You don’t hear a lot about Van Heflin these days.
When the classic conversation rolls around to actors of the Golden Age, you can pretty much count on the names of Clark Gable and Cary Grant popping up, along with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney – maybe William Holden, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy. James Stewart. Gregory Peck. Edward G. Robinson.
I think you’d have to be talking for a long time before someone mentioned Van Heflin.
And that’s a shame, because Heflin had some acting chops that could rival the best of them, as he proved in such features as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Madame Bovary (1949), The Prowler (1951), Shane (1953), and the film that earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – Johnny Eager (1941).
Released relatively early in Heflin’s three-decade-long career, Johnny Eager stars Robert Taylor in the title role – a sort of wolf in deceptively handsome sheep’s clothing. On the outside, Johnny is a mild-mannered parolee who’s paid his debt to society and is working his way through the right side of life as a taxicab driver.
On the inside, he’s a ruthless racketeer who’ll stop at nothing – even murder – to achieve his illicit aspirations. Heflin portrays Jeff Hartnett, Johnny’s right-hand man. And Heflin doesn’t just portray Jeff – he inhabits him.
Jeff’s primary and most outstanding character trait is his, shall we say, fondness for the bottle. In fact, we can say that Jeff and the bottle are having quite the steamy love affair. But that’s not all there is to Jeff – Heflin (assisted generously by screenwriter John Lee Mahin) creates a multifaceted character who’s intelligent, well-read, and sensitive. He quotes Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, uses polysyllabic, 12-dollar words, and makes literary references that would make a head librarian beam with pride. And although he’s firmly ensconced in the life of the underworld, he seems to be in a constant struggle, with the reality of his vocation battling against his deep-seated morals and values. In fact, when once asked by Johnny why he drinks so much, Jeff responds, “Every now and then I’ve got to look in a mirror.”
We get our first hint of Jeff’s persona before we see him – Johnny’s flavor-of-the month, Garnet (Patricia Dane), is complaining to Johnny about something Jeff has said to her: “If you’re looking for Mr. Hartnett, he was here earlier this morning . . . but he wandered away, full of gin and big words. Say, who was Herod Agrippa? He said you were the modern-day Herod Agrippa. And then he said I was your inamorata. I’m going to get a load of what that means, too.”
Jeff doesn’t show up in the flesh until more than 20 minutes into the film, but when he does, he makes an instant impact. He’s in a state that we’ll come to expect – three (or possibly four) sheets to the wind. And when Johnny points out his drunken state, the ever-erudite Jeff rejoins, “Now, Eager, that’s obvious. Very obvious. Don’t be obvious. You’re out of character when you’re obvious. Adroitness is your racket. Hard, clever and adroit – that’s your description.”
Jeff is more than Johnny’s aide-de-camp. Despite the fact that he’s either drunk, on his way to getting drunk , or recovering from being drunk, he serves as Johnny’s highly perceptive conscience, never hesitating to analyze his boss and share the results of his scrutiny. Take the scene where Johnny sends his soon-to-be-former gal, Garnet, off to Florida. Jeff sits silently by, sipping brandy from a teacup while Johnny lowers the subtle boom, but the moment Garnet leaves, Jeff doesn’t bite his tongue. “Poor Garnet, she’ll hang around in Florida eating her heart out until it finally dawns on her that Lancelot is not coming. Johnny, why didn’t you tell her the truth, the poor kid.” Jeff also acknowledges that he doesn’t care for Garnet, but he does feel sympathy toward her, explaining that “you can feel sorry for someone you don’t like if you’ve got a heart or soul or decency. I guess you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
But while it cannot be denied that Jeff “tells it like it is” when it comes to Johnny, it is also clear that he loves Johnny more than anyone in the world – more than Garnet, and more than the woman who steals Johnny’s heart, Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner). And nothing can diminish that love. Not Johnny’s misdeeds, not his insults – not even a punch Johnny lands on Jeff’s chin (and which lands Jeff on the floor) after Jeff makes an especially insightful and stinging observation. No matter what Johnny does or is, Jeff doesn’t give up on him. And in the final reel (spoiler ahead – sorry!), when Johnny meets his end, it’s Jeff who cradles him and cries over his lifeless body.
Van Heflin’s competition in the Best Supporting Actor race of 1941 was William Bendix (Wake Island), Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Frank Morgan (Tortilla Flat), and Henry Travers (Mrs. Miniver). It was Heflin’s first and only nomination, and at the time he won the golden statue, at age 32, he was the youngest-ever actor to win an Academy Award. I’ve never seen Wake Island or Tortilla Flat, I don’t remember Henry Travers’s character in Mrs. Miniver, and I wasn’t exactly blown away by Walter Huston’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But whatever his fellow nominees did in their films, there’s no doubt that Heflin’s performance in Johnny Eager was of Academy Award caliber – it was just that good. When he’s on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and when he’s not, you find yourself watching and waiting for his return.
If you’ve never seen Johnny Eager, do yourself a huge solid and check it out.
It might just make you start talking about Van Heflin.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Do yourself a favor and visit these sites to check out the wealth of great posts being offered as part of this fantastic event!