Vintage Hunk: Gary Cooper

By: Mike McCrann

"Gary Cooper was probably the greatest cocksman who ever lived."
Director Stuart Heisler (The Glass Key, The Star)

Screen legend Gary Cooper died over 50 years ago. Most young movie fans hardly know him at all except for High Noon, where he was already over 50 and looked every day of it. But to give you a little background, Cooper won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated five times—and he was not a great actor. What Cooper did have was a quiet, almost shy quality that not only helped accentuate his performances in better films but also drew the movie fan to him. Women adored Cooper and men liked him as well. Like fellow actor James Stewart (a truly great film actor), Cooper was the quintessential American on screen for most of his long career. Off screen Cooper was known to be a stud of legendary proportions (in every sense of the word) who had infamous affairs with such screen beauties as Clara Bow, Ingrid Bergman and Patricia Neal. There has also been much speculation that Cooper had a number of flings with men as well.

Frank James Cooper was born in Montana in 1901. His parents were British, and Frank and his brother were sent to England for three years to attend grammar school. World War I brought both boys back to Montana, and this rural upbringing—including horseback riding— would later lead to his film career. Cooper followed his parents when they moved to Los Angeles and he became an extra in movies, usually as a cowboy. Changing his name to Gary, Cooper signed a long term contract with Paramount in 1925. After a brief supporting part in the silent movie Wings, which was the first Best Picture Oscar winner, Cooper became a major star with his first sound film The Virginian in 1929. He followed this up with the famed Morocco, which introduced German star Marlene Dietrich to American films.

It was during this early period in his career that Cooper was reported to have had a long affair with fellow Paramount player Anderson Lawler. In his excellent biography Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life (Patricia Neal was Cooper's last major affair), author Stephen Shearer states, "Cooper had a three year affair with a man, the young Alabama born Anderson Lawler, an aspiring film actor. Their letters indicated they had a deep infatuation with one another. They lived together at Cooper's apartment for a time. Through Lawler Cooper gained entrance into Hollywood society." Lawler would later be one of the regulars at gay director George Cukor's infamous Sunday "boy" pool parties.

As Patricia Neal (seen right, with Cooper) collaborated on this book and told the author she knew of this relationship, it seems pretty certain that Cooper did occasionally dally with men. He was later reported to have had relationships with Ernest Hemingway and Cecil Beaton. That said, if Cooper was bisexual he certainly did seem to prefer women, as his notorious relationships with silent star Clara Boy, Mexican beauty Lupe Velez and others have entered into Hollywood folklore. Cooper's only marriage was to Veronica Balfe in 1933. She and Cooper would stay married for the rest of his life and have a daughter, but this did not stop his profligate ways.

Career wise, Cooper reached his artistic summit in 1936 with Frank Capra's great Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra won the Best Director Oscar for this enchanting story of Longfellow Deeds who gives away a fortune resulting in a sanity hearing. Cooper's shy, introspective personality totally fit the role and both he and the film were smash hits. Cooper received the first of his five Best Actor nominations for his charming performance. More hits followed including Beau Geste, and Cooper hit the jackpot in 1941 with Capra's Meet John Doe, and the stirring war film Sergeant York. Cooper won the 1941 Academy Award for playing Alvin York, the hick farmer who became a WWI hero. Looking back, it seems that patriotism and the approaching world conflict are responsible for this film's success because York is pretty hokey, and while Cooper is good as the taciturn farmer his performance does not come close to several of the actors nominated that year— like Orson Welles for Citizen Kane and Cary Grant for Penny Serenade.

Cooper was on a role. He played baseball great Lou Gehrig in 1942's Pride of the Yankees and was again Oscar nominated. In 1943 he starred in the film version of Ernest Hemingway's great novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. This was the most highly touted film of the year and it made a fortune, but it was a total botch of the book. Watching this long turkey you aren't sure who is fighting who in the Spanish Civil War, and Cooper, although Oscar nominated, is only adequate in the leading role. Ingrid Bergman stole the film with her Oscar nominated performance and had a not-too-quiet affair with Coooper during this film; this romance was repeated when they returned to Hollywood and made another costume drama, Saratoga Trunk.

Cooper's career had peaked and the rest of the 1940s were pretty dismal. Cecil B. Demille's Unconquered was fun and made money, but the most famous of Cooper's flop films is The Fountainhead. This hotly-anticipated film version of Ayn Rand's best seller co-starred newcomer Patricia Neal, and while the film was a flop, Neal and Cooper began their almost 5 year affair; this open secret lead to Neal's having an abortion rather than risk the destruction of her career. In the aforementioned book on Patricia Neal, she talks about the early days of this affair. She had rented a small bungalow from Rudolph Valentino's first wife who lived next door with her female partner. Cooper, Neal and the two ladies formed a secret friendship and, as Neal states, "We quietly cheered each other's teams, knowing we were all in murky waters." Cooper, however, finally went back to his wife, converted to Catholicism, and seemingly ended his non-marital priapic ways.

Cooper's stagnating career was reinvigorated by the cheaply made western High Noon, which became a big hit and won Cooper his second Academy Award. While this film is justly famous, a lot of people hated it (John Wayne for one) for its political stance. It also seems like Cooper won his Oscar for sentimental reasons, not necessarily artistic, as a number of the other nominees gave superior performances.

The newly-chastened Cooper made some so-so movies for the rest of the decade but a few of them were pretty bad. Looking incredibly aged, Cooper was grotesquely cast by Billy Wilder as Audrey Hepburn's love interest in Love In The Afternoon. He looked more like Hepburn's grandfather, and we now know that this time Cooper was beset by cancer. He was given an honorary Oscar in 1961 but was too ill to attend the ceremony. His close friend James Stewart accepted with a teary, emotional speech that announced to the world that Cooper was seriously ill and near death. A month later, six days after his 60th birthday, Gary Cooper died. His final film, The Naked Edge with Deborah Kerr was released after his death. This sub standard Suspicion ripoff was a poor send off to a fabulous career.

Gary Cooper was a huge movie star (and many amorous partners have attested to this purposeful double entendre). He was never a great actor but he did what he did as well as any movie star in history. His face and persona were representative of America as its most uncomplicated best, and his sexual escapades are the stuff of legend.