Harrison Ford, Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Honoree

There are great leading men, great movie stars, if you will, and there are great movie actors. And, every once in a while, there are those who are both … Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, James Stewart. If this rare and invaluable breed seems almost extinct these days, one need only think of Harrison Ford, this year’s Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement honoree, to ward off depression.

Ford’s star quality is beyond dispute: At one point, around 1985, he could lay claim to having starred in five of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time — “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and the first three “Star Wars” films.

No small roles

Given the range of his acting and his rugged good looks, the real surprise is that it took so long for his potential to be exploited. From his first bit parts — in “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round” (1966, as Bell Hop) and “Luv” (1967, as Hippy) — he attracted no real attention until his small role as arrogant Bob Falfa in “American Graffiti” (1973) and his even smaller role as a sinister suit in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974).

Even that exposure didn’t do much for his career. It took “Star Wars” (1977) to turn him from an obscure but interesting supporting player to an international movie star.

Of course, Ford wasn’t even really the lead in “Star Wars.” As Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill was billed as the alleged star, but it was Ford’s Han Solo who stole the show. It was a perfect case of actor meeting role: Ford might have labored on in relative obscurity without “Star Wars,” and “Star Wars” would have been infinitely weaker sans Ford.

Like Burt Lancaster before him, Ford used his newfound stardom to do more diverse and challenging projects, while continuing in the Lucas/Spielberg popcorn movies. “Hanover Street” and “The Frisco Kid” (both from 1979) — neither of them truly satisfying, either commercially or aesthetically — seemed like deliberate anti-“Star Wars” choices, as though Ford already feared being boxed-in as a “movie star.”

Romance and comedy

“Hanover,” The first was a World War II romance, with had virtually no youth appeal; the latter “Frisco,” a comedy, that in part parodied Han Solo-style tough guys.

Much of Ford’s best work has been in films that exploit his skills and his persona: During the early ’80s, he positioned himself as the thinking man’s action hero. The Indiana Jones films provided a “Nutty Professor” twist to the heroics of Han Solo — Ford was able to be convincing as a swashbuckling hero and an unprepossessing, almost nerdy, academic. Was Jones an adventurer hiding out as a scholar? Or a scholar masquerading as an adventurer? We could never quite be sure which.

Few would have predicted it at the time, but Ford’s most enduring role from the early ’80s was Rick Deckard in “Blade Runner” (1982).

Classic sci-fi

The film was a big-budget flop, whose glaring flaws couldn’t completely obscure its strong points — including Ford’s performance. But even his work there was compromised by the awful last-minute voiceover that he reportedly recorded unwillingly and unhappily at the filmmaker’s insistence. It wasn’t until the early ’90s — with the restoration of the various versions of the director’s cut, with the flat voiceover (among other things) removed — that “Blade Runner” achieved its status as a classic.

“Blade Runner” represents a crucial moment in Ford’s career. Rather than desperately trying to deflate his action star image, as he had in the late ’70s, Ford chose to elevate or deepen that image, with action films that weren’t merely matinee entertainment, but were also moral dramas — films like “Witness” (1985) and “Frantic” (1988).

Even the fascinating misfire “The Mosquito Coast” (1986) offered Ford a chance to create a complex protagonist who was perhaps too effectively unlikable for the film to be a hit.

While he continued throughout the next decade to concentrate on thrillers with moral subtexts — “Presumed Innocent” (1990), “Patriot Games” (1992), “The Fugitive” (1993), and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994) — he also expanded into straight-out romantic comedies.

With “Working Girl” (1988) and “Sabrina” (1995), Ford he proved he could handle the softer genre — something that had eluded him to that point, despite his excellence in memorable the comic moments that were among the most memorable bits in the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones movies.

If there is a downside to Ford’s recent career, it is his curious choice of projects in the last five years. “Air Force One” (1997) was his last film to be both a commercial and critical success. “The Devil’s Own” (1997), “Six Days, Seven Nights” (1998), and “Random Hearts” (1999) were neither. “What Lies Beneath” (2000) was a big hit, yet it included one of the star’s few off-the-mark performances: despite Ford’s predilection for, and expertise in, playing ambiguous and/or ambivalent heroes, he seemed terribly miscast in a role more than a little reminiscent of Gary Cooper’s mediocre swansong, “The Naked Edge” (1961).

It’s hard to regard “What Lies Beneath” as other than an aberration, however, and the film’s commercial success, despite its failings, is a testament to his continued popular appeal. Given Ford’s track record and his valuable talents, his star will presumably continue to shine in the upcoming “K-19: The Widowmaker,” for which he’s receiving a reported $25 million and a huge percentage of the gross.

And, if not there, there is always the prospect of a rumored fourth Indiana Jones adventure on the horizon.

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