November 27, 2014

Gary Cooper, Sergeant York

as ALVIN C. YORK
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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor | New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor

The internet tells me that Gary Cooper moved to Los Angeles from Montana on Thanksgiving day exactly 90 years ago, where he was influenced by a few friends to work as a film extra (what a perfect little coincidence!), and thus a movie star was born. I must admit that I don't "get" Cooper. By now I've seen a handful of his films and I've yet to have a lightbulb moment in which I am able to rationalize his appeal. In spite of my hatred of Spencer Tracy's triple nominations, I still liked him enough in Libeled Lady (and I hear he's great in Fury) to believe that beneath the crappy nominations and wins lies a true-to-heart actor. I may have been indifferent towards Paul Muni, but at least he had a chameleonic schtick he was working with. Clark Gable, probably the closest contemporary I can think of to Cooper in terms of their man! images, had a palpably engaging charm about him. But what of Cooper? What exactly does he bring to the table? I don't know if I can say that he was born to act, and it's not as though he has much versatility. And I don't find Cooper very compelling either...he's kind of just always there--this rather aloof presence, an embodiment of qualities that a 1940's public would embrace...handsome, tall, masculine, Republican, Caucasian. Read his profile on IMDB and he's summed up quite perfectly: "This tall, silent hero was the American ideal for many people of his generation" So it's no surprise that this living, breathing "American ideal" would win an Academy Award for playing a religious WWI war veteran in a time when WWII was unfolding.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-11-21at122631AM.jpgSergeant York is essentially a companion piece to How Green Was My Valley, only this time the setting takes place in a hillbilly podunk. The contrivances are still there--drawn out monologues about how God is so great and how fighting in the war is essential for freedom offer a stuffy, preachy propaganda feel as opposed to an entertaining moviegoing experience. At a little over two hours, the film feels even longer while resting on Cooper's insipid shoulders. His delivery is baffling in its plainness, and I'm unsure whether it's because he's not a very perceptive actor or if because he's just uninterested in what he's doing here. He doesn't seem to uphold any of the qualities that we understand Alvin York to be--there's a point early on in the film when York is described as being only good for "fightin' and hell raisin'", which is interesting because I would imagine a troublemaking hell-raiser to be a type that's colorful and entertaining...and yet here is Cooper, stiff in stance and rather uninteresting, carrying himself with a manner that reads as a touch sedated. He doesn't possess enough impassioned commitment to make me believe that he's devout in his religion, he's not quite enchanting enough to make me buy that he's a wholesome country boy with a heart of gold, and in fact, he doesn't even attempt to be southern, thus we have a "country boy" who doesn't sound very naive or hick-ish and utters lines like "well imma gonna change it, and imma gonna get it" in western American english. One of my main notes that I had on Cooper here was "why is he such a tepid sounding guy? no passion whatsoever" and that's primarily my issue with him. For playing such a significant American hero, he makes York rather insignificant with such a lack of zest. Instead he seems to be sleepwalking through the entire picture, just murmuring pensively through monologues about God, the Bible, and freedom. As expected it was just a ho-hum offering from an actor I've always found to be lackluster, but the absolute lack of imaginative energy here makes it all the more flat.


5 comments:

  1. I don't believe I've ever seen York all the way through, and now I'm no more eager about it. Yet Cooper's fine as the naive professor to Stanwyck's flashy and knowing entertainer in Ball of Fire. One critic once said of Kevin Costner that he's a lot easier to enjoy when he isn't playing a monument. Perhaps that applies to Cooper also.

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    1. While I'm not too familiar with Kevin Costner's work, I'd say it's definitely applicable here! Cooper is just...a curious case. I hope to eventually find a performance of his that'll resonate with me, but it's not looking likely. I've watched another one of his nominations that'll I'll have to review eventually and it's no better than here.

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  2. I've never read anything good about this performance and film. I really don't expect anything especial coming from Cooper, but it's disappointing knowing that Hawks has a film like this in the prime of his career.

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    1. Yeah, this is quite a mundane follow-up to His Girl Friday...but I'm not surprised. It was WWII and they needed movies to inspire people. The fact that it says on the dvd box of Sergeant York that the film "inspired thousands of enlisting men" pretty much guaranteed Cooper an Oscar regardless of merit.

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  3. Wow, I haven't seen the film, but I definitely didn't expect just "1 oscar". :)
    actually, I haven't seen High Noon either... nor Pride of Yankees, nor Bell Tolls, nor Mr Deeds... :))

    I do think he was rather good-looking in the 30s.

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