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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday September 25 2005

I’ve been watching an old movie on DVD that I’ve never seen before, at all, any bits at all, called Two For the Seesaw, a black and white romantic two hander starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine.  And it occurs to me that a definition of a great movie actor is that it never occurs to you that he/she ever seems miscast.

When I see Mitchum I often think, maybe this guy isn’t right for this, and that the real guy he’s doing isn’t like that.  Mitchum even had me thinking, until about a year ago, that the general he played in The Longest Day was completely made up, for the movie.  He seemed too like Robert Mitchum to be real.  But in fact, General “Cota” was a real as it gets.

Shirley MacLaine, on the other hand, always seems totally inside whatever she is doing, and forces you to believe that this is exactly who the character really is, and accordingly that she is perfect for the part and that anyone else would be a let down, because not Shirley MacLaine.

On the other hand, maybe I just fancy her and not him.  And yes, I do realise that her off-screen opinions are sometimes rather odd.

I’ve just been a-googling, and I see that in the original stage production of Two For The Seesaw, Henry Fonda played the Mitchum part.  Now Fonda seems exactly right to me.  The point about this character was that he is as indecisive as the Shirley MacLaine character, and Mitchum does not communicate indecisiveness convincingly.  Fonda, on the other hand, does indecisiveness a treat.  Or maybe a more polite way of putting it would be that Fonda is good at laying out the decision making process in front of you, so that the gutsiness involved in making the final decision is communicated.  Mitchum just knows what to do from the start.

Compare and contrast the performances of Fonda and Mitchum in Midway.  Fonda, as Nimitz, agonises over what to do.  Being Fonda, and being Nimitz, and this being Midway, he gets it right in the end, but it’s quite a carry-on.  Mitchum on the other hand, playing Admiral Halsey, only does one thing.  Halsey is ill, and Nimitz/Fonda (I think) asks him who should deputise for him.  “Ray Spruance”, says Halsey/Mitchum without even the slightest hesitation, with absolutely no gap at all.  Now okay, this may have been the editing, but I think that sums up Mitchum’s screen persona.  He takes his stand, and then compels events to unfold in accordance with it:

Ray Spruance.

And, more famously, in The Longest Day:

I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts.

That’s Mitchum.  Not hithering and thithering on the telephone, endlessly telling and retelling the story, with Shirley MacLaine.

Apparently, and I did not know this (I love the Internet blah blah), what General Cota actually said was:

“Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.”

Which is somewhat different, and rather more interesting, I think.  That “Gentleman” makes me think that the real General Cota was maybe a more complicated person than Robert Mitchum made him seem, and that Mitchum was once again miscast.

Brian,
This is off-subject, I have been trying to mail you but my mails are always returned undelivered. I loved your article on late Menuhin, and as I was Menuhin`s pianist for the last ten years of his playing career, I would love the opportunity to discuss him with you. So wonderful to come across someone who loves how he played at the end of his life.
Hope to hear from you!
Paul Coker

Posted by Paul Coker on 25 September 2005

I agree with you completely on your Mitchum analysis. I’ve never found him convincing in the slightest. On the other hand, many women seem to love the guy, so maybe that explains his ‘star power’.

Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 21 December 2005
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