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Richard Schickel's 1991 documentary about Gary Cooper - "Gary Cooper:
American Life, American Legend" gives us a look at the tremendous,
all-American star through his films and his life. Narrated by Clint
Eastwood, the theme is definitely "Gary Coooper, American" as we are
taken through fast clips of his many appearances in westerns, and
scenes from "Meet John Doe," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and "Sgt. York."
The best part of the documentary is the home movies of Cooper and his
family as well as his childhood photos, showing him as a beautiful
blonde kid with the sunny smile he would have his entire life. There is
also a hilarious clip of Cooper on "The Jack Benny Show" doing the
comeback on the number "Bird Dog" - and Benny loses it. The documentary
also takes us briefly through his tumultuous affair with Patricia Neal,
which nearly ruined both their lives.
There's a certain cohesiveness missing from this bio/retrospective - it jumps around a lot and has no footage of Cooper being interviewed, which would have added a lot. Also, Clint Eastwood's narration was described as unobtrusive. What it was, was boring and monotone. Given that Cooper himself tended to be the strong, silent type on screen, we could have used a little animation.
On a personal note, Gary Cooper was one of the handsomest men who ever lived - there were some looks at him in his early films, but not nearly enough for this fan. That smile, those lips, that bone structure - he was handsome throughout his life, but in films like "Morocco" and "Desire," he is devastating. Instead of sitting through a scene from one of his worst performances, as Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead," giving a speech that he admitted to the author he did not understand - a young, suave Cooper in a tux would have been a nice touch. This documentary, alas, was definitely produced by a man.
GARY COOPER found his niche in westerns, never requiring a lot of talk
but a lot of fast action and quick on the trigger in cowboy roles.
His likable and unpretentious manner of acting, combined with his natural good looks made him a natural for films, after attending college and thinking of a career as an artist. Once the public got a brief glimpse of him in WINGS, his career path was determined. He'd become an actor.
Described by the narrator as "one of the most romantic figures of the screen," we see a series of clips from his famous films, where he gradually attained stardom as the "everyman" in films like MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and MEET JOHN DOE.
Off screen, he was hardly everyman. He and his wife and children lived in luxury, with a huge swimming pool as a playground and lots of skiing and target practice on shooting expeditions.
On the eve of WWII, Warner Bros. released SERGEANT YORK and Cooper's fine performance, playing his first real-life hero, won the Academy Award. While at Warners, his three-year romance with Patricia Neal is touched upon only briefly before we get to HIGH NOON and another award for Cooper's work.
The commentary by Clint Eastwood is not particularly illuminating and is delivered in the dry Eastwood manner and in a monotone. The story of Cooper's career concludes with an emotional James Stewart at the 1961 Oscars presenting Cooper with a special Oscar honoring his career while the actor was home terminally ill with cancer.
Summing up: Not really the most illuminating biography of the great star, nor does it overcome the notion that many have that Cooper was a star personality with a limited range of emotion. There's an almost wooden look to much of Cooper's underacting, in my opinion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Richard Schickel, who wrote and directed this, is a perceptive
observer. His presentation of self in TV interviews is nasal, wry, and
comfortingly casual. No egg head stuff here.
As a writer, he doesn't quite measure up. In his reviews, his essays, and his narrative for this documentary on Gary Cooper, we are bombarded with careless, shopworn phrases. I kept waiting for the presenter, Clint Eastwood, to say something like, "Little did Coop know that tragedy lay just around the corner." Yet, stylistic triteness aside, this is a pretty good review, beginning with Cooper's childhood, continuing through his career, his friendships with people like Hemingway, his marriage and affairs, to the end of his life from prostate cancer.
Schickel makes some editorial comments, but I'm going to accept them because for the most part, I agree with them. Yes, the McCarthy witch hunts were bad. It's almost painful to watch footage of Cooper before the House Unamerican Activities Committee -- acting. Asked what he does for a living, Cooper replies, "I'm an actor," then looks around briefly, waiting for the laughs, jiggling his eyebrows a little to indicate that this is a joke. He was what Schickel calls a respectful conservative. Would that there were more like Cooper today.
Schickel also comes right out and calls Ayn Rand's "objectivism" bad. It's the foundation, so to speak, of Cooper's movie about an architect named Roark who refuses to compromise his principles, will accept help from no one else, and refuses to help others. The enemy is "collectivism," by which Rand meant getting along with one's neighbors and thinking of the common good. I can't imagine how Cooper ever found himself snagged into playing Roark. The screenplay, by Rand herself, has him giving a looooong climactic speech contrasting "the creator" with "the social parasites." The role sits uncomfortably on Cooper's head, like one of those over-sized Stetsons from his early cowboy movies. Cooper as hero, yes. Cooper as contemptuous braggart, no.
But Schickel's documentary wisely focuses on the actor's more successful efforts -- "Sergeant York," "High Noon," and the rest -- and fits them into their several Zeitgeists.
He does a pretty good job, despite the corny narrative. Cooper was one of those guys that nobody seemed to dislike. He was easy to work with, short on guile, handsome without being beautiful, and a decent minimalist actor. He didn't win the Oscar for "Sergeant York." His eyebrows did.
Probably no other screen legend was so perfectly cast as a hero as was
Gary Cooper. Even in later years when an edge of cynicism crept into
his roles, you always saw Coop piercing through those expressive eyes
hoping the world was not really as bad as he was seeing.
Richard Schickel's production had the good fortune to acquire the services of Clint Eastwood as narrator. The parallels between High Noon and Dirty Harry are hard to miss. Both Will Kane and Harry Callahan are highly moral men who've taken it on themselves to do a disagreeable job that few step up to the plate to do.
Much as I admire what Cooper did in High Noon, his more straightforward heroes appeal to me best. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York and my personal favorite of all his films Friendly Persuasion are more of what I like to see from him on screen. Even what I consider one of his worst films, The Fountainhead got a viewing mainly because of his relationship with Patricia Neal.
What was really nice was a clip from the Jack Benny Show with Coop trying his hand at the Everly Brothers classic Johnny Is A Joker. I have a radio broadcast on vinyl of Coop with his Paramount buddy Bing Crosby on his radio show post World War II. That's a treasure.
And so is the work and memory of Gary Cooper.
I was really surprised to see that unlike most documentaries, this was
written, directed and produced by a film critic-- Richard Schickel.
Most of the times I know of where film critics had major involvement in
films, the films turns out to be bombs (Rex Reed starring in "Myra
Breckenridge" and Roger Ebert writing "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"
are prime examples). However, in this case, the critic's powers are
used for good and not evil--and the results are better (though this
isn't saying much, as the films I just mentioned are among the worst
films ever made).
As for the documentary, it's narrated by Clint Eastwood (a pretty good choice) and manages to discuss his long career--from his silent days until his death in the early 1960s. The only negatives, and they are slight, are that the film is awfully short (as are most film documentaries) and there is very little about Gary Cooper as a human being--you really don't learn all that much about his life. However, as a nice overview of his films, it works very well.
I just saw this documentary, which appears on the otherwise superb 2- disc DVD set of "Sergeant York." I have to say that this documentary fails as a learning experience about the great Gary Cooper. There were three large flaws, two regarding the film clips. 1) While the film clips are many, not ONCE did the filmmaker identify on screen what film they were showing! It would have been so easy to put the title and the date at the bottom of the screen. Not ONCE did they do this. If you wanted to check out a film that looked interesting, you were basically out of luck. Clint Eastwood does sometimes mention what film he is taking about, but not always. 2) Regarding Clint Eastwood, his narration is DEADLY DULL, both in substance and in his offhanded attitude. It sounded like he was reading a very boring script. He recites information about Coop's life with absolutely NO EMOTION! Anyone could have done a better job. 3) Most if not all of the films mention and briefly shown have been restored. But EVERY SINGLE CLIP shown in this documentary is hazy and out of focus, and the color films have all deteriorated to the point that they almost look black-and-white! How lazy of the filmmaker not to use recently restored film elements. Definitely skip this inert documentary and just enjoy the great "Sergeant York."
Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend (1991)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Clint Eastwood narrates this documentary that takes a look at the career of legend Gary Cooper. Calling this a documentary is a little unfair as the only person talking is Eastwood and he only casually drops in to say a few lines. The rest of the film pretty much just shows us clips from all his movies including WINGS, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, SERGENT YORK, HIGH NOON and many other classics. There's really two ways to look at this and one is that if you haven't seen any of Cooper's great films then you should enjoy what you see here enough to where you'd want to go out and buy the films. On the other hand, if you've seen these movies already then you really don't learn too much. The only personal stuff really talked about is Cooper's disastrous affair with Patricia Neal and how he changed his life before his death. The Honorary Oscar award, which was accepted by James Stewart, is shown here and was quite touching. That footage makes this documentary worth sitting through, although a more complete one is certainly needed.
Exclusively for Coop's lovers, though Clint Eastwood very strong though unobtrusive presence is a great asset of this very good documentary film. It is a biography of Gary Cooper, based mainly on his filmography, but also on more private archives, which show him as a child, as a young man, as a family man, with some of his friends (Picasso, Hemingway, etc.), as an older man, finally as a sick and close-to-death man. After "the end", I did not have the feeling that I knew the man any much better. But I have spent a very good moment, re-viewing many of the best moments of his movies; and my respect for the very talented actor and great professional was increased tenfold. The film shows, most interestingly, how the career of Cooper can be paralleled with the evolution of USA society before and after WW2. Two of the great moments are the time when Cooper has to answer justice about communism in the movie world; and when James Stewart (a very great one, too) received an Award for Cooper one month before his death. I'm not a weeping pot, but... that was a close one! Watch it, if you can: it is so much worth while. ... If you love Cooper, that is. Or an older America...
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