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Robert Mitchum, A Seasoned Champion

“World-weary, battered, unpretentious, Mitchum epitomized postwar masculinity: Here was the conquering hero conquered by self-doubt, who never feared reprisal for confessing this weakness because he could defend himself with a truly terrifying physical strength”

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Trouble waits in sullen pools along the way l’ve taken.
Silent windows stare the empty street.
No love beckons me save that which I’ve forsaken.

And the anguish of my solitude, sweet. 

 — Robert Mitchum, circa 1932
Verse written to his mother while he was serving time on a chain gang in Chatham County, Georgia

Shortly after he drowsily recites this “sophomoric” poem written at the worldly wise age of 15, Mitchum invisibly shifts gears and tartly remembers, “How­ard Hughes always said to me, ‘Robert, you’re like a pay toilet, aren’t you? You don’t give a shit for nothing.'” Hughes was wrong, but the self-deprecating Mitchum would be the last to care. At 65, the only observation he makes on his own behalf is “I know shit from pound cake, I know bad from good.” His slang is pep­pered with references to bodily functions. He returns from the bathroom, self-satis­fied, announcing, “That was a three-flush piss. I feel like the frog-prince.”

Robert Mitchum confides his poetic sentimentality and communicates his vio­lent antiauthoritarianism in the same voice, that husky, gravel-purr monotone two octaves below basso profundo, just at the edge of audibility. His lack of inflec­tion alerts listeners to content. An acid rain of profanity sears the air after the humid sweetness of a stray confession. He wears the fragrance of Tequila like after­shave, chain-smokes Pall Malls and what­ever other filterless weed is within reach. He is a reluctant interview, likening his promotional tour for That Championship Season to serving time (he’s been in the slammer on 11 occasions, for everything from vagrancy to conspiracy to marijuana possession, and refers to prison as “the great leveler”). But much as he wants to hold back, he’s a congenital raconteur, rapping improvisationally with a jazz man’s syncopation and stream of con­sciousness, immensely articulate if, at times, semicoherent.

He’s large. Burly shouldered, barrel chested, ample bellied, Mitchum, upon our introduction at a publicist’s lunch, intimidates me by barking, “Fuck you and the boat that brought you!” I smile, “No boat, sorry,” and he gets raffishly apologetic, extending his hands, which I inspect to see if the knuckles are still tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE” from his role as the evil fundamentalist preacher in Night of the Hunter. “Been in so many fistfights since then, they got erased,” he drawls, his lazy, bruised mouth curling. For those of you, like me, worried about the condition of his hams, he still has the digit severed in The Yakuza. Impulsively, he gives me a bear hug, and what I’ve suspected for 30 years is confirmed: I’m in love with Mr. Love/Hate, and he acts out every contradiction he projects on screen.

Alternately mucho macho and muy simpatico, Mitchum respects people who hold their ground, because he’s always held his and knows it’s hard. After lunch I arrive at his Waldorf suite for the inter­view (“You’ll have to be nude between the sheets,” he’d instructed me, “and wear a false mustache”), and we discuss his vagabond childhood, how his railroad­worker dad was killed in a train accident, how his mom, he, and two siblings were always the new folks in town. “My brother and I were always put in the position of proving ourselves. The trick was to push the challenger’s nose to the back of his brain without giving him a cerebral hemorrhage.” Mitchum slithers off the settee and forcefully rearranges my face without doing any damage, while I silently get hysterical and imagine Post headlines (ACTOR REVISES CRITIC’S PAN) but hold my ground. He’s respectful. He’s let­ting me know how far I can pursue this line of questioning. I ask him a little more about the early days, and he’s disgusted. “Why should I tell you when I can write it myself and get a $1 million advance?” He’ll tell some, but not all.

Dad’s early death. Gypsy life with his mother, brother, and half-sister. Mom’s a newspaperwoman who worked her way up from the linotype room. Robert was a habitual runaway and scrapper, given sax­ophone lessons as therapy (“Because I shit in the teacher’s hat or something”), and by his account, which sounds more mythopoetic than documentary, he played instrumental scat-tattoos during the “Star Spangled Banner” while his classmates plugged perfunctorily away. At 15 he was in Manhattan attending high school and working after school as a lyric arranger at WMCA. (“At the age of 15?”   I ask. He doesn’t answer.) He idolized Johnny Mercer and new music, which was jazz. Various arrests. (How?) Pissing in alleyways, vagrancy. Chain gang. Hopped a freight for California during the mid-­’30s. Wrote some radio plays. Directors told him whenever he wants to be in front of the mike, he’s hired. He accepted. He can ride a horse, so he was hired as a movie extra. Because he’s dumb enough to do his own stunts, he was in constant demand as actor/stuntman, directors get­ting two performances for the price of one.

Since 1943 (he was 26), Mitchum has been in 100-plus movies and slowly chiseled an acting career of Rushmore monumentality. He brought a new kind of love to the postwar screen (sex) and a new kind of ethos (stoic doubt). His bedroom eyes and barroom mouth bespoke the rig­ors of the sack and the sauce. In the two movies be made with Jane Russell — ­Macao and His Kind of Woman — the pair are so sultrily laconic and sleepy (they look like twins) that it seemed as though they were filmed between rounds in the boudoir. When I mention my fondness for these films, he dismisses me with “You just like tits, Carrie.” I reply: “Hers or yours?” Almost guffawing, Mitchum growls, “Hers are bigger, mine are fur­ther.” I don’t know what he means, nei­ther does he, but we both know a punch line when we hear one.

For Mitchum on screen, sex wasn’t about romance or conquest; it was an expansive, immensely pleasurable, re­ciprocal trade agreement. When he and Jane Greer size each other up in Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s echt film noir sizzler, the feeling is mutual. In Pursued, the first Freudian Western, Teresa Wright tries to kill Mitchum on their wedding night, and they literally pistol-whip each other before disarming in a hot embrace. In Mitchum movies, women were always equals, had to be, or he’d wipe them off the screen, and I think it’s as much a function of his persona as it was of the scenarios. Of all the postwar actors — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark — only Mitchum imme­diately figured out how to be a man’s man and a woman’s man at the same time. His Kind of Woman could just as well be titled Her Kind of Man.

World-weary, battered, unpretentious, Mitchum epitomized postwar masculinity. Here was the conquering hero conquered by self-doubt, who never feared reprisal for confessing this weakness (self-doubt never entered the consciousness of John Wayne, for example) because Mitchum could defend himself with a truly terrifying physical strength. A typi­cal Mitchum character never dictated good and evil, because all he could see through those heavily lidded eyes were shades of gray. Mitchum precociously gave ambivalence a good name, anticipat­ing a ’60s ethos. A swaggerer nonetheless, Mitchum was a hipster John Wayne, never suggesting might makes right though he’d acknowledge that it sure helps. Cast against type very rarely during his 40 years of screen sleepwalking, he was the brick men could rely on, the hooligan who could be chastened by Susan Hay­ward’s wide eyes in The Lusty Men, by Deborah Kerr’s nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. He had a sense of sexual and professional protocol. Self-reliant, he ex­pected the same of others, and be never seduced a woman who made herself un­available. Though this reinforced the femme fatale/good girl mold of ’50s women characters, it acknowledged that women had a right to their own desires.

And for a man committed to holding his own ground, he sure gave his co-stars plenty of room. Explaining his philosophy of strength — which is visible on screen­ — Mitchum gestures, pounding his left fist into the palm of his right hand, “Just because I’m bigger than you and can maim you doesn’t give me any right to bash your brains in. You don’t get away with shit in this world and your only alternative is figuring out what you can give to others, not take from them.” His conception of a destiny distinct from the manifest kind is probably what makes his movies and performances seem so modern today. His presence in a ’40s and ’50s movie was enough to reinvent genres. Out of the Past was the first no-win film noir, Pursued the first psychological Western, The Lusty Men the first “modern” West­ern, set amid the present-day rodeo circuit.

Mitchum is loath to talk about acting as his way of giving. “Circumstance got me in front of the camera,” he tersely dismisses his vocation. The only self-as­sessment he grudgingly offers: “I take ’em on a trip, with authority!” But his author­ity is fundamentally antiauthoritarian, laissez-faire; he tries to inflect the word, can’t, and stresses it by raising his voice, slightly. On the Scranton, Pennsylvania, location of That Championship Season, Mitchum wittily distinguished the older generation of movie actors from the new: “These kids only want to talk about act­ing method and motivation; in my day all we talked about was screwing and over­time.” He evades the subject of movies (“My favorite movie? The Last Time I Saw Archie. Never saw it, but it was the first time I made 500 grand for a month’s work, that’s why it’s my favorite”), prefer­ring to teach me slang etymology and dish his former colleagues with brutally funny anecdotes.

“Billy Wellman?” Mitchum introduces the subject of the man who directed him in The Story of G.I. Joe and Track of the Cat. “He had a gentle heart and septic tastes,” he observes, and this could be autoanalysis. Of Raoul Walsh, director of Pursued, “A marvelous man, he’d cry at card tricks.” Mitchum describes Walsh as the indifferent auteur: “He’d call ‘action!’ and turn his back to the scene and try, unsuccessfully, to roll cigarettes with one hand on the side of his bad eye. He’d fail after four times or so; then he’d turn back to the actors in disgust and scream, ‘Cut!’ Yet his movies are the best.” Mitchum has worked with almost every major Hollywood director and is clamorously impatient with the aesthetes, preferring the wham-bam of action director Nick Ray (Macao, The Lusty Men) to the actor’s directors Cukor and Minnelli. “Cukor … Zukor … Pukor …” he rhymes, his nostrils flaring at the stench of Desire Me. He proceeds to do a devastating impersonation, puffing out his flattened lips to resemble Cukor’s full mouth, mimick­ing the director with damning precision. (Mitchum, though uninflected in his own speech, can ape anybody, everybody, and when he thought I was being dumb or beside the point, delighted in a breathless mimicry of me.)

Minnelli? “Vincent was essentially a designer,” analyzes Mitchum, dismissing their first collaboration, Undercurrent, as Underdrawers. “But in Home from the Hill he had to invent a genre while every­one at the studio was getting pink-slipped.” A Cain and Abel melodrama antici­pating the tension of That Championship Season, Home from the Hill stars Mitchum as a tormented, ambivalent pa­triarch. (Offscreen, he loathed George Peppard’s Method posturing and did his best to coach rookie George Hamilton, who once confided that he still sends Mitchum a card every Mother’s Day.) Only Charles Laughton escapes the barbed praise. “Charles should have directed all the time … I’ve never felt a keener sense of trying to please a direc­tor,” he recalls of the man who made Night of the Hunter, the first time Mitchum enacted a character outside his own experience.

Since then, except for Ryan’s Daughter and The Last Tycoon, Mitchum’s best performances have been in playing a character not unlike Robert Mitchum. He’s cast against type in That Championship Season as a homily-spouting basketball coach whose hypocrisy runs counter to Mitchum’s own straight-arrow, live-and-­let-live ethos. Although a true believer in laissez-faire economics and sociology, this battle-scarred vet of every private and public war imaginable has no trouble enacting a patriarch-under-siege in the role that was originally intended for Wil­liam Holden. As the coach, Mitchum pulls out all the stops to get where he wants to go. From the flow of our conversation, certain corrections he makes, I get the notion that the fatherless actor’s charac­terization of the coach might be based, in part, off Howard Hughes, about whom Mitchum (with uncharacteristic awe) re­calls, “Howard would always look through you, past you. If he said it, it was true.”

Mitchum conveys his antiauthority through the negation of eye contact: his drowsy peepers are all but hidden behind swollen bags. I ask him to take off his oversize spectacles so I can look at his eyes. They’re indigo — matching his shirt and his mood. He really doesn’t want to talk about how he made his living, he prefers to talk about living. Mitchum gets almost animated (his body lurches toward me, out of his customary slouch) when he recalls his love for music, particularly the music and lyrics of Johnny Mercer. He sings “Fare Thee Well to Harlem” in a voice that should be reserved for gospel. (Laughton knew: he made Mitchum sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” in Night of the Hunter. And Mitchum did have a hit single, Thunder Road, in 1959, theme song of his movie.) He wants to rap, teach me new slang. “Brush ’em easy, he boxed out,” he says of a Pensacola dude, a dealer in contraband, who warned Mitchum not to disturb the privacy of a spacy street character. “Boxed out … that’s the opposite of prison, of being boxed in, that’s total freedom of imagination,” Mitchum says.

“You know the origin of the word hip?” asks Mitchum, simultaneously the world’s oldest and youngest hipster, the guy who makes a trench coat look like a suit of armor. “Comes from hep, synonym of cool?” I volunteer. “Nah, like every important slang term, it comes from the Chinese opium trade … when you smoke, you lie on your hip. The you say, ‘I’m hip,’ that means you know the life.” He’s hip. About his verse he says, with regret, “I think the price of poetry is that it opens the door to more people than I have room for.” The anguish of his solitude, all the sweeter because he’s a loner who likes company. Dorothy, his wife of 42 years, wanders through, trying to open a window to air the room of its smoke and liquor aromas.

Mitchum’s last act as I prepare to leave is to teach me a self-defense trick. He wants people to hold their ground. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2020

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