Jimmy Stewart : The Truth Behind The Legend - Michael Munn
For me there is only person who surpassed Marlon Brandon as an actor, and that is James Stewart. Except for naming many of his films I really knew very little about Stewart, and this biography by Michael Munn went along way to setting that to right.
Like his fine Steve McQueen biography that I reviewed 8 days ago, this is written in very much the same style. Munn writes a short background piece, and then uses prodigious use of interviews that are relevant to that piece. I'm not usually a fan of this style, but Munn makes it work superbly. He neither bogs down in Stewart's career or his private life, but finds the perfect balance between the two. Hence he has produced a very thorough, readable, and most importantly, approachable biography.
There was just so much I never knew about Jimmy Stewart, and whilst not shocking in any sordid details, I was surprised by the little things. For instance I never knew he and Henry Fonda were best friends, and had been since about the age of 18. This friendship saw them live together quite often throughout life, starting in New York, where they lived in a seedy tenement full of prostitutes run by the mob!! Both Fonda and Stewart have some funny stories to tell of that particular time!
It may come as no surprise but it did to me to know that Stewart, ( along with Fonda ), was such a ladies man! Once in Hollywood notorious womanisers David Niven and Errol Flynn apparently had nothing on Stewart and Fonda. And yet there is nothing seedy about Stewart's sex life. He respected women even though he had a lot of them! He shagged the likes of Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and even Marlene Dietrich, among others. He was just such a nice man that the women couldn't resist him, and yet once he married his wife of over 40 years, Gloria, he never strayed. It is funny though because even with their reputations as ladies men both Stewart and Fonda spent a life time being accused in the media of actual being homosexual!! Suffice to say the rumour is not true!
His time in the air force during the last war is no secret and nor his is record or achievements. In this biography he does speak of his service with some candour, which is very interesting when you look at the farce Clark Gable went through in his war time service. But it is his post war service with the FBI that was really new to me. I never knew he was employed by the FBI in the communist witch hunts of the 1940's-50's. He was mis-guided in his beliefs as he really wanted to rid Hollywood of the mob, who he absolutely despised. Unfortunately Hoover had no intention of chasing the mob as he was after supposed communists. Stewart never woke up to Hoover, and it was this that he and Fonda fell out over for 6 years between 1948-1954.
Stewart's time with the FBI isn't really a blight on his character as he displayed a relative naivete with dealing with Hoover. He genuinely wanted to rid Hollywood of the mob, and he gathered enough information on the mob with which Hoover could have done so had he the inclination. One other thing cropped up that I had no idea of, and that was Stewart's supposed racism. He wasn't a racist as such being more uncomfortable with coloureds. His upbringing, and church beliefs, saw an almost subliminal belief of the superiority of whites. He was never openly rude, or dismissive of the coloureds he met, but it was obvious he was uncomfortable. If he was openly racist more than discomfit would have come through, and anyway Stewart was certainly not alone in having those charges thrown at him. If he was a genuine racist he kept it hidden very well!
The last thing was the fact that even though Stewart was known as a really nice guy he had a temper. It took him along time to unleash it but when it did it was ferocious. He spent a lifetime containing it, and many believe his outward persona was just a self-taught cover to keep it in check. I don't buy that myself. He was a genuinely nice man, and you don't get that kind of universal appraisal by being a fake. Who would ever have thought that about good old Jimmy Stewart, a man with a temper who was considered 'folksy'?!
What made him such a great actor? He learnt his 'craft' as he called it, falling into acting more as something to do during a holiday from Princeton where he was learning to be an architect. Suffice to say he never went back as his career took off through opportunity. He had no formal training, and when he became famous he disliked being called a 'natural' actor. He said acting wasn't an art but a craft, and he worked extremely hard at his craft. He reminds me very much of Paul Newman who also took his acting very seriously, and worked notoriously hard at it. We can all see the results of all that hard work can't we?!.The problem for Stewart is that he became so good the conclusion of him looking 'natural' was one he wasn't ever going to shake. He just looked natural because of the work he put in. He may have hated the tag but it was a vicious circle for him because he did make it look all so easy.
Overall Michael Mun has produced another fine biography. It ticks all the right boxes, and by the end I felt as if I had come to grips with Stewart, and his mentality/character. My only gripe is at that one stage, when describing Vertigo, Munn calls Alfred Hitchcock 'over-rated' as a director. I'm not anti his opinion even though I totally disagree. It's just that he kept all his personal opinions out of the biography, and yet slipped that one it. It felt out of place, and put an unfortunate piece of doubt into my mind. Why? Because Hitch and Stewart became very good friends, and reminded so. At no time does Munn refer to this friendship, and chooses to criticise Hitch instead. It doesn't feel like an oversight on his part more an intentional slur against Hitch. It may be a small thing but it made me wonder what else Munn may have intentionally chosen to overlook with regards to Stewart.
A fine biography none the less and I do recommend it. Even with a touch of doubt in my mind I still think it is a worth while biography. It is easy to read and accessible to all. The back cover calls it 'definitive, but I dis-agree because, by missing Hitch's and Stewart's friendship, which is common knowledge, it can't be called definitive. But overall Michael Munn succeeds in what any good biography should do, and that is present the subject in the truest, most honest light possible. I think Munn has done a very good job in doing so, and this biography on a true legend will satisfy all, from Stewart aficionados, to those with a passing interest.