' ' Cinema Romantico: Harrison Ford: Grouchmaster Gruff

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Harrison Ford: Grouchmaster Gruff

“Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything. No mystical energy field controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” That’s Han Solo’s line in the first (fourth) “Star Wars” film, and because it’s Han Solo’s line it is, of course, said by Harrison Ford. And it’s important to take note of three things – the “kid”, the “simple tricks and nonsense” and the delivery. By calling Luke Skywalker “kid”, Solo establishes himself specifically as not a kid; Ford may be the heartthrob but he’s an adult, and the way he delivers the line marks him not as a young adult but an adult with a bunch of clicks already on the odometer. He’s, like, a pre-old man, which is what the “simple tricks and nonsense” illustrates, as if he’s the old-timer at the Coruscant Tap complaining about how Smashball used to be so much better in the old days. And the line delivery is tired, it’s so tired. That dude wants to lie down in the Millenium Falcon’s nap room.

At some point, the broad narrative of Harrison Ford, as detailed in pieces like this one for Esquire, determined that Early Ford was “carefree” and “cool” before he eventually transformed into Late Ford – “Harrison the Grouch”, the grumpy raconteur that social media and other pop culture forums enjoy making fun of so much these days. But I suspect those people were not or are not paying attention to just how much crankiness pops up in Ford’s early roles. Han Solo had a roguish twinkle in his eye, sure, but he was irritable, and occasionally comically hostile, at every turn. It’s so sudden when he re-appears at the end to save the day because he’s spent the whole movie trying his hardest to weasel out of it, get his reward and go home.

I was thinking about all this even before news broke of Harrison Ford’s “critical” (per your more nuanced, less sensationalist news outlets) plane crash, and I was thinking about it because a Will Smith movie was just released and every time a Will Smith movie is released it seems to spawn a cavalcade of think pieces regarding the livelihood of the entity known as the Movie Star. And because the few films Harrison Ford deigns to do these days rarely lay down the serious box office smack, it is therefore deemed that he is past his so-called prime, that he is no longer a Movie Star, but one who burned out sometime in the mid-90’s and only appears afire to those of us back here on Earth and away from the otherworldly planet of Hollywood.

Movie Stars in Cinema Romantico Land, however, are defined not in terms of Box Office Mojo but in terms of actual mojo. Movie Stars are about an aura, certain stylistic specifics bestowed at birth by the Greek God of Motion Pictures (and when I say birth, I don’t mean birth, but “birth”, because, of course, Jean Harlow’s name was Harlean and she wasn’t blonde). Movie Stars are defined not simply by commanding the screen but by the way in which they command the screen, and Ford always commanded the screen with a different flair – or, should I say, a lack thereof. His most successful films were typically built on concepts that could have yielded giant monetary returns even without him. What he did, though, was impress his testily idiosyncratic personality onto those projects, and so something like “Indiana Jones” always felt more Ford-ish than Spielberg-ish, exemplified by the famous moment in the first film when Indy pulls the gun to avoid the swordfight. That was a Ford suggestion, because he had the flu, even though he often looked like he had the flu in films even if he didn’t, and when Spielberg changed around the moment in “Temple of Doom” it inevitably played all wrong.

Pauline Kael once said she preferred Ford’s work as Indiana Jones for its “spontaneity” and “easy-going quality” but that he struggled when he played “men they think are serious.” “These spy thrillers in which he plays a diplomat or an army officer,” she said, “you can hardly wait to escape.” Except that in every part Harrison Ford played, you could always sense him wanting to escape. Like, he never wanted to be there in the first place, an idea that Alex Pappademas put forth in his Career Arc Ford retrospective for Grantland, writing “you have to wonder if (Ford) wishes he’d stayed a carpenter.” Indeed, he’s the kind of Movie Star that can't quite figure out the point of stardom, the kind let behind the velvet ropes only to immediately disappear out the rear exit. Most people did not care for “Hollywood Homicide”, and I didn’t much care for it either, but Ford’s performance I fancied. His character is exhausted, with life, with juggling two careers, and Ford’s seemingly gruff disinterest with the movie itself and its hopelessly corroded plot actually works in blissful harmony with the character. It’s multi-layered “I want out.”

It’s why he worked so well in “Witness” as a cop on the run who disappears into an Amish community. It’s why he worked so well at the title character in “The Fugitive”, because he excels at blending in and vanishing in his own film, wholly content to leave the star-making, award-winning work to his co-star. It’s why he worked so well in “The Mosquito Coast.” There he strove to create a utopia away from the rest of the world and, frankly, isn’t that where Harrison Ford would always rather be, away from you and me and the whole lot of us and holed up in his Jackson Hole, Wyoming Fortress of Solitude?

Indiana Jones is more serious than I suspect Kael lets on, which is underlined in that makeout sequence with Allison Doody in “The Last Crusade” where, frankly, Dr. Jones doesn’t seem to be having quite as much spontaneous fun as the situation might normally, uh, arouse. It’s part screwball, yes, but his demeanor was definitely still that of a starch archaeology professor than expert in amour. Ford, of course, was well into his thirties before stardom befell, and he always came across like a weary old guy on school lunchroom detail. “It’s not the years,” he tells Karen Allen in “Raiders”, “it’s the mileage.” It’s a funny line, sure, but also telling, as if just a handful of years being put through the press junket and award show wringer for two blockbuster franchises merely accentuated his underlying gruffness. That Solo-ish and Falfa-ian twinkle was already beginning to erode. His interview with David Letterman in 1982 is a prime example. He’s as ticked off at the celebrity game as he is in his notorious GQ interview from two years ago. He’s on Letterman’s NBC show to promote “Blade Runner”, and while the urban legend is that the voiceover demanded by studio nitwits on said film was purposely sabotaged by a clearly disinterested Ford. But what if, you know, that’s merely the way Ford talks?

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died, the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody said on Twitter something to the effect of, it’s a reminder not only to write about performers we admire when they pass, but while they’re still here too. Harrison Ford didn’t die, thank God, when his plane crash-landed last Thursday but it made me think about him and his career and it made me want to write about him. And I guess it wasn’t until then that I realized how I actually was kind of excited for this new “Star Wars” film, despite all my ironic poses to the contrary. I’m excited if for no other reason than seeing Han Solo fulfill the arc you could see readily see lo so many years ago. Yes, J.J. Abrams “Star Wars” may be titled “The Force Awakens” but I feel safe in predicting that for Old Man Solo there will have been no awakening. He will still see it as simple tricks and nonsense. And then he will tell those rascally neighborhood Corellian kids to get off his goddam lawn.


Derek Armstrong said...

I'm loving this post. So acutely observed and written. Nick, you're so boring -- you leave me nothing to do but praise you. Can you, like, write something I don't agree with so I can leave an interesting comment?

Nick Prigge said...

You're a kind man, Vance. Thank you for your patronage, as always. And I'm sure we'll disagree soon at some point.