Robert Mitchum: “Baby I don’t care”
A biography by Lee Server
I have always been a fan of Robert Mitchum’s movies. He was, in movies and in real life, the coolest man in the world.
Pauline Kael, the famous movie critic, published an anthology of her reviews, titling it “I lost it at the movies”. She meant that she lost her virginity at the movies; they stole her innocence and gave her something priceless, experiences of places and times she could not go to in the real world.
If the movies stole my innocence, then they gave me too something else, ambition, an understanding of how important moral principles are, a desire to have Cary Grant’s suits, Vittorio DiSica’s women, James Bond’s car. Like so many other men, I wanted Mitchum’s cool.
When I was growing up, everyone in my family knew Mitchum was cool. As snotty adolescents my brothers and I would watch Mitchum in movies like “Heaven knows Mr Allison”. Mitchum playing a tough marine in a romance with Deborah Kerr was way ok with us, yet any other actor playing such a weepie would have only received our scorn.
One of my early movie loves was Film Noir, and Robert Mitchum WAS Film Noir. His brooding, hyper-masculine presence filled those movies. In a strange way Mitchum made the tragedy of Film Noir heroic. He conveyed the truth, which was that though life was bad, and there was no way out, yet a man could win by showing courage, forbearance and dignity. In films like “Build my gallows high” and “Out of the Past”, he gave us complex doomed men who had nothing left but courage. He acted their lives with a frankness and finesse that no other actor could match.
The Yakuza, Mitchum and Takakura Ken
Later in life, I found a new appreciation of Robert Mitchum, when he starred in one of my all-time favourite movies “The Yakuza”. In it Mitchum fights the Yakuza alongside a loner sword-master played by Japanese mega-star Takakura Ken. It was the perfect matchup, the doomed hard man and the doomed samurai.
Lee Server’s biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I don’t care” is considered to the definitive work on this great actor. I have owned it for a little while, cracked it open a couple of days ago, and was hooked.
Robert Mitchum; Early Life
Server is good on Mitchum’s early life, growing up desperately poor in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of a half-Blackfoot railway man, who was killed in a horrific accident before Mitchum was two. His growing-up in a loving yet eccentric household dominated by his intelligent and spirited mother. He is particularly good on Mitchum’s strange childhood, the idiosyncratic but loving family and their life on the edge of poverty.
Baby I don’t care” is marvellously well-researched and there were still many of Mitchum’s childhood chums alive when that research was carried out. The young Robert Mitchum was simultaneously the cleverest boy in school and the biggest troublemaker, with a delinquency that verged on the irrational. From this background emerged a man who did not give a damn what anyone else felt.
At fourteen, Mitchum left home, became a hobo, an itinerant labourer, was thrown into jail for vagrancy, put on a chain gang, ran off and became a fugitive. Not your normal adolescence.
Server makes it plain that Mitchum was cool, a rebel against convention, at a time when it was dangerous to be so. One of the enduring themes of this book is the endless entreaties, warnings and threats to Mitchum to conform, fit in, retract his opinion. As a young man in the thirties he made many enemies with his frank, outspoken ways, but as the book says, he did not care.
Mitchum and Hollywood
Once Mitchum gets to Hollywood, the story changes. Lee Server shows how Hollywood discovered Mitchum’s incredible talent. How with a minimum of action and emotion he could bring complex exciting characters to life. In the movies his self-possession became a raw unconquerable maleness that audiences loved. Directors wanted him and women found him sexy. His female co-stars found him irresistible and he set out on a long career of bedding the most glamorous female stars in the movies.
But as a star Mitchum was the same man he had always been, he refused to play the Hollywood game. He had no movie star friends, preferring to hang out with men he called “working stiffs”, in bars and illegal jazz clubs. His love of marijuana got him into trouble, when he was setup for a drugs bust in 1948. At that time drugs were considered satanic and the province of negroes. Convicted and sent to prison, Mitchum still bounced back.
Lee Server is to be congratulated for the depth of his insight into Robert Mitchum. He shows us the secret man, who wrote poetry, was marvellously well-read and had a phenomenal intellect that allowed him to talk to anyone from world leaders to scientists.
Robert Mitchum was also one of the funniest men who ever lived. I am lucky enough to have seen Mitchum’s TV interview with Barry Norman, the British movie critic. The interview reaches a point where Norman is gushing about Mitchum’s acting and Mitchum clearly has had enough. He looks Norman in the eye and says “I have two types of acting, with a horse or without”.
Mitchum made light of everything, apparently nothing could dent his cool, Alpha male to the hilt. However there were crises in his life and Lee Server uses them to illuminate the inner man with insight and compassion. But Server is no blind fan, he is capable of showing Mitchum’s dark side without justification or apology.
This is a big book, it is a complex story and there is a lot to tell. Lee Server is good for it. He has a clear lucid story-teller’s style, and is always aware that he is writing for an audience. However, he doesn’t stint on the facts and keeps the key themes of Robert Mitchum’s life in view right up to the last page.
For me this book is a model of how a movie biography should be written. I am so pleased to have read “Baby I don’t care”. I never really understood or truly appreciated Mitchum till now.
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