Cooper, Gary (1901-1961)

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Cooper, Gary (1901-1961)

In American cinema history, Gary Cooper reigned almost un-challenged as the embodiment of male beauty—"swooningly beautiful" as Robin Cross defined it in his essay in The Movie Stars Story —and an enduring emblem of innocent ideals and heroic virtues. Lanky and laconic, his screen persona often shy and hesitant, there was about him the aura of a solitary man, his clear compelling eyes seemingly focused on a distant and private horizon. Cooper contributed comprehensively to every genre of Hollywood film, working with an unparalleled range of directors and leading ladies. His career spanned 35 years, shorter than that of several of his contemporaries, yet he made an astonishing number of films by any standard—92 in all—which carried him through as a leading man from the silent era to the commencement of the 1960s.

Irrespective of the material, Cooper's casual, laconic delivery remained unmodified by any change of pace or nuance, yet his very simplicity lent truth to his performances. In the public mind, Cooper remains an archetypal Man of the West, most movingly defined by his Sheriff Will Kane in High Noon (1952). What he never played, however, was a man of villainy or deceit.

Christened Frank Cooper, he was born on May 7, 1901 to British immigrant parents in Helena, Montana, where his father was a justice of the Supreme Court. He was educated in England from 1910-17, returning to attend agricultural college in Montana, work on a ranch, and study at Grinnell College in Iowa. There, he began drawing political cartoons. He was determined to become an illustrator and eventually went to Los Angeles in 1924 to pursue this goal. Unable to find a job, he fell into work as a film extra and occasional bit player, mainly in silent Westerns, and made some 30 appearances before being picked up by director Henry King as a last-minute substitute for the second lead in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).

The camera loved Cooper as it did Garbo, and his instant screen charisma attracted attention and a long tenure at Paramount, who built him into a star. He made a brief appearance in It (1927) with Clara Bow and became the superstar's leading man in Children of Divorce the same year, a film whose box-office was helped considerably by their famous off-screen affair. It was the first of many such liaisons between Cooper and his leading ladies who, almost without exception, found his virile magnetism and legendary sexual prowess irresistible. He finally settled into marriage with socialite Veronica Balfe, a relationship that survived a much-publicized affair with Patricia Neal, Cooper's co-star in the screen version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1949). These exploits did nothing to dent his image as a gentle "Mr. Nice Guy" replete with quiet manly strength or his growing popularity with men and women alike, and by the mid-1930s his star status was fully established and remained largely unshakable for the rest of his life.

Cooper made his all-talkie debut in The Virginian (1929), the first of his many Westerns, uttering the immortal line, "When you call me that, smile!" In 1930, for Von Sternberg, he was the Foreign Legionnaire in Morocco with Dietrich and emerged a fully established star. He was reunited with her in Frank Borzage's Desire in 1936, by which time he had successfully entered the arenas of romantic comedy and melodrama, played the soldier hero of A Farewell to Arms (1932), and survived a few near-misses to embark on his best period of work.

From 1936-57 Cooper featured on the Exhibitors' Top Ten List in every year but three, and ranked first in 1953. His run of hits in the 1930s, which began with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), brought one of his most famous roles in 1936, that of Longfellow Deeds, the simple country boy who inherits a fortune and wishes to give it away to the Depression-hit farmers of America. The film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, directed by Frank Capra, earned Cooper the first of his five Oscar nominations, while another country boy-turned-patriotic hero, Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941) marked his first Oscar win.

The 1940s brought two films with Barbara Stanwyck, the quintessentially Capra-esque drama, Meet John Doe (1941), then Hawks' comedy Ball of Fire (1942), in which he was a memorable absent-minded professor. His sober portrayal of baseball hero Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) won another Academy nomination, as did For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) with Ingrid Bergman. The 1950s brought mixed fortunes. In 1957 Billy Wilder cast the 56 year-old Cooper opposite 28 year-old gamin Audrey Hepburn in the sophisticated comedy romance Love in the Afternoon. Cooper, suffering from hernias and a duodenal ulcer, precursors of the cancer that would kill him, looked drawn and older than his years, and the May-December partnership was ill received.

The decade did, however, cast him in some notable Westerns. He was a striking foil to Burt Lancaster's wild man in Vera Cruz (1954) and was impressive as a reformed outlaw forced into eliminating his former partners in Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958), his last masterpiece in which the ravages of age and illness were now unmistakably apparent. But it was his awesomely contained, determined, and troubled sheriff, going out to face the forces of evil alone in High Noon that won him another Oscar and cemented the Cooper image for future generations.

At the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony in April 1961, Gary Cooper was the recipient of a special award for his many memorable performances and the distinction that he had conferred on the motion picture industry. He was too ill to attend and his close friend James Stewart accepted on his behalf. A month later, on May 13, 1961, Gary Cooper died, leaving one last film—the British-made and sadly undistinguished The Naked Edge (1961)—to be released posthumously. Idolized by the public, he was loved and respected by his peers who, as historian David Thomson has written, "marveled at the astonishingly uncluttered submission of himself to the camera."

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Cross, Robin. "Gary Cooper." The Movie Stars Story. New York, Crescent Books, 1986.

Meyers, Jeff. Gary Cooper: American Hero. New York, Morrow, 1998.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. London, Angus & Robertson, 1979.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Knopf, 1994.

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Cooper, Gary (1901-1961)

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