Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewartby Gary Fishgall
When James Stewart died in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine, the star of Vertigo and more than seventy other film classics left the world a rich legacy of unforgettable screen performances. Pieces of Time, Gary Fishgall’s portrait of the personable actor everyone knew as “Jimmy,” reveals Stewart to have been a man who,/b>/i>/i>
When James Stewart died in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine, the star of Vertigo and more than seventy other film classics left the world a rich legacy of unforgettable screen performances. Pieces of Time, Gary Fishgall’s portrait of the personable actor everyone knew as “Jimmy,” reveals Stewart to have been a man who, off-screen, bore a striking resemblance to the boyish persona that won America’s heart on-screen: decent but stubborn; hardworking but not particularly ambitious; wealthy but content with one sweater, a good pair of shoes, and an old Volvo.
From his childhood in small-town Pennsylvania and performances in undergraduate plays at Princeton, Stewart made a remarkable leap to Broadway and then to MGM in its heyday. He skyrocketed to celebrity, starring in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), for which he won his first Oscar. He was the first box-office star to enlist in the armed forces during World War II and he returned to Hollywood a decorated hero, having flown more than twenty bombing missions over war-ravaged Europe. He channeled his sense of self-sacrifice and honor into such memorable postwar performances as small-town hero George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Later in Stewart’s life, Alfred Hitchcock and other distinguished directors encouraged him to explore the darker aspects of his amiable screen personality through complex characters such as L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window (1954) and “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo (1958).
Written with the support of his family and based on interviews with the actor’s friends and colleagues, this definitive biography gives the facts of Stewart’s stellar career as well as backstage stories involving Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Kim Novak, and other Hollywood legends. Pieces of Time is a delight for any fan or film buff who wants to revel in the magic of Stewart’s wonderful life.
With his lanky good looks, his earnest, genial demeanor, the recently deceased Stewart often played the prototypical American. His naturalistic style of acting, with its frequently parodied starts and stammers, seemed effortless, but as Stewart once remarked, "If I give a natural appearance on the screen, you can be damn well sure I'm working at it." He had no intention of becoming an actor, but a few amateur theatrical productions at Princeton soon had him hooked. He was quickly discovered by MGM, and by 1941 he was a top star with a clearly identifiable and beloved screen persona. After harrowing service during WW II as a bomber pilot, he returned to Hollywood and proceeded to make a series of notable films with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in which he deliberately subverted his prewar image to telling effect. But despite a few flashes here and there, this biography does not rise to the level of its subject. Preferring catalog to character, the author leapfrogs relentlessly from film to film, as if that was all that made up a life. Throughout, Fishgall (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, 1995) reduces Stewart to little more than filmography leavened with a few familiar anecdotes, while psychological insight, analysis, and dissection of craft are mostly relegated to the sidelines. Fishgall has done an impressive amount of work, watching all of Stewart's scores of films, interviewing anyone with the slightest connection, reading all the requisite memoirs, but given the shallows in which he operates, he could have gotten by with half the effort.
It may have been a wonderful life, but this isn't a wonderful biography.
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Meet the Author
Gary Fishgall is the author of Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck: A Biography, and Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. He has been an actor, director, theater administrator, drama critic, reporter, and teacher. He lives in St. Louis.
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I have always been very fond of Jimmy Stewart yet had never read a biography on him. This was extremely well written, thorough and enlightening. Great job by author, Gary Fishgall. A must read for Jimmy Stewart fans!!!
As someone who has really enjoyed Jimmy Stewart's movies, I enjoyed learning more of the facts about him and his life. He comes across as the person I imagined he was, but the book is written as basically a compilation of just that: facts. There isn't much human interest involved in the reiteration of his life. I would have liked a more personal picture of the man and his life. Worth reading if yuou're a fan, but the book itself won't make you one.
A well-written biography, and Jimmy's war record is admirable. But he was a virtuous, conservative man, and though his films are usually enjoyable, this biography is kind of boring. Not the fault of the writer by any means. Jimmy got up, went to the studio, made movies, went home to wife and kids, was in bed by nine. Not the stuff to make a razzle-dazzle book. But I will always love Jimmy Stewart, and his fans will probably like his story.