"Cooper was heroic, of course, in his own mind as much as in his scripts. He was manly, tall, ruggedly handsome. He was a man for a fight."
On screen Gary Cooper was the ultimate all-American hero: lean, laconic, and masculine, a lone sheriff battling his enemies in High Noon, or a tough individualist in The Fountainhead. Off-screen he bedded a host of leading ladies and carefully honed his image, making hundreds of movies and winning two Oscars in the process. The acclaimed film writer David Thomson explores the career and the contradictions of "Coop," the star who lived the dream in the golden age of Hollywood.
About the Author
David Thomson, renowned as one of the great living authorities on the movies, is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition. His books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London in 1941, he now lives in San Francisco.
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By David Thomson, Lucy Gray
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2009 David Thomson
All rights reserved.
Gary Cooper died six days after his sixtieth birthday, on 13 May 1961, having made over a hundred movies. Only a couple of weeks before his own death – when that outcome was certain – he and his wife, Rocky, sent a cable to their friend Ernest Hemingway. They had heard that the depressed author was having electroshock treatment. All they said in the cable was, 'What's there to say except that you have our love?' They were not close enough to Hemingway to know all his troubles, from paranoia to writer's block to impotence and the impenetrable gloom he called the black dog days. Hemingway shot himself that 2 July, early in the morning, while his wife was still asleep. He rested his forehead against the shotgun barrels and tripped the triggers. Cooper and Hemingway had a regard for each other – they had mutual respect and they reckoned that the other man was part of their meaning. And they were gone in the same season.
And in 1961, of course, John F. Kennedy was busy with his efforts to be president. On 17 April, with unofficial US support, some Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bahía de Cochinos. At the time, it seemed like a shaming debacle – years later it is not much less than a day of infamy. Hemingway still had a house in Cuba, as well as many friends there. Gary Cooper was of the right wing politically, so it's hard to say what he thought of the Bay of Pigs – if he was able to take it in. Perhaps he was sheltered by his wife in the last days just as Mary Welsh did what she could to protect Hemingway. She even announced that his death was accidental, one of those mistakes men make with guns. As if Papa could endure a headline with 'gun accident' in it – it was like writing an accidental masterpiece. Still, it was a bad season for American heroes such as Hemingway, Cooper and Kennedy. But worse was to come.
I am reminded of an extraordinarily beautiful photograph. It's taken some time around 1942, with two men at a restaurant or a bar table, both of them leaning back to get a proper look at the other. They are Gary Cooper and Jack Kennedy: the one is a lieutenant in navy uniform, and the other may be making Ball of Fire or even For Whom the Bell Tolls. Kennedy is younger by far, and he is with a movie star and one he admires. You can feel that warmth and affection in Jack's grin. But Coop knows who Jack is, too. He's Hollywood enough to know the Kennedy story and to know how much support there is already for the lieutenant. He also admires and may be a touch daunted by the boy's Pacific suntan and the idea that this kid goes to sea on not much more than a platform with a gun and makes faces at the Japanese. Not to mention the purchasing power at legend's store that the Kennedy family had available.
They like each other and they seem amused by the notion that they represent different strands of heroism, the real thing and the movie version. Yet they're close enough in age to be likely rivals for some young woman who isn't in the picture yet. She's powdering her nose wondering who takes her back to the hotel. They both fancy their chances, while esteeming the competitor. Their self-confidence is a great part of what makes them attractive. So they haven't the faintest idea that the spring of 1961 is going to be a pretty rough time for them – they haven't read those papers yet.
They are two beautiful guys, and in 1942 there was still no doubt about Cooper's handsomeness or his casual eminence. He might not be exactly the laconic angel he had been in 1930 or so, when every photographer in town wanted to shoot him. But Coop was still untroubled, despite a face which, as he said, had lines from being out-of-doors so much by the time he was twenty. Yet there are troubled moments in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), brief passages where the good-natured Cooper seems to conceive of something ugly, something grave, something as awful as his own failure.
One of the openings available for a book like this is the chance to detect when it is that anxiety creeps into Coop's looks. Certainly it is there by the time of High Noon (1952), but you could say that it's there because it needs to be – because Sheriff Will Kane faces a kind of social betrayal, not to mention death, in his own town. But High Noon comes soon after The Fountainhead (1949), a very important Cooper film, and the occasion of the greatest threat and disruption in his real life. That is when he nearly went off with another woman, Patricia Neal.
Of course, you can look further ahead, to the haggard, nearly agonized faces he offered the fifties in Love in the Afternoon, Ten North Frederick, Man of the West or They Came to Cordura where he sometimes seems much older or far more stricken than a man in his fifties. But perhaps he was ill aready then, struggling to hold on, or aware that his pure heroism was not quite enough to let a man go all the way. Gary Cooper was not really ambitious. In all those films, he never wrote or directed. Only on one occasion did he try to produce – and that fun wore off fast. He did what was offered, without pursuing projects or parts. He had no great opinion of himself as an actor, and so he did not seem to seek out large and challenging parts. He never really took on the novelty of playing an older man in a young person's world. He was always the lead, with action scenes, ever younger actresses opposite him, and with the weight of the film on his face. But something happened, and in any retrospective of Gary Cooper's films you cannot miss the sense of osteoporosis or nervousness that eventually overtakes a great American tree.
It's a matter of fact that director Fred Zinnemann had thought of either Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift for Sheriff Kane in High Noon. Those two actors were twenty years younger than Cooper, which made it more plausible that Kane has just married Grace Kelly (twenty-four to Cooper's fifty-one in 1952). That gap is never addressed, but it surely adds to our sense of Kane as a man left stranded by his world. Cooper's anguish is that of someone beginning to feel his age and the strange dispensation of a late but true marriage. High Noon would work with Clift – no doubt about that – but Kane would feel like a more ordinary guy. In Cooper's stooped, fragile form he becomes a relic of a lost West. Part of his distress is in realizing how far standards have broken down. And when he sees his wife riding to the railroad depot, it is as if all of his life is ebbing already. In the young wife, we can feel his hope and his hopelessness. Of course, in real life, things were not as subtle: like opportunists, careless of the large separation in their roles, Cooper and Kelly just had an affair on location.
Frank James Cooper was born 7 May 1901 in a good house, with railings around its yard, in Helena, Montana. He was the second child of two emigrants from England, and although he grew up as a young cowboy, he was also raised in a tradition of English order and gentility. So he was one of the relatively few movie cowboys born to the job, but he was a tall beauty who also learned to appreciate the best clothes. He was torn over the two ways to go, and a story was told how once upon a time – as a young movie star – he had been invited out by one of those ladies he dazzled, the Countess Dorothy di Frasso. So he got the best tuxedo he could find, a silk top hat, the finest English shoes and a chic cloak. There he was, waiting for the Countess's car. A fashion plate. And the chauffeur drew up beside him and murmured, 'Get in, cowboy.'
Frank's father, Charles, was born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, England, in 1865, to a well-to-do farming family. But by the time he was twenty he was living in Montana and beginning to study law. The population of the state was no more than a hundred thousand, but it mined a quarter of the world's copper. It was in mining towns – like Helena and Butte – that the state was crowded, and where championship fights might be held to attract the miners as well as the cowboys and ranchers. And as he developed as a lawyer, Charles Cooper met Alice Louise Brazier. She was of Huguenot descent from a family of shopkeepers on the north Kent coast. Born in Sheerness in 1873, she was in Montana by the time she was eighteen. They were a natural couple, not just because they had chosen to set out for the New World and its beautiful open spaces, but because in doing so they had left a part of themselves and their security behind. They missed England, and Englishness, and so their son Frank grew up accustomed to the wild life of an actor in Westerns but unable to resist the pull of an older, more controlled society, where manners made the man, and the practice of law might tame human vagary.
So Gary Cooper rode with uncommon ease, which means that his horse, his hat and a gun were ways of revealing himself – as natural as gesture or sunlight. At the same time, the father whom Cooper adored was a law-and-order man who ended up on the state supreme court and who knew when to go after the big copper companies and the railroads – an independent man whose sense of the law might stand behind a smalltown sheriff like Will Kane.
More or less, we owe the existence of Gary Cooper to the way in which two politely raised young English people ventured six thousand miles away from home and found each other in a wilderness where civilized society had a still uncertain foothold. As lately as 1876 – in the Montana Territory – Custer and the 7th Cavalry had been wiped out by a great army of Sioux and Cheyenne. Not that the Indians could ever hold what they had won or survive rebuke. But the event of the Little Bighorn had exposed for anyone to see the way in which sheer outlawry could take over the law and rewrite it as it wished. The new white Americans were determined to take the rich land, and they came close to expunging the red race that owned it first. In that situation, the law was a very practical instrument, with bloody hands and a wounded conscience. Violence was heavy in the unpoliced air. It was as Cooper's parents arrived in America that the Johnson County War was being fought in Wyoming – not too far away – in a desperate struggle between vested landowners and the immigrant rabble (this is the story of Heaven's Gate).
So, in all the talk of heaven and the easy idealization of a young Frank Cooper as the model for Remington paintings of the cowboy at liberty, never forget the real pressures of the new land. By 1952, Will Kane is good and his opponents are unequivocally wicked. But then consider how far the High Noon set piece may have been little more than the confrontation of rival gangsters and power-dealers such as occurred at the OK Corral in Tombstone in 1881. The openness of the West was an opportunity for making the laws that suited you, so the law quickly became a pressure for conservative reform – because you weren't going to get new settlers in the West so long as they thought it was too dangerous for their wives and children.
So it's legitimate and accurate to see Frank Cooper as a kid on horseback as naturally as Huck Finn telling a story. Frank knew ranchers and trail-drivers, miners and their whores. Not to mention Indians. He was very likely smoking cigarettes. There was no way of fencing off the proximity of such sights. But he had parents who noticed these developing traits, who heard his frontier language, and who decided that he must be sent back to Dunstable to be tamed. It's as if the parents had not yet decided fully on being American, or on accepting that hell to which Huck consigns himself.
And so, in the summer of 1909, Frank and his brother, Arthur (five years older), were taken to England by their mother, and installed with uncles and aunts so that they could attend Dunstable School. They stayed there until the spring of 1913.
Cooper never complained about Dunstable School, no matter that he was cut off from his parents, mocked first for his American accent and then later for his English intonation. In later life, he revisited the school several times and gave every sign of fondness for his English cousins and his Edwardian upbringing. He learned French and some Latin; he could recite English poetry; and he was a loyal member of a generation that was destined for Flanders. Cooper's best biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, notes that sixty-two graduates from Dunstable School would lose their lives in the First World War.
It was a moment of uncritical patriotism and team spirit in which the schools were a vital part of the effort to build morale and discipline at the same time. Thus, Cooper was in England – and earnest to do his best – in almost exactly the time period of Captain Robert Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole. In what turned into a race with the Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen, Scott's party despaired of motor sledges, ponies and dogs and ended up man-hauling their geological specimens and the tent they used against the blizzard. The last five of them died in what was either immense British heroism and dedication, or misguided planning. Frank Cooper would have had no doubt about the British valour. Cooper never served in the armed forces, but just consider the list of films in which he is a follower of the code or the regiment (sometimes tested, but always loyal) – Wings; Morocco; Today We Live; The Lives of a Bengal Lancer; Beau Geste; North West Mounted Police; Sergeant York; The Pride of the Yankees; For Whom the Bell Tolls; Unconquered; Task Force; High Noon; Springfield Rifle; The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell; Man of the West; They Came to Cordura.
You might argue that every male star in the years 1930–60 could boast as many films hinged on loyalty and service. And there's something in that – the code was a cover-all. But then notice how many other male stars handled duty through degrees of rebellion or disenchantment – Cagney, Bogart, Cary Grant – and you begin to see Cooper's unique openness to the unwritten or unspoken code. You can make fun of it – 'A man's got to do what a man's got to do' – but I don't think Cooper ever felt the irony or the risk of cliché. He may not have been the brightest movie star we ever had. He may have elected to be more a doer than someone who reflected over decisions. But he could make the effort of arriving at an honourable decision seem fresh every time.
It reminds me of a story told by Niven Busch, who was for a time a story editor at the Goldwyn company where Cooper was under contract. The two men were friends; they had shared sporting tastes. And sometimes Coop would drop in on Busch as the Princeton graduate wrestled with a story outline. When Busch admitted he couldn't solve it, Cooper said, 'Well, Niven, seems to me if you make me the hero it usually comes out right.'
Busch chuckled. He thought the actor was telling a joke, or making fun of an excessive personal vanity. But then he looked at Cooper's level gaze and realized that, no, the actor had only just worked it out and was trying to be helpful: 'Make me the hero and it usually comes out right.' It was as if Cooper had no hint of the way nature and the camera had made that pact so long ago – and that it was a curiosity that no one ever asked him to play a bad guy. Yet a man subject to weakness or temptation – that was another matter. Women said that if only Gary Cooper hadn't been so shy, the army of those he seduced might have been smaller.
Cooper would say later that he was irked by some English things – small, overly tidy gardens, the Eton collars he had to wear, and the damp weather. But observers at the time felt he was happy enough. He grew much closer to his older brother, and did not make too much of missing his parents. He dressed like a Montana hooligan, maybe, but along the way he picked up a taste for English tailoring and very good clothes. He was tall and more than goodlooking, and if the two things weren't always the same, still, he was interested in being good and looking good. But if put to the test, he was more for looking good.
Excerpted from Gary Cooper by David Thomson, Lucy Gray. Copyright © 2009 David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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