James Stewart was a bad actor.
Okay, before the lynch-party forms, hear me out, because I think we might all be on the same page – we just hold differing definitions of “good/bad actor”. Also, I should say that I am, at the end of the day, a huge Jimmy Stewart fan. The first lead I ever got was playing Elwood P Dowd in Iroquois High School’s version of Harvey, and ever since then, the guy has been one of my favorites. In my opinion, he remains one of the greatest performers ever to have added to the craft, and I have no doubt that had I lived during the height of his career, I would have been one of the nerds lining up days in advance to see his movies.
But that’s where the difference exists. The man was a “performer”, and arguably one of the best. But the man was not an “actor”.
Lemme ‘splain. We’re entering into a bit of a subjective area here, but I think a lot of the experts would agree with me. We can define acting simply as “the practice of assuming a character or characteristics”, but in my mind this is an extremely superficial truth since it in no way qualifies acting as an art form, which it certainly is. Stewart made it look easy, because his craft (his technique) prescribed that he simply make the character his own. He didn’t so much make you believe that he was Elwood P. Dowd or George Bailey or Tom Destry, but rather he was extremely adept at making you believe that these characters were him.
The difference, I think, is in the use of emotion. A good performer shows you an emotion. A good actor genuinely feels that emotion. Christopher Walken, John Goodman, and Dustin Hoffman are great examples. When they’re pissed off, you know that anger developed from the inside-out. However, when Keanu Reeves’ (another great performer) is pissed off, it’s because that’s what the script has told him to be.
That being said, to all of you who think that Jimmy Stewart is a good actor, I again suggest that you and I differ not in our respect for his craft, but rather in our definition of “good actor”.
By the way, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is one of my favorite movies, and the autograph below (which was mailed to me after my grandmother wrote to Mr. Stewart to tell him I was playing Dowd in 1992) is one of my favorite possessions.