Thursday, 1 December 2011

M/M Gary Cooper as Hero

Above image: from Gary Cooper: Enduring Style, by G.  Bruce Boyer and Maria Cooper Janis. Published by PowerHouse Books Inc (New York City) 20 November 2011 provided to Manner of Man Magazine by PowerHouse Books Inc and may not be reproduced without written authorisation. All rights reserved. 

Gary Cooper as Hero


G. Bruce Boyer

                It may be that many of today’s cinema audience, born since the Angry Young Actors of the 1950s – Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, and the rest – had taken the style of Humphrey Bogart and ran with it, are perhaps too cynical to appreciate Gary Cooper’s charm and honest talent. Cooper didn’t reveal the torrent of neurosis within a character, but rather the torment of moral choices for the good man enmeshed in a corrupt system. He was an actor capable of showing considerable natural dignity, a virtue in short supply today both on and off the screen.

                And it was not a false or child-like dignity either. Compare his approach to that of John Wayne. Both actors were born only six years apart (Cooper 1901, Wayne 1907) neither had any formal training as an actor, they were incredibly handsome and charismatic men, and both found early success in Westerns. Both became iconic American heroes with their film roles.

                But Wayne’s conception of a hero was much different than Cooper’s. When Cooper made High Noon in 1952, Wayne, so the story goes, was appalled. He apparently couldn’t stand the idea of an American hero – celluloid or real – pleading for help, or even needing any for that matter. A few years later, in 1959, Wayne made Rio Bravo as an answer. Ironically, in the film, Wayne does have help -- albeit an old man, a teenager, and a drunk – while Cooper’s Will Kane doesn’t, but Wayne’s point still resonates with many: as Sherriff, he was perfectly ready to take on all the killers in the world by himself, and free the world from evil.

                It’s just impossible to imagine any Wayne character putting his head down on his desk and quietly sobbing, as Cooper’s Sherriff does from fear and exhaustion before facing the fight of his life. Wayne would have simply gone ahead, chased them down, and blown them away by himself. Even as an old man, Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn didn’t want any help. Wayne’s characters simply overpowered evil. As critic Richard Schickel observed, Wayne was very much the 20th Century Man, fuming his frustration with the intractable world he never made and would never like. In short, he represented us as we now frequently are; Cooper represented us as he liked nostalgically to dream that we had been, wistfully dream that we might become again.”

                Both men and both films were politically conservative, but perhaps even more than making films that represented them as they wanted to be seen, both men portrayed what they wanted us to be. Wayne’s persona had a rough strength, a no-nonsense, extroverted direct style. His was a world without doubt, and so without equivocation. He knew always what was right, and his audience always knew that he would prevail against the outlaws of society. Action was what was needed from the moral individual to sort things out.

                Both Wayne’s and Cooper’s careers were based on a vision of heroism that pre-dates the mid-20th century, but, in the end, we understand that Wayne’s stance is the genuinely naïve one, a child’s perception of heroic adulthood elementally unencumbered by complexity or subtlety or doubt. Cooper’s strength is eventually seen as coming from a deeper place. He depicts more introverted men, men who know the anguish of having to make difficult, often fatal decisions in a world where the forces of society may even be aligned against the individual in ways Wayne could probably not have imagined.

By G. Bruce Boyer and Maria Cooper Janis
Design by Ruth Ansel
Introduction by Ralph Lauren

2011 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.