Good Example Of Essay On James Stewart: The Everyman Movie Star
James Stewart was one of the most highly acclaimed and celebrated film actors of his time, a five-time Academy-Award nominee (winning once) and American cultural icon (Thomas, 1997). A great deal of his appeal came from his ability to play everymen, to elevate the ‘average joe’ character type into a compelling, appealing presence. In opposition to the Clark Gables and Spencer Tracys of his day, Stewart was not a handsome marquee face, with his thin frame and warbling, fatherly voice; despite this, the power and gravitas of his presence allowed Stewart to make the everyday struggles of the regular American man resonate with audiences. In the films It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), James Stewart made himself a movie star by representing the everyday man navigating fantastic circumstances, demonstrating that you did not have to be a marquee face to represent the triumph and tragedy of the human spirit.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Perhaps the clearest (and most optimistic) example of James Stewart’s representation of the everyday man on screen is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Here, Stewart plays George Bailey, a selfless man who contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve until his guardian angel intervenes, taking him on a whirlwind tour of a world without his influence. The character of George Bailey himself is a perfect match for Stewart – a meek, middle-class father with a full family and an established life. Stewart’s warm, inviting presence is the ideal representation of the everyman, who simply tries to be a good person even when he is not rewarded for it. Stewart holds his shoulders in a slump, and carries himself with his big, baleful eyes and aw-shucks demeanor, lending himself an air of sympathy and vulnerability that fully captures the trials and tribulations of the American middle-class father.
This vulnerability and deeply wounded nature carries Stewart through in the darkest points of the film, when he stands atop that bridge contemplating suicide. The stark, Expressionistic architecture surrounds him in these shots, as if the big, dark city is oppressing the middle-class American worker; Stewart’s screaming, desperate performance in these scenes helps the audience put themselves in his shoes and, while they may not want him to, completely understand why he might end his own miserable life. Along with the audience, Bailey/Stewart is guided by Clarence through the secret brilliance of his everyday life, and the lives he has touched, Stewart absorbing every detail with his open face and large, receptive eyes.
In the final scene, when George runs screaming through town wishing everyone a merry Christmas, Capra’s direction further emphasizes Stewart’s catharsis so that the average American moviegoer (who identifies with him) can share in it. Capra’s tracking shots through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls follow Stewart as the central figure in the town’s life, everyone greeting his salutations heartily as he passes by – this visually represents the deep influence he has had in the town throughout his ‘wonderful’ life, as many of the townspeople’s good fortunes center around him. Stewart’s performance helps to properly convey Capra’s message throughout the film that the middle-class American man has value even though he is not a handsome movie star; in telling George “Remember: no man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence (and Capra) remind the audience of their own unique and wonderful lives as well.
Stewart’s relatability and middle-class naturalism also provided audiences with a relatable and distinctly affecting experience in several of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers, including Rear Window. In this film, Stewart plays L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a photographer who is confined to a wheelchair until his broken leg heals, but who finds himself involved in a potential murder mystery just behind his rear window. Right from the start, Stewart’s already vulnerable persona is amplified with the presence of the wheelchair and cast; these two attributes to Stewart’s character combine to instill in the audience an even greater feeling of empathy for Jeff. Jeff is uniquely helpless in a way that many of James Stewarts’ characters are, with Stewart mining pathos and tension out of his own helplessness in the situation.
The use of Stewart in this particular role is extremely fitting, as Jeff’s voyeuristic tendencies and his strangely unwanted pursuit by Grace Kelly offers the American middle-class audience a surrogate with which to identify. Like Stewart, moviegoers must watch more exciting things unfold through a kind of window (the movie screen), but left helpless to control the events that unfold. In the scene in which Grace Kelly sneaks into Lars Thorwald’s apartment for him, Stewart most closely resembles the horror movie audience, unable to do anything but to watch from a god’s eye view of the action. Stewart’s strangled whisper of “get out of there” when he detects trouble mirrors our own experiences in tense thriller scenes, placing us even further in his shoes – we feel his tension as well.
The insertion of Grace Kelly as an amorous partner for Stewart also helps to uplift the American moviegoer to the kind of person a sex symbol such as Kelly might desire - if Stewart can be so hotly chased, so can the regular person sitting in the theater. The movie makes little effort to make Stewart particularly handsome or assertive – he spends the vast majority of the movie in his wheelchair and pajamas, lending a pathetic element to him that is accentuated by Stewart’s own helpless flailing and calling for help at frequent moments throughout the film. Between his dressed-down, disabled nature and his placement as the horror movie audience surrogate, Stewart in Rear Window offers a powerful echo of the movie-watching experience.
In a very similar vein to Rear Window, Vertigo sees Stewart playing yet another vulnerable gumshoe – this time, a retired cop-turned-PI named Scottie Thompson who is tasked to follow a friend’s wife after being diagnosed with vertigo. While he is not as limited to sheer voyeurism as in Rear Window, Scottie is similarly obsessive, tailing Madeleine in the early scenes with the same POV shots and match cuts of Stewart’s concerned face as in their previous film together. Stewart plays Scottie with a much darker psychological edge, as he is tormented by presentational dream sequences (courtesy of Saul Bass) and the mysterious reappearance of the dead Madeleine as a new woman, Judy. His attempts to date Judy and get her to dress and act like Madeleine offer Stewart at his most antagonistic and obsessive, testing the audience’s prior sympathies with him and challenging their own perceptions of whether or not Scottie is justified in his investigation.
Since Scottie’s disability (his vertigo) is not as visually clear in Stewart’s performance as Jeff’s cast, Hitchcock makes further use of POV shots and innovative camera techniques to sell Scottie’s condition. In pivotal moments, when Scottie looks down and is dizzied by heights, Hitchcock cuts to POV shots of Scottie’s viewpoint of the view down below; a rack focus makes the world seem to stretch and push away from and toward Scottie at the same time, placing the audience even further in Scottie’s (and Stewart’s) perspective. These simple techniques help to establish Scottie’s terror and, combined with Stewart’s performance, shows a much more challenging version of the James Stewart persona than had been previously offered on screen.
Anatomy of a Murder
In Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Stewart turned away from his role as Hitchcock’s go-to man for deeply troubled, flawed thriller protagonists to play a relaxed small-town lawyer faced with the task of defending a US Army Lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who is charged for murdering an innkeeper who allegedly raped his wife. Combining attributes of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart is at his most laidback here, as if the tension plagued by his earlier film career has earned him a welcome respite from suicide attempts, murders and psychological torment.
Taking a rest from the tormented characters of Hitchcock’s thrillers, Stewart’s Paul Biegler is a gregarious, open-faced and charming presence, his appeal coming from the sly, almost effortless way he manages to work with his witnesses, fellow attorneys and his defendant. In an almost metafictional move, Preminger features a scene in which Biegler has a great time playing jazz piano with Duke Ellington (who also performed the score for the film). This brief moment of immersion-breaking fun helps to lighten the tone of the film and offer yet another fantasy wish-fulfillment moment for the audience; just as audiences were shown they could get Grace Kelly in Rear Window, they also get a vicarious night on the town playing jazz with Duke Ellington. Stewart’s chief appeal was in granting agency to the regular American joe on screen, and these moments helped to cement the dreams he made true for his audiences.
Between these four films (and a lifetime of other acclaimed roles), James Stewart cemented himself as one of the most respected everymen on the American screen. Stewart’s presence was decidedly different than the lantern-jawed marquee heroes of his day, as his charisma lied in an open-faced vulnerability that often hid a darker shade of resentment. His characters were never perfect; George Bailey resented his own good status in the town, Jeff in Rear Window is a probing obsessive, Scottie in Vertigo is a controlling egotist and Anatomy of a Murder’s Paul Biegler is often too lackadaisical for his own good (as his practice is frequently floundering). Despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, American audiences deeply identified with Stewart’s passionate, naturalistic portrayals, as he allowed his audiences to enter his own characters and identify with them. Stewart’s roles represented the normal, everyday American, who did what they could to weather the storm of economic uncertainty, loss, personal frustration, and even disability. By offering these vulnerabilities honestly and with a natural charm, James Stewart established himself as possibly the most truthful, relatable American film star of the mid-20th century.
Capra, Frank (dir.). It’s a Wonderful Life. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed. RKO Radio
Hitchcock, Alfred (dir.). Rear Window. Perf. James Stewart, Kim Grace Kelly. Paramount
Hitchcock, Alfred (dir.). Vertigo. Perf. James Stewart, Kim Novak. Universal Pictures, 1958.
Preminger, Otto (dir.). Anatomy of a Murder Perf. James Stewart, Ben Gazzara. Columbia
Manlove, C. T. “Visual ‘Drive’ and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan,
Hitchcock, and Mulvey.” Cinema Journal 46(3) (2007): 83-108.
Metz, C. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Indiana University
Thomas, Tony. A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart. Citadel Press, 1997.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Figure 1. The light (and dark) sides of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.
Figure 2. Love, voyeurism and fear in the face of James Stewart in Rear Window.
Figure 3. The darker side of Stewart's Hitchcock work in Vertigo - a man facing psychosis, obsession and fear.
Anatomy of a Murder
Figure 4. Stewart as laidback small-town lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, palling around with defendants, judges and Duke Ellington.
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