Greatish Performances #43

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#43 — Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks. 1939)

By most accounts, Jean Arthur was miserable making Only Angels Have Wings. One of many aces director Frank Capra had in his usual deck, Arthur was operating with a different filmmaking titan of the day. Howard Hawks had made one of his periodic circle-backs to Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, taking a script about pilots working under rough conditions in South America and hammering it into a shape that suited his own storytelling predilections. Cast against type as a wandering showgirl who drops into the rough ecosystem of daring flyboys, Arthur struggled with attempts by Hawks to fit her into the brassy, nail-tough archetype he’d eventually realize to perfection with Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall. Arthur was perpetually frustrated, and Hawks felt he never truly got what he sought.

Despite the dissatisfaction on both side of the actor-director divide, Arthur’s performance in Only Angels Have Wings is bright and engaging, arguably better — and serving the film’s story better — than result had either the star or the helmer gotten their way. Set within a ramshackle community of aviators who routinely risk their lives flying low-import missions over treacherous mountain terrain, the film is deeply invested in the rambunctious camaraderie of the men. As best he could, Hawks shot the film in order, hoping to borrow some of the developing ease and friendship among the cast, and the result is indeed a depiction of an ad hoc society that feels deeply lived in. Arthur is an outsider to this rambunctious terrain, serving as a stand-in for the viewer as she learns the ins and outs. The audience assistance is less in the form of leaden exposition and more in providing an understanding as to why this messy culture would hold appeal. It’s emotion, not information, that Arthur facilitates.

From the very beginning, as a couple pilots do their best to pick up Arthur’s character, Bonnie Lee, when her ocean voyage makes a stop in their city for a time, it’s made clear that she’s game, but not entirely at home amidst the brash male posturing. Bonnie later watches in mild confusion and dismay as the men, taking their cue from airline manager Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), shake off the death of one of their colleagues, treating his end in a fiery crash as the rough equivalent of nodding off in the corner of the room. With subtlety and pinpoint expressiveness, Arthur takes the character through the confusion of the moment and the dawning realization that these men are reacting to the tragic situation in a manner entirely foreign to her own instincts. After that, Arthur plays a small arc that’s even trickier and more crucial, as Bonnie essentially chooses to integrate into this band that is apart from her very being. She’s doesn’t steel herself so much as lets an invisible protective sheath fall aside.

The film is largely structured as a drama, but Arthur’s vaunted comedic chops are given momentary showcases, whether in some physical shtick as she quickly exits a room or in the little extra backspin she can put on a line of dialogue. For most of the film, Bonnie is unsettled, held at a gruff distance by Geoff and generally uncertain about what goals she even has in sticking around. Taking advantage of the situation, Arthur opts for a slow build, a gathering of self-certainty rather than the cymbal-crash decision-making more common of the era. Eventually, as the standard narrative progression mandates, Bonnie must make overt declarations of love and other inner certainties. Because of the approach taken by Arthur, the moment feels more earned that it might otherwise. Arthur showed enough of the preceding journey that the great leap to a final destination requires the crossing of a less miraculous span.

There were other aspects of the production that rankled Arthur. After initially getting along famously with Grant, she felt there was a little peacocking in his performance, so she soured on him. More infamously, Arthur felt threatened by one of her costars, a gleaming new starlet named Rita Hayworth. The discomfort isn’t especially noticeable in the performance, except maybe in adding useful threads of caution and fatigued resolution. Like any good performer, Arthur uses everything as fuel.

Hawks claimed that Arthur eventually sought him to out to proffer an apology for her aversion to his directing, supposedly inspired by seeing Bacall in To Have and Have Not. In Hawks’s telling, Arthur was contrite, insisting she should have listened to him and then she, too, would have delivered a performance similar to Bacall’s star-making turn. Maybe so, but there was really no call for regrets. Following her own impulses in Only Angels Have Wings, Arthur delivered intricate, inspired acting that was forthright, honest, and strikingly modern.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums

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