Monday, October 31, 2011

Baby, I Don't Care

I read Lee Server's biography Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care. 

Those of you not old enough to remember him, Mitchum was a movie star up there with John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and the like. He started out in B-movie oaters, pretty much was the face of forties and fifties film noir, and went on to a long career, more than a hundred movies and a slew of TV movies and shows. The first of the anti-heroes.

He left home at fourteen, filled with wanderlust, and rode the rails as a hobo. Worked hard physical labor for CCC, digging and planting, built himself into a big, strong, guy, and eventually wound up in Hollywood. 

And he was Hollywood's worst bad boy. Got busted for possession of marijuana in 1947, having developed a taste for the weed while riding the rails, along which it grew wild in the 1930s. The conviction was later vacated, but he was guilty, a dope-smoker the rest of his days. He was married, but he didn't chase skirts–they came to him, and in hordes. He was a hard, two-fisted drinker, smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, and got into more barroom brawls than the rest of Hollywood's movie starts put together. Most of which he won.

"Baby, I Don't Care" seemed to be his philosophy of life, although Server makes a point of his professionalism: Mitchum showed up for work, knew his lines, hit his marks. He was a happy drunk at first who could get mean as the evening went on. He told wonderful stories, was a great writer of both prose and poetry, and could be generous and tight-fisted at the same time. He composed songs, sang a few, sort of, and had a hit record with a song he co-wrote, "The Ballad of Thunder Road," from the movie in which he starred as a moonshine runner. (His son played his younger brother in that one.)

He slept with half of Hollywood's leading ladies, and a bunch of unknown beauties who never made it to the top, and while he was fairly serious in his affair with Shirley MacLaine, there was never any chance he was going to leave his wife.

He couldn't sit still, and he took work that would let him travel all over the world. As soon as he got there, the party began. 

He was in some of the scariest of the southern gothic noir movies, playing the heavy. Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear. He was usually cast when they wanted somebody big and tough, and while he entertained the crews and had them laughing, a lot of actors and actresses playing opposite him were actually frightened of him. He had a sleepy-eyed, dangerous look that could be made to serve any emotion on screen. He'd underplay a scene and the director would want to re-shoot it, only when they saw the dailies, Mitchum's offhand performance came across on film perfectly. He was a better actor than he was given credit for, but overlooked at Oscar time.

He lived hard, killed himself with booze and cigarettes and reefer, and it was a question of whether the lung cancer or emphysema would get him first. That he made it to a month shy of eighty was amazing to everybody who knew him. 

And it's fascinating to follow him down, albeit the book is a bit long, detailing most of the movies he worked upon. Server lays out the don't-give-a-shit attitude over and over, but there is an anomaly he doesn't speak to that caused me to raise an eyebrow. Late in his life, Mitchum had a face-lift, and Server mentions it, but only in passing. He was being considered for the lead in Atlantic City, a role that went to Lancaster, but when he showed up looking forty-five instead of sixty-five because of his plastic surgery, he was out. For a man who affected not to care much about anything, this seemed an off-note, and I would have liked to heard how it came to be. 

1 comment:

Ed said...

I think Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun would have been a good fight - couple of tough guys. After reading your post, I bet they had fun doing or around "River Of No Return"....Marilyn too.