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Hollywood’s Original BFFs, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, Share the Screen at Last

It’s an idea so good you can’t believe no one did it before: a book about the deep and abiding friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart, true legends of Hollywood. Scott Eyman’s Hank and Jim: The Story of a Friendship shows them as struggling stage actors and roommates, traces their swift ascent to stardom, and shows how they anchored each other’s lives.

For Henry Fonda, who was married five times and had volatile relationships with his children, Peter and Jane, that friendship with Stewart may have been the deepest and most consistent bond of his life. And when Stewart returned from his Air Force duty in World War II, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and looking so careworn that no studio would cast him, he crashed for weeks at Fonda’s house, endearing himself as Uncle Jimmy to the Fonda kids.

To mark the publication of Eyman’s book, Film Forum is running a massive retrospective of both careers, from October 27 through November 16. Hank and Jim focuses on the actors’ personal lives; the 36-film series let you see the ebb and flow of the two careers in tandem, how the lives form parallel lines of Hollywood history.

Dorris Bowdon, Jane Darwell, and Henry Fonda in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Playing Sunday, October 29; Sunday, November 5; and Thursday, November 9.

Fonda was a salesman’s son in Omaha, Nebraska, as heartland as it gets. When Hank was fourteen, his father, a liberal Democrat, took him to the town square to witness the lynching and burning of a black man named Will Brown. Fonda believed his father did this to teach him where bigotry and intolerance could lead; if so, it worked.

For the rest of his life, Fonda carried a loathing of violence, an ingrained outrage against injustice, and an attraction to socially minded roles, one of the closest to his own experience being the cowboy who winds up a helpless and self-loathing witness to a lynching in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Director William Wellman had to promise two additional pictures to Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox to get the film made, and Zanuck predicted, accurately, that the movie “won’t make a dime.” Fonda didn’t care, and as Eyman notes, while the actor was always hard on his own work, he remained proud of Ox-Bow, with its dark, mournful atmosphere and crushingly sad fadeout.

By the time 12 Angry Men rolled around, Fonda had to produce the movie himself in order to play Juror 8, the stubborn white-suited avatar of justice who demands that a youth accused of murder get a full and fair deliberation. “Deservedly well-regarded now,” says Eyman, “it was a fast flop in 1957,” although over the years it repaid Fonda’s modest investment many times over.

Stewart also had a middle-class, middle-America background. The son of a prosperous, conservative owner of a hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he remained a straight-arrow Republican all his life. In some films Stewart easily embodies a certain view of American righteousness, as in the title role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), gazing in awe at the Lincoln Memorial and trying to live up to the ideals it expresses. At other times Stewart’s characters would rebel against American violence and corruption, as in the Delmer Daves Western Broken Arrow (1950). Stewart plays the historical figure of Tom Jeffords, who learns the language and customs of the Apache and comes to sympathize with them more than with the settlers trying to wipe them out.

Stewart was apparently a much more easygoing real-life personality than Fonda; he was much loved by co-stars like Dan Duryea (Winchester ’73) and Kim Novak, who told Eyman how, after the emotional turmoil of their scenes in Vertigo, Stewart would squeeze her hand and “we would allow each other to come down slowly, like a parachute.” But it was Stewart who would spend the Fifties playing dark, conflicted characters for directors such as Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. When asked what happened to the gangly charmer of the Thirties and early Forties, Eyman says Stewart would answer simply, “I’d matured.”

William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Playing Wednesday, November 1.

Famously, these political opposites had one political fight — over HUAC and the blacklist, it seems, although both men refused to give details even many years after the fact. They had long since decided that their friendship was more important than politics. Actors are notoriously competitive, but Stewart and Fonda somehow avoided that too, concentrating instead on pranking each other, going on outings, toasting glasses of beer (neither man was a big drinker), and building model airplanes together for hours on end.

In 1940 Fonda was nominated for an Oscar for his most famous and indelible role, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford. The award should have been Fonda’s, a fact that Stewart always acknowledged in later years — because Stewart was the one who did win, for his stellar romantic work in The Philadelphia Story. Fonda had to wait another 41 years for a consolation Oscar for On Golden Pond (which is not in the series), but their friendship remained serenely unaffected. If that seems an easy accomplishment, consider what Oscar rivalry helped do for sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.

As a bachelor, Stewart dated some of the most beautiful and charming women in Hollywood, including Ginger Rogers and Olivia de Havilland. He also had a brief, red-hot love affair with Marlene Dietrich during the filming of Destry Rides Again (1939), and it shows; they seem like an odd couple only if you haven’t seen them in the movie. Fonda would claim that Stewart got all the pretty girls, but his friend always countered that Fonda “had his share, and then some”: Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball.

And of course, Fonda got Margaret Sullavan, and married her, though his union with the gifted but mercurial actress didn’t last. The attachment did. Eyman suggests Sullavan was the love of Fonda’s life, and she almost becomes the third subject of the book, flitting in and out of the narrative, even living close by Fonda with her third husband, agent Leland Hayward, for a few years in the mid-1940s. Fonda made only one movie with Sullavan, the charming The Moon’s Our Home, where Fonda plays a famous novelist who marries Sullavan’s famous actress, neither realizing who the other is, in fine screwball fashion. Later Sullavan married William Wyler, who went on to direct Fonda opposite his friend Bette Davis in Jezebel. (You yearn for Eyman to include a spreadsheet to keep track of all this.) 

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Playing Friday, November 3.

Meanwhile, Stewart himself had a raging crush on Sullavan during his early days with her and Fonda in regional theater, and wound up making more movies with her than Fonda did. The Sullavan-Stewart outings in the series are The Shop Around the Corner, the apex of Stewart’s period as a young and swooningly romantic lead; and Next Time We Love, from 1936, which is notable for having Stewart become mortally ill, rather than Sullavan, who died onscreen many times in her career.

The series opens on October 27 as Eyman introduces a double feature of Alfred Hitchcock directing Fonda in the grim, atypical The Wrong Man and Stewart in the look-ma-no-cuts curio Rope. (It does have cuts, but they are few and artfully hidden; the movie is much better than its reputation.) Rope spins a version of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. Stewart had top billing, but was essentially in a supporting role as the teacher whose students loved his lectures on Nietzsche a little too much.

Laid out in chronological order, Stewart’s other Hitchcock films (all of them in the series) trace a rising unlikability: the immobile photographer in Rear Window, repeatedly needling Grace Kelly from his wheelchair; the husband who slips his own wife (Doris Day) a mickey in The Man Who Knew Too Much; and last the manipulative, phobic mess that is Scotty in Vertigo. With twenty films in the series to Fonda’s sixteen, Stewart may have the edge at Film Forum. His Westerns with Anthony Mann, almost noirs in disguise, are mostly all here: The Far Country, The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, and the first and possibly the best, Winchester ’73, from 1950. That was the film that altered Stewart’s image and, thanks to a trailblazing contract that gave him a percentage, helped make him a rich man.

James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again  (1939). Playing Wednesday, November 8.

In the Fifties, Stewart worked with Mann, Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger (in Anatomy of a Murder, a rare role that impressed Stewart’s father, although the old man had to be convinced that the rape-case plot didn’t make it a “dirty” picture). Cinematically it was a better decade for Stewart than for Fonda. While he wasn’t blacklisted, the liberal, outspoken Fonda found the theater a more congenial home for long periods, returning to film intermittently. 12 Angry Men is the lone Fonda from the period in Film Forum’s series. Mister Roberts, the big hit that Fonda originated on Broadway and that ended his long friendship with John Ford when bitter on-set fighting caused Ford to be replaced, didn’t make it in.

That lack is balanced out somewhat, however, by the exceptional quality of two films where Fonda, like Stewart often did, went against type. In 1948 Fonda played Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in Ford’s Fort Apache. Thursday is a cold, inflexible commander who sees his men wiped out due to nothing more than his own stubbornness; it was a role, Eyman notes, that cut uncomfortably close to Fonda’s deepest flaws. Fonda played it impeccably, suggesting at times that Thursday may feel locked into his own persona. And the series closes out with what today may be Fonda’s most famous role, eclipsing even Tom Joad: the remorseless psychopath Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Chronologically, the series ends at 1968, as both men saw their careers fading into twilight. But their friendship continued unaltered through to Fonda’s death in 1982. As Peter Fonda told Eyman, Hank and Jim “made no demands on each other.… What counted were the times they were together.”

‘Hank and Jim’
October 27–November 16
Film Forum

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Jimmy Stewart and Vertigo are Hanging in There as the Best Movie Ever

As with many masterpieces, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo yielded a mostly lukewarm reaction upon its May 1958 release. Variety dismissed it as “basically only a psychological murder mystery.” In 1973, Hitchcock took the film out of circulation; his estate did not re-distribute it until a decade later, around the same time it finally entered Sight & Sound‘s 10-best-films-of-all-time list.

Two years ago, it knocked Citizen Kane from the top slot. The new 4K restoration of Vertigo — which runs at the Film Forum from October 24 through 30 — removes some of the 1996 restoration’s cheesiest blunders (an overkill of seagull cries in the San Francisco Bay scenes, for instance).

The color scheme — the eerie cornflower hue of the dawn sky in the riveting rooftop chase, the funereal grays and browns of the perpetually haunted James Stewart’s suits — is rendered more piercing. But what still makes Vertigo so remarkable isn’t just its frequently copied visual trickery — most notably, the dolly zoom shot, closing up on an object while pulling away from it, to underscore the acrophobia plaguing Stewart’s ex-detective. It’s the dramatization of Hitchcock’s obsession with San Francisco as a phobic’s nightmare, with its craggy, steep streets and winding highways.

Stewart’s sad, stooped aura — his anguished, tongue-wagging face looks too small on his long-legged frame — and his begging blue eyes make you forgive the torment and even sadism he inflicts upon the blonde, then brunette, and then blonde again Kim Novak.

Vertigo — not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful work but certainly his most tragic — remains a parable on not playing God: with the past, with your lover, or even your own impotence.

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You Can’t Take It With You

Dir. Frank Capra (1938). Adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Capra’s film concerns class clash between aw-shucks scion James Stewart and his sweetheart, Jean Arthur, a gal of modest means from a family of nutsos.

Wed., July 4, 2, 4:30, 7 & 9:30 p.m., 2012

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The Patriot

The BAMcinématek celebrates Thanksgiving with a four-course helping of a filmmaker as American as pumpkin pie and the Pawnee tribe—or at least its annihilation. Running from November 22 through 29,
Give Thanks for John Ford puts the emphasis on westerns, the quintessential Ford genre, with special focus on the most monumental film ever shot in Monument Valley.

The 50th anniversary of The Searchers (November 22 through 24) may have been honored this year with a deluxe DVD release, but anyone who keeps it in their Netflix queue instead of heading to BAM deserves to have an eye removed. Right up front, with the famous opening composition of landscape framed through doorway, Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch signal their immense ambition. By the time the motif is recapitulated at the finale, the saga of an embittered Confederate soldier (John Wayne) on a quest to find his kidnapped niece has voyaged far through the American West and deep into the American psyche. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” the poet Charles Olson wrote of Melville, in words as applicable to The Searchers as Moby Dick. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

If The Searchers is Ford’s great space odyssey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (November 26) is his magnificent memory trip. Narrated in flashback and artificial in the extreme, the story pits an idealistic lawyer (James Stewart) and jaded gunslinger (John Wayne) against Lee Marvin’s outlaw, Liberty Valance. The identity of his killer, per fact and per legend, sends rippling repercussions through both men’s futures, and makes for one of the richest ironies in the movies. “When the legend becomes fact,” says a reporter told the truth, “print the legend.”

While the premise of Two Rode Together (November 25) is a knockout, the tough core goes hazy in the telling. An upstanding cavalry officer (Richard Widmark) recruits a mercenary sheriff (Stewart) to barter with the Comanches for the white folks they’ve kidnapped. When he returns with a boy gone violently native, the aggrieved settlers give up the cause, preferring to take their loved ones for dead than have them tainted by “savages.” Meanwhile, a liberated woman (Linda Cristal as Elena) struggles to reassimilate in a society obsessed with the question of whether or not Stone Calf touched her naughty bits.

That life with the Comanches might be preferable to the hypocrisies of civilization gives this late Ford western a mildly progressive slant, at least in the terms of 1961 Hollywood. But despite a scattering of gorgeous panoramas, some excellent nastiness from Stewart, and a razor-sharp Annelle Hayes as a badass barkeep, this is decidedly minor Ford.

There is one unforgettable moment. Recently sprung from camp Comanche, Elena watches on horseback as the boys bicker. Stewart barks her an order to fetch some firewood, and the camera ravishes the smoldering beauty as she shrugs off her heavy woven shawl as if turning on the catwalk, revealing a fabulous red blouse cinched with a belt of gold disks. She glares at the camera, the soundtrack goes silent, and all I can hear is, “I’m Fendi Pocahontas, bitches! Respect!” Needless to say, she dismounts to make the fire and runs off to California with the asshole, but for one bright moment she’s a sublime goddess of the cinema, blazing her complex spell into the rapt eye of the audience.

For that level of impact, Ford is equally revered by the masses and the most rarefied of cinephilic sensibilities. No one makes stronger images, supercharging a single look or gesture with the maximum voltage celluloid can withstand. The sweetest and gentlest film in the series,
The Sun Shines Bright (November 29), nearly sustains that energy level from beginning to end.

The one non-western on the program, this 1953 political melodrama was Ford’s own personal favorite, and you can feel his love of the material in every quietly ecstatic texture and rhythm. Charles Winninger is warm, restrained, and effortlessly at ease in the role of Judge Priest, a kindly official up for election in turn-of-the-century Kentucky. He will twice do the right thing—throwing moral support behind a dead prostitute and a falsely accused black man—despite the potential effect on his campaign.

Still, contemporary audiences will recoil from its toxic racism. Co-starring Stepin Fetchit—’nuff said—as the judge’s gibbering porch monkey, the film’s other black characters are restricted to grinning banjo players, Aunt Jemimas, and soulful crooners who show up whenever massa needs a little background gravitas. We can make all sorts of excuses for the era, dig up whatever proof of the great auteur’s humanism, deconstruct till the cows come home, but why not keep it simple and acknowledge that the uglier conventions in Ford are inextricable from the sublime? What could be more American?

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Cold Fever

Once in a while, the countries of Scandinavia beget freaks—the wild energy of the Björks, Kaurismäkis, and von Triers counterbalances the cool restraint of the Bergmans, Ullmanns, and Augusts. The omnicultural Scandinavia House (58 Park Avenue, 779-3587) is a space in which Nordic cultural bipolarity can play itself out. Architect James Stewart Polshek’s intentionally unimposing six-story structure exudes hospitable anonymity, featuring zinc, glass, and spruce on the exterior, with birch, curved wooden walls, and painted blue slats indoors.

Not surprisingly, the first and second film series in the underground Victor Borge Hall (donor Borge died on December 23) both open with daring works. Inaugurating November’s Icelandic series was notorious party animal Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Angels of the Universe, which focuses on a schizophrenic and his pals in a mental institution. “Dogma and Beyond: Recent Films From Denmark,” the second of five national series (still to come: films from Norway, Sweden, and Finland) opens January 10 with the fourth of the iconoclastic Dogme ’95 pictures: Kristian Levring’s misanthropic English-language film The King Is Alive. Set in the Namibian desert, it follows a group of stranded tourists who create a production of King Lear as a desperate survival tactic. An expected exercise in handheld camera, real locations, and improvised acting, The King Is Alive feels secondhand, but is a must for pure Dogmatists. The four-film exhibition concludes January 31 with Jesper Jargil’s documentary The Exhibited, a look at von Trier’s installation-cum-performance piece Psychomobile #1: The World Clock, in which the moods of 53 characters in 19 rooms shift according to the movements of ants in New Mexico.

More naturalistic but just as provocative is Lasse Spang Olsen’s In China They Eat Dogs (January 24). According to Scandinavia House film programmer Jytte Jensen, who plans less nation-bound, more cross-pollinated films in the future, the movie is a ” ‘drengerovs film,’ or ‘bad-boy film’—though drengerovs translates literally into ‘boy’s ass’—a genre that is popular in Danish theater.” A geeky, soft-spoken bank clerk (Dejan Cukic), remorseful over having foiled a robbery that sent a man to jail, reunites with his estranged ex-con brother (Kim Bodnia). A failed attempt to dynamite the thief out of prison is only the first of several bungled efforts, all blackly comic, to right the perceived wrong. Spang Olsen makes concessions to neither propriety nor political correctness. Having directed F/X and stunt sequences for over 300 movies, here he saves the fantastic effects for the end, but the stunts—car collisions and explosions that top most Hollywood action flicks—run throughout. Naturally, it has been bought for American remake rights.

A Place Nearby (January 17), directed by Kaspar Rostrup, features his Waltzing Regitze star Ghita Norby in a performance both raw and nuanced; she plays a tough, middle-aged shopkeeper guilty of smotherly love. After her autistic son (the amazing Thure Linhardt) becomes the prime suspect in a young woman’s murder, Mom takes on the investigating detective like a fierce lioness protecting her cub. Danish cinema, obviously, is more than Dogme; Scandinavia House is a local safe haven.

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Out of Sight

Immobilized in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg, photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) amuses himself by spying on his neighbors. Inevitably, observation becomes obsession. Jeff imagines that he has uncovered a murder in an apartment across the courtyard.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which opens Friday at Film Forum in a print newly restored to its original Technicolor grandeur, was one of the master’s greatest stunts. Not only is this a thriller without on-screen violence or a visible (human) corpse, but virtually the entire movie unfolds in a single room, albeit facing out on one of the largest, most elaborate sets ever built on Paramount’s back lot.

Steeped in fetishism, concerned with l’amour fou, and structured by dream logic, Vertigo is Hollywood’s surrealist masterpiece; Rear Window showcases another side of Hitchcock’s vulgar modernism. It’s a blatantly conceptual movie, self-reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Soviet montage to Andy Warhol’s vacant stare, as well as a construction founded on the 20th-century idea of the metropolis as spectacle—or, more specifically, on the peculiar mixture of isolation and overstimulation the big city affords. Reveling in the simultaneity of the 8 million stories in the Naked City, Rear Window is the slyly alienated precursor of multiple narratives like Short Cuts or Magnolia.

As Jeff’s wisecracking nurse (Thelma Ritter) tells him, “We [have] become a race of Peeping Toms,” and like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. or, in another sense, Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, Rear Window is one of the great allegories of cinephilia. No less than any viewer of the movie, Jeff is immobile and transfixed. Observing without being observed, at once godlike and impotent, he treats other people’s daily lives as though they were his show.

The photographer not only spies on his neighbors, treating himself to close-ups by using the telephoto camera lens his nurse calls a “portable keyhole,” but gives them names and invents little backstories. These dramas are, necessarily, staged in highly emphatic pantomime style, and, as in silent movies, music—almost always supplied by the handy composer who lives across the courtyard—substitutes for dialogue. (The movie’s complex sound mix has been considerably brightened in the restoration.) A pair of newlyweds keep vanishing “off-screen.” The statuesque blonde Jeff calls Miss Torso affords a primitive peep show in contrast to the pathetic fantasies enacted by the character he’s named Miss Lonelyhearts. And then there is the unhappy domesticity unfolding in the Thorwald apartment. . . .

Contemplating the courtyard, Jeff is the warden of his own panopticon, and yet it is he who is in a state of heightened anxiety. Does the hypervigilant photographer suspect that, just as he spies on his neighbors, they might be observing him? “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars,” he muses. “Course, they can do the same thing, watch me like a bug under a glass.” Rear Window has a definite paranoid edge. Placing his neighbors under surveillance, Jeff is a freelance agent for the national security state who seems taken aback when a cop explains the need for a search warrant. But mainly, Rear Window isa demonstration (two decades before cine-theorist Christian Metz) that the spectator identifies with the camera, and that the entire cinema machine is predicated on what psychologists call the scopic drive.

Absorbed in his neighbors’ lives, the world of images and vicarious experience echoed by the photos on his walls, Jeff has a marked aversion to intimacy—most obviously in his ambiguous relationship with his “too perfect” lady friend Lisa (Grace Kelly, who, as befits a movie about voyeurism, may be the most gorgeous creature to appear in any Hitchcock film). Only slightly less neurotic here than he would appear in Vertigo, Stewart projects a mixture of defensive normality and sexual ambivalence. If he is obviously discomfited to hear his nurse wonder if Lisa’s father is “loading up the shotgun” to insure their wedding, his anxiety reaches comic proportions once Lisa proposes to spend the night. “I just have one bed,” he protests.

When Lisa closes Jeff’s window shades (“the show’s over for tonight”) and changes into a filmy nightgown (delightfully announced as a “preview of coming attractions”), she draws attention to the movie’s two narratives, the murder mystery playing across the courtyard and the love story acted out in the apartment, as fictional constructions. It remains for the viewer to make the connection.

** Hitchcock considered Rear Window his “most cinematic” movie and, by way of explanation, paraphrased the famous Soviet montage experiment known as the Kuleshov effect: “Mr. Stewart is looking out into the courtyard and—let’s say—he sees a woman with a child in her arms. Well, the first cut is Mr. Stewart, then what he sees, and then his reaction. We’ll see him smile. Now if you took away the center piece of film and substituted—we’ll say—a shot of the girl Miss Torso in a bikini, instead of being a benevolent gentleman he’s now a dirty old man. And you’ve only changed one piece of film, you haven’t changed his look or his reaction.”

Like the Soviets, Hitchcock understood movies as a machine to evoke a series of conditioned responses, and Rear Window, one of his most commercially successful movies, was almost universally hailed when it opened during the summer of 1954. Despite the blatant metaphoric content, no contemporary reviewer seems to have seen it as anything more than a superior entertainment—although The New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther surely did protest too much in declaring that “Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not ‘significant.’ What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib.”

The only critics to take Rear Window seriously were the movie-mad writers of Cahiers du Cinema. “One can see Rear Window again and again, even when one knows the denouement,” André Bazin observed, while Claude Chabrol plumbed the dark side of Jeff’s “amorous fixation,” noting that “in the end one no longer knows whether the crime may not have been made a reality simply by Stewart’s willing it.” From here it is a small step to proposing that what happens in the Thorwald apartment is but the most extreme fulfillment of Jeff’s desire to be rid of Lisa. (“For all you know, there’s something a lot more sinister going on beyond that window,” she had kidded about the Newlywed Show.)

Rear Window has enjoyed a long classroom run as Exhibit A in Laura Mulvey’s canonical “Film and Visual Pleasure,” an essay suggesting that cinema is founded on the pleasure derived from looking, unseen, at another person as an erotic object. Movies, Mulvey argued, allow men to gaze upon women within the context of illusionist narrative—and this sense of control compensates for the very castration anxiety exemplified by Jeff’s helpless state. Lisa does perform for Jeff throughout Rear Window (and just as his voyeurism is rationalized by his profession as a photojournalist, so her exhibitionism is underscored by her career in fashion), but for most of the movie, he has more fun watching his imaginary movies than relating to his girlfriend.

Jeff’s aesthetic distance is shattered, however, when intrepid Lisa materializes in the theater of the Thorwald apartment. Suddenly, the voyeur is reacting like the most naive spectator, shouting a warning to a figure who cannot possibly hear him: “Lisa, what are you doing? Get out of there!” Lisa’s appearance on the screen is paralleled by Thorwald’s evolution from a distant silent actor to the all-too-real creature who, as in some Pirandellian nightmare, enters Jeff’s space hissing, “What do you want of me?” In a denouement Time correctly identified with Mack Sennett slapstick, the movie turns interactive—although, by this time, the joke is on the audience.

Thorwald’s question is really addressed to the spectator. (Lisa speaks for all when she tells Jeff they are “ghouls” for being “plunged into despair [to] find a man didn’t kill his wife.”) Jeff’s pad is just one more window. As always in Hitchcock, there is no pleasure without guilt.

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Morbid Curiosity

The other day, a press packet turned up for something called A Winnie-the-Pooh Thanksgiving. Take a second to figure out why this should annoy you. Ding—that’s it, the Pooh characters are English. As English as public-school sodomy and bad teeth, at least one of which I’ve always assumed Piglet suffered from. In A.A. Milne country even the outsiders evoke a cozy, vanished rule-Britannia—with Kanga and Roo hailing from guess where, and Tigger clearly visiting from what was then still the Raj. (Whaddya know, he’s unruly; the artistic subconscious is a marvelous thing.) For this crew to celebrate an American holiday violates who they are as carelessly as sticking John Wayne in the House of Lords—although the Duke might not mind.


I know, I know. Par for the course—and A.A. Milne, who he? If you’re much under 40, Pooh and company have always worked for Disney anyhow, making them not only quasi-American but modular—meaninglessly available for whatever’s convenient. But children cherish specificity, and respond to organic worlds even if they can’t suss the circumstances that shaped them—in Pooh’s case, not just England, but obviously, and sweetly, the England of the 1920s. Despite travestying source material right and left, Disney itself used to appreciate the value of context. No more, though—fungibility is all.


The high-minded equivalent of A Winnie-the-Pooh Thanksgiving was the Christopher Reeve remake of Rear Window, which ABC aired last Sunday—and don’t think otherwise just because Pooh was not only willin’, but listed as executive producer. Actually, that gets the analogy backward. It’s Reeve who’s the human equivalent of a national holiday. And it’s the particulars of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller that are being sacrificed to it. Revamping a classic is fine with me. Even if you can’t yet say, “Hitchcock, who he?” he’s not sacrosanct, and Rear Window‘s prescient themes of surveillance and voyeurism could easily be updated to speak to our time. To damn well holler at it, in fact, with Ken Starr in James Stewart’s part as the wheelchair-bound photographer with the broken hip who starts spying on his neighbors and Clinton subbing for Raymond Burr as the man Stewart becomes convinced is a murderer. Of course, that’s not why it got remade. It got remade because America’s most famous quadriplegic wanted to inspire us by proving he could still function as an actor, and given his handicap it was either this or The Man Who Came to Dinner.


If that sounds testy, then I’m sorry. I like Christopher Reeve, too; even before the accident that left him paralyzed, I’d never heard anyone say a negative word about him. He’s a decent, thoughtful man whose determination to keep practicing his craft is valiant. But with Reeve in the lead, Rear Window could have no subject other than the actor’s real-life heroism even if Hitchcock’s themes hadn’t been buried to praise it—at Reeve’s own behest, since he’s the one who wanted autobiographical elements added to the script for the sake of making a positive statement about disability. Not only did a lengthy prologue reprise his struggle to rehabilitate himself after breaking his neck—something irrelevant to the plot, but important to the therapeutic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit message grafted onto the sordid material. More gratuitous yet, the final scene gave Reeve what amounted to an Oscar speech at a soirée honoring his character—an architect in this version—for the “building” he’d managed to complete in the face of terrible odds. Yes, he thanked the little people.


But why drag Rear Window into it? If Reeve wanted to dramatize his own victory over adversity for our benefit, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have appeared in a thinly fictionalized, appropriately inspirational recounting of his experience—as stars who’ve survived breast cancer or a similar trauma often do, sometimes even as themselves. But remaking a prestigious title gave his lobbying artistic cachet, while underlining his resolve to be perceived as an actor rather than a victim. What acting he could do, he did well; although even his voice has been affected by his condition, the limited physical equipment at his command was put to resourceful and admirably unsentimental use. Not for a moment, however, did you forget the horrid fascination of knowing his afflictions are real. Watching him strain to deliver his lines expressively, your concern couldn’t help but be for the star’s well-being, never the character’s—even without the script blurring the distinction.


Reeve comes about as close to sainthood as you can get in America these days, but he’s also got a reputation for intelligence and taste. It’s hard to believe he never noticed that an upbeat, affirmative version of a story as jaundiced about human nature as Rear Window‘s was on the bonkers side. I haven’t seen the original in years, and can barely remember if Burr’s character actually did do in his wife or not. What’s stayed in my mind is what Hitchcock made sure would linger—the unsettling voyeurism and mania for control that ensues from Stewart’s enforced passivity, and his sexual jitters with Grace Kelly.


Since Reeve always wanted to be a more audacious actor than his cardboard roles permitted, I rather hoped he’d be daring enough to force us to dislike him in this one. Given how beloved he is, it would be thrillingly perverse. Fat chance—Hitchcock he’ll fuck with, being a role model he won’t. Instead, his remake took care to buff away the unpleasantness of the hero’s Peeping Tom predilections—even dispensing with the heart-stopping moment in the 1954 version when Burr finally realizes someone is watching, and, the accused turned accuser, stares balefully right at the camera. This version’s suspect was the usual snarling bogeyman, clearly more despicable than the hero: deck stacked, problem solved. But since the unpleasantness is integral to the plot, it kept cropping up anyway, albeit as an unintegrated distraction. Although for obvious reasons critics have minced their words, one reviewer did venture a complaint that Reeve’s surveillance of his neighbors had its creepy side; in terms of Hitchcock’s intentions, this is like complaining that Moby-Dick is ruined by Ahab’s loony streak.


As for the original’s psychosexual tension, which would be plainly inappropriate here, it was replaced by something superficially more optimistic, but actually more morbid. Near the fade-out, with Reeve and Grace Kelly sub Darryl Hannah in a romantic tête-à-tête, the star remarked that while he obviously couldn’t perform sexually now, he’d be able to “in a few more years.” Everybody knows that Reeve insists he’ll be completely healed someday, and how important this faith is to him. Everybody also knows no cure is yet in sight. Hearing his wishful thinking expressed as fact was both painful and appalling; at that moment, how on earth could we respond to him as a character, or to Rear Window as a movie?


To Reeve and a large chunk of the modern audience alike, that’s clearly a negligible distinction; the movie wouldn’t be worth belaboring if it weren’t so symptomatic. Recently, down where I live, a debate about high school productions of classic but insufficiently enlightened plays—the disturbingly violent Oklahoma!, for instance—included a serene suggestion that the students simply rewrite the shows to tailor them to current attitudes; that’ll do wonders for their education. These days, good citizens treat cultural readymades as expediently as the most benighted bizzer, equally gratified to put them to good purpose—and equally indifferent to their integrity. By those vapid standards, Reeve has actually improved on Hitchcock in adding uplift to a nasty movie. Nor does it matter that the results are artistically puerile, since art isn’t relevant to what this version is about; hell, entertainment isn’t relevant to what this version is about. Me, I’m all for Thanksgiving. I just wish my brain wasn’t always getting treated like the turkey.