Carrying Jimmy Stewart's Mantle

The Monitor's film critic chooses six actors and actresses who embody the star's energy, sincerity, and Americanness

His name was James Stewart, but the world knew him as Jimmy - an intimate touch reflecting the friendly, down-home values that made him one of moviedom's most beloved stars.

Are there current performers who represent the winning blend of energy, sincerity, and quintessential Americanness that powered his career?

First, it should be noted that moviemaking has changed a lot since Mr. Stewart's heyday, bringing new styles and practices that make his universally appealing star power rarer than it once was. It's also important to recognize that Stewart's screen personality was more complicated than some tributes have indicated.

He consolidated his fame with '30s and '40s comedies like "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Shop Around the Corner," and wound down his career with '70s diversions like "That's Entertainment!" and "The Magic of Lassie."

But in between, he joined with art-minded directors to play some of the screen's most engrossing misfits and neurotics. His work in Frank Capra classics like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" has surprisingly dark facets, and his performances for Alfred Hitchcock make up a whole gallery of tormented figures.

This was a key aspect of Stewart's career, and he knew it. Asked in the early '80s to describe the secret of his success, he said, "I think it had to do with the fact that when I got in a fight, nobody was sure whether I'd win!" This vulnerability set him apart from conventionally heroic actors like John Wayne and assured, self-possessed types like Henry Fonda and Cary Grant.

In sum, Stewart's qualities included uncertainty and susceptibility along with more traditional virtues like strength, decency, and charm. Who are his most convincing heirs on the current scene?

* Harrison Ford shot to stardom as the sardonic Han Solo in "Star Wars" and the indomitable Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But no sooner did he master high-adventure heroism than he set to work on subtler, more ingratiating traits in movies with a sensitive side. These pictures are sensitive because he is, too, recalling Stewart with his slightly hesitant smile, gestures mixing the friendly and the shy, and his way of sliding from a shout to a murmur in a complicated or confusing situation.

The thoughtful detective in "Witness," the anxious husband in "Frantic," the falsely accused lawyer in "Presumed Innocent," the good-hearted amnesiac in "Regarding Henry," and even the on-the-run physician in "The Fugitive" show an essential humanity that shines through the action and melodrama. And the new "Air Force One" lets him climb into the cockpit of an imperiled plane with a panache worthy of his predecessor, a real-life pilot who risked his life in World War II.

* Denzel Washington may be most famous for his brilliant portrayal of Malcolm X, the controversial African-American leader who started as a confrontational militant before shifting toward peaceful engagement late in his life. (He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Spike Lee's film biography.)

Mr. Washington took a risk in playing such a controversial figure, but like Stewart, he seems more interested in expressing his own values than in following the box-office money trail. His career includes movies with thoughtful themes and constructive motives, from "A Soldier's Story" and the South African drama "Cry Freedom" to the multicultural "Mississippi Masala" and the compassionate "Philadelphia." In "Glory," "Courage Under Fire," and "Crimson Tide," his characters stand up under difficult circumstances for what they believe in - another Stewart quality.

* Tom Hanks skyrocketed to fame with the comic movie "Splash" but then floundered in flops before cementing his celebrity status as a charming child-man in "Big." His easygoing charm, engaging personality, and bedrock sense of character - the same ineffable qualities moviegoers admired in Stewart - draw the audience's warmth today. Above all, he radiates the unquenchably innocent boyishness forever linked with Stewart's name. In recent years Mr. Hanks has become a reliable representative of deep-rooted American values, lending friendliness and flair to pictures ranging from "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Forrest Gump" to "Apollo 13" and "Philadelphia."

Men have no monopoly on the qualities Stewart's career stood for, of course, and some of today's popular actresses reflect these as strongly as their male counterparts.

* Sally Field got her wholesome start as "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun" on TV, winning audiences of all ages who appreciated clean entertainment. She hit her stride in films that recall not only Stewart's inner decency but also his penchant for stories dealing with grass-roots American issues. "Norma Rae" found her organizing a textile-workers union against all odds, "Absence of Malice" explored responsibilities of the press, and "Places in the Heart" showed a courageous widow struggling to save her farm and family. Recent hits like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Forrest Gump" demonstrate her continuing commitment to family-friendly fare.

* Sigourney Weaver became a star in rambunctious pictures like the "Aliens" adventures and "Ghostbusters," but a more serious side of her talent gravitates toward substantial roles - recalling the Stewart who put real passion into thought-provoking social dramas. This side of Ms. Weaver's career gained momentum in films like "Gorillas in the Mist," where she played the idealistic anthropologist Dian Fossey, and "Dave," where she earned kudos as a cynical first lady who mellows and matures.

* The current science-fiction drama "Contact" consolidates Jodie Foster's place as a serious and versatile actress determined to address the sorts of issues that energized Stewart's most thoughtful pictures. Before taking to the skies as an introspective astronomer, she played an outspoken rape victim in "The Accused," an innocent and vulnerable "wild child" in "Nell," and a hard-working single mother in "Little Man Tate," a family-oriented drama she also directed.

Just as Stewart took control of his own career in the early 1950s, moreover - negotiating his way out of big-studio serfdom with an innovative contract that weakened Hollywood's old "dream factory" system - Ms. Foster has formed her own production company, Egg Pictures, to develop projects she really believes in. Such practical support for better moviemaking could be her most meaningful tribute to the values Jimmy Stewart stood for.

Of these stars, who comes closest to inheriting Stewart's mantle, in both popularity and the ability to project a sense of undiluted American qualities?

The answer has to be a tie between Mr. Ford and Hanks - the former for his combination of strength and sensitivity, the latter for filling the screen with more sheer, lovable personality than anyone else around. Both are at the peak of their powers, and their vigorous performances augur well for the continued vitality of Stewart's legacy.

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