By Cynthia Potts
Everybody knows the song. Once Fred Astaire
starts singing “Putting on the Ritz, people will chime in, claiming that they
too want to ‘look like Gary Cooper’. Implicit in that statement is an almost
universal desire to possess Cooper’s quiet style and elegance.
Back when Cooper’s career began, though, in the mid 1920’s, this
quiet, understated style was almost his undoing. Directors, used to more
flamboyant acting of silent film stars, were not comfortable with the seemingly
bland performances they were seeing on the set. But when the film hit the big
screen, it was easy to see the magic.
Director Sam Wood: “You’re positive he’s going to ruin your
picture. I thought there was something wrong with him and I saw a
million-dollar production go glimmering... Then I was amazed at the results on
the screen. What I thought was underplaying turned out to be just the right
approach. On the screen, he’s perfect, yet on the set, you’d swear it’s the
worst job of acting in the history of motion pictures!”
This contrast was to stay with Cooper through the early days of his career
– where he’d play generic cowboy or Indian roles, whatever he could get – to the
point where Gary was powerful enough to turn down the role of Rhett Butler in
“Gone with the Wind”.
Declining that role didn’t detract from his considerable filmography.
Cooper’s works span five decades and contain more than one hundred pictures. Among these are his famous roles in The Virginian (1929), Beau Geste (1939), and
High Noon (1952). Not as well know, but certainly important, are the dozens of
westerns Cooper made. It was in these films that he learned how to truly
inhabit his characters, perfecting his art to the point where it didn’t seem
like he was acting at all. Not only did moviegoers enjoy his work, but Gary’s
contemporaries were watching closely. Watching, and approving.
Cooper’s performance in High Noon won him the Best Actor Academy
Award. This was the second time he’d won, previously capturing the prize for Sergeant
York (1941). Performances in three other films earned him nominations, all in
the Best Actor category.
As time went on, and audiences became more sophisticated, other
actors began to emulate Cooper’s style. It simply worked better for talking
pictures. Previously acceptable silent film performances now seemed histrionic
Somehow, though, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. As Charles Laughton once moaned, “We act, he is.” It seemed as if Gary was playing himself
on screen – which he did on a few occasions! Even Cooper himself couldn’t
explain it, saying only, “Looking like I’m acting and acting are two different
It was more
than Cooper’s acting style that set him apart from the rest of Hollywood.
He was, according to all accounts, one of the nicest people in the business.
“You could talk to him for ten minutes, and you felt like he’d been your friend
your entire life,” a
said. Loyal to a
Cooper couldn’t tolerate phony people and would quickly distance himself from
those that he felt to be insincere. Gary enjoyed his friends, but he also
liked his time alone – time he used to hunt.
Cooper was such an avid outdoorsman. Once he had developed a little
clout, he insisted that a “hunting time” clause be built into his contracts.
If it were possible, he wouldn’t work at all during hunting season, preferring
to spend the time in the woods.
At a time when most Hollywood stars kept their friendships carefully
within a closely guarded circle of movie professionals, Cooper talked with
everybody. His well-publicized friendships include Picasso, Irwin Shaw, John
O’Hara, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and perhaps most famously, the writer,
This friendship was undoubtedly strengthened by Cooper’s
performances in films influenced by Hemingway’s works. These include A Farewell
to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Love in the Afternoon. Not many people
could get close to the eccentric author, but Cooper was one of the select.
fact, the twenty-year friendship between these two powerful men was so legendary
that it is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “Cooper and Hemingway, the
True Gen”. Written and directed by John Mulholland, the film is scheduled for
release in February of 2003. To coordinate with the film’s release, the Ritz
Hotel in Paris will be dedicating a ‘Love in the Afternoon’ room on February 6th.
Gary Cooper changed American film in a
fundamental way. By introducing the art of restrained performance to dozens of
directors, he influenced the tone of their subsequent films. Actors seeking to
emulate his style developed subtlety and skills that brought a new level of
emotional depth to their work. And this all began with a man who played ‘a
cowboy before lunch and an Injun in the afternoon’!
Cynthia Potts is a freelance writer living in Upstate NY. Her interest in
collectibles started with Depression Glass, although she quickly moved onto less
breakable treasures. You can reach her at
Other Gary Cooper Pages:
A Tribute To Gary
Cooper The former silent movie extra and Western star was once the
highest-paid person in America. So popular was he that when the studio wanted a
new name for a fellow named Archie Leach, they just reversed Gary Cooper's
initials and came up with "Cary Grant."
See Gary Cooper on the IMDB