The American Actor

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

28 Responses The American Actor
Posted By jennifromrollamo : September 1, 2013 10:17 am

Agreeing with your assessment of Cotton. I think that’s what makes Shadow of a Doubt so chilling is that you have the actor of bland, playing a truly evil, sociopath, which is revealed slowly yet in a suspenseful way, through the course of that film. I do wish his character had fought harder for his love in Magnificent Ambersons and won her, but, oh well, it’s still a good fim with interesting performances.

Posted By LD : September 1, 2013 10:57 am

One thing that was very distinctive about Joseph Cotton was his voice. Highly recognizable.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : September 1, 2013 11:14 am

Wonderful tribute to Cotten and his special aura onscreen. His character in ‘Niagara’ is like Uncle Charlie; you need his blandness as a way to shock you with what’s really seething in this guy’s emotional interior (and the irony is that the other characters think he’s died halfway through the film). And Cotten is a great counterpoint to Welles in The Third Man; you need Cotten’s innate decency to stand up to Welles’ overpowering charisma and cynicism.

Posted By andrew : September 1, 2013 11:56 am

If he was born later in life he probably would have gotten the Tom Cruise part in Rain Man. Always saw Robert Duvall as his successor. They are sort of the offensive lineman of the movie world. It may be hard to always pinpoint their contributions, but look waht happens without them. (Godfather 3 anyone?)

Posted By guillerprofe74 : September 1, 2013 1:26 pm

Wonderful tribute to actors . Goods movies in the 50s -80s

Posted By Doug : September 1, 2013 5:47 pm

Greg, one more fine post where I find myself nodding in agreement as I read. “The Third Man” works perfectly because Holly Martins is the center of the film. Cotten was the antithesis of the overacting “Look at me! I’m so talented!” actors. But enough about Jerry Lewis.

Posted By Mike : September 1, 2013 7:37 pm

Excellent tribute to one of my favorite actors. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” when Cotten’s Uncle Charlie looks into the camera and asks, “Are they (human beings)?,” it’s one of the most chilling moments in cinema.

Posted By Gene : September 1, 2013 9:53 pm

Joseph Cotten simply made acting look effortless, and he indeed moved from the good guy to the bad guy with ease. I’ve posted this several times recently but, again, it just makes me think that there aren’t actors of his kind on the big screen these days. Of course, the movies are different and times are different but actors of his (and others of his generation) caliber just don’t seem to exist. Thanks for another great post!

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : September 2, 2013 7:54 am

Love this. I agree that Cotten was a superior actor, and that no other person you’ve named would have equaled him in those famous roles. I don’t know if he took acting all that seriously and if that was the reason for his ease. Another role I love him in is “The Man with Cloak.”

Great post.

Posted By chris : September 2, 2013 6:17 pm

Another film where his appearance was brief but spoke volumes was “Soylant Green”. Playing the man who knows the awful secret, knows that it must be kept and knows that his death is necessary to keep it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such tragic pragmatism before.

Posted By Harvey Chartrand : September 3, 2013 7:45 am

Joe Cotten was great as the embittered coroner in TOUCH OF EVIL, the paralyzed businessman trapped in his sports car in BREAKDOWN, an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS directed by the Master himself, and as the elderly professor in THE ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. Cotten played a lusty he-man role in FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and his performance didn’t quite come off. George Sanders acted circles around him. I even liked Joseph Cotten as the host of HOLLYWOOD AND THE STARS. And who can forget his man of the cloth in HEAVEN’S GATE? I’m told that Cotten’s performance as the Secretary of State in TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEANING is stellar.

Posted By robbushblog : September 3, 2013 11:29 am

I have always liked Cotten and I have referred to him as solid and dependable. Is there any other way to describe the average American? He’s there when you need him and can be trusted. Another actor who I’ve always compared Joseph Cotton to in these attributes of being solid and dependable is Walter Pidgeon (although he was Canadian).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2013 2:34 pm

Cotten was the antithesis of the overacting “Look at me! I’m so talented!” actors. But enough about Jerry Lewis.

I’m doing a post on the subtleties of Jerry Lewis next called, “Jerry Lewis, Sir Silly.” You’ll love it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2013 2:39 pm

I have always liked Cotten and I have referred to him as solid and dependable. Is there any other way to describe the average American?

He doesn’t have a lot of swagger or Captain Kirk/John Wayne “I’m in charge” nature that so many people think symbolizes the average American. Your description of Cotten is much closer and accurate.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2013 2:40 pm

Glad to see such agreement here. Cotten is an actor I’ve always loved and from day one, with Citizen Kane, felt had the ability to give amazing performances while never overshadowing the lead. Quite a feat, that.

Posted By robbushblog : September 3, 2013 3:40 pm

In addition to all of these great attributes, Cotten also has one of the most often incorrectly spelled names on the internet or in print media. It’s so tempting to leave out the “e” and add a second “o”.

Posted By Matthew Perta : September 3, 2013 6:07 pm

A great assessment of one of my favorite movie actors of all time. Cotten was always seamless, an actor who could easily blend into a role with little effort. His turn as the evil Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” was brilliant, as was the movie. The fact that he never received an Oscar nomination for his mastery of playing “bland” just goes to show you that other actors don’t know what true brilliance on screen really is.

Posted By Qalice : September 3, 2013 6:16 pm

I remember someone once saying that the best actors can’t be imitated. As much as I love him, it’s easy to do a Jimmy Stewart impression, and the same is certainly true of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. But there’s no way on earth you could do an impression of Joseph Cotten. He was so good that it took me years to notice how handsome he was, and a few more to appreciate that warm Southern voice. And I don’t know if there’s a better performance than the one he gave in Shadow of a Doubt anywhere, ever.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2013 11:13 pm

Rob, I’ve misspelled his name myself on many occasions.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2013 11:14 pm

Matthew and Qalice, I agree that his performance in SHADOW OF A DOUBT is one of the best ever but THE THIRD MAN and CITIZEN KANE are right up there, too. He was superb.

Posted By Harvey Chartrand : September 4, 2013 8:03 am

Joseph Cotten’s performance as wifebeater Richard Chamberlain’s exasperated father in PETULIA (1968) is full of interesting nuances. And Cotten more than holds his own against his old Mercury Theatre colleague Vincent Price in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). I also liked Cotten in Mario Bava’s BARON BLOOD (1972). Cotten plays himself in his old friend Orson Welles’ dreadful faux-documentary F FOR FAKE (1973) – a sad way for the auteur of CITIZEN KANE to end his directorial career.

Posted By Kingrat : September 4, 2013 12:46 pm

Greg, thanks for a great piece on Joseph Cotten which describes his skill and his career so well. These roles are so hard to play because they usually don’t have big, showy moments. On another board some people have spoken about the “David Strathairn role” in films–his recent turn in LINCOLN is a good example. Strathairn doesn’t quite have the charisma of Joseph Cotten, but can make something of the bland roles he often gets.

I also love thinking about Cotten as the typical American. The characteristics you mention do seem typical.

Posted By swac44 : September 5, 2013 10:45 pm

Funny Rob, for years I used to get Cotten mixed up with Pidgeon, to the point where I thought it was Cotten that was the Canadian, seeing as we, as a nation, are often stereotyped as being solid, trustworthy, dependable and, yes, bland.

And if there’s anyone out there who’s never seen Journey Into Fear (sadly, it just aired not too long ago on TCM), I can’t recommend it highly enough, a real hoot of a picture.

Posted By Jonathan : September 6, 2013 4:11 am

“Sometimes, in my more iconoclastic moments, I think Orson Welles wouldn’t have succeeded as well as he did without Joseph Cotten.”

Yes. A big amen.

Cotten is the reason I go back to the The Third Man. He makes it a new movie every time.

Posted By robbushblog : September 6, 2013 9:40 am

Yes! It is one of my “go to” movies. Cotten is enthralling in his search. Of course, the lit up reveal of Orson, the swelling zither and the cuckoo clock line are also what make me love it so. There is so much to love about that movie.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : September 6, 2013 10:58 am

as far as American “types” are concerned,was there ever a more cynical,bemused and world weary actor than Robert Mitchum?

Posted By Heidi : September 9, 2013 12:17 pm

I Love Joseph Cotten. I can’t see anyone else play Uncle Charlie. He is so deliciously evil, but you didn’t know that at first. He is just happy Uncle Charlie. Gaslight, The Third Man, well really whatever he did was great. And no matter who else was in it, he always made the movie something I would watch over and over.

Posted By Walt : September 9, 2013 1:31 pm

[i]Cotten plays himself in his old friend Orson Welles’ dreadful faux-documentary F FOR FAKE (1973) – a sad way for the auteur of CITIZEN KANE to end his directorial career.[/i]

I have to speak up in defense of [i]F for Fake[/i], I think it’s playful, charming, and inventive. Or put another way, [i]very good[/i].

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