September 29, 2005

Mighty, Mighty Mitchum

Note: This piece was originally supposed to run in the Las Vegas Weekly. However, apparently someone forgot it was supposed to be there. They did eventually run it, but I had already put the damn thing up here and, well, I figured I may as well leave it with the links and editorial tidying.
As I've said before, I take everything on a symbolic level and this is yet more proof of not only the "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" motif of my entire writing career, but also how astonishingly pathetic my love life is: After thirtysomething years of a state of near-perpetual unrequitedness, it figures that not even my love letter to a dead movie star can get through. That said, enjoy this little bit on the great Robert Mitchum. It'd have been rather longer and funkier and fouler if I had written it for here and not there but, then again, I probably would never have finished it in time if I had...

Even if you don’t consider his status as a veteran of 132 films and probably the definitive actor of film noir, Robert Mitchum was a hell of a guy. Ex-con and calypso singer, pothead and poet, barroom brawler and ladies’ man, hobo and horse breeder, champion drunk and literary connoisseur, songwriter and steelworker.

Yet, in life and onscreen, he was known for a certain laid-back, understated style—which has led many to feel he wasn’t much of an actor at all (a critic once derided one of his performances as an exercise in “stunned lethargy”). But Mitchum’s subtlety still looks remarkably modern today—we never catch him acting. And if he was so dull, why did so many fine directors want to work with him? John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, Josef von Sternberg, Jim Jarmusch, David Lean and Howard Hawks were among those who held his talents in high regard. This month you can make up your own mind, as Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting Mitchum with a week of his films from October 3-8.

Mitchum’s trademark, both on- and offscreen is a sort of “so what” fatalism. There’s the world-weary, cynical man drawn to his doom by the femme fatale in Out of the Past and Angel Face, men finally sucked down into the evil they’ve always known was all around them, hardly kicking at the quicksand until one final, noble gesture, usually involving going to their death, but going knowing they’ve somehow righted at least one wrong. In Out of the Past, Mitchum sacrifices not only his life, but his good memory, a death-after-death that makes Humphrey Bogart waving goodbye to the plane in Casablanca more like a man who’s given away his last cigarette. Then there’s the halfway decent guys who tumble into bad situations and figure they’ll just have to deal with it, preferably with a bone-dry sense of humor, like the bemused drifter Mitchum of Macao and His Kind of Woman, wisecracking with Jane Russell when not brawling with henchmen and Nazis. Or consider the grizzled, war-weary hero of The Story of G.I. Joe and Crossfire, men who try to stick to their code even though they know the rest of the world will not. Then there’s the roles that combine the three, like his turn in the underrated rodeo flick, The Lusty Men.

Mitchum was known for proudly proclaiming that he had been arrested 37 times—he even served time on a Georgia chain gang during his youth. And escaped from it. But his most notorious run-in with the law was his 1949 marijuana bust, which would have ended anyone else’s career, but it only heightened his reputation as the original Hollywood bad boy. Still, despite his badass credentials and the fact that he got his start as a black hat in Hopalong Cassidy serials, he rarely played the bad guy. Yet he is best-known to many for his terrifying, psychopathic turns in Cape Fear. and The Night of the Hunter. In the remake of the former, Robert DeNiro’s tattooed maniac was horror-movie ridiculous, while Mitchum’s oily good ol’ boy is even more frightening: His account of his kidnapping, beating and rape of his ex-wife is as chilling as realizing the guy sitting next to you on the bus is a serial killer. The Night of the Hunter may be Mitchum’s greatest performance—the homicidal preacher, Harry Powell, with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles—is an icon of villainy, and the diseased heart of a brilliant, unsettling film, unfortunately the only one the great actor Charles Laughton directed.

Thunder Road was Mitchum’s most personal film—he wrote, produced and starred in the drive-in epic of North Carolina moonshiners that became a cult classic, with his speed demon ‘shine runner as another of his glacially cool anti-heroes. Another project that was dear to him was Calypso is Like So, his calypso album, which should be an embarrassing oddity that turns up between William Shatner and Jack Webb on an anthology of celebrity musical mistakes. But it’s not bad—so not bad, in fact, that I know people who still refuse to believe it’s actually him singing. But Mitchum’s ear for a tune (he played saxophone and bongos) and facility with accents (he was known as a wicked mimic) make for an entirely pleasant and quite convincing album. For a man who seemed to do so little, Robert Mitchum did a lot. And did it incredibly well.

Some Wisdom from the Mitchum

Mitchum remains one of the few actors who was even tougher offscreen than on. He was a notorious badass who never backed down from a fight—and always won, whether it was pummeling three marines into submission or knocking out a world-ranked heavyweight in a barfight. “When you fuck with the ape, be ready to go the route,” he said. Or, as he put it more bluntly, “When you come to fight, be ready to die.”

Robert Mitchum didn’t have an easy childhood—his father died when he was two and his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings alone. Young Bob soon took to the open road, hopping freight cars and hobo-ing across the country. “I had very little else to do but study characters,” he said of those years. “I was sort of a traveling witness. I didn’t have a trade and I didn’t have a little box of tricks. I had nothing to sell. And I was principally concerned with keeping myself undetected and alive.”

Despite a career that was over five decades long, Mitchum was never terribly impressed by fame. “You know what the average Robert Mitchum fan is? He’s full of warts and dandruff and he’s probably got a hernia, too. But he sees me up there on the screen and thinks, ‘If that bum can make it, I can become president.’ I bring a ray of hope to the great unwashed.” He didn’t view acting as much of a career or a craft. When a pretentious young George Peppard asked Mitch if he had studied the Stanislavsky Method, the older actor shrugged and answered, “No, but I’ve studied the Smirnoff Method.”

Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum became quite close during the filming of The Night of the Hunter. One day, Laughton called his star. “I’ve been thinking about your attitude, “he said. “You know, all of us have skeletons in our closets, and we keep them in the closet and when people come by we look off in the other direction, pointing our toes at the rug and whistling. But you, not only do you open the door to your closet, but you snatch the skeleton out and brandish it. You’ve simply got to stop brandishing your skeletons.”

For more Mitchum, or just a hell of an entertaining read, may I suggest Lee Server's fine biography, the aptly titled, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care.

Posted by lissa at September 29, 2005 08:39 PM