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My Favorite James Garner Movie

James Garner in Grand Prix
Actor James Garner passed away on July 19. By all accounts a genuinely nice guy who had little use for the hubris and self-importance of Hollywood, Garner’s persona as an actor was largely defined by his roles in two long-running television series; Bret Maverick in the TV western series Maverick and Jim Rockford in the television detective series The Rockford Files.

While Maverick in the 1950s and The Rockford Files in the 1970s seemed to define him as a television actor, Garner made some great or near-great movies as well and for one (Murphy’s Romance) he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
But that’s not my favorite James Garner movie; nor is it Up Periscope, Darby’s Rangers, The Great Escape, Space Cowboys or The Notebook, a 2004 movie in which he plays the older version of Ryan Gosling.
My favorite James Garner movie is Grand Prix.
Garner plays American F1 driver Pete Aron in the 1966 film directed by John Frankenheimer, which also stars Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter and Antonio Sabàto.
Grand Prix is widely regarded as being one of the greatest racing movies of all time because of its stunning visuals using in Super Panavision 70 and its score by Maurice Jarre; the film won three Academy Awards for its technical achievements.
Grand Prix is also notable for cameo appearances by drivers from the Golden Age of racing including Formula One World Champions Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Jack Brabham. Other drivers who appeared in the film include Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Jo Bonnier and Bruce McLaren.
James Garner was known as a “car guy” and one of the funny little Easter eggs hidden in The Rockford Files is that at the end of the season he always got himself a new Pontiac Firebird, one of the quintessential 1970s muscle cars, so playing a race car driver in Grand Prix was natural for Garner.
But it is Garner’s flawed hero Pete Aron who makes the film for me.
Critics at the time didn’t give the acting or the plot of Grand Prix much respect, concentrating instead on the technical achievement of the cinematographer’s racing footage – but I think there’s a story worth telling in Grand Prix and Garner’s performance as Pete Aron speaks to every person who strives for excellence in their own craft.
Through the ups and downs of a Formula 1 season and the spectacular crashes of cars and love lives, Aron and his fellow drivers put it all on the line to win – second doesn’t matter.
The movie’s denouement takes place during the race at Monza in Italy, where one of Aron’s competitors and chief rivals is killed and he duels wheel to wheel with another until he wins in a photo finish. After the race, when the stands are all clear, he looks around for a minute as if to ask, “what’s it all for?” Then when he hears the roar of an engine he strides purposefully down the track drawn back to the never ending search to test himself and prove he’s the best in his craft.
My old VHS version of Grand Prix is pretty well shot, I think I’ll treat myself to the 2011 Blu-Ray version that New York Times critic Dave Kehr says "considered purely from a technical point of view, the new disc is a beauty, with crisp, richly textured images that do justice to the original 65-millimeter Super Panavision format, and a roaringly dimensional soundtrack...”
Click this link to check out the trailer for James Garner in Grand Prix.

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