I do not think it is being prejudices to say that I find the premise and ideas behind Henryk Hoffman’s new book on Hollywood legends unique, fascinating, and very worthwhile-reading for the general public and film buffs alike. To put the body of an artist’s work in the context of not only his times, but the public tastes, to learn about his colleagues and the political forces that are acting all around him, is a stage that helps us understand more deeply the nature and scope of that person’s talents and artistic challenges. Bogart, Cooper, Gable, and Tracy are all great film names and legends, no doubt, and this unique approach to understanding and examining the professional lives of these actors, I feel, is refreshing and starts one thinking in more depth and about the impact of the people we designate “stars” or “legends.”
Gary Cooper’s screen persona and Gary Cooper the man, husband, father, the friend, were integrated into a seamless whole in his person – without artifice. I would like to share a quote from my father that illustrates his thinking:
“I don’t like to see exaggerated airs and exploding egos in people who are already established…No player ever rises to prominence solely on his or her extraordinary talent. Players are molded by forces other than themselves. They should remember this and at least twice a week drop down on their knees and thank Providence for elevating them from cow ranches, dime store ribbon counters, and bookkeeping desks.”
In addition to testifying to my father’s modesty and humility, this quotation proves that Gary Cooper, just like probably the other three actors, was not aware of his role as an idol, neither did he anticipate the impact that his films would have on future generations. Times have certainly changes and the movies of our different decades reflect that. It in quite unbelievable to learn, for instance, that in some circles, in its day, one of my father’s most-loved films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was perceived to have “Communist leanings.”
It pleases me to see the wide range of my father’s work given an exploration via the interesting film synopses and excerpted texts from other authors and their books. In his film roles, he was certainly more than a “one trick pony”. For example, I have always felt his ability in the area of comedy roles was too much overlooked by both the studios and the public. Due to his versatility he was able to move easily from Western star to “dashing romantic leading man” to war hero to, as he would put it, “plain, average Joe American.”
It is also interesting to see how the various Gary Cooper characters in all the different films have evoked such emotional and creative responses in others and have found their way into authors’ minds and their own stories. It is like a “happy haunting” – this Cooper persona following these other creators, maybe challenging them or annoying them, whatever it is that keeps resonating then and now, some seventy years plus after the majority of Gary Cooper movies were made. The characters he portrayed seemed to get under people’s skin and provide a vehicle or jumping-off point for their own stories and imagination.
Clearly, as Mr. Hoffman illustrates, Gary Cooper became a metaphor in people’s minds. The film star in his various roles, it seems, somehow went deeper. The man himself, not the actor, but a simple and complex human being who always felt “dam lucky” for all the good breaks in life he had been given. To be relevant some fifty years after your career is finished is a testimony to some underlying basic principles. In the mega television series The Sopranos, even Tony Soprano refers to Gary Cooper as if he were talking through some of his life problems with his shrink! “High Noon” itself and Gary Cooper have become an absolute art of the lexicon in American writing. “To be high-nooned” is even given a definition referring to the film in the dictionary – Life imitates Art. Movies have a magical way of staying with the viewer long after the film has been seen. A mere few words enduringly tell the listener volumes “like Gary Cooper walking down the street in High Noon.” It evokes emotions and memories. No more need be said.