John Garfield would have been 100 years old today and his simmering, gorgeous genius of masculine menace, charm and vulnerability is, still, sorely missed. He's one of my favorite actors (among a top five that alternate, but Garfield always remains), and an actor who almost literally knocked me for a loop when I first saw him on screen (in The Postman Always Rings Twice). I was a teenager and I was hooked. I had to know more about him. As a result, this blog has been properly Garfield obsessed since its inception. Dear Lord. All that sensitivity and rugged good looks, intelligence and intense, noir sex appeal and I was a goner. Sure Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson's furious, flour-dusted fornication on the kitchen counter is damn erotic in the steamy re-make (which I do enjoy), but John and Lana need only to simply look at each other and... that's it. You know what they're up to later, and the wondering is part of the picture’s tremendous turn-on (not to mention Lana's lipstick).
But Mr. Garfield... perhaps like poor Priscilla Lane checking out all his tough guy artistry, smoking that ciggie while playing the piano in his unforgettable 1938 film star debut (Four Daughters) you're just too much! Like Joan Crawford’s wide-eyed attraction and anger during his virtuoso "Flight of the Bumblebee" interlude in Humoresque, women can’t function properly when looking at him or thinking about him. They become all moony and swoony and tongue tied and... hitch-hike away from that depressing roadside diner, a la Lana (they don't make it far. Only towards murder). Or take that long, sad walk on the beach like Joan. Poor Garfield-tortured Joan. But there's so much more to the man's intense, obvious sex appeal. So much more.
With all that, you'd think he'd be more famous. Though he's certainly picked up much more appreciation in the last several years, I still ask: why isn't he supremely famous? Why isn't he a household name? Why isn't he better recognized? For reasons I cannot decipher, this brilliant, brooding actor, though well respected by those who know better, isn't considered the legend a la Bogart, Clift, Brando or Dean. Why isn’t he properly appreciated? This massive talent with genuine bad-boy street cred (he was born Julius Garfinkle and raised tough on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx) was an acting innnovator and a huge star in his day, so much so that his 1952 funeral was attended by more folks than Rudolph Valentino's ceremony. So why, aside from true movie lovers, isn't he the huge star he was? He's certainly not dated. Watch Clift, Brando, Dean and other "method" actors and you see Garfield's complex, plain speaking, natural anti-hero influence.
If you've never seen a John Garfield performance, you have been (in a supreme understatement) missing out. If you've only watched one or two, you're sorely behind. If you need to catch up, check (among many other pictures -- please check the Warner Archive if you need to see some rare ones) his intense, oftentimes roughly romantic and edgy performances in movies such as Gentlemen's Agreement, They Made Me a Criminal, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Sea Wolf, Air Force, The Fallen Sparrow,
Body and Soul, Castle on the Hudson, Force of Evil, Out of the Fog, The Breaking Point (the superior version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not featuring one of Garfield's most naturalistic, powerful performances), Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Flowing Gold, Between Two Worlds, We Were Strangers and (one of my favorites) He Ran All the Way -- his last film and, tragically, a quite fitting one considering how he left this world.
And God...what an exit Mr. Garfield. In my mind, one of the first method actors (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets), he was also victim to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments when the left-wing, progressive actor (and patriotic actor, he helped created The Hollywood Canteen for heaven's sake) testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him and certain colleagues, Communist. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including one of his former directors, Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names.
As both a once young street tough and a man of principle, Garfield would not rat. Not surprisingly, work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. I think this assumption is correct. His mislabeling and death is so tragic that it angers me to this day.
I had the pleasure of presenting John Garfield's final picture, John Berry's He Ran All the Way, for Turner Classic Movies when I guest programmed for them, and another time with his daughter, the wonderful, charming Julie Garfield at the Palm Spring Film Noir Festival. An acclaimed stage actress and teacher, Julie had much to say about her heroic, brilliant father when I interviewed her on stage. And the picture was so powerful to watch on the big screen with Julie at my side.
A picture made by many victims of the blacklist, including director Berry and co-writers Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo (who was jailed as one of the "Hollywood Ten"), the story of a criminal on the lam, a desperate man, a man in a panic who takes a family hostage only to be tortured by his conscience and the cold hands of fate, held extra resonance. There was the power of the film itself, the history and real life tragedy of its star, and then again, Julie sitting next to me. She had never seen her father's final film on the big screen, and experiencing her taking in daddy so beautifully shot by James Wong Howe, and his tough, vulnerable, wounded, complicated performance was especially moving.
Discussing the movie, her father and his life, from the kindness of New York educator Angelo Patri, who mentored the young, troubled kid Garfield and led him into acting, to the evils of HUAC, Julie (on stage and off) is what I imagine her dad was like. Fiercely intelligent, down to earth, funny, warm, and charming as hell -- a one-of-a-kind. If ever a woman is charismatic enough to play De Niro's wife inGoodfellas (and to make that much of an impression when Ray Liotta's Henry Hill testifies against him in court -- that look she gives!), it is Julie.
And she discussed this unforgottable bit of history about her father -- one of his early jobs was as a door-to-door diaphragm salesman. That's correct. John Garfield knocked on doors and sold contraceptives to women. What was I saying earlier? That he was too much? Now that is just too much. Can you imagine opening the door?
Happy 100th Birthday to one of the greatest actors who ever lived. And he didn't live long enough. Today is a day for John Garfield movies. I plan on watching the brilliant The Breaking Point again and maybe, dropping a tube of lipstick in his honor. We can always imagine him picking it up and not handing it back to you. My lord, to have John Garfield make you walk towards him to fetch your lipstick. You're not so cool, Lana. Once he leaves his indelible impression, he never leaves your mind.
Watch Julie Garfield talk about her father and Joan Crawford, Garfield's infidelity, her favorite roles, HUAC's hounding, renewed interest in her father, and a beautiful quote from He Ran All the Way director John Berry. Check out more of the interview here and here.