James Garner (1928- 2014) was one of those great actors like Cary Grant who made acting seem effortless and easy, like a skill which doesn’t require any special technique. Unlike Grant, however, Garner never managed to institutionalize his simple but convincing style of acting and critics never tried to probe into his charm and uncover his unique poetics. Instead, he was treated as a dependable professional and one of the first movie stars to work for television without being “reduced” to it.
Still, looking at Garner’s opus as a whole, we see an actor who may have mostly played charming cowboys and cynical detectives, the defining figures of those respective genres, but who has also contributed to the transformation of those very genres as well.
Garner has entered the industry during the studio-system in which actors were still contract-bound to the studios. He was one of the first ones to protest against thus imposed limitations and it may have limited his work while he was signed to Warners.
However, Garner soon managed to establish himself in three most commercial genres – war movie, crime movie and western, with occasional diversions to Cary Grant’s domain – romantic comedy.
In each of the three genres, he went through three phases – classic, modernist, and deconstructivist.
In the realm of war movies, Garner’s classic phase is marked by “Darby’s Rangers”, by William A Wellman, and the often screened classic “The Great Escape”, by John Sturges. His modernist phase is represented by the film “36 Hours” by George Seaton, and the deconstructivist one in “The Americanization of Emily”, by Arthur Hiller, written by Paddy Chayefsky, known for his subversive ways. “36 Hours” is one of the most sophisticated thrillers on the Second World War, while “The Americanization of Emily” is a story – now more relevant than ever – about a propaganda officer who must leave the safety of war-time London to go to battlefield. This movie has echoed far and wide – this year’s blockbuster “Edge of Tomorrow”, starring Tom Cruise, relies largely on the Hiller’s work and Garner’s humour in the creation of the main character.
When it came to crime movies – Garner played classics, such as Chandler’s “Marlowe”, by Paul Bogart, while he did deconstruction in his final crime movie “Twilight”, with Paul Newman who rounded off the story of his hero Lew Harper (based on MacDonald’s literary character Lew Archer), while Garner did the same to the whole range of his cynical detectives from Marlowe to Jim Rockford. The key intervention is that the end of “Twilight” reveals his detective to be the main culprit.
In westerns, Garner went through classic stage in Sturges’ “Hour of the Gun”, and then comical deconstruction in Burt Kennedy’s “Support Your Local Gunfighter”, successfully touching upon spaghetti-western as well in “A Man Called Sledge”, by Vic Morrow.
Still, if only one Garner’s western is to be singled out as a lasting value, it would be “Skin Game”, a superior and politically incorrect predecessor of Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, in which Garner plays a white con artist travelling around the South, selling his free black friend as a slave. At the time of its premiere, this film caused discomfort, and is yet to be fully rediscovered.
Ever since his very beginnings, Garner also worked for television, literally witnessing its development. From the fifties on, he starred in western series, “Maverick” above anything else, at the time of networks’ assembly-line programme manufacturing.
As an already established movie star, Garner returned to television in a series about the detective Jim Rockford. At the time the television was trying to turn to more expensive and more ambitious “events” with big stars. The switch from theatrical movies to television may have easily caused the “drop of Garner’s shares” in the movie world.
Finally, Garner was one of the first ones to play in the exclusive HBO productions at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. One could say that Garner was present in every stage of the development of television drama.
Still, Garner was more than a pioneer of television drama and of the deconstruction of genres. He also introduced an acting model of a charming and witty action hero, later to be globalized by Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis. No wonder that it was Maverick that Mel Gibson played in the big screen remake, or to be more precise - the extension directed by Richard Donner, right alongside Garner himself.
If Garner’s career is to be summed up in one movie, that would be Blake Edwards’ “Sunset”. It is a wonderful, underrated film in which Garner plays Wyatt Earp (as he did in Sturges’ “Hour of a Gun”) and Bruce Willis the famous western actor Tom Mix. In this fictional story with historical personae, Wyatt Earp and Tom Mix join forces to solve a murder committed under the veil of conspiracy made by decadent founding fathers of Hollywood. This film represents a mixture of western, detective movie, genre deconstruction and the initiation of a successor who learned the trade on TV before graduating to cinema.
If you wish to mark this sad occasion with a Garner’s movie, go for “Sunset”. His other classics will be played on various other occasions anyway.