Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Memoriam: James Stewart

PhotobucketThough his first onscreen appearance was only in 1934, Jimmy Stewart (born on this day in 1908) received his first Oscar nomination - for the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - just five years later, and his first award the following year, for The Philadelphia Story. Unlike many, though, whose rise through the Hollywood ranks has been similarly rapid, it wasn't accompanied by an even faster fall once the novelty of him had worn off; having established his brand he remained at the pinnacle of fame for the next five decades.

A genial screen presence, in an era in which every leading man was either overtly romantic or obnoxiously virile, he virtually invented the Everyman - who was somehow neither and yet both simultaneously. And just in time too; the American film industry had always been a magnet for scandal, but in the years leading up to his debut things had gotten so bad that censorship had been imposed not just on the movies but on the lives of those who starred in them as well. Stewart's integrity, then, appealed as much to executives as it did to audiences.

By the late-1940s, noted subversive Alfred Hitchcock began harnessing the power of Stewart's reputation to add a special kink to such movies as Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. It's unlikely, though, that Stewart had any idea what Hitchcock was doing; a lifelong Republican, had he known that the director was using him to undermine the orthodoxy of 1950s America (which then, as now, had a fetishistic appeal to those on the Right) he likely wouldn't have participated.

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