Jewish Journal

Celluloid Heroes

A Woman's Voice

Posted on Jul. 10, 1997 at 8:00 pm

I haven't given much
thought to American movie stars in some years, by
which I mean I've stopped thinking of actors as
exemplars of national character, representatives of
"us." My celluloid heroes defy national borders --
they include Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Denzel
Washington. In a multiethnic America, I no longer
know who "us" is, so the imagination is free to
roam over the map.But there was a time when
this was not so, when the casting of movies
conveyed subliminal messages to the audience of
where it stood in the American lineup, of who was
in and who was out.

I must have taken those
corrosive messages personally. Last weekend, I
found myself replaying them, jumping through
emotional hoops, following the deaths, only hours
apart, of actors Jimmy Stewart and Robert
Mitchum. They were like long-lost uncles I hadn't
thought about in years, but whose impact on my
childhood now seemed boundless.If these two
actors do represent the yin and yang of America (as
cultural commentators insisted all last week), then
I come from the "Robert Mitchum" side of the
tracks. Mitchum, of course, is the tough guy, the
bad guy, the guy with the heavy eyelids and the
surly lip. He would seem to be everything a hard-
working Jewish family wanted to escape. And, yet,
though my family had moved from New York's Lower
East Side to the safety of Long Island, assimilation
was still incomplete.

We inhabited an ethnic frame
of mind; everything -- from automobiles to movies
to political candidates -- was filtered through a
post-immigration prism of how safe it made us
feel.Mitchum, a teen-age runaway who jumped
freight trains and worked on a chain gang, looked
like he came from our old neighborhood but never
got away. He was not exactly admired, but he could
not to be spurned either. He played thugs,
detectives and soldiers, and as bad as his
characters sometimes were, they often resembled
men such as our fathers -- overworked men who
had not been prettied up in prep schools, men who
had already grown up the hard way before the first
camera shot, men with a past. The cool way to
think about Robert Mitchum is as a film noir icon, a
man in sync with the Vietnam-protesting crowd, a
man who challenged the government with his
marijuana case, a man alone. But in our home,

Robert Mitchum was no icon at all; he was a
connection to our own past not fully gone. With his
thick head of dark hair and huge shoulders, Mitchum
looked like, and had the no-b.s. style and the
swagger of, my Uncle Murray. Mitchum wasn't
ethnic, of course, but he burned with a sense of
offense that many children and grandchildren of
immigrants shared, that there were places we'd
never gain entry to, melting pot or no.My love-
hate relationship with Robert Mitchum endures.
"Night of the Hunter," with Mitchum as a
coldblooded predator stalking two children, is a
movie I never want to see again. Yet I saw
"Farewell, My Lovely" within days of its 1975
opening, imagining myself in the Charlotte
Rampling role of the judge's wife, crossing my legs
alluringly to Mitchum's Philip Marlowe. He was
sexy and dangerous, though, as my cousin Rita said,
"You wouldn't want to marry him."In 1983,
Esquire magazine published a shocking interview in
which an inebriated Mitchum came out with a
lengthy anti-Semitic diatribe. Although the
interview was breathtakingly offensive, most Jews
(except the Jewish Defense League) eventually took
his public apology at face value. They forgave him
for his bad taste (denying the Holocaust), I think, in
part because he had played Navy Capt. Pug Henry in
Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War." But on another,
subconscious level, he was forgiven because he was
already one of us, an outsider in America, in touch
with his inner devil.Mitchum was our ache. He
was our fear.

He was us, gone wrong.Where does
all this leave Jimmy Stewart? He seemed as
distant from me as if he were a 10th cousin once
removed. I thought of him as Sinclair Lewis'
Dodsworth, with predictable, Chamber of Commerce
opinions (Republican) -- dull company on a long
voyage. Until recently, I had almost nothing to do
with Stewart's work, rarely viewing his films
(except, of course, Hitchcock's masterpieces "Rear
Window" and "Vertigo"), sensing that, as barbecue
restaurants are meaningless to those who keep
kosher, Jimmy Stewart movies were irrelevant to
me.My parents took the family to the drive-in to
see John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."
My father, with his healthy cynicism toward the
political powers that be, rooted for the cursing,
gun-toting Lee Marvin against Stewart's elitist
Ranse Stoddard, attorney at law. I continue to
bypass Stewart's 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful
Life" -- I've yet to watch it all the way through. I
sensed that whatever this Frank Capra film was
about (Christmas, redemption), the message was
aimed at someone else.Likewise, I viewed
Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" as
alternately a fairy tale or a mystery. In my
neighborhood, no one had the slightest faith that
Mr. Smith, or any politician, could restore clean
government.He was solid, honest, a gentleman,
without a whiff of danger, or sex.

Yes, of course,
I was as prejudiced against his middle-American
background (especially during the Vietnam years)
as I imagined he was against mine. I could not know
then that America would be so accommodating, and
that within 30 years, Jews would be a part of that
very solid middle class &'173; boring, assimilated
and as predictable as Dodsworth in our own way
&'173; Stewart symbolized.America has
changed. Younger Jewish men do not see Stewart
that way. In recent generations, he has become
what Frank Capra and John Ford intended his type to
be: a solid gentleman. But in remembering the
lessons of both these men, I've come to see that a
reconciliation has occurred. The counterculture
represented by Mitchum has become part of the
establishment represented by Stewart. These days,
it's possible to accept them both.

I may never be
able to watch "It's a Wonderful Life," but the other
night, I rented John Ford's "Liberty Valance." In the
passage of 35 years, Ranse Stoddard looks good,
indeed. We've both changed, America and me.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large
of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is

Read a previous week's column by Marlene Adler Marks:
July 4, 1997 -- Meet the Seekowitzes
June 27, 1997 -- The Facts of Life

June 20, 1997 -- Reality Bites
June 13, 1997 -- Tracker Pixel for Entry


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