Star presence, that distillation of charisma and sometimes glamour, lies at the heart of the movies' appeal. The star presence James Harvey evokes so richly in his new book, Watching Them Be, is never simply about physical beauty. Harvey rightly points out that Ingrid Bergman's fresh unaffectedness was distinctly unglamorous, and that Charles Laughton was plagued by a belief in his own ugliness. There are plenty of good-looking performers who have never managed anything like star presence (Tom Cruise, for one).
So what is it? We could start with some combination of vividness of personality, intense charisma, the ability of a performer to create his own reality and the ability to make the audience believe it is watching someone live fully in the moment. John Wayne's famous description of what he did on-screen— "I don't act. I react"— is as good a summation of the ability to be alive in the eternal present of a scene, to not anticipate, to listen and engage with co-stars. Contrary to the belief that movie stars are attention-seeking extroverts, Wayne's description of his job implies watchfulness and, thus, complicity with the audience.
Too often, especially for audiences that fancy themselves sophisticated moviegoers, star presence is no different from star worship. Talk about movie stars, the allure of them, the beauty of them, or as if what they do is the equal of and often superior to "acting," and you're likely to be thought of as trading in the lowest echelons of a celebrity-obsessed culture. That's just one of the challenges that James Harvey meets in Watching Them Be, his eloquent, imperfect, and altogether marvelous new study of star presence as exemplified by certain stars (Greta Garbo across her career; Charles Laughton; the young cast of Godard's Masculine-Feminine; Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown), and by certain star-director collaborations (Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg, Bette Davis-William Wyler, John Wayne-John Ford). Harvey takes his title from James Baldwin's remark about movie stars, "One does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be." Baldwin grasped that certain performers possess an extraordinary ability to live in the moment, and that while these stylized creatures may seem to exist apart from reality, they still possess the ability to convey truth, even profound truth.
Harvey is trying to convey how even small moments can feel as if they represent more of what the movies themselves are about than the most acclaimed, all-out performances. It's not that acting plays no part in star presence, or is anathema to the movies. You wouldn't look at Brando, as natural and psychologically real an actor as ever walked in front of a movie camera, in the final scene of On the Waterfront, where Terry Malloy confronts Lee J. Cobb's mob boss, and say that he wasn't acting. You might, however, contrast the crescendos of that speech ("From where I'm standin' I been lyin' to myself all these years!!") with the moment in The Godfather where Brando's Don Corleone casually brushes some lint from the suit jacket of Al Lettieri's Sollozzo, the hood who wants the Don to join him in the dope business. It's the most minute gesture and one of almost courtly condescension, an older man reminding a younger man that he's just a scruffy upstart.
Some of the greatest movie moments have always depended on that kind of subtlety. Jack Lemmon, making his movie debut in George Cukor's It Should Happen to You, was repeatedly told by the director, "Do less, do less," until finally he said, "If I do any less, I'll be doing nothing." "Now you're getting it," Cukor replied. (If only the director had been around for the rest of Lemmon's career.) Without some sort of spark that ignites in front of a screen, even accomplished acting can feel wan.
In his previous superb books, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood and Movie Love in the Fifties, Harvey fused close reading (close watching, to be precise) with an implicit belief that pleasure is an essential part of any artwork. The scholarly approach to film criticism has never acknowledged that it doesn't matter how expertly artists fulfill their intentions if there's no pleasure to be had in that fulfillment. Harvey knows, on a gut level, that to talk about the movies and exclude pleasure is a heresy. After explicating a scene in Mata Hari, where Garbo comforts her now-blind lover Ramon Novarro, telling him they will travel the world and, pressing his hand to her eyes, saying, "Here are your eyes!" Harvey writes, "Okay -- that's impressive. But you still have to feel -- and more and more with each film -- something like: What is she doing in this shit?"
The use of "shit" in the discussion of a woman still regarded as the greatest divinity the screen has ever hosted is startling. It clears the air, makes it possible to contemplate the greatness of Garbo -- and despite her mostly unlucky vehicles, she was great -- without the incense smoke getting in the way. And as palpable as Harvey's pleasure is when he's writing about the good movies Garbo got -- Grand Hotel, Camille, Ninotchka -- you can't help feeling he's allowing Graham Greene to speak for him, at least, in part, when he quotes Greene writing of Garbo: