Gary Cooper’s Three Oscars

On May 7, 1901, Frank James Cooper was born in Helena, Montana. After some work as a salesman and promoter, he started working as an actor in 1925, changing his first name to Gary when he signed a contract with Paramount. Reportedly, a casting director suggested the new name after her tough hometown of Gary, Indiana.

Gary Cooper went on to star in many memorable films including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and The Fountainhead (1949). Cooper was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and lost for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Pride of the Yankees, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Cooper’s First Best Actor Oscar

He received the Best Actor Oscar twice. First, he won the honor in 1942 for Sergeant York (1941). It is a terrific performance, even if some note that Hollywood may have been motivated to honor the World War I film about a pacifist becoming a soldier to encourage Americans to sign up to fight in the new war. Below is the trailer.

Cooper’s Second Oscar & The Meaning of High Noon

More than a decade later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon (1952), the last time he was nominated for Best Actor. It is hard to pick a favorite Gary Cooper movie, but I am not sure anything tops High Noon (1952).

We liked Cooper as a hero.

At the 25th Academy Awards in 1953, Cooper was filming another movie in Mexico and was ill.  So, John Wayne accepted the award for him.

Below, actress Janet Gaynor announces Cooper’s win, and Wayne accepts the statue.

Interestingly despite Wayne’s joke wondering why he did not get the High Noon role, Wayne reportedly did not like the movie. There are various theories about why, but Garry Wills in John Wayne’s America explained that Wayne thought the movie ended on a note of disrespect for the law when Cooper dropped his badge in the dirt at the end.

Like Wayne, a number of people found political messages in High Noon. Some suspected High Noon had a “leftist” message. By contrast, though, others believed the script, written by Carl Foreman, who would later be blacklisted, was not sending a left-wing message but exploring the way people had cowered to the bully Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Other viewers find in High Noon a conservative message about how one man has to stand up when the justice system breaks down. Or they find an allegory about the Cold War. In Bright Lights Film Journal, Prof. Manfred Weidhorn summed up the contrasting theories about the movie, saying “High Noon, bristling with ambiguity, is a veritable Rorschach test.”

But High Noon is deep down a great movie, however you want to interpret any messages about the man (and his wife) standing up to the bad guys. And maybe the possibility of so many interpretations adds to its American character.

Many years ago when I was in college in the pre-Internet days and had some friends visiting from Sweden, I took them to a revival theater to see High Noon.  I thought it was a wonderful example of an American movie, or at least of an example regarding how Americans see themselves.

Another former actor, Ronald Reagan, recognized how the movie remained in America’s consciousness decades later. He invokes the movie in this clip, discussing what it was like for a Republican to be in Democratic territory.

Cooper’s Third Oscar

Nearly a decade after High Noon, Cooper would be awarded a third and final Oscar. In April 1961, the Academy gave Cooper a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for his great career.

Cooper again could not accept the award.  But this time, unknown to many, it was because of a serious illness.

When viewers saw Cooper’s friend Jimmy Stewart give an emotional speech at the Oscars, though, they realized Cooper was not well. The news soon came out that Cooper was suffering from prostate cancer.  He died one month later on May 13, 1961, leaving behind a collection of great films that would be the envy of any actor.

What is your favorite Gary Cooper movie? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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