Here’s Looking At You, Kid

Today in The Atlantic, I consider Humphrey Bogart from the perspective of Stefan Kanfer’s new biography of the man, Tough Without a Gun:

He might have argued that the kind of masculinity Bogart represents is simply unreproducible (though there is always promise: Tom Hardy, the British actor vaunted to American stardom by his turn as a forger in Inception, looks like he could smack around a dame or two). But the argument wouldn’t stand up against the obvious shift in the American experience that made Bogart’s weariness less relatable, and in the economics of entertainment that put ticket-buying dollars in younger hands, something that Kanfer acknowledges.

Kanfer says at the beginning of the book that “impersonators don’t ‘do’ Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale et al. because these actors don’t have distinctive voices or faces.” But is that shift truly because Bogart was a more distinctive man and actor than the craftsmen who followed him? Or is it because actors like Pitt, DiCaprio and Bale have a wider variety of roles available to them, and thus are less easily pigeonholed? Or because trends in acting have come to favor Method-like absorption in parts, a technique that Kanfer says Bogart disliked but nonetheless learned from and put to good use in The African Queen? Is Bogart simply the last man of his type that we value? Gods can end up being less relevant to our day-to-day existence than our flawed, vital, fellow men.

The book is decidedly imperfect, but it’s an interesting example of the challenges of celebrity biography, and the pitfalls of trying to quantify that most intangible of qualities.