Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper won three Academy Awards : one for Sergeant York; one for High Noon; and an honorary lifetime achievement award.  According to Wikipedia, the real-life Sergeant York, who single handedly killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 in one incident  in World War I's Meuse-Argonne offensive, refused to allow the film to be made unless Cooper portrayed him. Cooper also won Academy Award nominations for For Whom the Bell Tolls; Pride of the Yankees; and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. His IMDB filmography includes 115 titles.

When discusing Cooper's starring role in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead I was somewhat surprised that none of my students had heard of him.  Perhaps this is symptomatic of a general lack of historical knowledge, but some of Cooper's films are still watched.  Students have little cultural awareness in any area, including film.

Recently, I have been watching Cooper's films, starting with Howard Hawks's Sergeant York and William A. Wellman's Beau Geste.  Both are excellent and neither could be made today.  Sergeant York is about a man who finds religious faith and then reconciles a conflict between his belief in the Bible, which leads him to want to become a conscientious objector, and his loyalty to the United States.  His rural upbringing gives him competencies, including shooting, that urban Americans had lost.  

Beau Geste is about English brothers who enlist in the French Foreign Legion (note that Hollywood hasn't made Foreign Legion movies since the Vietnam War) and about one's noble gesture. Today's Hollywood, with its ridiculous political correctness and left wing ideology is incapable of making movies at these two films' moral level.

I find Cooper's performances in the 1939 Beau Geste and 1941 Sergeant York  to be stronger than his later performances.  Like De Niro, whose best work was in his earliest movies like Taxi Driver, Cooper's testosterone was stronger when he was slightly younger.  I think audiences continued to remember the younger Cooper into the 1950s. To appreciate him you need to watch his films made from the late 1920s through early 1940s.

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