Monday, May 20, 2013
Birthday Boy: Homespun Hotness
James Stewart (105 today, in a better world) isn't always thought of as one of Hollywood's lookers, but he could do a dreamy gaze into the middle distance with the best of them.
He also does yearning awfully well, and for someone mostly remembered for his good humor and folksy charm, he has an off-kilter angle on obsession that makes watching him in something like Vertigo especially gripping (one minute he's all wry grumbles with Barbara Bel Geddes, and the next he's a sweaty perv losing it over Kim Novak, and it never fails to startle).
Once upon a time I was temping at Lincoln Center, typing (on an actual typewriter. Yes, it was the Pleistocene). I shared a tiny office with a formidable and elderly executive secretary who had gotten her start 'round about the glory days of Toscanini. One of the benefits of the job was that we had an intercom in the office so that we could hear what was going on downstairs on the stage - mostly it was orchestral rehearsals, but one week the hall was to be used for a gala. On the morning of the big day, We had the speaker turned down, as it was mostly tech run-through stuff, the stage manager shouting instructions and various people trying to focus lights and figure out entrances and exits. After a while, we realized it had gotten rather quiet.
Then, out of nowhere, we heard two voices familiar from a thousand late night movies: "Mister Stewart!" "Hello, Bette!"
She might have been old, but when she needed to, Miss Marzini moved fast - she was across the room turning that speaker up in nanoseconds. It turned out the gala was the annual Lincoln Center film tribute, and that year Bette Davis, the honoree, was to be introduced by Stewart. They ran through their bit, and after a minute or two, Miss Marzini looked at me, and I looked at her, and we scampered down the back stairs four or five flights and stood at the back of the hall to see the two spotlit figures, one tiny and wiry and electric even from that distance, the other tall and slightly stooped and just as courtly as one imagined, work out their business.
It was only a few minutes, but it was magic, and I don't know that either of us, Miss Marzini and I, got too much else done that day. We took the elevator back upstairs, and she of course had to call Mother up in Ossining to tell her everything, which took a while, and then I had to call one or two people who had to know that moment all about the Patrick Kelly suit and hat (in memory a brilliant green) Bette Davis wore, and then we just stared at each other and sighed. Seeing Davis, of course was amazing, but, oh, sighed Miss Marzini, Jimmy Stewart. In that oh was everything I needed to know to be certain that while the Cary Grants and Tyrone Powerses of this world have their place, never disregard the power of a quiet man with a charming stammer...