On movie stars: James Harvey's 'WatchingThem Be'

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"Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar" by James Harvey (Faber and Faber, July 2014). Photo Credit: Faber and Faber

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WATCHING THEM BE: Star Presence on the Screen From Garbo to Balthazar, by James Harvey. Faber and Faber, 380 pp., $27.

The pleasure of James Harvey's new book, "Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar," comes from the feeling of being escorted through some great (and not-so-great) movies in the company of a witty and knowledgeable cinephile. He'll tell you that at the height of her fame, Greta Garbo wrote to a friend and described her psychiatrist as a "little hunchbacked man who I am dragging down into the abyss of pessimism." He'll tell you that while John Wayne was playing war heroes in the early 1940s, he kept himself out of actual military service, and that John Ford, the director most responsible for his stardom, never forgave him for it. Harvey combines an academic's authority with a writer's chatty style (he's a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and author of two previous books about movies), and his enthusiasm permeates this appealingly idiosyncratic study.

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He notes that, compared with the "ironic, elegant, haunting" Marlene Dietrich and that "termagant sexpot" Bette Davis, the "blooming and unaffected" Ingrid Bergman "hardly seems like an actress at all." Then, he nails this point with an astute aside: "There are no drag queen Ingrid Bergmans -- nor is one even imaginable." He is persuasive on what makes Wayne so compelling: "Sometimes it's less his slit-eyed stare you may remember from his movies than the abashed look that follows it." Watching Robert De Niro in the first five movies he made with Martin Scorsese is like watching an "artist who disappears into his own creation. The invisible star."

Harvey's chapters on particular movies, such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculin FĂ©minin" and Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," sometimes read more like notes than shaped discussions. Still, they're engrossing. On Lily Tomlin's "gravity" in Robert Altman's "Nashville": "It's she more than anyone else who gives the film its occasional feeling (somewhat misleading) of novelistic depth." He writes critically but admiringly of the "nearly great" movies that Bergman made with Roberto Rossellini, and of films by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The final chapter salutes what Harvey calls "probably the greatest movie I've ever seen," Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar," about a donkey. Harvey argues that the film's focus on the difficult life of a beast of burden shows not "that animals have human gifts, but rather that people have animal ones -- the dignity, the purity and intactness, the final remoteness and inviolable beauty of animal nature." It's a lovely and convincing tribute to an artwork, and to the majesty of an art form.

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