The Good, the Bad and the Badass: James Garner
Last week, we took a look at the career of veteran character actor Morgan Freeman. This week, we turn our attention to another universally beloved actor, who sadly passed away just a few days ago…
It’s always sad when we use this column to pay tribute to someone who recently passed away, but considering that James Garner made it to the ripe old age of eighty-six, and left behind a tremendous body of work, this article is more of a celebration of his career than an obituary. James Garner meant different things to different generations. My father’s generation grew up with him on MAVERICK and his sixties movies like THE GREAT ESCAPE & GRAND PRIX, while younger generations knew him best as Jim Rockford from THE ROCKFORD FILES. Even though that show ended two years before I was born, I vividly remember watching it in reruns all through my childhood, and by the time he made a late-career comeback in the nineties with the big-screen MAVERICK remake, MY FELLOW AMERICANS, and later THE NOTEBOOK, we were all aware of his stature and had nothing but respect for the man.
What’s interesting about Garner is that he was one of the first TV stars to make the leap from small-screen to big-screen stardom, paving the way for his contemporary Steve McQueen, and later stars like George Clooney. MAVERICK was always an unconventional hero, in that he used his wits rather than his gun to defeat bad guys. This carried over to the big screen as well, with many of his signature roles trading on his silver-tongued “flim-flam” skills, such as his iconic role as “The Scrounger” in THE GREAT ESCAPE. Garner was also something of a badass in real life, and well-known for his stunt driving ability, doing much of his own racing in the John Frankenheimer F1 epic GRAND PRIX. One of THE ROCKFORD FILES’ signatures was how Rockford’s car (a gold Pontiac Firebird) would be virtually wrecked each week during a chase, than magically reappear the next week without a scratch on it.
In a career lasting more than fifty years, Garner did it all, from drama, to wacky comedy, romance, adventure and more. Truly he was a man of many talents, and the fact that his career continued until he was well into his eighties proves just how beloved this unpretentious man really was.
While I’m tempted to choose THE GREAT ESCAPE because it’s one of my all-time favorites, or GRAND PRIX, even Garner himself would say he was never better than in the Paddy Chayefsky-written THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. A satire set in WW2, Garner plays a cynical military bureaucrat who inadvertently winds up on the front lines during the D-Day invasion. His chemistry with co-star Julie Andrews (with whom he would reunite in the delightful VICTOR/VICTORIA) was electric, but it’s the way he spouts off Chayefsky’s cynical dialogue that makes his performance so indelible. In a short that frequently airs on TCM, Clint Eastwood talked about taking in a screening of EMILY while shooting A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in Spain, mentioning that after the following bitterly cynical monologue all the Americans in the theater started cheering.
If you haven’t seen this one yet, give it a shot.
A lot of you will hate me for saying this but THE NOTEBOOK is ridiculously overrated. It’s fine. Gosling and McAdams are great, as are Garner and Gena Rowlands, but the movie is such a gooey, saccharine mess that I was actually embarrassed when people in my theater started bawling. That said, clearly it struck a chord with audiences, but it bugs me when obituaries for Garner came out describing him as “the old guy from THE NOTEBOOK.” That said, Garner himself loved it, so what do I know?
36 HOURS is a little-known WW2 thriller from 1965 that has a premise that sounds like it was lifted out of THE OUTER LIMITS. Garner plays an intelligence officer kidnapped by the Nazis days before the Allied D-Day invasion. A commandant (Rod Taylor) tries to pump him for information by convincing him that he's been in a coma for ten years, and that the war has long since ended. To do this he has Garner's hair thinned and dyed, uses drugs to make him less vigorous, and blackmails a concentration-camp prisoner (Eva Marie Saint) to pose as his wife. The result is an ingenious spy thriller that's an unheralded classic of the era.
I'm cheating here, but what/s more memorable than the classic opening credits to THE ROCKFORD FILES? This show was such a staple of my childhood, and to this day whenever I think of Garner I flashback to the opening credits and Mike Post's jazzy opening theme.
5. HOUR OF THE GUN
3. GRAND PRIX
2. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY
1. THE GREAT ESCAPE
Sadly, during his last few years Garner suffered from various maladies that kept him out of the limelight (although he did complete his memoirs). That said, the fact that he lived to be eighty-six means he had one heck of a life, and he leaves behind a terrific body of work.
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