Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Birthday Take: James Stewart in "Harvey" (1950)

James Stewart in Harvey
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: James Stewart
Born: May 17, 1908
Died: July 2, 1997 (89 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Harvey (nominated) as Elwood P. Dowd

The Take

James Stewart was an actor who made a name for himself as the likable every man. Whether it was in The Philadelphia Story or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he presented a sense of optimism towards the American public that was unlike anything else. It could be just that his appearance was enough. However, he was something very special to early American cinema and it made sense why he was Frank Capra's protege in a lot of respects in building Americana imagery. While there were more attractive and nuanced actors, Stewart was capable of making any love story feel more heartwarming than it was. His enthusiasm radiated off of the screen. He was something that many have imitated, but few can be called as magnetic.

Then World War II happened. Along with the changing ideals in Hollywood, Stewart wasn't the same after that. There was It's a Wonderful Life, which was mistaken as optimistic. It was his cue to point out a desperation that many felt following the war. The underdog was no longer a figure of triumph. Suddenly Stewart turned to roles where problematic was the main theme. In the case of 1950's Harvey, he combined his old persona with a dark reality to make one of his best films that featured an invisible six foot rabbit and constant discussion on if his character was crazy.

To witness Harvey is to see something rather bizarre. Instead of Stewart playing the defeated underdog, the world does it for him. He returns to his optimistic ways in order to emphasize that the titular Harvey was actually his best friend. It played with the idea of "seeing is believing" in a way that allowed for the story to take on new connotations. As Stewart bought into his realty, everyone was forced to bumble around. It raised questions not only about Stewart's fictional alcoholism and sanity, but how we choose to live our lives. The film is exceptionally shot to imply that Harvey is always present without giving in to showing that he's there. The film as a whole is more comical than its dark undertones would suggest, giving it a nice blend of both.

Stewart's work from there would continue to be more challenging. While many would prefer his older work, it is interesting to see him as an older man facing consistent conflicts. Whether it be with Alfred Hitchcock with Rear Window and Vertigo or even The Shootist, he manages to bring a weathered feel to his role. Not bad for someone who could easily be typecasted in his younger years as the optimistic go getter. He had gotten everything in life, so it makes sense why he chose to evolve over time as opposed to playing the same role. Even then Harvey was proof that he could do the old shtick while keeping it interesting. He was an actor who cared about his work and even if World War II somehow changed him, he still cared enough to adapt his roles to that.

Maybe Harvey isn't the highest regarded film in his filmography. However, it is one that definitely feels resonant of the actors' progression in life. Even if Harvey wasn't a real character, it was an interesting way to be divisive. It was an exploration of mental stability and belief in ways that are done with more seriousness nowadays. At the time, it was an astounding mixture of ideas culminating in one of the oddest and most enjoyable films of its kind. Maybe Stewart has gone on to do more memorable work. However, he hasn't made anything as peculiar since as Harvey.

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