Posted by Greg Ferrara on September 1, 2013
There are a few classic actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood who came to represent America in the larger sense, and the average American man, in the smaller sense, to the rest of the world. John Wayne was and still is used to represent America to the rest of the world, usually in a way that depicts Americans as shoot from the hip types, blustering about and making their presence known. Gary Cooper, on the other hand, came to represent the “aw shucks” America, homespun and filled with folksy wisdom. And Jimmy Stewart was the upstanding American, folksy too but a fighter, and an honest man who stood by what was right. And then, well, just go down the list: Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Charlton Heston, Spencer Tracy and others also came to represent some type of American or another, with Bogart probably doing the best job at representing the cynical post-war American man. But for my money, no one beats one actor for representing the average American man, kind of naive, filled with hope for the future, who keeps trying to understand the world but never quite gets it. That actor is Joseph Cotten and no one plays “America” better than him.
Sometimes, in my more iconoclastic moments, I think Orson Welles wouldn’t have succeeded as well as he did without Joseph Cotten. Welles did not represent America to the rest of the world, or to anyone in this country, even, and Cotten helped bring him down to earth. Those folks in Peoria could trust this Welles guy if he was friends with that nice man, Joe, from Petersburg, Virginia. Cotten didn’t come off as the Cowboy type, or the Mr. Deeds type, or the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington type either and that’s what made him so quintessentially American. He came off as truly and undeniably average. He stayed in the background, observed the world and tried not to interfere with other people very much. He was educated and intelligent but didn’t flaunt it and would stand up for you but wouldn’t rush into a situation half-cocked. It’s the reason that John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and any other number of actors, could have never made Shadow of a Doubt (playing tonight on TCM) work in the same way. For the character of Uncle Charlie to be menacing, he has to start out absolutely bland. Ever seen Cooper or Stewart try to be bland? That’s because they couldn’t. They always had an energy and excitedness to them. Cotten? He was the guy you wouldn’t notice at the bar if he was on the stool next to you buying you drinks all night.
And that’s no criticism! There have probably been hundreds of actors so bland they never became famous. Cotten wasn’t a bland actor, Cotten played bland, and played it brilliantly. His bland Americans, like Holly Martins in The Third Man, acted as sieves for the other characters to strain their motivations and emotions through. Make Holly Martins excitable like Jimmy Stewart or folksy like Gary Cooper and it would become a distraction. Nope, Holly should be a little on the dull side. Problem is, you don’t want the audience to get bored. That’s where Cotten comes in. You cast him and he makes dullness propel the story along, acting as the average American observer, kind of clueless on anything going on in Europe once victory was declared. But Holly Martins is more than just a clueless observer. Once he does get the information on what’s going on, he makes the moral choice against his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), and for the good of the many. He’s a little slow to catch on to what’s happening but once he sees the bigger picture, he takes charge.
Joseph Cotten famously (infamously?) received not a single nomination for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor his entire career. That means his performances in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man, easily four of the best performances of the forties, were all deemed unworthy of special attention. Other movies of the forties where his bland American-ness works perfectly, like Gaslight or Journey into Fear, also escaped recognition from his peers. The problem for poor old Joe was that what he was really good at, playing average and non-threatening, was exactly the kind of performance that exhibits no outward signs of giving a performance. Like Salieri says to Mozart in Amadeus, there is no big finish to signal the audience to applaud (or nominate for an Oscar).
But think about him in Citizen Kane. Think about Jedediah Leland and how much his trustworthiness works in making Kane become a tragic figure. Bernstein, Thatcher and Susan make Kane very interesting but his actions with them or against them are either business-like (Bernstein), bitter (Thatcher) or emotionally charged (Susan). With Leland, though, he just seems like a jerk. His actions towards Leland are the actions that signal to the audience that he’s lost his soul. Anyone can become hateful towards an older authority figure or a spouse who walks out on you but Leland’s the bland, good guy. He’s the one on your side. The one that wants you to succeed. And he gets cast aside by Kane which makes Kane seem even more like a man bent on self-destruction. It’s Cotten that makes that role work as perfectly as it does.
Or think about him in The Magnificent Ambersons. Again, he’s the nice guy, the guy who doesn’t impose, the guy who doesn’t get excited. He stands by while his heart is crushed and his love is taken away from him rather than make a stink. He goes about his business and like the good American he represents, becomes successful through hard work and lives a happy, if emotionally unsatisfied, life. These are the types of roles actors avoid because they’re considered so boring to perform. Even Walter Huston’s character of Dodworth gets to be passionate at the end and leave his wife for his true love. But not Cotten. And it didn’t scare him as an actor that he wasn’t going to blow anyone’s socks off with his performance because the very fact that no one noticed meant he gave a great performance.
Cotten played good guys (Portrait of Jennie) and bad guys (Niagara) with equal skill and in some of my favorite movies (like those two I just mentioned). He also represented the perfectly average American better than any actor I can think of. He wasn’t overly folksy, he wasn’t brash and ballsy, he wasn’t excitable and he didn’t shoot from the hip. He observed, he worked, he helped, he hurt, he made mistakes, he made amends. He did all of it without being noticed very much and was confident that not being noticed indicated just how good an actor he was. One of the best there was.
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