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Gary Cooper, on the evidence of Jeffrey Meyers' crisply written, persuasively researched but nevertheless unsatisfying biography, managed in his life to fulfill each of the classic filmic images for which he is remembered: Cooper was, in turn, the halting, inarticulate man of honor of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the many westerns; the passively magnetic clotheshorse of his silent films and Morocco; and the seasoned seducer of younger women of Love in the Afternoon. Unfortunately, the man we meet in Meyers' book doesn't seem to have lived out the truth behind these images all that deeply. The on-screen Cooper still resonates, but if the man himself had greater levels of complication, Meyer hasn't found a way to penetrate them.
Known for intelligent, cleareyed books on F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, Meyers may have been spoiled for this project by a string of biographical subjects whose own articulate testimony provided a route of access to their inner lives. Or perhaps Meyers was a little impatient at finding himself more intelligent than his subject. He seems to struggle against this realization, repeatedly asserting the value and appeal of Cooper's nobility and decency, yet unable to anchor such assertions in the bland sea of professional triumphs, romantic conquests and hunting expeditions that seem to have been Cooper's life. Meyers' readings of the films are piercing and felt; his reading of the life glances off Cooper's glossy surface. Revealingly, the reader feels his interest quicken whenever Hemingway (a main Cooper pal) or writer/director Billy Wilder stray onto the stage -- these more intellectual figures compel Meyers the way Cooper never does.
A biographer employs two sets of tools -- the hardware of research and the software of imaginative sympathy with his subject. On the first count, American Hero appears impeccable. But the second, more delicate set of tools Meyers seems to have misplaced. Or perhaps Cooper has lifted them out of his biographer's hands: "I did have a reputation of not getting along too well with interviewers," Meyers quotes Cooper as saying. "I got a sort of reputation for saying yep or nope."
At the end of Gary Cooper: An American Hero, that yep and nope still stand as the last word. -- Salon
Posted July 27, 2014
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