James Stewart's Job In Rear Window And Vertigo Was To 'Do Nothing Well'

After James Cameron cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack in "Titanic," the young actor approached Cameron and wanted to make some changes to the script. Specifically, he thought his character should have "some affliction," which would allow him to really get stuck into the role. Cameron's response was characteristically curt: "You gotta learn how to hold the center and not have all that stuff, this isn't 'Richard III.' When you can do what Jimmy Stewart did or Gregory Peck did, they just f****** stood there. They didn't have a limp or a lisp or whatever. Then you'll be ready for this, but I'm thinking you're not ready."

There's a lot of debate these days about what makes a movie star — and whether that's even a thing anymore. For whatever reason, it's not enough to just be an actor in a starring role. You have to have some ineffable quality that brings people to theaters just to see you in a movie. And once they're there, at least back in the golden age of Hollywood, you could "just f****** stand there," and it would be enough.

Cameron is right that actors like Stewart seemed to do a lot of standing around. The Hollywood legend's refined, easy demeanor usually provided scenes with enough energy without him doing much. This worked out great for his frequent director Alfred Hitchcock, who famously thought of actors as little more than posable props who "should be treated like cattle." Nobody could do nothing quite like Stewart, which Hitchcock naturally found one of his most appealing qualities.

The art of doing nothing

The two biggest Hitchcock movies featuring Stewart, "Rear Window" and "Vertigo," required their star to do a lot of standing and, in the case of the former, sitting around. In "Rear Window," Stewart spends the film inside his Greenwich Village apartment as photographer L. B. Jefferies, who watches what he believes is the murder of his neighbor's wife and the subsequent cover-up from his window. As such, there was a lot of looking and reacting required from the role, alongside some simple tricks to move the plot along. Specifically, Hitchcock relied on the Kuleshov effect coined by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov whereby you place two unrelated images together and cut between them, allowing the audience to fill in the emotional gap.

It was the same four years later with 1958's "Vertigo," in which Stewart spends almost the entire film befuddled, bemused, and generally caught off-guard without having much else to do. Hitchcock knew he could count on the leading man to do so with the kind of muted magnetism he required. As the director told film critic Francois Truffaut in an interview:

"When a film has been properly staged, it isn't necessary to rely upon the player's virtuosity or personality for tension and dramatic effects. In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds."

Truffaut responded at the time by noting how in "Rear Window" and "Vertigo," Stewart wasn't "required to emote" and that "he simply looks — three or four hundred times — and then you show the viewer what he's looking at."

'So much of it is visual'

What Hitch and seemingly Truffaut understood about Stewart's performance was that if he did more than "nothing" in these "looking" shots, it would undermine the simple trick Hitchcock was using. For the Kuleshov effect to work at all, the actor reacting to the first image has to be able to do nothing and do it well. Too much in the way of acting and the audience is robbed of the chance to fill that gap themselves and have the scene's emotion unfold in their minds.

It all speaks to Hitchcock's apparent belief that actors are basically a kind of prop for the camera to shoot in whatever way he saw fit — a story-telling tool not much different from the physical props, scenery, or lighting. As he put it in the interview, the actors have to be ready to be "utilized and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera." In this view of filmmaking, the camera is king, and Jimmy Stewart got that. The veteran actor spoke about "Rear Window" some 30 years after shooting it, saying: ”The wonderful thing about it is that so much of it is visual, you really have to keep your eye open in the film, because it's a complicated thing."

Stewart clearly understood that his lines weren't the most important part of his Hitchcock movie roles and that the "visual" element was. And while Hitchcock's filmmaking ability is, of course, the key to his movies' enduring acclaim and popularity, no one could "just f****** stand there" quite like James Stewart. Without that subtle skill, "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" just wouldn't be the classics we know and love.