Film Legend Glenn Ford Dies at 90, Tom Cruise Axed by Studio

August 31, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Hollywood stars, then and now. And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than 50 years and through 85 films, actor Glenn Ford helped define the strong, thoughtful Hollywood leading man. From westerns to war movies, romances to the Riviera, he was among the last stars of a bygone era.

Born in Quebec in 1916, Ford grew up in California and made his first film in 1939. A year later, he signed with Columbia Pictures, lead by Harry Cohn, a titan of the once-mighty studio system. After wartime service in the Marines, Ford co-starred opposite Rita Hayworth in the film noir classic “Gilda,” a story of corruption, power and frustrated romance in post-war Argentina that opened with Ford’s memorable voice-over.

GLENN FORD, Actor: To me, a dollar was a dollar in any language. It was my first night in the Argentine, and I didn’t know much about the local citizens. But I knew about American sailors, and I knew I’d better get out of there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ’50s brought other memorable films, including “The Big Heat” in 1953, and in 1955, “The Blackboard Jungle.” Ford would go on to star in dozens more films, including a turn as Superman’s adoptive father in the 1978 feature film.

Glenn Ford died Wednesday in Beverly Hills. He had been unwell for some time. He was 90 years old.

And joining us now is Howard Rodman, professor and chair of screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television.

Professor Rodman, why don’t you start by telling us about Glenn Ford the actor? What stands out about his roles and what he brought to them?

HOWARD RODMAN, USC School of Cinema-Television: Glenn Ford had the kind of career, I think, that Hollywood actors and movie stars today can only envy. He made 100-odd films. And in the course of making that many films, you really perfect your craft.

What Glenn Ford as a leading man brought to his films, for the most part, was a certain sense of a guy who has a very core decency, and who does what he does very well, and is put in an almost untenable situation. And he’s got something he’s got to step up to and does.

I think particularly of his character Dave Bannion in “The Big Heat,” who is an honest cop in a city full of corruption. I certainly think of Richard Dadier, the high school teacher that he plays in Richard Brooks’ “Blackboard Jungle.”

Again and again, he played a decent guy, a quiet guy, a competent guy. And somebody pushes him a little bit too hard and then is unprepared for what they get back from him.

Pictures speak a thousand words

JEFFREY BROWN: I came across a great quote from him today in one of the obituaries I read. This was from an interview where he was explaining why he liked acting in westerns with their sparse language. And he said, "You don't have to speak English to understand what's going on. I've always said the talking pictures talk too much."

HOWARD RODMAN: Glenn Ford was certainly very good at those kinds of laconic characters who impressed you as much with their being as with what they said. He was slow to anger, slow to move. I think one of the quotes I read from him today was somebody had asked him to do something faster, and he said, "I've only got two speeds, and the other one is slower."

But that kind of stolid, laconic American masculinity served him very well through, again, you know, more than 100 films and a variety of different roles.

His career

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it's striking, as you say, how many films he made. He was working in an older star and studio system, right? Tell us about that.

HOWARD RODMAN: Yes. Although Glenn Ford made his first film for Fox -- I think "Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence" in 1937 -- after he came back from the Marines, he was a Columbia contract player. And the idea of a contract player is something that doesn't really exist anymore.

It's, in essence, indentured servitude to a movie studio, in this case Harry Cohn's Columbia. And they taught you elocution. They taught you fencing. Occasionally, they would pull out your rear molars to give you better cheekbones. They trained you in the same way that I think baseball farm teams now train baseball players to be a leading man of the cinema. There's really no equivalent of that today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that, you're saying, allowed him to, over a long career, build many movies but the same sort of persona and hone that?

HOWARD RODMAN: Right. In the same way as with any craft, you get better by doing it. Great writing is built on mountains of crumpled paper, and great acting is built performance after performance after performance.

And the old Hollywood studio system and the old contract players system, whatever deficits it may have had -- and those deficits were huge, in many ways -- did enable actors to get very much better at what do you. When you're looking at Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda, or Glenn Ford, you're most likely not seeing their second or third performance. You're seeing their 30th or 40th or 50th, by which time, if they're any good at all, they really know what they're doing and, more importantly, they get to know who they are on screen.

Present-day cinema

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Now, let's fast forward to our own time and one of today's big stars and his relationship with the film studio. Here's some background first.

Last week, Tom Cruise finally ran into a real mission impossible. The mission: convincing Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone to renew a deal between Viacom's Paramount Pictures and Cruise's production company. But this time, one of the most bankable stars of the last quarter century -- from "Top Gun" to "War of the Worlds" -- failed.

It was widely suggested that Cruise's off-screen behavior had irked Redstone, who'd come to feel that Cruise's testimonials to his religion, Scientology, and his use of Oprah Winfrey's couch as a trampoline last year had become a drag on ticket sales.

A member of the rarefied strata of stardom that commands eight-figure paychecks for movies, plus a cut of a film's gross receipts, Cruise was let go by Paramount.

OK, so, Howard Rodman, here's Tom Cruise in a very different world of stars and studio. Explain the difference between our time and what we saw with Glenn Ford.

HOWARD RODMAN: Well, I think one of the differences is that the category into which Glenn Ford fit was that of the leading man. Tom Cruise is in a much different sense a movie star.

A leading man is somebody who is expected to be competent or better movie after movie after movie. A movie star is someone who is expected by movie studios to open a film big, for millions and millions of dollars, reliably and repeatedly. And it's a different set of expectations that's placed upon them.

I think also that the studio system is a very different system than it was. There are now six large conglomerates. And in a funny way, they're not really even in the movie business anymore, let alone in the nurturing of talent business. They're in the multimedia distribution business.

So, in essence, stars occupy a much different position than they used to because they used to be part of a much larger galaxy, and now stars are the thing which makes movies possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how unusual is it when a studio, in this case Paramount, says good-bye or releases from the relationship a big star like Tom Cruise?

HOWARD RODMAN: Well, star and star producer production companies have not been faring well anywhere on any studio lot for the past five or six years, because the overhead on them can tend to be large and the studios have a different set of accounting that they would like to bring to what these production companies can bring. So the fact that a Tom Cruise production company doesn't renew its deal is not particularly big news.

I think what was anomalous here was, rather than the traditional set of press releases in which everybody says, "We had a great run. It was wonderful. We all look forward to what we do next," Sumner Redstone instead did something very different, which is basically he said, "Your last movie didn't open the way we wanted it to. You're a movie star. That's your job, and we think it's your fault."

That kind of personal remark is the kind of thing which, as Patrick Goldstein pointed out in the "L.A. Times," George Steinbrenner often does, but very rarely in the modern era have you heard somebody who's the head of an entertainment conglomerate speak that way.

Different trends

JEFFREY BROWN: So is it possible to read this as the studios, in some sense, trying to reassert their power in a world where it swung towards the stars?

HOWARD RODMAN: That may be. This may be Sumner Redstone saying, not only to Tom Cruise but to actors and to directors and to writers, you know, "I am a destroyer of worlds."

Or it may be that, just as Tom Cruise having attained a certain level of accomplishment wanted to bring more of who he was to his work and his persona, it may be that Sumner Redstone wants to bring a certain level of who he is, and that both of them have reached that point in their lives and careers where they don't feel constrained to not be themselves when they have something to say.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you are suggesting that today's stars have different ways of building their own careers, again, in comparison with Glenn Ford's time.

HOWARD RODMAN: Absolutely. As a friend of mine says, it's like what happens in basketball now, where you take very young people with some raw talent, and you immediately put them into the game, and you hope that they make a lot of three-point shots, as opposed to rewarding those players who, year in, year out, play solidly and defensively and who can you can nurture and train.

So movie stars do have that special something, the ability to captivate an audience and the ability to open a movie. And for that reason, they are wildly valued as commodities. The first question people ask of a screenplay, really, is not, "What is it about?" but "Who is attached?"

What people really want to know is, can this writer, can this director attract a star of the quality that will open a film? And when you're in that position, the world gets very strange.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Howard Rodman, thanks very much.

HOWARD RODMAN: Thank you, Jeff.