performance? (Meet John Doe, 1940)

Sergeant York constitutes probably the most audacious example of the use of Cooper’s laconism and mystery. Since his imperturbability allows the viewer to imagine a secret inner world in him, well, he plays two contrasting beings at the same time. His performance would betray neither one.

One could write, parodying Chris Marker’s Letters from Siberia, that Alvin C. York was one of the rare American citizens who, deeply rooted in the land, imbibed the most noble values of the Declaration of Independence and became a war hero, and one could also say that he won the Croix de Guerre because he was a village idiot unaware of the danger, who shot Germans like he shot turkeys back home in Tennessee. In short, that you must be a perfect imbecile if you want to be a military hero. The co-writer of Sergeant York, John Huston, would make a film nine years later that showed that you become a hero because you are afraid: instead of fleeing back, you flee forward. But his Red Badge of Courage has neither the ambiguity nor the humour of the film by Hawks, who had the Hollywood censors dancing to his tunes, all the while retaining his distance from and making sarcastic remarks about them. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. Hawks was to keep at the perversity of this double game with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which allows a similar double reading.

On second thought, it’s probably impossible that York was both an idiot and a champion of American moral values. For some viewers, he is either one of those. But Hawks’ genius lies in having us accept this impossible ambiguity and keeping our thinking and questioning faculties on guard. His York is a purely cinematic and absolutely fascinating being, but not a human being. We’re amazed when, after the early scenes of drunkenness, cowardice, and inanity (the famed initial handicap I talked about), York outwits the military-religious specialists with the virtuosity of a Jesuit during a long discussion full of sophistry about the objection of conscience. We laugh with York when he puts his wet finger into the barrel of the gun to refine his shot, or when he imitates the cry of a turkey to lure it into the crosshairs. When he does the same with the Germans, we start laughing but are cut short… For we’re going to witness numerous enemies killed with the same casualness. Cooper makes a little comic gesture with a finger towards the torso that means “I got one more”. This work, which results in death, has all the trappings of a comic ballet, as is underlined by the use of long shots: Cooper, more integrated into the film than ever despite his unique star quality with top-billing, is only rarely seen in tight shots during the combat. The romanticism of his conversion, with York on his rock during the thunderstorm, is at once a glorification of kitsch and its parody. Cooper’s worrisome wink when Marshal Foch kisses him opens up an unusual question: was Foch gay? That said, traditional performance is still limited to a few movements and gestures—including the slow burn of the moistened rifle—in order to preserve York’s mystery.

Immediately afterwards, Hawks made Ball of Fire, where Cooper remains as unflappable as in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. One could compare the two comedies. They were written by the same writers, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who had the idea of situating Gary Cooper, the people’s man, in a very rarefied realm for the first time. In Bluebeard, Cooper’s humorous impassibility jibed with the distance of the billionaire—a perfect capitalist robot—from the rest of the world. In Ball of Fire, it jibes with the distance of the scholar cut off from worldly realities. The idea of innocence that characterized films like Desire or Deeds or John Doe was complemented by an idea of marginality, a marginality which justified the strangeness and the impassibility of a man confronted with a world that is not his own. This marginality, which is located, in the traditional sense of the term, underneath the middle class, with the pre-hippy Deeds, the tramp John Doe, or the village idiot York, now evolves to go above it (Bluebeard, Ball of Fire and later The Fountainhead). Two apparently contrary marginalities—the scholar, the doctor, or the architect on one hand, the social outcast on the other (he’ll be a Quaker in The Friendly Persuasion, after having been a deserter in A Farewell to Arms)—which converge in the end and even get mixed up at times (the great pariah general Billy Mitchell, the trajectory of Deeds, Doe or York from the bottom to the very top): the vanity of glorifying as well as disdaining outsiders. From the Capitoline Hill to the Tarpeian Rock…

The scholar of Ball of Fire surveys the “lower depths” in order to enrich the section on “slang” in his encyclopaedia. He always stands straight. And since he has the height of a Gary Cooper, this underlines his greatness and his difference. Hawks, who willingly introduces cinema into cinema (cf. the “not yet, Cary” repeated twice to Cary Grant, just before the credits of the show that is Monkey Business), has no qualms placing cubes into the field of the camera for a kissing scene—cubes used in tight shots to raise actresses to Cooper’s height. When she wants to be kissed, Barbara Stanwyck brings in the cubes. In contrast, the height difference is always maintained, even pointed out, with the seven “dwarf” professors who surround Cooper-Snow White.

For Ball of Fire deliberately plays against Cooper’s brand image in two ways: this actor who is the heartthrob of the ladies and had eight of them in Bluebeard, like he must, plays the role of a scholar drowned in his books, who reads even while walking, and who remains a virgin at forty years and jumps back every time a woman comes near him.

And another paradox no less interesting: this champion of action films tries to box according to the old rules of the noble art, and gets himself KO-ed dressed in a splendid top hat. We have here a new proof of Cooper’s genius: Danny Kaye, in the remake A Song is Born, made by the same Hawks, would perform a lot more but wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to Cooper.

Like Peter Ibbetson, the films credited to Sam Wood constitute a good model for what’s not to be done. Consider Cooper’s entrance in Saratoga Trunk (1943), in a pan shot which finds him in all his grandeur on our left side. The next shot starts from his feet and goes up till his head. Wood revisits the same principle many times, spicing it up with low-angle shots and permanent comparisons with a real dwarf. All that the film tells us about Cooper, with no humour whatsoever, is that he is tall, and it tells that a hundred times over: at the hundredth, I left…

Another Wood, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1942), suffers from a basic problem. The crux of the film is centred, not on Robert Jordan (played by Cooper), the American who waits for the opportune moment to carry out his detonation, but on problems internal to a small group of anti-Francoist Spanish guerrillas, played, with different accents of English, by four Russians, a German, a Greek, a Swedish and a South-Mexican, all of whom benefit from, if one might say, the Tamiroff effect: which means that they come across as unbearable little clowns, and looking at them, one understands well why Franco had the upper hand… Cooper spends his time observing them. Almost throughout the film, Wood confines him to the extreme right of the frame, upright, his head marking off the top of the image, with the others occupying the rest of the frame with more air above them—an obligation of height difference. Why always at right? Because it allows Wood to show Cooper’s left profile, and the crease under his left cheek, which makes him seem more serious, older, and gives him a lot of character: it implies that professor Jordan is a serious man. But it’s done with such systematism that the primary suspense of the film isn’t “will Jordan be able to dynamite the bridge without killing himself?”, but “when are we going to see Gary Cooper’s right profile?” There is a shot where Wood does show it, and boom, Cooper turns over again to show us favourite crease for thirty seconds…

It’s probable that Wood was acting on Cooper’s orders, for it’s hard to understand why they would work together four more times. All this proves that great actors like Cooper need a director who orients them, who discusses with them, rather than a yes man.

The most interesting aspect of the film, with respect to Cooper, are shots of movement: his large strides allow him to come help a stumbling Ingrid Bergman, to stop a horse, and to cover some distance with impressive, almost superhuman rapidity, casualness and stylization.

Cloak and Dagger (1946), a spy film directed by Fritz Lang, is something of an unusual experiment. Cooper performs a lot more than usual. In a scene at the beginning, he places both hands in front, one against the other in a fan-like arrangement, he taps on the table, he raises a finger, he smokes, he throws his cigarette, he wrinkles his lips, he makes rapid glances, he places his hand in front of the mouth, he pinches his nose. Of course, this reveals the scholarly Cooper’s distress faced with his friend’s proposition to become a spy.  But we find the same excitement in a later scene (when he blackmails a German spy) where he shouldn’t be distressed anymore. It’s rather his rival who should be. We’re hence dealing with a general principle of actor direction here. Cooper even goes on to play with a coin—the famous coin of American cinema descending from Scarface—signalling to the spy that her fate will be decided by the flip of a coin.

Lang wanted to have Cooper perform like a normal actor. A little like what the other German, Lubitsch, did in Design for Living. In their first meeting with Cooper, the two foreigners hadn’t really accepted the typically American principle of presence and Cooper’s work on his own myth. It worked very well with Lubitsch. But the result is not as evident with Lang: this fervent gesticulation is certainly interesting, but it remains somewhat academic. Cooper loses that which makes him particular. He performs like Stewart would have. And clearly not as well. This expressivity disappears half an hour into the film. Cooper then becomes his usual self: an effigy, a silhouette.

This change in acting style has perhaps to do with the fierce quarrels between Lang and his star. One supposes that the two scenes in question were filmed at the beginning of the project, and that Lang subsequently abandoned or came back to his original conception. In the rest of the film, one notices a tendency to compromise Cooper physically: the fights are very violent. Cooper strangles a fascist who scratches his face. A somewhat wobbly experiment then, like the film itself: an action movie which turns into a romance midway.

Mythicizing darkness (The Fountainhead, 1948)

In contrast, King Vidor, in The Fountainhead (1948), works essentially off the Cooper myth. Howard Roark is a brilliant architect who, despite the opposition and hatred of his associates and critics, succeeds in overcoming years of hardship without taking a single misstep and triumphs on all fronts. He is even acquitted after having dynamited (another one, after For Whom the Bell Tolls!) a building he had designed pseudonymously and whose plans hadn’t entirely been respected. Before his judges, Roark—a kind of stand-in for Frank Lloyd Wright—utters the same artistic credo as another architect, Peter Ibbetson. We imagine that, with The Fountainhead, Cooper wanted to get back what he had lost in Hathaway’s film. Already in A Farewell to Arms, Helen Hayes had told him “you will be a great architect”, and he had deployed his drafting skills in Design for Living.

Here too, it’s quite hard to separate the actor from the fascinatingly charismatic character and detach them from the context. Fountainhead is a film full of artifice, with para-expressionist lighting, entirely justified in this architect biography, a constant, thundering score by Max Steiner, insane character behaviour and abrupt turns of events: in ten seconds, an engagement is broken, a seemingly calm man kills himself, a woman decides to get married, all of this culminating with the interminable final ascent of the woman in love towards the hundredth floor on a freight elevator to reach Cooper, seen in a low-angle shot, his legs spread out, as a silhouette against the sky… There was already the kiss between Cooper and Anna Sten on a ladder three meters from the ground in an earlier Vidor, The Wedding Night: Cooper the giant persuades one to rise high…

Reading this, you could certainly laugh at these bouts of Wagnero-Nietzschean frenzy that I’ve only started to describe. But it’s perhaps the craziest film in the history of cinema. The harmony and convergence of all possible forms of expression into this very peculiar monument gives the impression of a flamboyant melodramatic masterpiece, thanks to the emotion it brings about.

Cooper is thus beyond human, a sort of intellectual Superman. To be sure, after winning the trial, Howard Roark displays the sort of discomfort that characterizes modesty (just as Cooper the common citizen was embarrassed when he had to sign autographs for fans), he acknowledges that he almost gave in to the temptation of compromise. But he never bends. This invincibility and self-assurance somewhat diminish the power of the film: it’s too good to be true. The weakness of his rivals diminishes the value of his triumph. They are all far too negative in themselves, secretly convinced of Roark’s genius, while Wright’s detractors, like Picasso or Godard, were sure of their good faith. But Hollywood’s simplistic approach admits only one universal truth in art.

These unambiguous qualities, these excesses nevertheless have an advantage: they impart a magical character to the film. You want to identify with Roark, especially when you practice a comparable vocation, such as film direction. The Fountainhead could also be explained by the difficulties its director King Vidor faced with the producers of his two previous works, An American Romance and especially Duel in the Sun, whose sets he quit after shooting.

A strange film against the Hollywood system, since it’s about the defence of the “final cut” that producers despise, but whose art derives from the most fascinating exacerbation of Hollywood artifice.

Cooper’s power here stems from the fact that we see him very little: he is often facing away from the screen, lost in a long shot, in the shadows. His entrance is not delayed as in many earlier films (he appears right at the beginning of the film), but it is, let’s say, uncertain, vague: it’s only at the end of three minutes and forty seconds that we see him up close. He plays again with scanty, enigmatic dialogue. Howard Roark spends his time uttering “yes” or “no”, “never”, “why not”, “I do”, “I’ll do it”, or belting his cheeky refrain “Yes, Miss Francon”, addressed to the woman who falls in love with him. This laconism makes his long final speech at the trial, which ends with the famous catchphrase “I designed Cortlandt, I made it possible, I destroyed it”, veni vidi vici modernised, exceptionally powerful.

But this trial is not at all handled the way it was in Deeds: Cooper speaks right away, and his speech continues over thirty shots, half of them showing Cooper in the frame and the others showing the participants in the trial. This structure was perhaps necessitated by Cooper’s difficulty in remembering a five-minute-long text. But it’s completely in line with the film, based as it is, as we have seen, on Cooper’s relative absence. It establishes a clear break from Capra, who nevertheless seems to be the principal reference for the film: besides the trial of a solitary man who prevails over the entire world, we also find constant reminders, within the personal drama, of the press, of newspaper headlines adorning the streets, and of reactions of the crowd, like in Deeds or John Doe.

Cooper’s career after this follows a somewhat regressive direction. He certainly remains his only equal, but apart from Vera Cruz and Billy Mitchell, the majority of his films are mediocre or disappointing. It’s true that he must have refused many projects (including Hawks’ Hatari!) because of his health: his immense height made him fragile. A stuntman till twenty-five, he had experienced numerous falls that would handicap him later. The king of cowboys was always a sick man.

Another reason for this waning: he became his own producer, like Wayne and Grant. None of the three knew how to choose their subjects or their directors carefully: Anderson, Wood, Hathaway for Cooper, McLaglen for Wayne (and Stewart) were especially acolytes. Great directors preferred producing themselves or avoided productions controlled by their stars, who took too much advantage. Wayne made fifteen Fords, but none for his own company, Batjac. Stars often gravitated towards projects that were easy to wrap up, shot not very far from their home, without financial risk and without particular acting challenges. The one star who turned out to be the most successful among the four, given that he acted in quality films till seventy years, is James Stewart, precisely because he had the fortune of never having to become a producer. Consider the last five Coopers: the only one which is interesting is, of course, the one he did not produce, Man of the West, made in 1958 by Anthony Mann.

The last films: playing squarely on his old age (Ten North Frederick, 1958)

First image: on the left of the Cinemascope screen, we see the credits in red, “Gary Cooper—Man of the West”, and on the right, in profile and on his immobile horse, Cooper himself. It’s hard to imagine a more direct introduction: in ten seconds, we know the basics of the film. We’re fully in the realm of myth, myth of the Western, of the West with ghost towns, all destined to disappear. It’s made even more evident by the presence of darkness (a lot more impressive in colour than in bichrome), which occupies a large part of the image, or alternatively, it’s Cooper’s face that’s in the shadows. This kind of mythification has always been common in Westerns, which are partly shot outdoors and which must logically contain, in either the shot or the counter-shot, backlighting that obscures the facial features of characters. Mythification is hence, first and foremost, a way of justifying a technical obligation.

Truth be told, Man of the West, like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon to a lesser extent, offers at once a sum of traditional mythical elements—obscurity, Western, Gary Cooper, the lone rider, top shooter, the hero’s silence (against a talkative Arthur O’Connell), his innocence (he has never seen a train, he flinches when it approaches him)—and a sum of elements going against the myth: there is a very long, quite obnoxious, and totally unerotic striptease, completely unheard of in a Western, which Cooper, though shocked, doesn’t even try to end. The fisticuffs with this tired, almost-sexagenarian actor are rough, awkward and brutal at once, and very long too. Lots of mud, lots of dirt. It’s a very existential Western. An omnipresent score gives the feeling of anguish, mystery, nostalgia, and romanticism unknown to the genre. The counter-myth is thus much more captivating here than in High Noon for it derives from a whole new formal creation, while in Zinnemann’s film, it’s lazily based on a single plot idea—the perfect sheriff finds no helping hand in town, and throws his star on the ground in the end—propped up solely by ultra-classical stylistic devices (intercutting between the clock and the tracks to create suspense) which completely dismantle the “novelty” of the project.

A masterpiece founded on the decline of a genre, Anthony Mann’s last great Western, the last masterpiece—and the only one among Westerns—made by Cooper (who nevertheless made many Westerns, but only three interesting ones, the three by DeMille), Man of the West can hardly be imagined without Gary Cooper, and yet, he doesn’t do much. It’s the one film of Cooper’s that establishes a continuity with his successors, Clint Eastwood, whose face we hardly see in Westerns thanks to the hat and the backlighting, and especially Robert Mitchum, whose brilliant impassibility, taken to the fullest, has a provocative value.

The co-writer of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Billy Wilder, made a sequel to Lubitsch’s film twenty years later: in fact, in Love in the Afternoon (1956), Cooper is still a billionaire womanizer thronged by women, and even more a victim of the solitude of the rich (the theme of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard as well). At the beginning, Cooper is often seen in the shadows, not in order to be mythicized but to hide the age difference—thirty years—between him and his beloved Audrey Hepburn.

A curious comedy of absence and distance, where we don’t know what they are up to together (old Dame Censorship), where we don’t see Cooper’s face a lot, and where, as a consequence, the black-and-white cinematography remains dark and very grainy, a distant and fleeting evocation. This old, wrinkled reveller seems to kiss by habit and by idleness. Cooper’s composure gives the impression that he doesn’t take much pleasure in it. There is a very surprising, “I have had all the women and, alas, the flesh is sad” aspect here that was not intended by Wilder but essentially stems from Cooper’s non-performance. The outmoded quality of repeated gimmicks (the four musicians who always accompany the hero) exacerbates the dire character of the project.

A comedy that is no less funereal than the testamentary Man of the West.

Impassibility, which was natural at the beginning of his career, became a system, wholeheartedly accepted by the actor, and a very productive one at that.

Aesthetic object or pretext for the emphasis on objects (Morocco), bridge to the invisible (A Farewell to Arms), behaviourist actor always in character (Today We Live), member of a chorus (Design for Living), humorous portrayal of American heartland (Deeds), element of a stylization (Bluebeard), convincing orator (Meet John Doe), ambiguous embodiment of an impossible duality (Sergeant York), mockery of intellectuals (Ball of Fire), idealization of genius (Fountainhead), negation of pleasure (Love in the Afternoon), absolute mythification (Man of the West), outcast or heroic doctor, village idiot or great artist: some of Cooper’s very diverse facets. A chameleon actor, or rather a kind of Stradivarius, tossed around from one director to another, from one aesthetic to another. We realize then that reserve, impassibility, and underplaying offer infinitely greater possibilities than traditional extroverted performance. There is with Cooper some amount of the Kuleshov effect. But an effect that has worked for over thirty years and that no other actor has put to better use. Since he does nothing, he can do everything, and he has.



[1] Gary Cooper, le cavalier de l’Ouest, p. 111, Lucienne Escoube, Éditions du Cerf, 1965.