“I have an awful time sitting through one of my pictures,” said the famously handsome, famously modest Gary Cooper in August of 1939. “My face looks kind of egg-shaped. And I keep thinking, ‘Did I really do that, and if so, why?’”
Cooper seemed to be the only one who couldn’t realize the staggering power of his craft on the screen. For everyone else, his rare and extraordinary minimalism in performance was the stuff of magic.
Descriptions trying to pin a tail on this mystic faculty bear an eerie likeness to descriptions that have sought to make sense of the creative architecture of two other peerless motion picture entities, Spencer Tracy and Greta Garbo. The uncommonly different methods of the three greats have a common factor in the breathtaking mystery of just what, exactly, happens between the raw delivery—which impressed other players and set spectators as nothing particularly remarkable or arresting—and the committed footage—which, among the aforesaid three, has the unapproached ability to shatter, inspire, challenge, change, and epitomize the people who see it.
Ingrid Bergman said of Cooper: “You never noticed that he was working. He spoke quietly, never tried to do an interpretation like Alec Guinness. Instead he did little things with his face and his hands, little things you didn’t even know were there until you saw the rushes and realized how tremendously effective he was.”
The celebrated Charles Laughton also spoke of Cooper’s reticent mastery. “He is acting, you idiot,” the English legend once bellowed to a vitriolic Marion Gering—who had bitterly asked if Cooper would ‘begin to act’—on the set of the 1932 film Devil and the Deep. “Only you don’t see it. The camera does.”
Laughton again elucidated his co-star’s capacity. “I knew in a flash Gary had something I should never have,” he recalled. “It is something pure and he doesn’t know it’s there. In truth, that boy hasn’t the least idea how well he acts.”