Remembering Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart, God rest his soul, was a terrible movie star.
This is because he was the one who was most like us. Other movie stars are imperious creatures, their glamour encased in shells of poise and persona. Grant, Cooper, Gable, Bogart, even Stewart’s lifelong pal Henry Fonda, all had a certain beautiful remove that defined their allure. With Stewart, who died of a blood clot in the lung at 89 on July 2, there was no distance. He was the last and most modest of the great studio gods.
Stewart knew this, of course. ”People identify with me,” he said once, ”but dream of being John Wayne.” We did more than identify with him, though: We defined ourselves through him. Stewart’s small-town, Presbyterian upbringing made him a repository of American values, but his greatest characterizations — Jefferson Smith, George Bailey, Elwood P. Dowd, even Vertigo‘s tormented Scottie Ferguson — testify how hard it is to carry those values into the modern world.
Instead of the standard biography, we have chosen to honor Stewart with a tour through the 40 most notable of his 80-plus appearances on film. One thing such a journey makes clear: If Stewart’s 1930s films are his best loved, his postwar films are his best, coming as they did after a personal and professional crisis that was resolved only with his discovery of Westerns on screen and Gloria Hatrick off (they married in 1949 and remained together until her death in 1994). Alone among the studio-era greats, Stewart deepened his persona after the war — and by forgoing salaries in favor of a percentage of his films’ profits, starting with 1950’s Harvey, he also struck a blow for actors’ independence.
That hardly means the folksy stammer and bashfully lowered eyes were an act, even if onetime roommate Burgess Meredith hinted at a more reserved Stewart when he said the actor ”was able to live totally within himself in ways that I’ve never seen anyone else.” It only means that James Stewart was as incapable of lying to himself as to the audiences he always considered his ”collaborators.” By making movie stardom seem life-size, he flattered us with the notion that we were stars as well.