James Cagney: Looking Backward
The window shades are drawn against the late-summer sun, transforming the suite in Manhattan’s genteel old Carlyle Hotel into a lonesome oasis of resignation not unlike the sitting room of a sanitarium. It is perfectly quiet within –— no, there is the faint wheeze of labored breathing. Hunched in a stuffed easy chair at one end of the long living room is a pillowy mound of a man dressed in crisply pressed cotton pajamas and a linen bathrobe, his small feet reposing in scuffed leather slippers, his thin hair neatly combed. He appears to be asleep, his round, pink head pitched forward, chin upon the barrel chest, plump arms laying against his thick waist. If not for his size and the silvery stubble that coats his jaws, he might be one of Maurice Sendak’s man-faced infants, dreaming inside the frames of the illustrator’s pleasantly baroque picture fables.
How does one awaken James Cagney, one of the finest and most versatile talents in the annals of cinema? Surely, at the age of eighty-two, with half a century of stardom (and twenty years of retirement) behind him, he desires and deserves his rest. But the consequences of living so long and rising so high in his profession have conspired against him.
“Jamesy, Jamesy, wake up, you old so-and-so,” whispers Marge Zimmerman, Cagney’s sixtyish aide-de-camp, who has been a close friend of the actor and his wife, Willard (“Billie” to insiders), for a dozen years.
The small, piercing blue eyes pop open with comic suddenness. “Ho!” he shouts. “Falling down on the job, am I? Get with it, Cagney! You’re on!” He extends a large hand with glee and gives what proves to be an absolutely crushing handshake, confirming what his old acting crony Ralph Bellamy recently told me:
“Whenever Jimmy is suddenly afflicted with emotion, he has one of two reactions: he either falls silent and tears appear in his eyes, or he explodes with a distinctively sharp round of laughter to clear the air. They’re the two ways he’s devised for revealing but protecting himself —– and he uses laughter the most.”
Such has been the venerable star’s public demeanor over the last fifteen months as he emerged from self-imposed exile to appear in Ragtime. Reviews have been mixed for director Milos Forman’s interpretation of E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novei-cum-travelogue of turn-of-the-century New York City, its arabesque of fact and fiction intertwining the lives of a middle-class New Rochelle family and a ragtime piano tinkler named Coalhouse Walker. The negative notices focused on the truncated transferral to the screen of the book’s rich tapestry of famous characters — Houdini, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, architect Stanford White, moneyed dissolute Harry K. Thaw and his lovely, unfaithful spouse, Evelyn Nesbit, et al. — while the positive reviews hailed the return of a historic figure no less fabled: James Francis Cagney Jr.
For a time, it seemed as if the country were going Cagney-crazy, with New York City Mayor Ed Koch giving the actor the key to the city, the Yankees inviting him to toss out a ball during the World Series, President Ronald Reagan bestowing grandiose kudos, and life-achievement award dinners springing up across the country like four-leaf clovers. Tributes are much deserved (Cagney earned an Oscar for his song-and-dance sagacity in the 1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy and an honorary Best Actor award from the American Film Institute in the late Seventies). He virtually invented the modern antihero with his portrayal, in The Public Enemy (1931), of Tom Powers, the rum-running slum pug who gets shot down by underworld gunmen after avenging the gangland execution of his buddy.
“He created an entirely new character in film, a villain who was never too simple or entirely repellent,” says Milos Forman. “And he allowed you to like and enjoy such a person without feeling guilty. He never sacrifices personality for craft, or vice versa, and that’s a very rare quality that only a few actors —– Bogart, Gable, Spencer Tracy —– had. Drawing from things that are deep inside him or simply integral to who he is, Cagney is always a character, but always Cagney.”
“Frankly,” says the man himself, shifting in his seat at the hotel, “I always felt I was doing what was fashionable at the moment. I was giving them what they wanted but trying to keep it pleasant, at least for me.”
Cagney never intended to become a career actor. “Back in the days when Jim worked as a bellhop in the Friar’s Club,” says Bellamy, “he used to see these actors coming through the doors in flashy suits, telling him, ‘Last week, I earned fifty bucks dancing and singing in a show!’ Jim used to tell me how amazed and jealous he was, thinking, ‘Hell, I can hoof and carry a tune as well as these guys.’ He was driven into show business by the desire to earn money for his family and to escape the poverty of his youth in New York City. I don’t think —– and I’ve known him for fifty years —– that he ever intended to spend almost his whole life acting. He would have been happier remaining a song-and-dance man, so long as it paid his bills.”
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