James Garner always seemed to me to be a little different from all other actors. Of course, each actor brings his own unique skills and sensibilities to the world of cinema, but Garner always stood out a little from the rest. His characters as he played them always seemed to be not only deeper than was written but also more colorful and interesting than any others with whom he shared the screen, yet he managed this without ever being flashy. He played heroes who didn’t fit the standard heroic mold, often wearing a black hat in a sea of bland, white hat heroes (in the picture above, featuring the leads of Warner Bros. western shows, Garner’s Maverick is the one who looks so different from the rest), and he could bring drama to a comedy or humor to a drama. With a career spanning 50 years of movies and television, he left us plenty of memorable roles, but there are several that will always stand out for me.
My first exposure to Garner must have been in The Great Escape. The classic WWII film is filled with bigger actors (in terms of personality and stardom if not size), from flashy superstar Steve McQueen to dramatic actors like James Donald and Richard Attenborough, yet Garner more than holds his own in the role of the “Scrounger,” Hendley. Hendley’s relationship with Blythe, the “Forger” (played by Donald Pleasence), is one of the most emotional aspects of the film, as Blythe loses his sight and therefore his spot in the escape only to have Hendley vouch for him and offer to take responsibility for him. The heartbreaking ending, following a daring escape attempt by airplane, is all the more sad as we see Hendley’s panic and desperation to help his friend play out all over his face. Of course, this being James Garner, the role is much more than simple drama, and he infuses the first half of the film with some fantastic humor, whether in the culture clash between Hendley and Blythe or the way he skillfully manipulates the German guard, Werner. However, my favorite moment in the film is a little one that is often overlooked. In one scene, Garner is inside the barracks when a German guard walks down the line of windows, saying “Close up!” in English to tell the prisoners to close the building’s shutters for the evening. While everyone else closes the shutters, Garner responds to the guard in German to say that he doesn’t speak English. It’s the sort of moment that feels improvised (whether it was or not), and perfectly highlights Garner’s dry and sarcastic delivery.
The best example of Garner’s comedic talents has to be Support Your Local Sheriff! In many ways it’s a film of contradictions, which is part of its lasting appeal. Garner, with his big size and his experience in Westerns, is perfectly suited to the standard role of a fast-drawing, sharp-shooting small town sheriff, and while his character of Jason McCullough fits that role he also flips the stereotype on its head throughout. McCullough may be able to shoot through the hole in a washer he tossed in the air, but he’d rather outsmart his enemies and he does his job simply because he needs the money on his way to Australia, not because of some heroic belief in law and order. And despite the film obviously being a comedy, Garner plays the entire thing straight. He may be surrounded by buffoons and slapstick, but he never delivers even his funniest of lines as though they’re a punchline. Everything comes out sounding natural, with just the right balance of sarcasm and weariness at his situation. The film is full of memorable moments, from McCullough tricking Bruce Dern’s Danby into staying in his jail cell that has no bars by dripping some red paint on the ground and telling him that that’s what happened to the last guy who tried to escape, to foiling Walter Brennan as Danby’s father by simply sticking his finger in the end of his gun. However, my all-time favorite James Garner line of dialogue actually comes from the film’s follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter. After knocking a man out, Jack Elam asks him indignantly, “You hit that fellow from behind?” Garner replies in all seriousness, “Just as hard as I could!” It’s the sort of line that only works if the delivery is spot on, catching you off guard with its honesty and being hilarious as a result.
However, my favorite performance of Garner’s might just be as King Marchand in Victor/Victoria. In the film, Marchand falls in love with Julie Andrews’ Victoria, a singer who was unable to find a job as a soprano so she and her partner concoct a scheme to pretend that Victoria is Count Victor, a drag queen. This allows Victoria to perform as herself but at the end of her performance she reveals that she’s “actually” a man in drag. Of course, the joke is that she’s actually a woman after all, who is only dressed in drag when off the stage. Marchand, a nightclub owner who works with the mob, is immediately infatuated with Victoria when he first sees her sing, only to be confused and even outraged when she reveals herself to be a “man.” As a stereotypically masculine character, Marchand doesn’t know what to make of the fact that he was attracted to a man, and when he thinks his attraction might be turning into love he becomes panicked about what would happen if word got out that he was gay. Garner takes that rugged masculinity that served him so well in Westerns and war movies and wears it almost as a burden in this film, as Marchand struggles to reconcile his feelings with his reputation while his views of the world slowly crash down around him. In the film’s best moment, he finally confesses, “I don’t care if you are a man,” before kissing her. She replies that she’s not a man but he says, “I still don’t care.”
Garner’s ability to be earnest and heartfelt while being sarcastic and even condescending carried him throughout a stellar career. Whether starring on TV in Maverick or The Rockford Files, earning an Oscar nomination for Murphy’s Romance, hamming it up in Space Cowboys (one of my personal favorites), or bringing the audience to tears in the cult favorite The Notebook, Garner made every role memorable. While other actors of his era have a modern day analogue, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a match for Garner. Few actors can be equally as sweet and biting, as at home in comedies or dramas, and are able to both play to a type while simultaneously subverting expectations. The closest we might have to Garner these days might be Robert Downey, Jr., but Garner was neither as flashy as Downey is now, nor as troubled as Downey used to be. Garner was simply a hard working, talented, versatile performer who made every film he was in better by his mere presence. He will be missed.