Jimmy Stewart’s death spelled more than the end of a wonderful acting life. It also marked the waning moments of a movie era when fans felt a more personal connection to their screen idols.
“Mr. Stewart was the father I never had, the brother I never had and the lover I never had,” 33-year-old Lauren Holland said at Stewart’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Those perceptions could have been as much a creation of yesterday’s star-making machinery as they were a consequence of Stewart’s professional and public lives. But people bought into it: The audience craved heroes, and saw the nation and Hollywood through rosier glasses.
Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas came to prominence in pre- and postwar America, a comparatively optimistic time when people craved - and found - real-life idols.
Douglas and Peck are living, but most of the biggest stars of that era have long since died: Wayne, Cooper, Fonda, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Spencer Tracy, Betty Grable, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. (Also among that period’s stars who are still living: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.)
A generation of young women imagined Peck’s Atticus Finch (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) as the ideal father. Stewart was recognized for his gentle spirit. “Why, you’re the Golden Girl, Tracy - full of life and warmth and delight,” he told his sweetheart in “The Philadelphia Story.”
The Hollywood-audience relationship was radically different then. Moviegoers believed they had something in common with these actors.
“You could be cynical back then, too, but it wasn’t the pervasive tone of the culture,” said Peter Rainer, film critic of New Times and chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. “Now people are looking for ways to puncture balloons.”
Of course, there are exceptions to the notion that stars like Stewart are gone forever.
Take Harrison Ford.
He typically plays strong, stalwart, even suave types - the Philly cop among the Amish in “Witness,” Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy techno-thrillers, the businessman in “Working Girl.”
And in the upcoming “Air Force One” he plays the president of the United States - one who’s a faithful husband, a devoted father and world leader committed to doing the right thing no matter what’s politically expedient or popular.
Still, some of today’s biggest stars are best-known for wild special-effects movies like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”
“Today’s stars are stars of action movies. Yesterday’s stars were stars of movies about American life,” Steve Ross, a professor of American history and popular culture at the University of Southern California, said Thursday.
“Stewart’s role was the populist hero,” Ross said. “No one wants to live like an action hero. But Stewart was an ordinary guy who took the next step - a step in our best moments we could see ourselves taking.”
Mitchum, who died Tuesday at 79, and Stewart, who died Wednesday at 89, were by no means cut from the same cloth.
Mitchum played the hard-living tough guy, with gritty film noir roles in “Cape Fear,” “Thunder Road,” “Where Danger Lives” and “The Racket.” Stewart was the affable, almost familiar character.
“He’s a throwback to an old era,” Scott Lapham, one of Stewart’s many fans, said at the actor’s sidewalk star Wednesday night. “He was someone the common man could relate to. He wasn’t stuffy.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Beau “He never came to me when I would call “Unless I had a tennis ball, “Or he felt like it. “But mostly he didn’t come at all.” “He would charge up the street with Mom hanging on. “What a beautiful pair they were! “And if it was still light and the tourists were out, “They created a bit of a stir.” “And now he’s dead. “And there are nights when I think I feel him “Climb upon our bed and lie between us, “And I pat his head. “And there are nights when I think “I feel that stare “And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair. “But he’s not there. “Oh, how I wish that wasn’t so. “I’ll always love a dog named Beau.” Excerpts from Jimmy Stewart’s poem “Beau,”recited during a 1981 appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson
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