Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Donald Sutherland called him a genius.
If Robert Mitchum were alive at the time he would have scoffed at the idea. The Cecil B. deMille Award honoree never thought of himself as anything but a journeyman film actor. And yet, he carved a distinguished career over five decades working with just about every great director including John Huston, David Lean, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Wise, Otto Preminger, William A. Wellman, Fred Zinnemann, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Stanley Donen, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli.
Not that he sought out their films, they came to him. And in truth, he never intended to be an actor. Born in impoverished circumstances in Bridgeport Conn., he flitted about aimlessly through adolescence, eventually changing direction when he met and married Dorothy Spence, to whom he remained married to all his life.
Encouraged by his sister, an aspiring actress, to move West, he joined her in Long Beach, Ca. where he worked as a machinist at the Lockheed aircraft factory, a job necessitated by his having four mouths to feed.
Unable to hold down that type of physical labor, he quit and found work in the studios, first hired as an extra, and eventually graduating to minor speaking roles in RKO war films. A small part in a major MGM film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo impressed director Mervyn LeRoy, and he was signed to a seven-year contract by RKO, where he was groomed to be their new Western star.
But fate intervened, as it always did with Mitchum, and he was borrowed by William Wellman to play a war-weary officer in the film version of Ernie Pyle’s The Story of G.I. Joe. The film earned him positive reviews and an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor.
Talk about luck! Just as he was about to cash in on his good fortune, he was drafted into the U.S. Army but not for long, and when the war ended he returned to the studio which really didn’t know what to do with him.
However, it was Dore Schary, now running RKO, who gave him his first important role at the studio, when he was gimmick-cast as one of the three Roberts under contract (Mitchum, Young, and Ryan) in what became the first Hollywood film to deal with the subject of antisemitism - director Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947). Even though Ryan was the one who played the bigot in that film, it was Mitchum in later years who made antisemitic comments denying the Holocaust, which didn’t sit well with the industry. He later claimed he was misquoted.
Crossfire was not only a box office hit, but it also received four Oscar nominations, and he followed it with arguably his most admired film, Jacques Tourneur’s classic noir, Out of the Past.
Suddenly, Mitchum was the studio’s top male star. In short order he co-starred opposite Loretta Young in Rachel and the Stranger, worked with Robert Wise on Blood on the Moon, was borrowed by Republic for The Red Pony, was allowed to work on The Big Steal while serving a prison stay for marijuana possession, and then found himself the personal interest of Howard Hughes, who had acquired the studio.
Hughes was his kind of boss, and even though they made no classics, the films he made for Hughes made Mitchum a box office star. Catch them on Turner Classic Movies, and you’ll get an idea of how magnetic he was, playing opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair, Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives, Ava Gardner in My Forbidden Past, Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman and Macao, Ann Blyth in One Minute to Zero, Lizabeth Scott in The Racket, Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men, and Jean Simmons in both She Couldn’t Say No and Angel Face, the latter easily his best movie of that period, even though he and the director Otto Preminger (they worked again acrimoniously on River of No Return) hated each other's guts.
His marijuana arrest, he thought, would end his career but Hughes stuck by him, and in return, Mitchum never balked when he was forced to make movies with Hughes’s female obsessions.
In between, he chose two unconventional projects, William A. Wellman’s all black-and-white film shot in color (Track of the Cat) and his greatest film, The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by Charles Laughton, a failure at the time of release but now considered an American classic. His haunting performance as the seductive con-man preacher is the reason why he’s considered an acting genius.
After that he coasted for a number of years in hit movies among them John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill, but that all changed when Fred Zinneman chose him to play an Australian sheepherder in The Sundowners, in which he gave one of his greatest performances, replete with authentic Australian accent.
Another menacing role in Cape Fear and a couple of classic westerns backing up Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, and Dean Martin followed. But then cinema’s greatest director at the time, David Lean, chose him to play an introverted Irish school teacher in Ryan’s Daughter, a role he pulled off with amazing finesse.
There was one final great performance left in him, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, although he worked steadily during the 70s. By the 1980s he had run out of steam as a film actor, and grudgingly accepted the leading role in a miniseries The Winds of War, which became a TV phenomenon. He reprised the role eight years later in War and Remembrance, which again drew record TV audiences. He continued working until his death. His last significant acting role was replacing an ailing John Huston in Mr. North at Huston's request.
Mitchum was a gracious Cecil B. deMille recipient, acknowledging his favorite costar Jane Russell and surprise “fan” Michael Caine who was there to pay tribute to an American icon.
How many classics can he claim? Too many to name. Watch them all on DVD.