By Gillian Flynn
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:59 AM EDT

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care

  • Book

He bedded Lucille Ball, Ava Gardner, and Shirley MacLaine, drank with John Wayne, Sinatra — hell, drank with everybody — smoked filterless Pall Malls, and got into brawls when he was ripe. He wrote sonorous verse about flatulent horses.

Robert Mitchum made more than 120 movies, helped birth the genre that we’d later knowingly call film noir, and starred in classics like The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. He got just one Oscar nomination, for The Story of G.I. Joe. He was overdue for someone as good as Lee Server to write about him, although one guesses he’d find the whole thing damned embarrassing.

Mitchum, who died at 79 of lung cancer in 1997, was unfailingly cool. ”He smoldered, had that opiated, heavy-lidded look, had an almost feminine languor, moved only as much as necessary and then with a measured, sinuous grace,” writes Server in Robert Mitchum, ”Baby, I Don’t Care.”

Server does an elegant job (with help from Mitchum’s sister Julie) re-creating the actor’s back story: His father, a railroad worker, crushed between trains in the opening act; his bohemian mother, who steeped Robert in art and poetry as they bounced around the East Coast; and kid Mitchum himself, who by age 14 was riding the rails all over the U.S. This Depression-era childhood, Server posits, informs the man: an intelligent, curious fellow whose inability or disinterest in forming intimacies kept him relentlessly moving to the next bar, the next dame, the next set.

”My close acquaintances — that’s four people — keep asking me where I am, who I am, and I tell them I’m an open book,” Mitchum once said. ”But they all say, oh no, that I’m an island, an island they can’t find.”

One of those close acquaintances, it’s assumed, is his wife, Dorothy Mitchum. In 1940, the two set up house in Hollywood in a converted chicken coop. Soon Mitchum, finding himself incapable of any other kind of work, was in the movies, a heavy in the Hopalong Cassidy series.

In describing Mitchum’s intro to noir in 1944’s When Strangers Marry, Server really starts sparking. An editor of 1998’s The Big Book of Noir, Server knows his stuff — not just about Mitchum’s role in the genre but also about that of other players: tyrant director Otto Preminger, seminal cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and that freaky slice of misogynistic paranoia, RKO studio head Howard Hughes.

Of course, this being a book about Mitchum, Server includes infinite anecdotes — some frustratingly unclear as to their source and degree of truth — detailing the actor’s unruliness. There are tales of his tete-a-tetes with women, his fondness for weed, his infamous 1948 marijuana bust and subsequent prison stint, his continued fondness for weed, and his drinking (he gets soused and urinates on the Eternal Flame in Paris), and his drinking (he gets bombed and beats a costar close to unconsciousness), and his drinking (he gets liquored up and forgets he went home with…his wife).

Such exhaustive cataloging of adventures, misdeeds, and movies can be fatiguing. Server spends too much time on too many movie sets, granting the clunkers almost as much room as the classics; the making of Night of the Hunter receives a mere nine pages. And while the boozing tropes are alternately amusing and horrifying, they crowd out stories of Mitchum’s home life that would have been more illuminating. The relationship between Mitch and his wife of 57 years remains elusive, and the relationship between Mitch and his three children (none of whom spoke with Server) even more so. ”Jim is an overprivileged kid from Brentwood,” he groused about his eldest.

Late in life, Mitchum seemed genuinely not to give a damn. He had occasional professional coups like The Winds of War. But privately he was slumping. He made nasty jokes about Jews. He drank and became cruel. He was sued in 1983 after grabbing a journalist’s breast, growling ”You want me to humiliate you?” and throwing a basketball at another female reporter’s face.

Yet despite this ugly personal decline, Mitchum still holds a specific stature. In an era of actors prone to whiny, indulgent confessions, ”Mitchum’s mythic presence…wry unflappability in the face of life’s ever-threatening absurdities, looked all the more majestic and ineffably cool.” And while it’s tempting to force Server to some tidy conclusion about this man, to do so would be most uncool. This is not a definitive biography. A character like Robert Mitchum craftily defied that, his personality as twisty as one of his detective films.

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care

  • Book
  • Lee Server
  • St. Martin's Press