Sunday, June 22, 2008

Western Star of the Week #2: Gary Cooper

Star: Gary Cooper
Type: Hero
Height: Inconceivably Tall
Era: Classical Hollywood
Politics: Conservative

Go-to Director: None
AFI Male Star Ranking: #11

Historical Importance: High

Just like last week's star, Jimmy Stewart, Cooper was equally adept at playing hardened Western heroes and the classic Capra everyman, which he did in Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Unlike Stewart, Cooper is better known for his Western work.

Like many other Western stars, Cooper played more or less the same characters in each of his films. Cooper is always dignified and slow to violence, but he also punches someone in the face in nearly every movie he ever made. Allmovie has a biographical explanation for this character: Cooper was born and raised on a ranch in Montana but "finished" at a prestigious English boarding school. And thus the Cooper persona was born: rough and ready but also regal and urbane. Cooper was clearly Western royalty, which made the characters he played most frequently ironic; he often played saddle-trash, a wandering cowboy with no home and no respect. And although he was almost always a hero imbued with a classical sense of right and wrong, the fun in a Cooper picture is wondering when that sense is going to assert itself - or if it will. Because although we remember Cooper, as I said in my post about George Bailey, as a cardboard cutout of righteousness and good will, Cooper's cowboy is almost always self-interested first and interested in justice second. Along the way, though, he generally manages to set thing right.

Cooper didn't have a go-to Western director, but he did have a go-to co-star: Cooper and Walter Brennan befriended each other in their mutual early days of Hollywood, and offered themselves to directors as a team: the rugged action hero and the coot sidekick. The most successful of their collaborations is The Westerner, which I'll write about in a different post.

Cooper's glory days were in the early 40s; from 1940 to 1943, he appeared in a string of movies whose excellence is unsurpassed by any run by any other actor I know: The Westerner, Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, and For Whom the Bell Tolls (he was friends with Hemingway). But his true Western glory period came in the 50s, as his rugged good looks became even more craggy and patrician, and he became the symbol for the Old West.

The Films:

1. High Noon (1952)
Dir. Fred Zinneman

Zinneman's only Western stars Cooper as Marshall Will Kane, who's about to retire and leave town with his new Quaker bride (played by Grace Kelly, who is probably the prettiest human being to ever walk the face of the earth*). The only hitch is, some bad dudes he put in jail are set to get out that day and show up to raise hell in town at noon. The film, which is only 85 minutes long, plays out almost in real time, as the morning crawls by and the inevitable confrontation gets closer and closer; Cooper must either flee town and abandon the the townspeople to their fate, or stay and defend them even though they refuse to help him. Written by a blacklisted screenwriter, High Noon is both the perfect allegory for the necessity of standing together against the red scare and and simply a perfect Western thriller. It's universally regarded as one of the three or four best Westerns ever made, except by this hipster douche bag.

2.Man of the West (1958)
Dir. Anthony Mann

Man of the West is the final Western for both Western auteur Anthony Mann and Gary Cooper. Like other Mann Westerns, it's Shakespearean in tone and themes. Cooper plays Link Jones, a seemingly regular guy on a train to hire a schoolkeeper for his new town. Along the way, the train is robbed, and Link, a showgirl, and a gambler end up off the train and in the hands of the robbers - who turn out to be led by Dock Tobin, the outlaw who raised Link and calls him son. Link must navigate between his past, from which there is no escape, and his future, which is threatened by the gambler and girl's knowledge of his past actions. Along the way, in typical Mann fashion, he is stretched to the psychological breaking point, as he and his companions must deal with murder, torture, and rape at the hands of Tobin's gang. The movie culminates in a Mann specialty: a complex and bloody shootout in an abandoned mining town - my personal favorite Western shootout of all time.

3. Vera Cruz (1954)
Dir. Robert Aldrich

Burt Lancaster was so attractive that he had to start his own production company in order to get roles beyond generic beefcake actor. His company produced Vera Cruz, which teamed Lancaster and Cooper in a role of opposites. Lancaster plays one of his classic personas: a laughing liar, amoral and dangerous, with a quick draw and a quicker temper - Elmer Gantry with a six-shooter. Gary Cooper plays the Cooper role - cooler, more moral, but just as dangerous and, in this case, just as self-interested. Lancaster's a career criminal; Cooper is a Confederate colonel who lost his plantation. Both have come to Mexico to fight in the Mexican battle against the French Emperor Maximillian, for whichever side will pay more, and thus both repeatedly jockey for gold, women, and respect, with each other, with both sides of the Mexican conflict and with a group of American desperadoes led at times by Lancaster and at times by Western tough Ernest Borgnine. Although Vera Cruz isn't perfect, no non-Brennan actor has ever played such a great Cooper foil as Lancaster's, and the movie provided the amoral gunslinger in Mexico template that would later produce The Wild Bunch, A Fistful of Dollars, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (I know, technically Bolivia).

*Outside of, you know, Christian Bale


Cinexcellence said...

Nice post. I really like Cooper in The Friendly Persuasion as well (as a Quaker). He was perfectly cast for that film, which deals with peace vs. violence, etc.

Graham said...

Yeah, I haven't seen that film, but I definitely want to - I've heard great things about it. It's not on my Film Ignorance list, but I imagine I can find time somewhere to watch it.

Thanks for reading!