(On the actor, dancer, and film star James Cagney)
“Basically, I’m really just a hoofer!”
The TV picture was on, but the volume was off. An awards banquet, it looked like, with celebrities in tuxedos and long evening gowns. Everything was glitter, glisten, and shine—strictly Show Biz at its fancy usual. I was packing to catch an owly-bird flight across the country and had no time to get distracted by anything such as that. Starting to click off the set, I noticed George C. Scott flash onto the screen. But he never went to such banquets, and would let it be known if he were given an award he would not receive it. Why was he there? I upped the volume just as he was ending his few remarks. Since not a word was wasted and all were on target, I give you the whole of what he said.
James Cagney? That was quite a while back. All of those gangster, tough-guy, rat-a-tat roles like Cody Jarrett, who goes crazy at the end in White Heat when he hears his mother died, so he blows himself up by shooting holes in the flaming fuel tank he was standing on. Was he still around? The TV camera answered affirmatively, zooming in for a close-up of Cagney’s face. And there it was, that still recognizable, slightly pugnacious mug, topped now by a thick crop of snow-white hair. He sat there unmoved without a ripple of expression.
As the show went on, one famous star after another came forth to pay tribute (“Oh her; yeah, she was in …; and that guy, didn’t he play …”). The remarks were both written and spontaneous, silly mixed with sentimental, but regardless of the particular wrappings, what each package held was honest-to-God respect. Each time the camera zoomed back in on that leonine head, hoping to catch some bit of feeling—a responsive nod maybe or memory-filled smile—there was that same blank face (“They wouldn’t have invited him, would they, if senescence…aw, he’s not that old; but still, he is awfully quiet”). His expression had the general effect of an empty theater marquee. The director and switch men in the control booth must have been tearing their hair out.
At last, they showed some of his song and dance numbers as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. As the houselights came back up and the audience was still reverberating with such tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and others, Cagney began making his way down the main aisle toward the front. Just then the crowd, finding a channel for its brimming enthusiasm, burst into a rhythmic clapping to the beat of “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy,” to which the honored guest, showing the first recognizable signs of his old self on camera that evening, started a slight bouncing to the beat as he continued down the aisle, up the stairs, — at the top of which he tried to jig a little dance step — and then crossed the stage to the speaker’s stand. There he stopped, turned, and blurted somewhat breathlessly into the mike, “I’m a wreck.” And everybody laughed and settled back into their seats.
He went on to say that when he’d been told about the plans for the evening, he asked his friend A. C. Lyles, “But what will the people expect of me? It’s not the kind of thing I do everyday.” To which Lyles had replied, “All you have to do is…uhm…uhh…uhmm.” And Cagney said, “What’s that?” Lyles gave the same uhms and uhhs again. “So…” Cagney continued, “with the inflection appropriate to the occasion, I say to you here, one and all, uhm, uhh, uhm, uhh.” Everyone howled.
In an instant Cagney had punctured the pretension of a setting where everyone is “on” and playing roles, thus creating a little clearing—and he did it as effortlessly and naturally as that splendid gesture he improvised on the spot in The Oklahoma Kid, when he reached up to “feel the air.” Having made that clearing, he now stepped into it, and then James Cagney, that experienced old hand, reached out to take the “more” provided by the occasion, and there shaped and molded it into a moment that unleashed his own vitality and evoked that of others. He did it by speaking about art:
Art. Now, I’m a little bit hipped on the thing myself and have been for a long time. William Ernest Hocking said, “Art is life—plus caprice.” But it also brings to mind a work written by John Masefield, the English poet laureate. He wrote it with a pen dipped in a bit of vitriol. I’m going to read it to you now.
What is the hardest task of art?
To clear the ground and make a start
‘Midst wooden head and iron heart;
To sing the stopp’d adder’s ear
To fill the tale with none to hear,
And paint what none else reckon dear;
To dance or carve or build or strive
Among the dead or half alive
Whom greeds impel and terrors drive.
Now you, my English dancers, you
Began our English joy anew
In sand with neither rain nor dew,
Dance was despised and held in shame
Almost something not to name
But that lovely flower came.
Oh, may you prosper till the race
Is all one rapture at your grace,
And England Beauty’s dwelling place.
Then you’ll know what Shakespeare knew
That when the millions want the few
They can make heaven here—and do.
As he spoke, he created the very thing the poem was about—before the audience’s very eyes. James Cagney knew what he was doing; so well, in fact, that he didn’t have to even think about it while doing it. He had done it so often in his life that for him it had become a means of heightened presence. Richard Southern, another man who understands this underlying act of the artist, penned this vivid description of it in another work:
Whenever an individual addresses a group…then he is facing a strength that is capable of overpowering his own…This very strength is the power which the individual can, provided he has the personality and skill, take to his advantage…That is why behind all the essentials of technique which should be in his equipment as regard voice, gesture, costume and the rest, there lies one deeper essential still, the essential of feeling that audience-reaction and of responding to that feeling, but of also being able to engage it to convey to the public whatever happens to be the subject of his address to them…It is a twofold opportunity; the opportunity to take the power of a gathering to oneself and to dominate; this is a proud and selfish motive, and it is very characteristic of a player to show himself off. Or the opportunity to give, to seize the power of a gathering to convey to them…what? A vestige of the godhead. This, curiously, is a very humble motive; and even more curiously it is equally characteristic of the player…to give of himself without return.
Thus we have the roots of the player’s two major characteristics: his selfishness and his generosity. These will affect the theatre forever.
In just the same way, since so many of these things are concerned with fighting against death, and with birth and resurrection, so the player will unleash another characteristic, that of his or her vitality as a man or woman. (R. Southern, The Seven Ages of the Theater, New York: Hill & Wang, 1963, pp. 24-27)
Cagney shows this understanding too by putting this original verse at the very beginning of his autobiography: “Each man starts with his very first breath, To devise shrewd means for outwitting death.” This delightful autobiography, modest yet masterful,* shows a man given to the artistic experience of life. There is his continually being struck to the quick by beauty, as in a moment when he burst into tears at seeing a ballerina alight from her ascent; his being deeply stirred at the sight of total effort in both foot races and horse races; his never having to “psych up” to play a scene—for he never got himself into the phony position of believing he had to be the part he was playing (therefore, he would have no difficulty accessing and using what he had and who he was); his fifty-year ongoing effort to preserve the natural beauty of the land; his distaste for directing other actors (“I have no interest in telling other people their business”); and his dislike of bad directors—all of which shows his overwhelming respect for the natural and his unceasing resistance to whatever pollutes it; his exquisite sense of timing, found in his pacing of a dialog or scene, and in his ability to pinpoint the moment, knowing when it was over and time for the curtain (which, it seems, even told him during the filming of One, Two, Three that his career in pictures had come to its natural end: “I knew at that moment that I would never bother about acting anymore.”); his taking up painting at age sixty and staying engrossed in it; his poetry; and, throughout, his abiding involvement in simple wonder, one which continues to grow; and…more.
He is a man who knows what he is and what he isn’t. A dancer, a hoofer, he truly was. No Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but the dancer and individual that he was. And neither of them could pretend to match the overriding dynamism of his personal flair — and the way he styled it. That is why in his films so much vitality comes through. And it was for that, and for the spark such genuineness ignites in others, that Cagney was not only being honored but acclaimed as well. And the reach it covered was expansive.
( Early video of Cagney coming )
James Cagney bespeaks the artistic experience of life in a soul ever reaching out to grasp the “more” that is inherently there, and then to render it into expressive form. To bespeak means “to be the outward expression of ” (from the Oxford English Dictionary). Bespeaking means fashioning one’s “more” into an artistic act and experience of life.** He once wrote the following words about a friend’s poem. They fittingly point to the soul of the actor, the artist—and, therefore, the very life of James Cagney as the man he truly was.
From first to last, it bespeaks life involvement and that wonderful gift that comes free to us all if we will only take it—and with which life is enriched beyond all description—wonder.
There was nothing high-flown or fancy to be found in the genuineness of his art. Nor is there a trace of false humility in it anywhere. It all rings with the simple truth art always held for him. In the fitting words of his biographer John McCabe, “He was fond of saying that if ever art was practiced in his part of Hollywood, he never saw it. But if art is both the conscious and unconscious development of one’s deep creative instincts in the service of lasting truth, Cagney was not only an artist but a very great one.”
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* Modest in magnitude because it is a third the size of most film-star autobiographies, and as modest in manner too as Cagney himself, despite his “unmistakable touch of the gutter,” is known to be (for many actors and artists handle their person in much the same way they as they handle creating the roles they play: keeping them under wraps or behind the curtain until that time—and it doesn’t always come—when they believe they are rightly formed); and masterful because he wrote it himself, and so his personal quality clearly shows through.
** Shakespeare, to be sure, highlighted this configurative act in the work of the poet: “As imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name.”
*** In a personal letter to me, Cagney touched on the very sources of his creating the George M. Cohan role. “Aside from the hard physical work of the dancing he was relatively easy to do, but your observations gave some moments in the picture values to me.” Only someone as honest as he was (And how many of those are there?) could have found this to be so simple — and managed to keep it so. But he had long since come to learn and know from his own experience that nothing simple is ever easy. (-G. Ruyle)
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