MAGIC LANTERNS

EVEN IN HIS TWILIGHT, JAMES GARNER WAS ONE CLASS ACT

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Whatever I was doing during the ’70s, it didn’t involve a lot of TV watching. Consequently, I never saw a full episode of The Rockford Files (1974-’80), the series for which the late James Garner won an Emmy. A child of the ’50s, I discovered James Garner in Maverick, the Western series on the boob tube. Along with Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive and Richard Boone in Have Gun, Will Travel, he made up my personal Holy Trinity of TV Western heroes.

Saddened by news of his death at age 86 last week, I began thinking about the many films in which Garner appeared, searching for one or two in particular I could watch again for old times’ sake. The ’60s were probably the single best decade for Garner as far as big screen success goes, with movies like The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily (romancing Julie Andrews in her first post-Mary Poppins role), Grand Prix and The Hour of the Gun. The ’70s were primarily devoted to TV, and the ’80s mostly indifferent, with three very notable exceptions: Victor/Victoria (again with Julie Andrews), Murphy’s Romance (his only Oscar nomination) and Sunset (playing Wyatt Earp to Bruce Willis’ Tom Mix in a terrific period piece about early Hollywood).

I finally settled on Twilight (1998), one of Garner’s last big-screen appearances and a personal favorite. This was one of the actor’s last film appearances; his only other notable roles after this were in Space Cowboys (2000) and The Notebook (2004). By this point in his career, Garner was usually relegated to supporting roles, and in Twilight he has only three extended scenes, each with co-star Paul Newman. While he doesn’t exactly steal the camera from Newman (not easy for anyone to do), he makes an indelible impression, establishing a character who initially appears to be on the periphery of the plot but ends up dead-center.

Twilight was written and directed by Robert Benton, the multitalented Oscar-winner for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart. The opening segment shows Newman as Harry, an aging private investigator looking for Mel, a girl (Reese Witherspoon) who’s run off with her older boyfriend Jeff (Liev Schreiber) to Acapulco. Harry finds her, but with unexpected results, setting up a recurring joke throughout the rest of the film as well as the later reappearance of Schreiber.

The film’s real focus is the relationship between Newman and his two married friends Jack and Catherine, played by Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. They were once Hollywood stars; Jack is now dying of cancer. A last request from his friend embroils Harry in a complicated mystery involving murder, blackmail and a decades-long cover-up.

Garner plays old friend Raymond, a retired world-weary cop masking his cynicism with wry humor. A brilliant stroke of casting on the part of writer-director Benton, the actor is full of surprises. To reveal more about either the character or the plot would be criminal.

When I first saw the film during its initial theatrical release, I remember thinking that Bret Maverick was finally getting old. Even in his twilight, however, he was one class act.

 

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