My Love for James Cagney: A Tribute to the Man Who Taught Me Authenticity and Compassion

When I think of authenticity, the first person that comes to mind is Jimmy Cagney. George C. Scott once remarked that in a time when the other actors in Hollywood were paper-mâché, Jim was genuine, that the simple and incredible thing about him was that he told the truth. So, when I saw my first Cagney film, at about 15 or 16 years old, I was hooked. In a period of my life when I was obsessed with gangster films, I discovered The Public Enemy. Jim’s acting in that film blew me away, especially the final scene, in which, while dying on a street corner in the middle of a storm, he learned that his self-image as tough guy had been an illusion all-along; his last line in the film was, “I ain’t so tough.” Then, he died. And, that was when I learned that being a tough guy was nothing more than a well-orcastrated facade.

In the coming decade, as I devoured one film after another, and learned more about Jim’s life, I was given a picture of what it meant to be a man, filling a void left by my father and my stepfather. Through Jim’s work, I learned about vulnerability and authenticity. You see, Jim was an unconventional actor at the time, as he played female roles and tap-danced; he was the ultimate embodiment of the masculine and feminine principles. And for a kid growing up in rough neighborhood, this meant everything to me. When I was a boy, I was pressured to be tough and strong by my male peers and male authority figures; these were the only acceptable qualities for boys then, which was why I fell in love with mobster films. I wanted so badly to embody the personas of those glamorized individuals, the ones who presented with courage in the face of danger and who did whatever they wanted to. So, I went to Cagney, hoping to learn what it meant to be tough, what it meant to be a man, having no clue of what was to come.

Through his gangster films, I was hooked; but, through his softer side, I was profoundly changed. On the screen, Jim was a person, rather than an easily digestible personality. He evidenced the complexity inherited in each of us; he was hard when he needed to be, but kind and sweet when expressing his love and admiration for those he cared for. Much of Jim’s adult life was spent fighting for the little guy, whether it was against Jack Warner when he fought for fair pay for actors, or when he donated to the striking cotton workers of the San Joaquin Valley (subsequently being labeled and persecuted as a communist sympathizer). Reading about Jim’s life, you instantly understand that he had a core sense of values, and thus, a core sense of himself. He never cared much for the opinions of others, as to him, right was simply right. According to his Wikipedia page, Cagney was forced to pay an unethical and biased tax called the “Merriam tax”, which “was an underhanded method of funneling studio funds to politicians; during the 1934 Californian gubernatorial campaign, the studio executives would ‘tax’ their actors, automatically taking a day’s pay from their biggest-earners, ultimately sending nearly half a million dollars to the gubernatorial campaign of Frank Merriam. Cagney… publicly refused to pay and Cagney even threatened that, if the studios took a day’s pay for Merriam’s campaign, he would give a week’s pay to Upton Sinclair, Merriam’s opponent in the race.” And, that was Jim in a nutshell, always standing up for his values.

In his films, whenever he loved, he loved deeply; wherever he witnessed injustice, he fought against it; and, where he saw sorrow and pain, he couldn’t help but lend a helping hand. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model at that age than Jim. A year ago, I had the privilege of coming as close to him as I ever would, when I went to see Cagney: The Musical starring Robert Creighton, who’s a spitting-image of Jim. I was so enthralled and captivated, having had, in my lifetime, only a few other similar moments of pure joy. To me, Cagney continues to represent healthy masculinity and what it means to care about the world around you and those who need it most. His compassion was exhibited in his films and in his politics; and, for this, he changed my life. Jim was everything you’d hope for in a friend and for yourself; he simply was what he appeared to be.

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