Mar. 26th, 2016

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Harvey is a nice light little movie, imperfectly made, with a major piece of miscasting (Sanderson) and some directorial stiffness (although Koster certainly succeeds where the '72 version fails). What it does have is Jimmy Stewart giving a wonderful performance in a very tricky role that blends melancholy and happiness so sweetly and unassumingly that even though the ending is a happy one I was left with a great mixed feeling of joy and sorrow.

Happy-Go-Lucky is the only other movie right now that I can think of that attempts something like Harvey -- a protagonist who is unceasingly cheery and NICE, at beginning and end of film -- but even H-G-L contains internal character conflict and unhappiness -- a journey. Elwood, in contrast, does not do the one thing that a protagonist is SUPPOSED to do, which is, change. He does not change at all. He is the catalyst for change in other peoples' lives, and he would be a very curious, tipsy void at the centre of the film if it were not for Jimmy Stewart.

Without an arc to play, Stewart instead plays to a reveal -- not the "Harvey is real" thing and certainly not the holy fool morality of the end, but the reveal in his centerpiece monologue outside of Charlie's bar, to Sanderson and Kelly, of his meeting with Harvey. Because we're way ahead of the other characters when it comes to wanting Elwood to stay Elwood and not be psychoanalysed or medicated into mundanity, to lose the thing that made him special, we're vested in seeing his "delusion" as something sweet and essentially harmless.

But in this monologue Stewart -- without ever ONCE tipping his hand, or playing to any melancholy -- reveals the depth of Elwood's potential sorrow, the emptiness and meaninglessness that is held at bay by Harvey, and the active choice he makes to be pleasant over smart (read: cynical or beholden to social pressure). He used to be able to dance; he doesn't dance any more, but he does make friends, and he does go out into the world.

I used to know a whole lot of dances. The, uh, flea hop, and--and the, what's the -- the black bottom, the varsity drag. I don't know, I just don't seem to have any time any more. I have so many things to do.

What is it you do, Mr Dowd?

Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars, and have a drink or two, and play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine, and they smile. And they're saying, we don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella. Harvey and I warm ourselves on all these golden moments.

Who would he be if he couldn't warm himself on these moments?

And it's this that sits under the rest of the film, and makes us love him so tremendously, when he's giving Dr Chumley such good advice, when he's at risk of being medicated, when it looks like Harvey might stay behind. You only want good things to happen to him -- not because he's so so pleasant, but because his pleasantness is a choice, and because his life was not so so pleasant, once, and the beauty in his soul and the generosity and forgiveness he brings to the world deserves return in kind.

What Stewart brings to this performance is the knowledge not simply that joy and sorrow exist on a continuum, and that we can't know the one without having known the other; but that a pure and perfect, lived-in joy is often tinged with sorrow, or grief. When I think of my loved ones -- when I turn inside and try to capture without thought the feeling they invoke in me, the love I feel is tinged with a kind of pain. That mixed feeling, that joy tinged with melancholy that makes the joy shine brighter, is what Stewart is playing, and is what I felt seeing him shamble through the gates, over the rise and into the sunset.


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