Crossing the Line
A Tough Act to Follow
The Legacy of Robert Mitchum
Published in MovieMaker magazine, October 1997
"Death of a tough guy" proclaimed People magazine when Robert Mitchum died in his sleep on July 1 at the age of 79. No longer was it news, of course, to point out that Mitchum was also a first-rate actor, but it's as a tough-guy the gruff military commander of The Longest Day or the sadistic ex-con of Cape Fear that he'll be remembered.
While fellow tough guys Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made A-list films and received multiple Oscar nominations, Mitchum was always overlooked. Both Douglas and Lancaster were high-energy performers and scenery chewers. They were actors, man, while this Mitchum just stood here, said his lines, and, to paraphrase David Lean, made the other actors look like a hole in the screen. Was that acting? The genius in his kind of naturalness took decades to recognize. Mitchum, it seemed, couldn't care less. He went to great lengths to lead others to think he was lazy, that he hadn't learned his lines, that this thespian stuff didn't matter much at all just what you'd expect from a tough guy. Yet, there he'd be, stealing scenes from the likes of Cary Grant, or forcing other actors like Douglas or Robert Ryan into a competition to underplay one another.
Mitchum was a forerunner to a compelling new breed of actor who came of age in the '70s. DeNiro, Pacino, and Hoffman who considered themselves character actors, not leading men. In his best films, like Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear Mitchum is the villain. Only in noirs like Out of the Past did his decidedly anti-heroic nature work for, rather than against, him as a leading man. He was almost at a total loss in fluffy romantic comedies like She Couldn't Say No. He was equally lost in a glossy soaper like Not as a Stranger. Mitchum as a high-minded medical student burning with ambition? What were they thinking? Mitchum was at his best in the rough-and-tumble world of genre, or B-pictures the noirs, westerns, and war films.
Of course, Mitchum was the farthest thing from a Method actor. He used to say that learning how to act was like going to school to be tall. What came as naturally to Mitchum as acting was living life on the edge. His penchant for drinking, brawling, womanizing, and generally being more than any one wife, director or drunken challenger could handle is a legacy embraced by a generation of would-be Hollywood toughs. But authenticity is always a tough act to follow.
Hollywood usually didn't know what to do with him, so they hoped for the best and just put him out there, rough edges and all. He was Gary Cooper without the patriotic nobility. John Wayne without the right-wing sentiment. Bogart without the neuroses, or Spencer Tracy with sex appeal. He was also a walking definition of cool long before James Dean or Marlon Brando arrived on the scene.
He got his start in Hopalong Cassidy westerns, and then began filling out the ranks in a series of military pictures with rousing titles We've Never Been Licked, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and Gung Ho! He was broad-shouldered, deep-voiced, and could fire a gun, throw a punch, or kiss a girl with equal authority. His breakthrough role was William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe, which landed him his only Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actor.
After his succsss in The Story of G.I. Joe, Mitchum became RKO's most bankable leading actor. The studio's owner, Howard Hughes, liked having him around, and the feeling was mutual. RKO was the closest thing to an independent in those days, and RKO stars didn't have to go through the ruthless makeoers which were de rigeur at MGM and Paramount. When Mitchum was arrested for marijuana possession in 1948, the studio stood by him. It hadn't hurt that they had three of his pictures finished and ready to distribute, and wanted to capitalize on his new notoriety. It worked. Mitchum was bigger than ever, and was enjoying the bad boy reputation that grew with the years.
If anyone deserves cult status today, it's Mitchum. In the 1970s, Roger Ebert posited that Mitchum might finally come into his own, might become "the Bogart of 1990." It's almost the year 2,000, and the Mitchum cult, while growing, is still only a fraction of Bogart's.
Mitchum was the perpetual Hollywood outsider. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him, or at the very least, beat him. Like another outsider, Orson Welles, Mitchum's outsize talent remained largely untapped. We're left with the legend, the outrageous stories, the 120-plus films, and the knowledge that Hollywood let another wild one get away. When Orson Welles died, many young moviegoers knew him only as the Paul Masson spokesman. If you know Mitchum only from The Winds of War, or as the voice of commercials, do yourself a favor and see Out of the Past and Night of the Hunter. You'll understand what being a tough guy, and a natural born actor, is all about. Sharon Knolle