James Garner, 86, has left the earth, perhaps even the solar system. To many he was Maverick or Jim Rockford, but to me he’ll always be Charlie Madison, the nonchalant dog-robber and “practicing coward” in Paddy Chayefsky and Arthur Hiller‘s The Americanization of Emily (’64), which Garner often said later was his favorite performance. My second favorite Garner guy is Lt. Robert Hendley (a.k.a. “the Scrounger”) in John Sturges‘ The Great Escape (’63). My third favorite is race-car driver Pete Aron in John Frankenheimer‘s Grand Prix (’66). And that was it, really — a four-year streak in which Garner was peaking like a stallion and 100% in synch with America’s idea of success and masculinity — smart, laid-back, smooth, broad-shouldered, good-looking, a little scampy.
All right, if you add his three years with Maverick (’57 to ’60) plus Sayonara (’57), The Children’s Hour (’62) and one or two of his fluffly romcoms with Doris Day I guess Garner had a nine-year streak but ’63 to ’66 was when he really and truly mattered — when he was “the guy.” I know he was primarily at home on the tube for most of his career, but he owned mainstream movie potency for that four-year period.
And then things changed. Garner didn’t seem to blend quite as well with the post-’66 direction of the culture. His Emily costar James Coburn fit right into the less-conventional, jauntily irreverent mood of things (which began to occasionally manifest in the sort of mild-mannered entertainments Garner excelled in) from ’66 or ’67 on. But not Garner, who was a Korean War-era guy with a traditional manliness. He was a bit too reserved and conservative to sing a bar of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, as Coburn did in The President’s Analyst, and get away with it. How would Garner have fared if he’d been given Rock Hudson‘s role in Seconds? Not sure, kicking this one around.
I’m sorry to recall that Garner starred in one of the worst films ever made on the planet earth — Irwin Yablans and Marvin J. Chomsky‘s Tank (’84) with C. Thomas Howell as his son. But a year later he bounced back with a classy, just-right performance in Martin Ritt‘s Murphy’s Romance opposite Sally Field. 20 years later he portrayed an elderly guy…I don’t want to talk about The Notebook (’04) but he was in it, playing a guy named Duke.
Oh, right…Blake Edwards‘ Victor/Victoria (’82). Forgot about that one but Garner handled himself nicely as a rich, moustachio’ed smoothie who falls for what he believes (i.e., has been told) is a young “male” chanteuse, played by Julie Andrews.
Garner stayed sharp and kept working all the way through. So what if his hot streak lasted less than a decade? At least he had one.
In any event all hail Garner’s anti-war speechifying in Emily and especially the way he said the following: “I don’t want to know what’s good, or bad, or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact about things. Life isn’t good, or bad, or true. It’s merely factual, it’s sensual, it’s alive. My idea of living sensual facts are you, a home, a country, a world and a universe. In that order. I want to know what I am, not what I should be.”
I’ll always love listening to Garner say to Julie Andrews (a) “You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the age of enlightenment,” and (b) “No one gets moral unless they’re trying to get something or get out of something.”