Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar by James Harvey, Faber and Faber, 381 pages, $27. It would be understandable in the overgrown digital wilderness of the early 21st century if enlightened readers found it unlikely indeed that not only would great film books be published but also film books as eccentric and vehemently personal as this one. To be as flip and tweetably insensitive as the age demands, you could describe this as a book that begins with the star quality of Greta Garbo (“[Graham] Greene compared watching a Garbo movie to reading Carlyle – something you want to put off as long as you can”) and ends with the screen sublimity of a donkey, Balthazar in Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar” (“Probably the greatest movie I’ve ever seen,” writes author Harvey, and then quotes Gary Indiana saying that it is “so powerful to watch that if you can sit through it without weeping you deserve to be hit by a Mack Truck when you leave the theater.”)
But the wildly personal book inside those unlikely parameters is a model of what film criticism always was at its best and what it continues to be at its best: the intersection of rare sagacity and insight with ever rarer literary and stylistic grace.
His somewhat graceless title comes from James Baldwin who said of John Wayne, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart “one does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be.” “The actor in the theater,” says Harvey, “ ‘disappears’ into a role, at least ideally; the movie star, never. Just the reverse – even if he’s an actor, even if he’s a great one. There’s always that close up.”)
Those whom Harvey is brilliantly watching “be” in closeup are specifically Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman at different career stages, Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Robert DeNiro, the actors in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” Jean-Luc Godard’s movies and those of Carl Theodor Dreyer. You could argue that his sights are ever on the rise throughout the book but at no stage does he stop having extraordinary things to say, whether it’s about the final scene of Ford’s “The Searchers” or Dietrich singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in Las Vegas.
– Jeff Simon