He lived for so short a time, 39 scant years, that he's barely recalled now except by film reviewers who conjure his name in critical comparisons (in Newsweekhe was most recently likened to, of all people, Eminem) and historians who lament his early demise and wonder, "What if?" He coulda been a contender, though in reality was much more than that--the precursor to Brando and Clift and De Niro and Keitel, a tough guy who was softer than his coarse exterior allowed. He was such a star that when he died in May 1952, in the apartment of a lover with whom he shacked up while separated from the wife and kids, his funeral was a mob scene--a Hollywood ending treated like an opening-night premiere, with all the attendant glitz and glamour befitting a Warner Bros. golden boy who wasn't the prettiest boy in the bunch, only the best. If nothing else, the wonderful Turner Classic Movies documentary The John Garfield Story, narrated by Garfield's daughter Julie and filled with testimonials by the likes of Joanne Woodward and Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese and a dozen other A-listers, serves to remind us of that much: Its subject may have vanished too soon, his demise hastened by a bad ticker and the leering goons of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but John Garfield was a real immortal. Even if no one quite remembers why anymore.
The filmography of the man born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side in March 1913 does not overflow with the names of too many legendary movies; he was the all-caps Movie Star nobody knew how to use, a man too often sentenced to prison pics and four-hankie weepers early in his career. Three of his first seven movies, all for Warners, were essentially the same movie with the same casts and the same plots and the same director (Michael Curtiz) and damned near the same title: Four Daughters, Daughters Courageous and Four Wives, all released in the late 1930s. Then came a movie in which the boy from New York played a Mexican (Juarez, for which the rising star was knocked down from the cloud by critics who turned), then a handful of movies in which he landed in prison or just got out of one, then B-pictures he made grade-A just by starring in them.
He was a stage man by trade, an actor raised in the roughneck hoods of the Bronx and boys' homes and, finally, the Group Theatre in the 1930s; among his best pals was Clifford Odets, the playwright who wrote for him Golden Boybefore the role went to another actor on the stage (and on screen, where it would be played by William Holden). But nothing was easy about the tough kid with tough looks and tough luck: He was "rugged, half-ugly and belligerent" by Hollywood standards, writes David Thompson in his just-published New Biographical Dictionary of Film, which left him to be battered too much by a studio system with a bad case of the Safe and Sounds.
Garfield made great movies under the lock and key of movie bosses: He played Lana Turner's fall-guy lover in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for which he'll always be fondly and fiercely recalled; Humoresque, acted with his face and Isaac Stern's fingers, was such a favorite he stayed on at Warners just to finish the picture; Body and Soulranks high among the best fight movies ever made. The list of great performances in lesser movies is even longer, and Gentlemen's Agreement alone would have gotten him into the hall of fame; as the Jew pushed too far by anti-Semites, he liked to say he didn't playthe role so much as feelit. But Garfield, as the doc insists, was crushed by HUAC when he wouldn't name names; he wasn't a Communist, but his liberal leanings--pushing for the hiring of black and Hispanic actors, working with writers and directors who'd wind up blacklisted, his Judaism even--damned him and, finally, doomed him.