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. Eminent actor, director, and producer, George C. Scott, once remarked that during a period when the other actors in Hollywood were paper-mâché, Jim was genuine, noting that the simple and incredible thing about Cagney was that he told the truth. Naturally, I was hooked when I saw my first Cagney film, at around 15 or 16 years old. I discovered The Public Enemy in a period of my life when I was obsessed with gangster films.

Jim’s acting in that film blew me away, especially the final scene where, while dying from a bullet wound to the head on a street corner in the middle of a thunderstorm, Tom Powers (Jim’s character in the film) learned that his self-image as tough guy was an illusion all-along. Before his final breath, Tom uttered, “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, created in the context of a culture which persistently demanded male-bravado.

In the coming decade, as I devoured one film after another (learning more about Jim’s life), I was presented with an image of what it really meant to be a man, filling a void left by my father and stepfather. I learned about vulnerability and authenticity through Jim’s work. You see, Jim was an unconventional actor at the time (1930s), as he also played roles intended for actresses and tap-danced; in essence, Cagney was the ultimate embodiment of the masculine and feminine principles. And for a kid growing up in a rough neighborhood, this meant everything to me.

When I was a boy, I was constantly pressured to be tough by my male counterparts and authority figures; the only acceptable traits were the ones which encompassed strength, which was why I fell in love with mobster films. I, so badly, wanted to embody the personas of those glamorized men, the ones who exhibited courage in the face of danger and who did whatever they wanted to. So, I turned to Cagney, hoping to learn what it meant to be tough, and how to be a man, having no clue of what was to come.

Initially, I was hooked by his films, but I was profoundly changed by his softer side. On screen, Jim was a person, instead of an easily digestible personality. He evidenced the complexity inherited in all of us; he was hard when needed, but kind and considerate when expressing his love 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 all Werner Brothers actors to receive fair-pay, or when he donated to the striking cotton workers of the San Joaquin Valley, and was subsequently labeled and persecuted as a communist sympathizer by the US government.

Reading about Jim’s life, you instantly get a sense of his core values, and thus, an inside look into who he was. He never cared much for others’ opinions, as to him right was simply right. According to his Wikipedia page, Cagney was once 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.

That piece of history epitomizes James Cagney, the man who always stood up against injustice.

In his films, he loved deeply whenever he loved, he fought against injustice whenever he witnessed it, and lent a helping hand when he saw others suffering; I couldn’t have asked for a better role-model than Jim, at that age. One year ago, when I went to see Cagney: The Musical starring Robert Creighton (who’s a spitting-image of Jim), I had the privilege of coming as close to him as I ever would. I was captivated and completely enthralled, having had, in my lifetime, only a few other similar moments of pure joy. Cagney, to me, continues to represent healthy masculinity and what it means to care about the world around one and those who are most in need of tenderness’ warm touch. Jim exhibited his compassion in his films and his politics; and, for this, he changed my life. He was everything one would hope for in a friend, and for oneself; James Cagney simply was who he appeared to be.

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