Wednesday, March 14

The Garner Files

I never much thought about James Garner when he was at the height of his fame... didn't dislike him whatsoever... he just never set any fires for me.  I always found him to be a completely competent actor but rather bland.  I do credit him with always having a perpetual twinkle in his eye.  Humor is his pal and I see that.  I have seen many of his films but cannot say that he was the draw.  I certainly watched Maverick on the tube as a kid but thought it was just featherweight stuff, typical of the same-o, same-o western stuff Warner Bros. churned out at the time.  And perhaps I should hang my head to say this, but I have never seen The Rockford Files.  Was it good?  Garner thinks so.

I am interested in reading most biographies and autobiographies of actors so I picked up a copy of The Garner Files, cowritten with Jon Winokur (Simon and Schuster, 2011).  I ended up not reading it right away and having second thoughts about my purchase.  I think the main thing running through my head is that it would be pretty vanilla, no juicy tidbits, he'll like everyone he's ever known and yawn and yawn.  Um, I mean on and on.

Just about the first thing I spied was a little blurb where he claimed to being pretty average and suspecting no one would care much about his life.  Yikes, just what I was thinking.  But then it occurred to me that movie stars don't write such things.  Not ever.  And I was a little more impressed.  Then he said he might use the book to settle a score or two.  Oh wow, maybe this will be fun.  And it was.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered I couldn't put it down (finished it in a weekend).  I will go so far as to say that I found the book illuminating, entertaining and a total delight to read.  I learned quite a number of things and that is something I treasure the most about biographies and autobiographies.  Tell me something interesting that I don't already know or think I know.

Garner is a very private person and yet he obviously stepped outside his comfort zone to coauthor a book on his life.  We learn about his distaste for Hollywood, the honchos, the liars, shady business dealings, publicity, costars, travels, general mayhem and bs.  I guess I knew that he was a bit of a rebel because of two publicized lawsuits but I had no idea that he was as scrappy (what happened to bland?) as he was.  Some of this scrappiness came out in the form of physical altercations and apparently a great many of them.  He was not always the innocent bystander either, although he was once involved in a physical fight as part of road rage (not his) where he was beaten to a pulp.

I am not sure if I knew he was part American Indian but I did recall knowing that he was born in Oklahoma.  It was in Norman in 1928.  He was the youngest of three boys.  His mother died when he was quite young and he spent most of his years there shifting from one family member's home to another.

He was unclear on what he wanted to do for work and after many a menial job he got a modeling gig as a young adult and no longer in Norman.  He would normally have passed on such a thing and he never much felt his good looks were any big deal, but he needed the money.  This, in turn, led to the movies and a Warner Bros. contract.  He landed in Maverick and did a lot of movie dreck.

For someone who was reticent about writing a bio in the first place, he certainly took a great leap by discussing his many likes and dislikes... of everything and everyone.  Any writer has got to give me something to work with or I close the book well before the ending and give it away to some unsuspecting family member.  Garner gave lots of goodies.

To his immense credit, he has stuck with one wife and has a family who loves him.  He took on the Hollywood bigwigs because of what he believed was right and just.  He marched for Civil Rights issues in the 1960s and is a lifelong advocate for the underdog and the little guy.  I suspected he was a Democrat because I've never known Republicans to be for Civil Rights or the little guy.  But I had no idea just how important all this was to him.  I was even more surprised to learn he has smoked weed for most of his adult life. 

The younger generation will know him chiefly because of his participation in The Notebook (2004), an immensely popular and well-done film in which he and Ryan Gosling played the younger and older versions of the same character.  I loved it as well and he and the remarkable Gena Rowlands bring tears to my eyes every time I see it.  The younger set may also recall him as the father of Sandra Bullock and husband of his pal Ellen Burstyn in 2002's The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

His own personal favorite is The Americanization of Emily (1964), an anti-war, black and white drama written by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky, whose work always seemed to be about important things going on in the world.  There was always a message and he relayed it so damned well.  His characters always said memorable things and actors always wanted to hear themselves saying them.

Julie Andrews co-starred as Emily (and wrote the book's introduction) and she would work with him again, most memorably in 1982's Victor/Victoria.  (I had no idea Garner wanted to play the gay role gobbled up by Robert Preston.  I think I'm glad that it worked out the way it did.)  Andrews was one of his costars with whom he became good buddies, along with Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Joan Hackett.  He has good taste.  (Pity that the late Joan Hackett, who seemed to have the same sort of acting style that Garner has, isn't known to more of the public than she is.  She was an absolutely wonderful actress.)

He writes a great deal about making The Great Escape (1963) and his relationship with director John Sturges and co-stars Steve McQueen (who would become his nextdoor neighbor), Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence.  I am glad that he liked making this film... one I immensely enjoyed... and took the time to elaborate more on it.

I stress that last part because until the end of the book, I had my standard complaint of movie star autobiographies and that is not mentioning some of the films that one makes.  Dammit, why do they do this?  Victor-Victoria, of all films, is one of those he mentions only in the most minor of ways and I sure would have liked to have known more about the filming of that one.  And while I still say that as of this writing, Garner did redeem himself at the end of the book.

Actually he did something I don't think I have ever known another actor/author to do.  You know how at the end of a bio, often the actor's films are all laid out in chronological order?  There may be a little something about the plot of the film but often the studio is listed, the year, the director, co-stars.  Garner does all that but here's what he added... he says something about every piece of work he's ever done!  Maybe something about a costar.  If he hated doing it or thought it was poorly made, he said so.  The lad can be salty.  Sure did make for a good read.

He was a major car racing enthusiast and for that reason 1966's Grand Prix also remains one of his favorite films.  And apparently so was the aforementioned The Notebook.

Nothing is more fun to me in reading than being surprised.  It can come in any number of different ways but the one that really gets me is when I have some preconceived notion about the person and then read something that demonstrates how far off my radar was.  And without a doubt, one trait that I did find in him in the book that I always did see was his humor.  He is an admitted curmudgeon but that Garner humor is still intact.

Favorite Film #47 


  1. Had to back track a couple posts to catch up. Loved the Inquiring Minds segment...not that I am any help on ANY of the questions!
    Ava Gardner post was very interesting (especially since I'm mentioned!). And James of my favorite actors. But I loved him in The Rockford kind of show...detective with humor. I also liked him in the movies. He is just a likeable character. You are probably going to cringe, but I liked him in Murphys Romance with Sally Fields.
    Love love love your know SO much about movies and actors!

  2. Dear Sir ... I don't know who you are but today you are my hero. Thank you so much for "GETTING IT"

    Your review of my Father's book made my cry ... HAPPY TEARS!
    Gigi Garner

    1. Ms Garner I am so happy you liked what I wrote about your dad. I liked what you wrote as well. Thanks for taking the time to do that.

  3. Wow! Gigi Garner's comments must give you a good degree of validation for what you are doing. Those of us "in the know" are not surprised. Keep on truckin'.

  4. Republicans never cared about Civil Rights or the little guy? The Civil Rights Act only passed because of Republican support (the Dixiecrats...Southern Democrats...set out to defeat it). Republicans were the minority, but they cast the majority of votes for the act. Republicans want the "little guy" to be bigger. They want them to keep more of their own money instead of having it misappropriated. That may be a philosophical disagreement, but it's worthy just the same. Your comments are a distraction, historically inaccurate and offensive. I am a James Garner devotee knowing that his politics and political statements do not jibe with many of mine. They don't have to. I'm sure we have some common ground on that front too, but it's not important. The fact is, artists shouldn't be penalized for their beliefs...and neither should entire political parties. I support James Garnr the artist and because of the way he conducts himself...with honor and class and courage. He could hate me for my politics, but I would prefer that he and you, and all others would judge me on my good deeds and best traits...the same way I judge everyone else. I otherwise salute your Garner salute.