When film historian/author Joseph McBride was writing his book on Howard Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, he asked the famed filmmaker about working with Robert Mitchum in 1967’s western El Dorado.
McBride recalled telling Hawks: “Mitchum is extraordinarily good in El Dorado, but he
tends to be a sort of lazy actor, doesn’t he, if you don’t push him?”
Hawks wasn’t sure, noting that “When the picture was half over, I said [to Mitchum], 'you know you’re the biggest fraud I’ve ever met in all my life…you pretend you don’t care a damn thing about a scene, and you’re the hardest-working so-and-so I’ve ever known.'"
Mitchum’s response to Hawks?
“Don’t tell anybody.”
The Aero Theatre is celebrating the 100th birthday of the slow-eyed, barrel-chested tough guy with a five-movie festival “Tough Guys Finish First: A Robert Mitchum Centennial." The retrospective kicks off Friday with David Lean’s 1970 romantic epic Ryan's Daughter, in which Mitchum plays against type as a meek Irish schoolteacher who marries a young woman (Sarah Miles). Scheduled Saturday evening is one of his seminal films, the 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, in which he scares the bejesus out of audiences as a bogus preacher with the words "love" and "hate" stenciled on his fingers. Also on tap that evening is Crossfire, the hard-hitting 1947 crime drama exploring anti-Semitism. Rounding out the tribute on Sunday (Mitchum’s birthday) are two of his best films from the 1970s - the 1973 crime thriller The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the 1974 gangster thriller The Yakuza.
McBride, who once interviewed Mitchum, explained that the actor’s legacy has grown since his death in 1997 at the age of 79, because “he’s so cool. As my son tells me, the word 'cool' never dates. A lot of slang I used as a kid dates. 'Cool' stays the same.”
And Mitchum lived cool.“ He was not just playing a role,” said McBride. “He was a little like Dean Martin in that sense. One of Martin’s biographers said he radiated this sense of ‘I don’t give a damn,’ which is kind of what Mitchum does, too. “
Still, adds McBride, “he has a range where he can play a real heel or a very likeable character too. John Huston said that Mitchum should play King Lear, which I thought was a great compliment. He could have played anything.”
Before he came to Hollywood, Mitchum had a rough-and-tumble life and that didn’t really change when he became a star. In fact, when he was arrested on a marijuana charge in 1948 and sent to a short prison sentence, the incident didn’t hurt his career. In fact, it solidified his cool image.
He was married for 57 years to his wife Dorothy and had three children, but was a notorious womanizer on the sets. In fact, a filmmaker who worked with Mitchum during the 1970s told McBride that the actor would make one movie a year, and would drink a lot and end up having an affair with someone while on location.
Then he would come home to Santa Barbara and “spent the next six months with his wife and lead this quiet life. He just sort of read and they didn’t go out. I always thought that was very interesting.”
Mitchum always looked askance at Hollywood.
“One of his greatest quotes was ‘Movies are the greatest expense account,’” said McBride. “I thought that was pretty profound. That sort of implies he didn’t care about movies except just to kind of live well when he was on location. He wasn’t buying the bull about Hollywood. He really wanted to have a good time making pictures.”
He only received one Oscar nomination, early in his career, for supporting actor for
1945’s gritty World War II drama The Story of G.I. Joe, directed by William A. Wellman.
“It’s wonderful,” said McBride of the film. “It was one of the movies that started being more realistic about the war.”
But Mitchum really came into his own as one of the key actors of the film noir genre, joining the ranks of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, and Dick Powell, is such films as Out of the Past, The Big Steal, My Forbidden Past, and Angel Face.
Mitchum, noted McBride, is “one of the perfect antiheroes. “It’s just the jaded quality I think he had which fits perfectly into the Raymond Chandler kind of noir - the Philip Marlowe characters were kind of like that. Mitchum finally played Marlowe in the ‘70s. He’s in the same kind of league as Bogart in that the Chandler hero, Philip Marlowe, is a man of integrity in a dirty world, walking down the mean streets but keeping his integrity."
Part of his magic was that he underplayed his roles. “A lot of actors in the past sort of overdo it,” said McBride, adding that underplaying “appeals to people and is part of his world-weary feelings, but also this sense of personality, integrity and sense of who he is that he doesn’t have to show people things.”
McBride admires Mitchum’s performance in Ryan’s Daughter, though he admits it’s odd at first glance that Lean would hire the very American actor to play an Irish schoolteacher. “ “He could have hired some Irish actor, who was more predictable,” said McBride. “He’s just awfully good."
And he’s even better as the menacing Rev. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter.
Laughton, recalled McBride, called Mitchum one Sunday afternoon at his home in Los Angeles and started describing the part. “He said ‘he’s a through going villain, a really rotten person.” And Mitchum said, ‘present.’ He immediately accepted without reading the script."