Sunday, July 20, 2014

RIP JAMES GARNER, A ONE-OF-A-KIND MAVERICK

Original caricature of James Garner by Jeff York (copyright 2014).
A friend asked me in college once if I’d ever been in a physical fight. I had numerous tussles with my brother, of course, but my friend pressed me further. When I realized I had never lifted a finger or fist to anyone, I answered him, “No, I have not. I’ve always avoided fighting by taking Jim Garner’s way out.”

The characters that the marvelous actor James Garner played were always great talkers. And their silver tongues were always able to talk the way out of a fight. I thought that was a pretty good way to approach such conflicts, especially since I wore glasses. And it wasn’t the only thing I’d learned from Garner, who passed away yesterday, July 19th. I learned a pretty darn good idea of what a man should be.

And James Garner was indeed a one-of-a-kind leading man. He was not only a good talker, but he projected morals, smarts, and savvy about the world around him. He looked good in jeans, and a suit, and especially in a plaid blazer. He charmed women by actually talking to them. No strong, silent bullshit from Garner, no, this man knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to say it. To a lady. To anybody.

That was especially novel at a time, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when most leading men coming out of the Actors Studio were mumbling introverts who bottled up their feelings. Or they were working class blokes, raging through England, drinking hard and raising hell. Garner chose a path counter to those trends. He was tall and brawny without having to brawl. He was clever and verbally dexterous and could articulate how he felt. And he was a gentleman, respectful of women and more often than not, the kind of man who treated them as equals. What man wouldn’t want to be like that?


I think it’s interesting that in most of his roles, whether on the big or small screen, from THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) to THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974-1980), he played heroes who proved their mettle while rarely having to press the metal to the floor or raise a firearm. Thus, Garner was a maverick really, in more than just the name of his most famous character. He was a man who made better choices, more civilized ones, a man who was strong enough to be humble, courageous enough to hold his fists at his side.

And at a time when westerns like WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and GUNSMOKE were reigning on TV, Garner established his prevailing screen persona as Bret Maverick in the series MAVERICK (1957-1962), a man of the west who loathed conflict, despised violence, and tried to get his way through dialogue. It is interesting how little gunplay there was on the show. It was a thinking man’s western really, and Garner was the perfect brain to lead it. 
James Garner as the title character in MAVERICK (1957)
Garner could’ve been another Clint Eastwood or James Arness or Steve McQueen. He was tall, built, and rugged looking with a square jaw, dark hair and an all-American machismo. But when he opened up his mouth, that twangy drawl of his came out and it exemplified brains, not brawn. He was the new American male, no matter what the period was that he was playing in. And he knew how to be old school masculine along with new age sensitive.

And no matter what role he played, he made audiences relate to his characters. He didn’t want to fight. Who did? He could romance Julie Andrews and pal around with Steve McQueen. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And he suggested decency even if he was playing con artists. Even in something like THE SKIN GAME (1971), he may have been using Lou Gossett as a fake slave to bilk people out of their money, but when push came to shove, it was Garner's character who took the whipping in place of his charge. Garner may have played slippery here and there, but he was almost always the most moral and grounded person in the room.
James Garner in THE ROCKFORD FILES (1978)
And he turned other clichés on their head too. When he played Jim Rockford in the groundbreaking TV series THE ROCKFORD FILES, he turned the private dick role into something wholly modern as well. Rockford wasn’t a great cop, or hot with the ladies. He was as far away from James Bond or Perry Mason or Sam Spade as a law enforcer could be. Rockford struggled to make ends meet. He lived in a trailer, with his aging dad. And when a bad guy punched him, it hurt. And it hurt for days. Garner showed how dangerous the procedural job was, at a time when law enforcement on TV was presented as unimpeachable. THE ROCKFORD FILES was another maverick show, and was a huge hit. And again, it proved that Garner had a way of making an audience relate to the modernity of the American male.

Garner made it all cool. Heck, he even made hawking Polaroid cameras into 30-second works of art. His rapport with Mariette Hartley in dozens of commercials made for one of the best campaigns in the history of advertising. Hartley credits Garner with establishing her career. And she said he always made sure that she had the better lines, and was showcased as being just as strong, pithy and delightful as her more famous costar. Garner talked the talk, and walked the walk.
James Garner with Julie Andrews in VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982)
My personal favorite of all of Garner’s efforts was when he was asked to combine his modern male persona with the clichés of Hollywood macho for Blake Edwards’ musical masterpiece VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982). As King Marchand, the knowing and wily gangster from Chicago, he falls hard for Victoria (Julie Andrews) the seductive songstress in a Parisian cabaret. When Victoria ‘reveals’ herself to be a man, it throws King because a guy like him isn’t supposed to fall for a guy.

As the man who would be King, Garner is really the heart of the show as it is his character that has the largest character arc. He goes from a man who knows exactly who he is to a man who isn’t certain who he’s in love with, or the kind of man he himself could be. As King accepts that his crush could be a man, he softens. And as he dates Victoria, established as a woman, but still determined to keep up the ruse in public, Garner was comically brilliant as a man struggling to fit into society’s version of a couple.

If you’ve never seen it, it could not be any timelier, with the whole issue of gay marriage and rights. Garner’s character loses all he has for the woman he loves even if the world thinks he’s in love with a man. Tell me, how many actors other than Garner could make such a character warm, likable, funny and heartbreaking? I can’t think of one who could equal him.
James Garner with Gena Rowlands in THE NOTEBOOK (2004)
His list of wonderful credits of men dealing with their mortality and vulnerability are too long to list here but suffice it to say TV movies like MY NAME IS BILL W (1989), HEARTSOUNDS (1984) and BARBARIANS AT THE GATE (1993), as well as big screen vehicles like THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964), MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), and THE NOTEBOOK (2004) showcased Garner’s complex take on what it means to be a man, time and time again.

I still haven’t been in a fistfight. I still wear glasses and they’ve never been broken. And I walk and talk with the help of James Garner. He died yesterday at 86, and he left a fascinating legacy that will be talked about forever. And that’s saying something, especially for a silver-tongued guy like Jim.
James Garner with his Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2005.

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