"If I'm a Man, I Must be Brave": Gary Cooper is Marshal Will Kane.
In the seven months that I've been scratching out this blog, I've somehow neglected to mention one of my all-time favorite stars--Gary Cooper. I never did do a 20 Favorite Actors list, but Cooper (1901-1961) would be a sure-fire member of that group. Once the most popular and highest-paid man in America, Cooper's legacy hasn't proven to last like many long-dead stars. He's not the object of some girl's pre-pubescent crush like 1950s icons Brando, Dean, or even Clift, and you won't find a silkscreen t-shirt of him at the mall like one would with John Wayne.
I got interested in Gary Cooper initially because he was a good friend of another highly-regarded icon of mine, writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) ("Papa" to his devotees). When I was exploring Hemingway's work, Cooper figured in many of the author's movie endeavors. He was Frederick Henry in 1932's A Farewell to Arms and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Hemingway often said that Cooper embodied the Hemingway hero to a fault and though Papa despised most every film adaptation of his work, he always praised Cooper for his portrayals, as well as his personal character, as the actor was a true outdoorsman, just like the rugged author. The two often hunted together in Sun Valley, Idaho or Billings, Montana and had a morbid, running joke about who would die first, or as they put it, who would "beat the other to the barn." The Hemingway association built Cooper's reputation in my eyes, so I was off to discover his movies.
In 1997, I saw High Noon for the second time. The first time I had been a kid and didn't have the background on Cooper then. After seeing the western classic a second time, it became an obsession. I watched the film dozens of times, finding all kinds of meaning in Coop's Oscar-winning performance as Marshal Will Kane. I had read that High Noon was a not-do-thinly veiled commentary on HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), but I loved the movie because it was a statement about the individual, which was obviously something Cooper saw, too.
For those who haven't seen it, High Noon concerns newlywed Hadleyville Marshal Will Kane and his young wife, Amy (Grace Kelly) who are to start their new life together, but on their wedding day, word comes that a killer Kane put away is out of jail and coming back to enact bloody revenge. The Marshal decides he must stay to defend the town he himself cleaned up. However, the townsfolk are spineless and complacent. They've forgetten the man who brought the town peace and don't want to be involved, each with their own tidy, gutless excuse. Kane alone who must take on the killer and his gang. The simple message of standing up and acting when danger is imminent resonated with me. I even went as far as to look for people in my day-to-day life acting like the spineless Hadleyville residents in their lack of courage in the most trivial things. I probably took my love for this movie too far, but that's what I do.
High Noon is a classic on many levels, not the least of which is Dimitri Tiomkin's haunting theme song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin', one of the greatest songs ever written for a film. Coupled with the spare song, is the minamilist direction of the movie's opening sequence, which is equally brilliant. The song is told from Kane's point of view and the weight of its power factors into Cooper's wonderful portrayal. It should be noted that this western, that most American of genres, was directed by a German, Fred Zinneman, with music composed by a Russian, Dimitri Tiomkin. That's America to me!
But it was Gary Cooper's career-defining performance that I loved over everything else. I saw his technique of letting the spaces between his dialogue say what words couldn't, and he communicated what he and the audience felt. It's every bit as important as how an actor says his lines. There's a Hemingway connection with Cooper's acting style, in that the author's "Iceberg Theory" lets the reader know what's going on with just a bit of dialogue, but what's unsaid is much more substantial, and it's so obvious when I watch High Noon. I loved it when Cooper is arguing with his oversexed deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) and when Pell says that Kane should just leave town, Coop respons with "I want to, Harv; but I can't do it." As silly as it sounds, I used to rewind to the part Cooper said "I can't do it" several times because the way he said it spoke volumes. You knew that he thought long and hard about up and splitting that ungrateful town, but his conscience and character wouldn't allow that. He also says the line with the subtlest of anger and the greatest conviction. I think I'm the only film nut who harps about that bit of dialogue and its delivery, but it remains one of my favorite movie moments. Not bad for simple country boy Cooper, who could teach more to Lee Strasburg's students in High Noon than a lifetime of classwork could ever instill.
I haven't seen High Noon in quite some time, and don't even have the DVD, but the movie is burned (branded?) into my brain. I need to go and revisit that old icon, Cooper, whose simple, understated performance captivated me and more than lived up to the legend bestowed upon it. Funny that it took me so many words to discuss Cooper, a man of few words. Oh, the irony...