Reading James Harvey

On Film / The Daily — Jun 8, 2020
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941)

Late last month, the death of playwright and critic James Harvey was made public when IndieWire posted a moving remembrance by his close friend, the writer, poet, and critic Phillip Lopate. Harvey, who had taught film and literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, passed away in mid-April at the age of ninety. While his work was widely published in such publications as the New York Review of Books and the Threepenny Review, he will be remembered first and foremost for three books constructed and written in a style that was uniquely his. “It was Harvey’s critical technique, a risky one, to work patiently through a movie scene by scene, interpreting the choices and subtexts along the way, rather than glibly summarizing with a few witty ripostes,” writes Lopate.

Addressing this technique in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2014, Max Nelson wrote: “Some of the most commanding film writers of the past half-century, from Manny Farber to Geoffrey O’Brien and Kent Jones, work from the bottom up, accumulating observations about a movie’s texture, rhythm, tempo, mood, atmosphere, and tone until a picture of its patterns of meaning starts to emerge from the sum of the details. Harvey’s essays take this approach to a dense, immodest, and often thrilling extreme.”

Harvey’s first book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, is a collection of close readings of golden-age classics made between 1929 and 1948. Published in 1988, the book runs well over seven hundred pages. “A book this exhaustive can be exhausting,” wrote Tom Nolan in the Los Angeles Times. “And every once in a while that analytical prose seems a bit inappropriate to the subject—like a mad architect’s painstaking blueprint for a cream puff, or a computer graphic of the geological coordinates of cocoa foam. But long as it is, the book isn’t padded—it’s simply supremely comprehensive.” In the New York Times, Neal Gabler found Romantic Comedy “both long and glancing, brilliant and obvious, penetrating and vague, effusive and tendentious, astounding and maddening . . . As criticism, it’s the equivalent of a fat sketchbook by an artist with the capacity to take our breath away . . . Harvey at his best is as good a writer as the movies could ever hope to have.”

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of the Threepenny Review, got a sneak peek at Movie Love in the Fifties before it was published in 2002. “Whether he’s escorting us through Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons, or any one of a dozen other great films from the period, he lends us an astuteness of analysis and a power of observation that we couldn’t have had on our own,” she wrote. Reviewing Movie Love for the NYT, Sarah Kerr noted that Harvey “asserts his right to idiosyncrasy and resists rounding up his observations in an easy polemic.”

The title of Harvey’s third book, Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar (2015), echoes a line from a passage in The Devil Finds Work (1976) in which James Baldwin addresses the magnetism of such stars as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart: “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Discussing Watching Them Be with J. C. Gabel at the Dissolve, Harvey noted that the book is “really a sort of movement from Hollywood, which is the ultimate artifice, through a return to anti-artifice in some version of real life, as in [Robert Altman’s] Nashville [1975], where people are imitating real life, and doing it very skillfully, to a final rejection of all kinds of artifice.”

That rejection comes from Robert Bresson, who cast a donkey as the star of Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which, as Melissa Anderson noted in her review of Watching Them Be for Bookforum, Harvey “hails as ‘probably the greatest movie’ he’s ever seen.” The book opens with a chapter on Greta Garbo that runs nearly fifty pages, and while Anderson admired Harvey’s “perceptive writing” on Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley’s performances Nashville, she found his “thickets of words” on Garbo inferior to Roland Barthes’s two-page essay “The Face of Garbo.”

Max Nelson disagrees. “‘The Face of Garbo’ is a canonical text but, in some respects, a dead end,” he wrote. “For Barthes, Garbo was the last movie star to stand as ‘a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature.’ The only ‘reality’ in her face, he suggested, was ‘that of its perfection.’” But “if there is a single assumption running through all the pieces in [Watching Them Be], it is that the ‘reality’ of movie stars—in Garbo’s time and ours—has never been found in the static perfection of their faces or bodies, but rather in the ways they carry themselves, or fail to carry themselves, in time. To hold a bead on those fleshy, mortal, and often capricious movements, Harvey implies, is the task of criticism.”

Harvey held that bead particularly well in a 2001 essay on Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941) that accompanied our release. Throughout her long career, Barbara Stanwyck, who stars as a card sharp, “remained elusive, hard to pin down,” he wrote. “Partly because her effects were so plain and undecorated, so forthright and down-to-earth. But not the flourish and rococo of down-to-earthness that Jean Arthur perfected so attractively—nor the corrupt imitation of it, the affectation of non-affectation, that characterized Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper in his Frank Capra phase. Stanwyck’s communication with camera and audience was peculiarly direct and unmediated. And yet just because of this she illustrates Norman Mailer’s insight into the star-personality perhaps better, more simply and clearly at least, than anyone: the sense the star gives us of having other things on his mind.”

The Lady Eve “makes almost no pretensions to observation of American life or to social satire, its characterization is almost nil, and its conflicts a clash of stereotypes,” wrote Harvey. “And yet it can surely be argued from the experience of this wonderfully funny movie that its effect on us is somehow serious—that it has the richness, completeness, and resonance by which we recognize something fully and seriously done, whether we can explain it or not—and no one has yet quite accounted for or settled on a way of explaining the power and force, the peculiar beauty of the Hollywood studio film at its best.”

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