James Garner just made it all look too easy.
That’s the only explanation I can give for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences failing to vote him an Honorary Oscar over these last few years of Governors Awards. More than once I wrote a column of “suggestions” including those egregiously overlooked artists deserving of the industry’s top award, and always near the top was my annual reminder of Garner. But I guess it is just too late now. Garner, who died Saturday night at age 86, probably just would brush off the honor anyway, thinking those more “obvious” choices were more likely to ever get an Oscar. But it is precisely because he made it all seem so effortless that he was annually passed over.
It couldn’t have been because he was also a major television star could it? Nah. Maverick , The Rockford Files, those fine TV movies, and those magical Polaroid commercials he did with Mariette Hartley were all great. And no one can deny the power of those TV movies he did including Promise, Barbarians At The Gate , Breathing Lessons, Decoration Day, The Long Summer Of George Adams and My Name Is Bill W to name a few. These showed off an actor of real range. If it were just a career in television, it would be incredibly impressive but all the obits this morning calling him a TV legend, which he certainly was, missed the point of just what Garner’s remarkable acting achievement really is about.
I can hardly think of any other actor who so successfully could bounce from major TV stardom to major movie stardom and back again without missing a beat. A lot of stars were afraid of television, but not Garner, who showed you could do series TV and commercials and not have it harm your status as a movie star. And a movie star he was, even if he didn’t do the kind of theatrical motion picture roles that win Oscars, or even nominations, or even, apparently, Honorary Oscars.
It is telling that this man who received 15 Emmy nominations (and an acting win for Rockford in 1977) as well as 12 Golden Globe nominations that began with his being named the Most Promising Newcomer of 1958, only once was nominated for an Oscar and that came in 1985, long after all that TV success and more than 50 previous films, for starring opposite Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance. He was enormously touching as a small-town druggist finding a chance at new love with a woman 20 years his junior. Pure Garner perfection, but it wasn’t flashy. He lost to William Hurt‘s role as a homosexual inmate in a South American prison in Kiss Of The Spider Woman. And those were the kinds of roles that win Oscars, not the more simple, less obviously character-driven kind of work Garner regularly turned in on the big screen. Garner never felt the need to lose 40 pounds, or gain them, or hide behind make up, or transform himself into those kinds of Oscar-bait performances.
He was, more often than not, a likeable, reliable presence on screen, an actor we felt comfortable being around and a performer beloved by not only co-workers and crew members, but also those who sat out there in the dark watching him make it all look, well, so easy. But sometimes we just took for granted how damned good he was. Check out some of that film work, beginning with his role opposite Marlon Brando in 1957’s Sayonara, the same year Maverick began. Simutaneously with his first iconic TV role, Warner Bros. turned him into a leading man in a series of fairly forgettable movies until 1961 when major directors like William Wyler came calling with projects like The Children’s Hour.
Directors also loved him, and he worked for some of the best, including Wyler, John Sturges in 1963’s The Great Escape (one of my three all-time favorite movies), John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix, Norman Jewison, Robert Altman, Martin Ritt, Clint Eastwood (Space Cowboys), Blake Edwards (Victor Victoria) and Robert Benton (in the under-appreciated 1998 film Twilight) among others.
He proved as adept in drama as he was in comedy, and as comfortable on a horse as he was behind the wheel of a race car. But his biggest hits seemed always to come with his light touch, as in 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff and two years later, The Skin Game. Both were first-class comic westerns that just stand out in that genre. And if you want to see that light touch at its best, watch the two 1963 comedies – The Thrill Of It All and Move Over Darling – that he did opposite Doris Day. She worked with Cagney, Gable, Douglas, Stewart, Rex Harrison and on and on — and she always put Garner at or near the top of that list. Watching his reaction as he drove his convertible into a pool that hadn’t been in his backyard when he left that morning is a priceless moment in Jewison’s Thrill Of It All. Yet it was the comedies Day did opposite Rock Hudson that are the ones that everyone seems to remember. Garner’s work with her was just as good, if not better.
Blake Edwards employed Garner’s comedic talents to great effect opposite Julie Andrews in 1982’s terrific Victor Victoria but it was an earlier teaming with Andrews in The Americanization Of Emily in 1964 that was perhaps the best screen work of his career. Fifty years later, it’s still the favorite of all those involved, including director Arthur Hiller. This anti-war film and lilting romance was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky. Garner was brilliant as Charlie, delivering that unforgettable dialogue and making every word seem unscripted. But he never seemed to get the credit other actors might have in the same role. I had a screening of it a couple of years ago and Hiller could not stop talking about how good Garner was in it.
Toward the end, after his stroke six years ago, he was largely out of sight and confined to a wheelchair when old friends visited. It was a shame because I still think Garner had more to give. I had the great privilege to moderate a discussion for Screen Actors Guild members between him and his equally talented co-star Gena Rowlands (another who should be getting an honorary Oscar, Academy) in 2004 upon the release of The Notebook. Somewhere in New Line Cinema’s vaults is a copy of that video. They should find it, because watching these two pros was like taking a master class in acting. Before it started I asked the notorious golf addict how his game was going. He sadly said he had to give it up finally due to the arthritis that was starting to take its toll. But when you watched those simple and moving moments he had on screen in The Notebook as a man desperately trying to reach his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, you could see Garner hadn’t lost any of his ability as a screen great. I had hoped the Academy would nominate both stars, but they didn’t. Garner did receive a Best Supporting nod from SAG in early 2005 for the role, as well as their Life Achievement Award that year. In typical self-effacing fashion, he said of his acceptance speech, “well, this will be shorter than others.”
His long and wonderful career thankfully was not as short as that speech and something worth celebrating today. His last on-screen appearance was in The Ultimate Gift, something this star had to the end. James Garner did indeed make it all look so easy.