Film Studies: You like my acting? The booze must be getting to you

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The Independent Culture

I am presenting the rite of passage in as facetious a way as possible, because if taken too seriously it can lead to tears. But I think we all feel how far the movies and their adjuncts (television and politics) have led to a demented cult of personality in which countless people nurse the ruinous need (or virus) to be famous, no matter that it is the impulse most certain to destroy them. That's one of the reasons why Robert Mitchum is so interesting, and so mysterious still.

For Mitchum is the first example of a type that said, "Movies? Who would want to waste his time on a ridiculous pursuit like that?" What makes Mitchum so radical is that he maintained that robust aversion while making something in the region of 100 films. Sometimes admirers who had never met the man, and who lived enthralled by hero-worship, would argue that surely Mitchum's tough manner, his deliberately cynical sneering at actors and movies, was just a front meant to cover his shy quest for acting, art and even Art.

As I say, those people had never met Mitchum. It was my luck (or not) to present a tribute to him at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1983. You may say, well, if Mitchum was so devoid of faith or hope in his own work, why did he bother to attend a tribute? A fair question, to which he answered that it wasn't a painful drive from Santa Barbara (where he lived), because there were a few taverns in the city he was eager to re-examine, and because he had been invited personally by Niven Busch (who wrote two of his best films, Till the End of Time and Pursued). He might have added that he also guessed that someone like me was likely to make a prize idiot of himself - and that could be fun.

So it proved. On stage at the Castro theatre I said that this was one of the most important movie actors America had ever produced. On immediate hearing there was an immense, scornful belly-laugh that echoed round the theatre - and which came, of course, from Mitchum. Later on, he was good enough to beg to be introduced to the chump who had said those things, and he gave me an amiable grin and wondered if I'd been drinking too much.

It is going too far to say that Robert Mitchum would never take himself seriously: I am told that whenever drink and pretty women were involved, he was capable of delivering a professional performance. He did come to San Francisco, and he did admit on stage that doing The Night of the Hunter with Charles Laughton was unlike anything else in his busy but bored career. It was a film that had stopped the actor in his tracks and on which he would have done anything for Laughton.

Beyond that, it was nearly impossible to get Mitchum to admit to anything remotely like craft or interest in a lifetime where he had simply indulged that world of idiots prepared to pay him a small fortune for standing where he was told and looking weary. Mitchum took it for granted that nearly all the projects on which he worked - and, by implication, on which anyone worked in Hollywood - were stupid, degrading and a waste of time. If he drank a lot, and he did, the most available explanation was the disillusion that could set in faced with a world of such cockeyed standards.

It is a point of view, and a measure of his innate surrealism (as evident in the National Film Theatre's current Mitchum series) that not taking film seriously was the surest way of doing good work. How else is it that Mitchum, the master of his own boredom, managed to be one of the most enigmatic and intriguing figures on screen? And why was he so much more patient with the folly of acting than, say, Marlon Brando, his close contemporary?

Robert Mitchum season, National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 31 August