Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar

By James Harvey

Faber and Faber. 380 pp. $27

In one of James Thurber’s cartoons, a connoisseur lifts a wine glass and proclaims to the guests at his table, “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

“Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar,” by James Harvey (Faber and Faber/Faber and Faber)

This is not only a parody of winespeak, it’s also a demonstration of a familiar rhetorical trick used by critics: the authoritative pronouncement followed by a subtler attempt to elicit agreement. The guests in the cartoon react in a variety of ways: One smiles knowingly, one lifts his eyebrows questioningly and the third allows herself a doubting frown.

Thurber’s oenophile has this in common with James Harvey, the author of “Watching Them Be,” an anatomy of stardom: He’s trying to establish authority and get the audience on his side. But when Harvey proclaims that Bette Davis’s “three best movies” are the ones she made with William Wyler as director — “The Letter,” “Jezebel” and “The Little Foxes” — he, too, is going to encounter assent or skepticism and disagreement. What about “Of Human Bondage”? “Now, Voyager”? “All About Eve”?

To persuade his readers, Harvey assures them that they experience the same things he does. “You think” or “you feel” or “you see,” he often tells us when describing what is essentially his own experience. (Sometimes, he uses the more inclusively chummy “we.”) Of one of Davis’s exaggerated gestures in “Jezebel,” Harvey notes, “you laugh at it in appreciation.” “You have no trouble understanding” Henry Fonda’s reaction to her, he assures us.

Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. This kind of critical cheerleading can be tiresome. But Harvey has a great strength: the ability to watch a movie closely and to describe his experience in the expectation that readers will share it.

“Watching Them Be” is a collection of essentially discrete essays on stars, directors and their films. They are linked by what the subtitle calls “star presence,” but the operative word in the title is “Watching.” Harvey, who has to his credit such fine books as “Movie Love in the Fifties” and “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood,” sees, thinks and feels intensely when he watches a movie. More important, he has the gift of evoking what he has seen and thought and felt.

Although each essay in the book can be read separately, the collection has a strategic power that becomes apparent when read in sequence. Harvey takes a risk by starting with essays on such familiar stars as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman in the Hollywood years before she decamped with Roberto Rossellini, John Wayne and Davis. More words, many of them cliches like “enigmatic” and “Sphinx-like,” have been spilled on appreciations of Garbo than on perhaps any other star. But Harvey’s skill at describing the experience of watching her movies gives his praise both freshness and weight: Of “Camille,” he asserts, “Her Marguerite is a virtuoso turn but not a diva one. Rather than overwhelming or overbearing you, she keeps her usual and essential distance.”

Harvey’s strategy is to build credibility by giving us incisive accounts of movies we know so that he can persuade us to see the ones we don’t. In his essay on Wayne, for example, Harvey captures precisely the experience of watching the climactic reunion of Ethan (Wayne) and Debbie (Natalie Wood) in John Ford’s “The Searchers,” which he calls “one of the most famous [scenes] in American film”: “a close shot of the girl on the ground as Ethan looms above her. He reaches down, grasps her under the arms, and lifts her in one swift and sweeping movement — which Ford’s camera follows and even imitates, swooping downward to frame her on the ground, then following upward in the thrust and lift of Ethan’s arms, showing her raised and held in his hands against the sky, with small and impotent fists clutched in front of her — as she is brought suddenly downward again to lie across his arms looking into his face, still terrified, fists still clenched. A pause — then the great rumble of a voice says (almost casually), ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’ ”

That evocation of the sound and movement of the scene engages the reader’s memory and imagination so well that it instills confidence in Harvey’s accuracy and judgment when he moves on to films that they may have missed: the ones Bergman made in Italy with Rossellini, the late films of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson’s “Au hasard Balthazar,” which Harvey proclaims is “probably the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.”

The only major disappointment with “Watching Them Be” is that it’s stuck in the past. The only living actor to whom Harvey devotes an entire essay is Robert De Niro, whose career peaked in the mid-1980s. Harvey calls De Niro’s role in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) his “last great performance” and regards his later movies, with a few exceptions, as “junk.” The most recent movie to which Harvey devotes extended and admiring attention is Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997), and that in part because of Tarantino’s use of De Niro, as well as Pam Grier and Robert Forster, whose film careers peaked in the 1970s. If Harvey’s fancy has been captured by filmmakers and stars who have emerged in the past 30 years or so, he doesn’t say.

But the book succeeds because of Harvey’s confidence and audacity. Or to put it another way, he is anything but naive, and you will probably be amused — and enlightened — by his presumption.

Matthews is a writer on the arts who lives in Northern California.