The Heavy Absence of Star Presence

If trying to grasp screen presence is like reaching for the stars, James Harvey shows noble reach in his book, Watching Them Be.

Screen presence is perhaps the most ineffable element of cinema. What is it? Where is it? Where does it reside? An actor’s face? The eyes? The bearing? Is it generated solely from the player or more from the spectator? Or is it a commingled product of both?

This evanescent quality is the ostensible subject of James Harvey’s Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen, from Garbo to Balthazar. I say “ostensible” because, despite the promise implied by the subtitle, Harvey doesn’t really delve too deeply into trying to find out where, what or why such a thing as screen presence occurs, but instead offers descriptions — copious descriptions — of key movies and their key performances. But perhaps that’s only appropriate, given such an elusive target. Perhaps star presence can only be circled, never pinpointed.

Harvey is professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and with such august academic credentials one might expect a relatively jargonized chunk of scholarship. But Harvey is surprisingly accessible, sometimes too coyly so, offering up some chummy prose as when he describes one Garbo character as having a “how-about that glint in her eyes…” There’s a lot of that kind of stuff throughout the book.

Harvey focuses on some expected single-name subjects — Garbo, Dietrich, De Niro — and also a less expected figure like Charles Laughton. He also mines star/director/producer collaborations — John Wayne with John Ford, Bette Davis with William Wyler, Ingrid Bergman coupled with both David O. Selznick and Roberto Rossellini — and wider, ensembles (Robert Altman’s Nashville, Jackie Brown), directors (Jean-Luc Godard, Carl Theodor Dreyer), and even a donkey (the eponymous Balthazar from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar), a performer who gets my vote for most elusive and moving of all screen presences.

Though what’s lacking in all this is some sort of summation or theory as to what Harvey himself might conjecture as screen presence, he jabs at his slippery subject with lucid feints and thrusts: “Garbo’s movie-star bigness [and] largesse of spirit…”, Wayne’s “engulfing monumentality…”.

Bette Davis, he states, “was shockingly ‘real.’ What she did was not so much like recognizable true behavior as flesh and blood charged with awful life, all but leaping off the movie screen. A termagant sexpot […] Davis at such moments is like a cynosure of the tortured will…”, that last bit a fine Henry Jamesian phrase. Yet I was disappointed to find in his Bette Davis chapter no mention of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, that macabre parody of stardom featuring both Davis and Joan Crawford. If any movie revealed or reveled in or reviled the notion of “star presence”, it is Baby Jane — star presence as star putrescence.

Harvey is a great describer, however. He details the sublime moment of John Wayne’s starmaking dolly-shot entrance into John Ford’s Stagecoach: “[Wayne] looms in full-length close shot against a rear-projected desert […] in a white hat and black shirt, saddle and blanket under one arm, the other outstretched and gripping the rifle by the trigger guard: ‘Hold it!’ he commands — twirling the rifle in his hand, looking straight ahead as the camera movies swiftly in on him until his close-up fills the screen, his neckerchief lifting in the wind.”

But what does such a rich description ultimately reveal about screen presence? Not much, it seems. Further, the description itself is marred by some cutesy rhetoric: “This sudden camera move (very un-Fordian) is like a nudge in the ribs: Look at this, will you?”

The point and power of the shot, to me, isn’t its “un-Fordian” elbow (a debatable claim), but the mastery, the screen presence, of director John Ford himself. Ford knew just where to put the camera, and when and how to move it, for optimal poetic effect. He knew what to shoot and how to shoot it, and perhaps most importantly, he knew when he had the shot.

So I do agree for the most part with Harvey’s personal assessment of the lauded moment in Ford’s The Searchers, when Wayne’s Ethan Edwards tenderly kisses his brother’s wife goodbye: “There is hardly a movie scene anywhere, it seems to me […], that moves you so much and so powerfully by its delicacy, its mixture of tact and tenderness, as this one does. Ford at such moments… makes those other classical masters, justly famous for their ‘touches,’ their civilized [I would say, rather, their cerebral] elegances (Lubitsch, Ophuls…), look almost ham-fisted.” Yet his later statement that “Delicacy is not something you normally associate with Wayne” I declare patently false. But I guess it depends on to whom that “you” implies.

An actor doesn’t have to be glamorous or even necessarily attractive in the traditional sense to have star presence, as Harvey proves with his chapter on Laughton. I found this chapter the most entertaining, as when the author describes Laughton’s characters in three successive movies as “three figures of repressive and repellent masculine authority”, or quotes Laughton with an answer I feel gets at something profound about star attraction: “When Brecht asked him why he acted, [Laughton] said, ‘Because people don’t know what they are like and I think I can show them.”

Unfortunately, these more reflective perceptions get undercut by some fairly goofy, gushy things, as in this bit from the chapter on Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown: “Though [Pam Grier] went on working [after the 1970s blaxploitation films], it was in small parts in movies and TV that sometimes obliquely alluded to her cult eminence […] Until two decades passed — and suddenly there was Jackie Brown! The biggest, longest, most ambitious movie she’d ever done (Gone With the Wind at last!) by the hottest filmmaker going…”

In his otherwise detailed analysis of Jackie Brown, Harvey barely touches on the presence of actor Robert Forster, for me the most abiding aspect of Tarantino’s best (because least Tarantinoesque?) film, or even Grier herself, beyond this: “This accomplished… movie has many rewards… but nothing deeper and richer than the performances of these two together and apart […] ‘They don’t have to do anything,’ [Tarantino] said — ‘it’s all right there.’ In their presence on the screen.”

Is it just there? Or is star presence more corporeal? That is, do stars have such presence off-screen? Certainly Wayne had it, famously. And I recently watched an older interview with actor Robert Mitchum, who just oozed it.

Interestingly, screen presences need not even be human, as Harvey demonstrates in his closing chapter on the donkey in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, a film the author calls the “the greatest movie I’ve ever seen,” a high-sounding assertion I unabashedly second. What Bresson is able to elicit with this animal, as well as a handful of others in an incredibly moving circus scene, is astounding and uncanny. And what of Lassie or even the orangutan of Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way but Loose?

So where or how is such presence generated? Solely through framing, montage, interaction? Bresson often spoke of wanting to capture the “soul”, which is just what he seems to accomplish with his donkey; indeed, what all the films discussed in Watching Them Be accomplished with their stars.

Screen presence seems just that, then: the heavy absence or “emptiness [with] weight” implied by the concept of “soul”. For all of cinema’s ghostliness — its subsistence on light, the transient effluence of the images, the way one can put one’s hand through the figures’ shimmery projection — one still seems able, almost, to grab hold of it. So if trying to grasp screen presence is like reaching for the stars, James Harvey’s Watching Them Be shows noble reach.

“A screen star generally appropriates [his or] her role rather than disappearing into it (as an ordinary actor might do)… but [with true star turns] it’s as if something is appropriating [them]…”

RATING 6 / 10