Harrison Ford nearly torpedoed his career early on as a member of Columbia Pictures' New Talent Program in the 1960s. The wet-behind-the-ears actor had the stature and looks of a born movie star, but he didn't want to coast on his physical gifts. When a studio executive told him Tony Curtis had famously distinguished himself as a star by popping off the screen as a delivery boy, Ford countered that Curtis had blown the assignment by being a star, not a delivery boy.
Ford stuck to his code as an actor by tending to the needs of his characters in classics like "American Graffiti" and "The Conversation," rather than trying to blow Paul Le Mat or Gene Hackman off the screen. He waited until a part called for him to throw the switch, at which point he gave us an intergalactic scoundrel whose cocksure charm is repeatedly undercut by his leap-without-looking decision-making.
We love Han Solo because he knows he doesn't know best half the time, but a rogue's gotta keep up appearances. We adore Indiana Jones because he's a scholar who does know more than most, but that doesn't preclude him from bumbling into the more-than-occasional tight spot. Ford has an effortless facility for making heroism look really goddamn hard. As Indy tells Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage." Ford famously improvised that line, and it's one of the most endearingly honest confessions you've ever heard from an action-adventure protagonist. It hurts like hell to keep coming out (barely) on top.
A Movie Star With No Tolerance For BS
James Mangold is in the enviable/precarious position of being the first person not named Steven Spielberg to direct Ford as Indiana Jones in a feature-length film. After the crushing disappointment of "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," it's hard not to temper your expectations for the forthcoming "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny." But the first teaser hit the sweet spot and the fact that we know this is 80-year-old Ford's final go-round as the adventuring archaeologist inspires a bit of hope. We expect Indy and Ford to go down swinging.
Mangold has worked with the biggest stars in Hollywood (Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and so on), so there shouldn't be an intimidation factor here. But in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said that getting to collaborate with Ford on his Indy swan song left him in awe of what he called the star's "profound instincts" as a movie actor.
According to Mangold:
"There's so much more than just the truth of the performance but also tailoring it to the frame and knowing what's going to work. What I thought was most refreshing was — and I can't say I found this surprising because his body of work represents this so fully — is you sense he's working every moment to undermine the bulls**t of the scene. He looks for ways to make it more like life, mess up the false moments and to take the piss out of his own character. He's got this great sense of how to be a hero and how to undermine the tropes of heroism at the same time."
He Belongs In A Museum, But Not Just Yet
Think of Indy in the classic opening scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It starts with his swaggering walk-off with the idol, where he doesn't see the bag of sand he so carefully measured fail to match the weight of his prize, and, I think, peaks with the moment he makes the running leap across the chasm as the temple's dead-man-switches slowly-but-ominously eliminate his sole avenue of escape. He doesn't clear the gap, but he gets close enough to grab an exposed root. It seems sturdy enough, so he gives a smug grin as he pulls himself up. That grin flashes to "I'm-gonna-die" terror as the root gives away. That's Solo. That's Indy. That's Ford.
"How to walk on that tightrope is something you see him thinking about all day long," says Mangold. "How to kind of play against the obvious grain in the scene. Also, how to kind of find humor where you might not think there would be humor. These gifts are a hallmark of his work."
On June 30, 2023, we'll delight at the sight of Indy taking up his trusty bullwhip and cheating certain death one last time (because there's no way this franchise would ever pull a "No Time to Die"). Even if it's a modest "Rio Lobo" curtain call, the pleasure will be all ours. Harrison Ford knew when and how to be a movie star better than anyone.
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