Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care” – Lee Server
St. Martin’s Griffin, originally published in 2001
paperback, 608 pages
When Robert Mitchum walked onto a movie set, you never knew what was going to happen. He might develop an affable relationship with his director (as he did with Raoul Walsh in Pursued) or he might not (as with David Lean in Ryan’s Daughter). When Joseph von Sternberg banned food and drink on the set of Macao, Mitchum “began bringing in bags of food and coffee, and handing them out to one and all.” (p. 218) He also urinated on David O. Selznick’s carpet.
Mitchum’s career was as unpredictable and unlikely as his story. A drifter and hobo by the age of 14, Mitchum became an avid reader and poet before finding himself onstage as a reluctant member of the Long Beach Players Guild. After a few roles in low-budget horse operas, Mitchum landed a role in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which earned the actor rave reviews and an enormous amount of attention. Mitchum also gained other kinds of attention resulting from brawls, women, and a marijuana bust that could’ve ended his career.
But it didn’t. The roles kept coming, not always in good films, but Mitchum was always good in them. Although critics would often chide the actor for seemingly not trying very hard or sleepwalking through his performances, fans kept coming to see his pictures. They saw something the critics didn’t. So did most of his co-stars. Mitchum became legendary for nailing every line in every script, regardless of how wasted he was the night (or sometimes just a matter of hours) before the production day began.
The actor’s antics are as wide-ranging as the roles he played. Some of Mitchum’s bad boy anecdotes are relatively harmless; others are mean-spirited and deplorable. Some deserved the treatment they received from the actor. Others didn’t. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing with Mitchum on one page and disdaining him a couple of pages later.
As you journey through Lee Server’s 500+ page treatment (which never slows down or grows tiresome) of the actor, you begin to see what made Mitchum impossible to ignore, both as a personality and an actor. Is the book’s title completely true? Did Mitchum really not care? It might seem so, considering all his shenanigans, treatment of the press, periods when he didn’t want to work, and, of course, his many affairs. Yet you’ll find evidence in the book that he really did care, at least about some things. Consider that Mitchum worked literally right up until the end of his life in 1997, taking on a wide range of roles that might surprise even the most ardent movie fans. According to his sister Julie, Mitchum also was quite generous to others, but kept his generosity at arm’s length. “He never wanted to leave any fingerprints,” she said (p. 457).
Server is at his strongest when he chronicles Mitchum as an actor, on the set, working with directors, co-stars, crew members. Was Mitchum a great actor or did he just do what came naturally, portraying himself with every role? My advice is to read the book and watch the films. It’s all there. Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care” is essential reading for Mitchum fans and anyone interested in movies of any kind.