Gary Cooper speaking about his acting skills once said, “The general consensus seems to be that I don’t act at all”. Indeed that was one of the criticisms that stuck for a long time on this cinematic icon. When Coop comes on the screen he’s not doing anything.
While that approach has driven more than a few producers, directors and fellow actors to distraction the bottom line is it’s not quite correct. Gary Cooper was a product of the silent era where the number one goal for many of the great stars of that time period because of the constrictions as well as training was to use your eyes and body to tell the story or to convey a specific emotion. Coop like his contemporaries understood that less is better and he carried that over into the sound era. In fact there are screen moments where he could say more with his eyes than actors who were given pages and pages of well written dialogue.
Not that he couldn’t handle dialogue. This myth of an actor who prided himself on just saying “yup” or “nope” is just a myth. You can see that in the movies he made with Frank Capra. Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Meet John Doe. There are several scenes in each movie where Coop has to deliver one of those famous Capra monologues and he puts it over with flying colors. In Meet John Doe for instance when he finds out the power elite want to use him to in essence set up a dictatorship in America Coop delivers a powerful impassioned plea where at some points he seems on the verge of tears.
The convention scene in the same movie puts the exclamation mark on this point. In an effort to be heard by a crowd that has suddenly turned on him Coop taps into something inside himself and lets it go. He screams to be heard above the booing. It is nothing phony or theatrical but something deeply personal.
We see the same thing in Sgt York for which he won the Academy Award as best actor. He is trying to change his life but meets with nothing but hardships. As he is plowing the field and a huge rock frustrates him Coop can’t take anymore. He cries out to God begging for help. He’s at the end of his rope and doesn’t know which way to turn. It’s hard not to watch that scene and feel a great deal of empathy or just nod in agreement because many of us at some point or another have gone thru the same thing. And the reason we can feel like that is because Coop puts it over so effectively and convincingly.
No Coop wasn’t acting at all. You could never see the mechanics of his craft. What he was doing was living the character and inhabiting the world they lived in while walking seamlessly from beginning to end. Not all films of course but the same can be said for many actor and actresses. Many of his critics never realized that saying Gary Cooper doesn’t act at all is paying him the highest tribute imaginable in film.
*** Here’s another one of those non acting moments that have become movie classics.
**** This is an interview a little over 5 minutes that Gary Cooper did while working on the movie the Wreck of the Mary Deare in 1959.