The Better Half

The Apartment airs today on TCM and in it are two of the great stars of the silver screen, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.  Like any great stars, they have two careers comprised of a first half and a second half.  A few years back, Movie Morlock Jeff Stafford covered similar ground with stars he liked better older than younger, a corollary to this post but not quite the same thing.   I’d like to make the case here that stars have a more successful half and a less successful half and that half depends entirely on the star and what works for them.   It comes down to what kind of roles suit the actor better and for those whose early roles suit their talent better, their later career can be a mess.  For those who grow into something more than their early work allowed, their later career flourishes.  For me, Lemmon went one way and MacLaine went the other and both ways were written into their movie star DNA from the start.

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First, let’s talk about those halves.  Most stars could probably have their career broken down into several parts, including early career, height of their stardom, down years, comeback, later years, etc.  But I’m just cutting things down the middle and would encourage you to do the same.  Sure, Jack Nicholson had an early career in Roger Corman movies, then an “instant star” career through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then a lag in his box office power until Terms of Endearment, and then major stardom and success straight through to the end.  But I’m calling it two halves.  Everything up until 1982 is Nicholson’s first half, from Corman’s movies through The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Then, with Terms of Endearment, he made the successful transition to more mature roles and became a bigger star than ever.  That’s the second half.  But as the car commercial says, your mileage may vary.  Break his career down into any two halves you see fit, as long as you can defend them.  And by the way, I prefer Nicholson’s first half to the second.  There’s still lots of great work in the second half but the first half feels fresher, more original, more engaging.  The second half feels more like playing to the reputation.  That probably applies to a lot of stars but with some, I like the second half better, when playing to their well-developed persona fits them like a glove.  Speaking of which…

If I had to pick any actor whose second half was by far the better half for me, it would be Cary Grant.  I love Cary in many a movie in the thirties, from Blonde Venus to Gunga Din and certainly enjoy so very much of his superb work in the early to mid forties, especially his Hitchcock movies, Suspicion and Notorious, but by the time he really settles into being Cary Grant, which for me is around The Bishop’s Wife or so, he really starts to hit a legendary stride, culminating in North by Northwest where Cary plays Cary better he probably even thought he ever could.  His absolute comfort with who he was in front of a camera makes even his much lesser sixties fare appealing to me.  It’s a great second half as an actor, if not necessarily for the quality of the movies.

Katherine Hepburn is another star who had multiple stages to her career but for my purposes, and always in my mind when I think of her, her career comes down to pre-Summertime and post-Summertime.  After Summertime she glided into the more strongly dramatic roles and veered away from comedy.  There were exceptions of course, including Desk Set with Spencer Tracy, but really, not many.  Well, let me say here and now, I like the early Hepburn better.  In fact, Hepburn in Woman of the Year simply doesn’t get much better for me.  It may be only midway through the first half of her career but I still think she was never better.

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Some stars have careers so clearly defined by their temperaments that people find it hard to think of their career in terms of acting rather than incidents.  Like Marlon Brando.   The fifties was his “disciplined actor” period, the sixties was his “out of control” period and the seventies on was his “comeback/even more demanding than before” period.   Of course, I’ll break it down into two halves, pre-Godfather and post-Godfather.  And believe it or not, and some of you might not, I’ll take the post-Godfather Brando, although I should stipulate, that includes The Godfather.  Frankly, I enjoy the utter insanity of his later performances, half-improvised/half read off of cue cards and all “I just don’t care anymore” attitude.  Think The Formula is a mediocre movie?  Maybe, but I love Brando in it.  Last Tango in Paris has its supporters and detractors (I’m not too high on it myself) but Brando’s almost entirely improvised performance is a hoot.  The Missouri Breaks?  Love him in it.  Also, and not for nothing, the absolutely abysmal remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau has a performance by Brando so weird, so deliriously off-center, it almost salvages the movies for me.  I mean, it doesn’t, but it almost does.

One star that really shines for me in the second half of her career is Joan Crawford.  From her late twenties flapper flicks, like Our Dancing Daughters, to her early forties hits, like Strange Cargo, Crawford had a ton of charm and charisma on the screen and I love her in all of her early works.  But her second half, starting with Mildred Pierce, is when Joan becomes Joan and I wouldn’t trade it for the early career for a second.  I even like her late second half, when she was working in Strait-Jacket and Berserk.

And there are so many more, too many to mention, though I’ll probably chime in with a few more in the comments.  As to Lemmon and MacLaine, mentioned at the top of this post, their first and second halves are quite distinct.  For me, Lemmon’s hyperactive style suited his early career the best and it’s there that I most prefer to see him, before the seventies.  I’ll take Lemmon in Mister Roberts, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment over anything he did later on.  For MacLaine, it’s just the opposite.  I like her in the first half of her career but the second half, starting definitively with Terms of Endearment, showed a depth and power to her talents previously untapped in that first half.  I’ll take late stage MacLaine all the way.  But that’s just me.  These things are different for everyone.  What works for you may not work for me but we can split the difference, right down the middle.

10 Responses The Better Half
Posted By Ken : December 19, 2014 5:40 am

For me, first half Lemmon is amusing, but I find second half Lemmon more fascinating (Missing, Glengarry Glen Ross, The China Syndrome).

Posted By LD : December 19, 2014 9:58 am

My favorite actress is Stanwyck and her almost 60 year career I would divide at SORRY, WRONG NUMBER. That film and all that preceded it, the pre-codes, films noir, and comedies, to me, is her better half. After SORRY, WRONG NUMBER she continued work in melodramas, noir and certainly westerns. Her success in television is well established. Growing up I wouldn’t miss an episode of “The Big Valley” but discovering her earlier work was like finding treasure.

Posted By Bill : December 19, 2014 12:55 pm

Dunno how you can overlook stars who underwent an entire career makeover: Robert Taylor, Dick Powell, John Payne.

Posted By Emgee : December 19, 2014 8:44 pm

I love Edward G. Robinson early gangster movies, but push coming to shove i’d much rather watch his movies post-Double Indemnity.

Bette Davis’ career peaked in the 40′s but a lot of her post- All About Eve are a sheer Delight ( and i don’t mean as in camp)

But with Burt Lancaster i can’t see that clear a division mark until after Atlantic City.

Posted By swac44 : December 19, 2014 8:45 pm

Weirdly, Shirley MacLaine took a 5-year hiatus from the screen (I believe she was concentrating on live performance) returning in 1977 with … The Turning Point, which would be as good a place as any to mark the second phase of her career. Recently I rewatched Being There for the first time since university, and at first was surprised at how attractive and sexy I found MacLaine in the film, and then I realized that in that film she was two years younger than I am now. Funny how time changes your perspective…

Posted By kingrat : December 19, 2014 9:16 pm

Great topic, Greg. I’m an early Brando fan; there’s not much I really like post-50s, including THE GODFATHER. Most of the Bette Davis performances I like best are pre-EVE; after that, she can scarcely play anything resembling a normal woman (PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER is an exception). I hugely prefer Robert DeNiro pre-ANALYZE THIS. Love that film, but it set the template for his later career. The star of RAGING BULL as a specialist in camp? Who’d have thunk it?

I’ll take 1950s James Stewart over 1930s James Stewart any day. James Mason’s career divides into star and character actor phases, and I like him equally in both. Have to say I prefer the earlier Joan Crawford, when her face moves, though I like some of her later films a lot.

Posted By gregferrara : December 21, 2014 4:01 am

Since kingrat brought up De Niro, I have to put him with Michael Caine as two actors whose early careers I absolutely love but whose later careers do absolutely nothing for me. Nothing.

Swac, I am forever fascinated by how so many actors who looked old to me now look so damn young. I watch movies now with actors in their mid to late middle age and realize I’m older than them and it still kind of freaks me out.

Posted By george : December 21, 2014 4:19 am

swac44 said: “Recently I rewatched Being There for the first time since university, and at first was surprised at how attractive and sexy I found MacLaine in the film …”

I know what you mean! I was a college student when I first saw BEING THERE, and MacLaine (then 45) looked like an old lady to me. Now that I’m over 50, she looks very sexy and not old at all.

Posted By vp19 : January 2, 2015 5:19 am

I’ll take the pre-WWII Joan Crawford over the more severe, campy Crawford, especially from the ’50s onward.

The same thing applies to William Powell. His films after “Love Crazy” simply aren’t as interesting.

Posted By Paul Dionne : February 6, 2015 10:51 pm

Sorry, but I absolutely have to go with first half Shirley MacLaine (the half-line marker for me with her is up to and including Two Mules for Sister Sara). There is a beauty, a vulnerability, a sexiness to her first half that just is beyond compare to me – Some Came Running, ah….

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