Friday, December 24, 2010

Pre-Coen Hathaway thoughts


I read True Grit for the first time last year.

(I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't followed up by reading more Charles Portis, but I swear it's high on my agenda.)

I did watch True Grit by Henry Hathaway for the first time in a very long time shortly afterward.

Because this was a year-and-a-half ago or so, this isn't a writeup of either of those.

However, Kimberly Rae and I are following our new Christmas tradition, started last year with The Road by John Hillcoat, of seeing cynical in the theater, and seeing True Grit by Joel & Ethan Coen tomorrow, and there are some thoughts roaming around my head that I want to get out so they don't bog down whatever I write about the new movie.

Hathaway's movie is troubling. The fact that it's the movie that John Wayne won his Oscar for makes it something of a lightning rod for attention.

Wayne gets a lot of flack for being a "movie star" and not an "actor" and some people take that as meaning something.

Frankly, I don't know what actors have given better performances than Wayne gave in say Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Shootist.

The argument is bullshit from the beginning. Certainly John Wayne doesn't have the strongest character range of any major star.

You know who does have a strong character range? The average Saturday Night Live performer. And Bill Murray aside, how many of them have shown the kind of emotional range that Wayne consistently brings?

And even that's being exceptionally generous with the anti-Wayne argument, which I think runs more on its own momentum than the people actually having considered it. If you think Thomas Dunson, Tom Doniphon and J. B. Books seem like the same character, I'm not even sure where to begin rebutting it, because you and I don't have a common basis for discussion.

The novel "True Grit" is one of the great works of American literature. It reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, although I admit in as many superficial ways as substantive, but I do mean it as a compliment, and I may even give Portis the edge over Lee when it comes down to.

The screenplay for the original movie, by Marguerite Roberts, does a solid job of capturing the charms of the novel. Unfortunately, the inclusion of a star of Wayne's magnitude as Marshal Cogburn led the moviemakers to put too much focus on Cogburn as a central character, as opposed to one of the characters that supports Mattie Ross.

Of course I'm not sure Kim Darby was up to the task of carrying the movie, although even then she's certainly better than Glen Campbell.

As much as people have commented on the task put to Jeff Bridges in playing an iconic performance by John Wayne, Matt Damon has the opposite in taking over a role that even the original movie's biggest defenders have to admit was miscast and poorly played.

Most irritating to me after reading the book, even more than his lack of Texas Ranger swagger, his lack of period feel or his general woodenness, is Campbell's lack of a cowlick. Some amount of fuss is made in the book about Mattie's annoyance at La Boeuf's cowlick, and it becomes almost a symbol of what annoys her about him, but it's nowhere to be found on Campbell's blow-dried hair.

Even worse, for some insane reason, they include a direct reference to the cowlick that isn't there in the movie! Aaargh!

Saddest of all, I think a genuinely great work of literature has been overshadowed by a relatively mediocre, if generally entertaining, movie.

Wayne's performance is solid and entertaining, and while I'd argue not Oscar-worthy or even amongst his best, he does understand Rooster Cogburn as a character and isn't playing him as a standard "Duke" throwaway. Considering that he's the one the takes a most of the heat for the movies failings in comparison to the book, largely I'm sure as a backlash to the Oscar win, he actually is the one person, aside from Roberts, who seemed to have a real understanding of the book.

If nothing else, the new movie seems to be bringing more new attention to the existence of the book, which is a good thing one way or the other.

I'll see tomorrow if how I think it compares.


UPDATE: Reading A Love of Decency Does Not Abide in You by Bill Ryan, as well as watching the Coen's movie, it occurs to me that I probably came across more more harshly against the Hathaway movie than I intended.

Mind you, it still feels overall like a minor work for both Wayne and Hathaway to me. Perhaps not as minor as say North to Alaska, of which I'm also quite fond.

On the other hand, it's easy to throw around words like "mediocre" and understand in my own mind that I mean "mediocre" in comparison to the other classic works that Wayne and Hathaway were involved in, and perhaps "mediocre" in comparison to the novel it's adapted from, but not quite making clear that it comes across as me suggesting it's mediocre in the scheme of cinema, which I don't believe it is.

My beliefs in the strengths - Wayne, the Portis heavy screenplay by Roberts, the supporting cast - and weaknesses - Darby and Campbell - remain unchanged. But oddly the Coen's have not only made a better movie in remaking this, but also reminded me what I enjoyed so well in it.


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