We love our Sean Penns and Ryan Goslings, our Al Pacinos and Robert De Niros, our James Deans and Marlon Brandos and Montgomery Clifts. But Garfield (who was born 100 years ago this week, on March 4, 1913) was there before all of them. The star of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Body and Soul" was Hollywood's first Method actor -- and its first rebel.
He wasn't Hollywood's first gangster -- fellow Warner Bros. stars Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart beat him to the punch -- but he may have been the most authentic, and the one with the most sexual edge. Garfield's filmography has a life-imitates-art-imitates-life quality to it. Many of his roles seemed to echo the juvenile-delinquent New York street kid and ex-boxer that he was before the acting bug bit him. His characters were often scrappy outsiders, streetwise and pugnacious, pitted against overwhelming social and political forces that would prove his undoing.
Indeed, that's what happened in his real life.
The kid who grew up on the streets of the Bronx as Julius Garfinkle (even after he acquired his Gentile-sounding stage name, friends and family still called him Julie) found his niche in the Group Theatre of the 1930s, starring in social-message plays written by his old Bronx pal Clifford Odets and training in the Stanislavskian techniques of emotional naturalism that would come to be known as the Method. He brought to Hollywood his street-tough attitude, his social consciousness, and his emotional directness. These qualities made him a star overnight, but they also got him typecast as gangsters and thugs.
Eventually, he was able to branch out; as one of Hollywood's first actors-turned-independent producers, he developed the projects that became his two finest movies, "Body and Soul" and "Force of Evil." As a tough-but-vulnerable romantic, he had tremendous appeal to both men and women.
Garfield seemed to be on top of the world until he was targeted by the Hollywood blacklist in 1951. Though he had never been a communist, he'd associated with plenty of them (especially in his Group Theatre days) and had even married one, but he still adhered to his street code and refused to name names when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That killed his movie career, making him the biggest star to fall prey to the blacklist. Stress from being unemployable exacerbated the heart condition that had kept him from fighting in World War II, and he died of a heart attack in 1952, when he was just 39.
Still, 60 or 70 years later, Garfield's performances burn a hole in the screen, in a way that seemed radical then but is familiar to us now, thanks to the actors for whom he opened doors, from smoldering Method brooders like Brando (who landed his historic role in "A Streetcar Named Desire" because Garfield was unavailable) to the streetwise ethnic stars of our own time, like Pacino, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Dustin Hoffman. Directors from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino have paid him homage in their films.
It's worth going back, then, to watch Garfield's work, to see where the archetypes we admire so much today got their start. Even now, Garfield's then-novel approach, in the context of the formulaic melodramas he was often cast in, feels like a liberating blast of fresh air. Here are ten of his must-see performances: