Gary Cooper (1901- 1961) is my all-time favorite male movie star. I love him so much, I named my 2023 gray Mini Cooper, “Gary Copper”.
Okay, let’s just get some of the gay stuff out of the way right off: In 1929, Cooper met the fellow actor Anderson Lawler (1902-1959), and they soon moved in together. If they had gotten married, he would have been “Anderson Cooper”.
It is all sort of like the story of Randolph Scott and Cary Grant, except that Lawler was open about his gayness. He began his career on Broadway, before moving to featured and supporting roles in Hollywood over a ten-year career at the very beginning of the talking picture era. After the end of his acting career in the 1930s, Lawler moved to the production end of the film industry, as well as becoming a theatre producer in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Cooper and Lawler spent time hanging out with silent film star turned world-class interior decorator William Haines, director George Cukor, and Katharine Hepburn, all of them more than just a little queer. Lawler introduced Cooper to Hollywood society, but their closeness caused considerable conversation in the early days of filmmaking.
Lawler’s modernist house in West Hollywood, designed by the great Edward Butler Rust was rented by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth when Lawler returned to working in New York City.
Cooper was born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana. His parents were recent immigrants from England, and after nine years they returned home. But, with the start of World War I, the family moved back to Montana and Cooper enrolled in college to study agriculture. Helena is the capital of Montana, a big state with very few people. Cooper’s father became a farmer, then a lawyer and then a Montana Supreme Court justice.
The myth around his Montana childhood (ignoring those pesky British years) provided the raw stuff for all the stories about him in the fan magazines. A Photoplay piece, purportedly penned by Cooper, went into detail about his rugged upbringing on his Montana ranch.
Once Paramount Pictures, knew what to do with him, they made him work hard for his money, honey. In 1930, Cooper starred in Only The Brave, The Texan, The Spoilers and A Man From Wyoming, all talkies taking advantage of his cowboy image. That same year, in Morocco, he played a taciturn cowboy in a soldier’s uniform up against Marlene Dietrich. This film is awesome.
It’s pre-Code, directed by Dietrich’s “Svengali” Josef von Sternberg. It’s about a cabaret singer and a Legionnaire who fall in love during the Rif War (1920-1927), a relationship complicated by his womanizing and a rich man who is also in love with her. The film is famous for the scene in which Dietrich performs a song dressed in a man’s top hat and tails and kisses another woman, both of which were scandalous for the period. Plus, the closing scene, where Dietrich sets out into the desert sands in spiked heels in search of Cooper.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including for Dietrich and Sternberg.
Cooper and von Sternberg did not get along because von Sternberg insisted on filming Cooper in passive positions, always looking up at a beautifully lit Dietrich. I love this, I love it so much.
Cooper had an affair with actor Lupe Vélez; he wanted to marry her, but Vélez was a hot mess. In keeping with her onscreen image as the fiery Latin, she threw wild parties with cock fights and showed stag films. She was extremely jealous of Cooper’s closeness to Lawler and supposedly unzipped Cooper’s fly at a Hollywood event and sniffed his stuff, claiming she wanted to smell Lawler’s cologne.
She and Dietrich got into it on the set of Morocco. Vélez insisted on being on set during filming. She became more aggressive as filming continued and evidence of an affair seemed to materialize. I have no idea what this evidence was; maybe more crotch-sniffing? The press made a big thing of their clashes, and Dietrich later claimed: “Gary was totally under the control of Lupe“.
I sort of love the idea of these two powerful females doing crazy shit for Cooper’s affection. Cooper lost 40 pounds during their three-year relationship, and Vélez supposedly shot at him when he fled Los Angeles by train.
Cooper appeared full-frontal nude, standing shaving in a river in something called Wolf Song (1929). No copies exist today, only a few images remain, but none with his full nakedness. Trust me, I searched. This was pre-Code Hollywood and there were no rules yet about film content.
Let’s do some straight talkin’; there was no cowboy more handsome than Cooper. In the early films, even with his eyes heavily lined and his face powdered, he somehow still looked hot, especially in the saddle. He was rumored to have one of the largest, most memorable cocks in Hollywood.
Cooper and his Paramount rival, Cary Grant, were cast with Tallulah Bankhead in Devil And The Deep (1932). Bankhead later said:
“The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.“
Amid all his onscreen cowboying, Cooper courted Veronica Balfe, best known as the blonde dropped by a big hairy ape in King Kong (1933). Cooper’s mother approved of her. They married in late 1933. Balfe retired from films, and few film fans even know of her unless they Google: “who had the least amount of sex with Gary Cooper”.
In 1935, Cooper was named by Woman’s Home Companion magazine to “Hollywood”s Best Dressed List”, and Cooper response was typically Capraesque:
“I don’t know a darn thing about dressing. I just trust in the Lord and keep my shoes shined.“
Cooper gave up his cowboy persona to become the straight-talking masculine man with values in Depression-era USA, starting with Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) directed by Frank Capra.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, where copper is paired perfectly with Jean Arthur, is one of the first films to show a bit of age around Cooper’s eyes, yet he looks amazingly attractive. Maybe even better.
In 1941, he was back with Capra for Meet John Doe, this time paired with Barbara Stanwyck. Later that year, he appeared in Sergeant York as a conscientious objector who, despite his religion is still forced into the U.S. army. He goes to war morally conflicted, but when his fellow men are cornered by Germans, he proves himself a hero.
More noble roles followed: Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees (1942), and in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) with Ingrid Bergman. For these performances, Cooper was Oscar nominated for three straight years for Best Actor.
The films that Cooper made next were very much of the post-war American idea. He somehow managed to make The Fountainhead (1949) bearable in its film adaptation. The novel by Ayn Rand is particularly ego-driven Americana, and a favorite of Rand Paul. 47-year-old Cooper had an affair with his co-star, 21-year-old Patricia Neal. When Neal became pregnant, Cooper purportedly insisted she have an abortion. Cooper’s wife found out about the relationship and sent a telegram demanding he end it.
Amid all this drama, Cooper was cast in his defining role: the socially isolated sheriff in High Noon (1952), battling against time to get the indifferent townsfolk to give a shit. The film, a parable of McCarthyism, won praise in part because Hollywood was one of the most high-profile targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
It was particularly fitting in the choice for Cooper to play the Sheriff. Cooper had served as a friendly witness when he was called before HUAC in 1947, and he was part of the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” along with fellow Republicans Stanwyck, Clark Gable, and Ginger Rogers. While Cooper was against Communism, he did not support the Hollywood Blacklist.
Cooper had an affair with the very young Grace Kelly, who played his very young Quaker wife. Their affair sent Neal over the edge, and she suffered a nervous breakdown and left Hollywood.
High Noon is a perfect film, and an expression of the evolution of Cooper’s cowboy image: pretty to principled to disillusioned. John Wayne called High Noon: “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life“, which means it obviously had a lot going for it.
My favorite of his films is the delirious Ball Of Fire (1941), a satire of Disney‘s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Directed by Howard Hawks, it is about a group of professors writing an encyclopedia and their encounter with a nightclub performer, Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Stanwyck who contributes her own unique knowledge of slang to the project. It is in my Top Ten Films of All Time.
In 1960, Cooper was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which spread to his colon, lungs, and bones. He managed to keep his illness from the press until James Stewart had to accept an honorary Oscar for him in 1961. Stewart said:
“We’re very proud of you, Coop, all of us.“
Then Stewart broke down crying. A month later, Cooper was dead.