Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Dear Mister Editor...

So, yeah, this was something I'd never done before. This afternoon, I wrote a letter (well, an e-mail) to Entertainment Weekly. Mark Harris has a column in this week's issue in which he laments the way Hollywood has come to equate "movie star" status with box office performance. I like the definition he proposes (quoted below), and it got me thinking enough to dash off a letter of support. I don't know if it'll ever see print, so I thought I'd share it here:

Mark Harris' column "What Stars Are For" (#1029) taps a rich vein in Hollywood's legacy. "A movie star is someone whose past work enriches your experience of, and deepens your pleasure in, his or her present work." Indeed. Just a short list of examples provides a range of great films. There's Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986), revisiting Eddie Felson a quarter-century after The Hustler (1961). There's the unique familial frisson of Jane Fonda playing daughter to her father, the aged but unfaded Henry Fonda, in On Golden Pond (1981). That welcome baggage is now there in every Hepburn & Tracey film, never more luminouly than in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967). And, obviously and indelibly, there's Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (1950).

But I can think of no example more poignant than the singular heft John Wayne brought to The Shootist (1976). While some may think first of the parallels between his character's cancer and Wayne's own lost battles with the disease, I find the deepest resonance in the ways Wayne plays with, off of and sometimes against his own iconic presence in the history of the Hollywood Western. At a time when American cinema had begun questioning and deconstructing the conventions of the genre, with films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Wayne's performance as J.B. Books, an aging gunslinger past his prime and pondering his past, is informed and enriched by Wayne's own career. No other actor -- no other movie star -- could have given this role what John Wayne brought to it simply by being John Wayne.


Blogger Rob S. said...

Nice letter, Greg. Similarly, I think Eastwood's William Munny in Unforgiven is made so much richer by our knowledge of his history as the Man with No Name.

4:58 PM  

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