You do know how to whistle, don't you?
Sunday 27 June 1999
So long as we're quite sure what "legend" means. Is it simply stardom, box-office power, or endurance? More or less, all those names - and most of the people in the 50 - stand up today and appeal to the majority of voters who must have been people born after 1940 and raised on current notions of who has survived. Only that could explain the absence of Rudolph Valentino (his funeral was the biggest in movie history), Lon Chaney and Ronald Colman (true giants of the 1920s), Hope and Crosby (dominant box-office figures from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, and both also stars of radio). Indeed, Crosby was once the triple-threat giant of show business - movies, radio, records - yet he is nowhere in the top 25 men. Nor will you find Hope, Colman, Chaney or - I can scarcely credit this - Mickey Rooney (box-office champ from 1936 to 1945, dynamic screen presence, and the epitome of instantly identifiable uniqueness).
Turn to the ladies and you realise that while Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish are there, the list omits Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor and Marie Dressler who were major attractions in an age when, proportionately, far more people went to the movies than do so now. But there are later aberrations: Lauren Bacall is number 20 among the ladies, while Doris Day is omitted. Day was a major star through the 1950s, and the world's top draw in the early 1960s. Bacall never had a big following, and it could be argued that she was only really "Bacall" in two films (To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep) made with "Bogey".
But bear with those quotation marks a moment. They tell us something instructive. I grieve for Doris Day and the ignorance that regards her as old-fashioned. But "Bacall" has a case, even if it only has two films as proof. A "legend" is a story, a tale, a fictional pattern; it is a message that survives through the ages. Maybe "Bacall" was just a 19- year-old being manipulated by Howard Hawks, as she fell in love with "Bogey", or even Bogart, the humble Humphrey behind the legend. But "Bacall" in those films is something the world still loves - a foxy sexpot who seems far older in what she knows, and who will do whatever the guy wants. He just has to whistle. It may not be respectable - but it's a message we understand.
More than that, "Bogey" could easily have missed his own meaning, if not for "Bacall". Humphrey Bogart was in pictures a dozen years before anyone got his point. He was a mere tough guy: he snarled, he leered, he sometimes whined when he was getting his come-uppance. But he was no match for Cagney or Edward G Robinson (number 24). Then, in the early 1940s, he did The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and Casablanca, and we learnt to see that "Bogey" was "really" tough, laconic, a loner, smart, sarcastic, hard to reach, but a sucker for dames. The message was enhanced on screen and off by his meeting with "Bacall". But it grew brighter and more precious in the years after his death. He was a bigger star in revival houses than ever he managed while alive.
And "Bogey" is still number one, no matter that John Wayne (as far down as 13!) was a greater star, a living legend, and an icon that never overawed the guy who had once been Marion Morrison. To understand that risk, just think how far the legendary "Brando" (the man from On the Waterfront, Streetcar named Desire and the very silly The Wild One) so unsettled the real actor that he became a hulk, a recluse, a man in retirement long before his working years were over. Brando couldn't take the attention; James Dean (18) never had to face the test. Robert Mitchum (23) simply ignored or mocked his own celebrity - and became immensely more appealing and "modern" because of that lack of credulity.
My thoughts went further. The AFI had a polite formula that excluded most living figures from consideration (though not Rooney or Day). An uneasy Jack Lemmon was on the TV show explaining why he and Paul Newman, say, wouldn't be on the TV show.
But do we have legends now, or even stars? Or have we outlived the intense, innocent adulation that once sustained the star system, just as we shrink from the captioning in which a "legend" can be translated into a single- sentence message? Clint Eastwood is a star now. So is Sean Connery. They have the dignity of self-belief. But Stallone? Schwarzenegger? Cruise? Isn't there something soft about them, something that belies a fatal lack of confidence? Let that be comfort to Mickey Rooney - 79 this year, still working, , not quite of this Earth, but so utterly "on" as to qualify for legend, and certain that that kind of assurance outlasts voters.
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