Friday, July 3, 2009

The Godlike Genius of Robert Mitchum

Amongst the giants who roamed the earth during the Golden Age, none towered quite so tall as Robert Mitchum, a man who--metaphorically and quite literally--had his way with Hollywood. Poet, singer, womanizer, both bookworm and inveterate hellraiser, he claimed to not give a rat's ass about acting and yet turned in some of the finest performances in the film medium's history: Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, The Sundowners, Cape Fear, Farewell My Lovely, The Yakuza, Dead Man--those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Thunder Road--which he produced and co-wrote--is affectionately remembered as the "Gone with the Wind of the drive-in." Unique in Hollywood, he understood "the Southern thing," having been raised both in the North and the South (probably the only aspect of Mitchum's wild life to which I can relate). His accents--Southern, Irish, Australian, Brooklyn--were flawless.

To really appreciate the Godlike genius of Robert Mitchum, one need only watch Martin Scorsese's lurid update of Cape Fear followed by the original. Lord only knows how long Robert De Niro spent preparing for the role of Max Cady in the remake; there were reports that he weight-trained relentlessly, getting down to 7% body fat; he probably spent time in prison with hardened criminals, remained in character on set, and engaged in all other manner of method absurdity. Yet all that work was rendered null and void when he opened his mouth to proclaim "Come out, come out, where evuh you ahr!"--his cadence a freakish miscegenation of Alabama redneck, Virginia planter, and Brooklyn Dodgers fan.

Now witness Mitchum's Max Cady, a performance cranked out between trips to the bar. His method was no method, because Cady already resided within Mitchum's dark heart. It wasn't difficult for this one-time drifter to channel Cady's rage at the self-righteous elite embodied by Gregory Peck's lawyer protagonist. The sadism flowed naturally from those feelings. This performance felt authentic; one could easily believe that Cady lived and breathed outside the confines of the film. Mitchum did not need to cover himself in tattoos or take day-trips to the local prison to prepare for his role; he'd already done real jail time. All he had to do was fix his icy eyes on his quarry and let the hate roll off his tongue.

Bob Mitchum lived by his own rules. I'm not saying I agree with them, but they were his. This was a man who proposed to his wife with the words "Stick with me, kid, and you'll be farting through silk." We will never see his like again.

*Much of the biographical information above was derived from Lee Server's book "Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care," which I highly recommend.

1 comment:

Matthew Brown said...

I agree. Mitchum was usually given backhanded compliments by critics as "being so good he made it look easy," which always read as code for "not a great actor but he sure is charismatic." Steve McQueen got the same treatment. But his presence onscreen went far beyond that, especially in the Hunter/Cape Fear era - really something to behold.

Like others, I was a little disappointed that his onscreen edge dulled as he got older, but maybe that was a financial imperative as more lively roles were snapped up by New Hollywood actors. Or maybe his style didn't fit with scripts in the 70s and 80s. Or maybe he got tired.

For a great middle-period study of Mitchum I highly recommend "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." A little slow, but worth it.