Robert Mitchum was so cool that you could have stuck a soft serve ice cream in his pocket on a baking summer’s day and when you came back a few hours later it would have crystallised. Whether he was sipping bourbon in an Acapulco dive or puffing cigars on a beach at Normandy, the fellow emanated worldliness, fortitude and composure.
Lee Server’s biography, Baby, I Don’t Care, makes him sound even more formidable than he appeared onscreen. After his father died in a railyard accident he was forced to endure an impoverished upbringing. In his teens, by his account, he left home and rode the rails before being arrested for vagrancy and made to work in a chain gang. He stumbled into acting after a series of peculiar jobs including boxing and ghostwriting for an astrologer, and built his reputation upon his languid performances and impressive appearance. Somehow, he turned out to be one hell of an actor.
There is much within the many detailed pages of the book that will enhance one’s appreciation of the man. He was a thoughtful and witty guy who spurned the glitz of Hollywood and was as comfortable with stagehands and extras as with stars. He was genuinely tough, and took his own bumps on set and in the bar. He could, it seems, have drunk any man under the table. There is also much that makes him sound potentially unpleasant. His sense of humour could be not so much cruel as sadistic. His wife took more crap than a lake next to a power station. His anti-semitic comments became more than a bad habit.
Still, why should I judge the man as if I was schoolteacher? What Server’s book reveals is Mitchum as a human being, with grievances and flaws as well as talents and achievements. Reading of the lives of celebrities one admires is always a tad disheartening because it answers the questions that one may have regarding them and they are often more banal or less pleasant than one imagines. Mitchum is a less dramatic example of this because he was at least an interesting sonuvabitch. Others, like Marilyn or Elvis, turned out to be boring: fragile, naive characters distorted by their abnormal status.
What made the actors and singers of the past intriguing was how little one knew of them. They did not bare all to interviewers, or photographers, and had a mystique that encouraged the imagination. People could flesh out their characters, and bodies, in their heads. Nowadays, of course, you cannot get away from celebrities promoting their tedious views, advocating inane beliefs, wittering on about their love lives and inflicting themselves upon the cameras. We have all had a moment, as someone like George Clooney or Mia Farrow – never mind Bono or Lady Gaga – holds forth on X, Y and Z when we have thought, “Hang on – you’re really boring aren’t you!”
This could be no bad thing. Offering one’s admiration to people whose achievements and personalities are of minimal lasting consequence can be wasteful and degrading by its nature and if people looked to extraordinary moral or intellectual figures, or tried harder to fulfill their own potential, that may be a cause for cheer. What we have, though, is the worst of both worlds: where people idolise others in spite of and, indeed, because of their evident banality and, sometimes, unpleasantness.
Yes, I know, I’m becoming grouchier by the day. If anyone wants me I’ll be watching Out of the Past.