PICK OF THE WEEK
True Grit (A)
U.S.: Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010, Paramount
The Western is one of the great America movie myths, and the Coen brothers' new version of Charles Portis' novel True Grit seems to me one of the great movie Westerns. America movies and American literature should join hands more often, and as wondrously well, as they do in this movie, a crackerjack yarn that gives us what many of the best Westerns always do: a great chase, a great gufight, and a touching platonic love affair between a lawman and a lady.
Not so much a remake of the well-loved 1969 Henry Hathaway-directed True Grit, with John Wayne, as another shot at Portis' highly praised novel, it's an excellent movie, as entertaining as the Hathaway version, yet also darker and deeper, more literate, more dramatic. The Coen edition has truth and grit -- the power of popular moviemaking, and the purity of myth.
Initially, it's a beguiling tale. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old tomboy heroine of the new True Grit, is the kind of spunky, indomitable little kid we'd have all liked to have known, or to have been, or to have gone with on adventures. She's a little like a Western version of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe a girl Huck Finn, riding a beautiful, faithful horse through a sometimes scarily fantastic, sometimes bitterly realistic landscape filled with real-life monsters and gunslingers.
Traveling through the Old West of the 1870s in search of her father's ex-employee and murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), tagging along behind a sometimes drunken U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the Wayne role), and an exasperated Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who wants to get rid if her, Mattie never seems to let anything (except once) faze her. And the actress who plays Mattie, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (a newcomer from TV) doesn't flinch or falter either.
These are superb performances (Bridges, Damon, Brolin and Steinfeld) in superbly written parts, in a great movie -- and also a quintessential Coen brothers movie. The Coens, in their prime right now, are the modern kings of neo-noir, and this is Western neo-noir. They're also among the most literate of contemporary moviemakers: darkly comic chroniclers of a parched, deadly, mostly Western American landscape populated with citizens, cops, sharpsters, killers, loonies, phonies, and some innocent people who somehow survive it all.
True Grit is constructed as a revenge western. But, in true Coen fashion, it sprawls all over the genre map: dark comedy, light comedy, buried romance (love buried under the revenge), "coming of age" tale, horror movie, neo-noir, revisionist history, tall tale. In the beginning, Mattie talks to us and we like to listen. A likable if very serious lass, she discovers her father's murder, cleans up his affairs, and uses part of the money to hire Rooster, a sloppy-looking but reputedly deadly U.S. Marshall, to track the killer down -- thereby plunging herself into a world of murder and lawlessness most ladylike teenage girls never see.
There's a scary comicality and dissonance between this movie's narrator and her subject. The teenage Mattie, face impassive as a young nurse tending a troublesome patient, maintains equanimity, good manners and her faith in the Lord, in the hairiest of situations. She never loses her cool, whether she's engaged in a heated business discussion with the local bigwig horse dealer Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), left on the dock with the ferry leaving, plumb in the middle of several shootouts and eyewitness to a number of cold-blooded killings (including some by her allies), forced to shinny up a tree to its loftiest branches to cut loose a hanged man's corpse being picked at by buzzards, kidnapped by a sociopath with a rifle and harried by a gang of oddballs, shot at by miscreants, or thrown into a cave full of rattlesnakes with a murderer lurking outside.
A girl after my own heart! And also after the hearts of many people who read the 1968 book by Southerner and ex-journalist Charles Portis, or who saw the well-loved 1969 movie, with Duke Wayne in his Oscar winning performance as Rooster, Kim Darby and C&W singer Glen Campbell ("Rhinestone Cowboy") as Mattie and LaBoeuf, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Corey among the various outlaws, Strother Martin as the horse dealer, the great Lucien Ballard behind the camera (in the same year Ballard also shot The Wild Bunch), Elmer Bernstein Magnificent Seven-ing up the sound track and, at the helm, the celebrated hard-ass director Henry Hathaway.
Joel and Ethan Coen, director-writers of the classics Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men, have a style (and tempers) a world away from Hathaway (except, perhaps, for the mutual strong taste of all three for film noir). In any case, the Coens' True Grit is very different, in style, tone and attack -- though the screenplays are surprisingly close.
The 1969 Grit scenarist was Marguerite Roberts, a brilliant, hard-nosed longtime screenwriter and the daughter of an actual Western wagon train traveler. (Roberts was also an ex-blacklist victim, something that the arch-conservative Duke Wayne chose to ignore.) Many of the scenes in both movies are the same, and so is a lot of the dialogue, which obviously comes from the novel. I got a big thrill when Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned Pepper (the Duvall part), and Bridges as Rooster, reprised that spine-chilling interchange: "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!" (Lucky Ned), and "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" (Rooster).
What the Coens have done with True Grit is alter its mood and overall vision, darkening it considerably, while keeping most of the story and characters intact, and adding material from the novel that wasn't used -- all to make it both more nightmarish (more noir) and more believable, to give it a heightened sense of danger and madness.
They've also summoned up a strange, comic sense of gallantry within madness, an odd tender devotion to duty (for "villain" Ned and "heroes" LaBoeuf and Rooster alike), taken us into Grit's weird post-Civil War borderland, the Huck Finnish "territory ahead" through which the characters are passing or hiding out. All of this is as perceived by Mattie, who believes so staunchly in a moral, heaven-bossed universe run by a loving but fatherly and justice-minded God -- but who also wants a good killer on her side.
Hathaway's Grit, which I like a lot, takes place in a beautiful National Park world of green valleys, healthy forests, rushing rivers, and high mountains stretched against halcyon blue skies, a '50s movie Western world we'd like to stay in, if only there were less gunplay. The world of the Coens' True Grit is drearier, cloudier, dustier, more notably ravaged by the Civil War, by lawlessness and by the Puritan ethic: a horrific landscape of frequent slaughter, a place a bit dim and smoky-gray and even Edgar Allen Poe-ish, where corpses are commodities, where hero and villain alike shoot people in the back, and the sky seems oftentimes chillingly overcast and dour, dwarfing the death dealers wandering below. It's a world as close to Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) as it is to Mark Twain, as near to Faulkner as it is to Ford.
The same things happen, but the emphasis is different, the light colder. In Hathaway's Grit, Duke Wayne's Rooster is avuncular and genial, like a kindly colorful, raffish uncle/politician who drinks too much. His anecdotes often seem to be semi-tall tales he's spinning or embroidering (a bit) to amuse Mattie. In the Coen Grit, we believe almost every damned thing Rooster says (unless he's on the witness stand), and what he says is often pretty damned scary (as well as what he doesn't say, about Lawrence, Kansas, for instance). Scary too are the people we meet: like one gent in a bearskin suit they run across, transporting a corpse.
So, in a way, is Jeff Bridges, in one of his most unexpected, and brilliantly pulled-back performances. In some ways, Bridges' Rooster carries the whole dark, wild weight of America's frontier ethic and the tragedy of the Civil War years behind him. Wayne's Rooster was expansive and genial, a gifted speechifier with a sure sense of his audience (including his best friend, a little cat) who's told his stories a hundred times and knows where all the laugh lines are ("Well, come see a fat old man some day!"), but keeps it all alive. Duke's Rooster was drunken and slovenly (as well as fat and old, though Wayne wore a hairpiece). But, in most ways, he was more "civilized" than Bridges' Rooster.
Bridge's Rooster is a man on believably intimate terms with death, to whom it's a job he knows all too well. But he's no speechifier. When we first hear hear Bridges' speaking voice for Rooster -- a glum, gruff monotone, rattling like dry corn husks in his old throat, a delivery of crushing emotional barrenness in which he seems to be always swallowing and chewing a few words as he expectorates others -- it's a bit of a shock.
One of the most likable of all American movie actors, Bridges doesn't seem to be doing much at all to make us like Rooster, beyond observing proper courtroom deportment (so he'll get paid). Other than doing his job with minimum fuss, Rooster at first doesn't seem to give much of a damn about anything or anybody in the world, except his maybe his landlord, the opium-smoking Mr. Lee. And whiskey, of course. And eventually, Mattie.
Bridges and the Coens could have played Rooster for comedy, as Wayne did, and audiences probably would have loved him, loved the movie, as they still love Hathaway's. That the Coens and Bridges choose to downplay comedy, something at which they're all experts (The Big Lebowski!), is a pretty brave choice.
Mattie keeps saying she picked Rooster because she was told he had true grit. But maybe what truly swayed her was the description of Marshal Cogburn as the "meanest" of the man hunters available. And Rooster has a rep for bloodshed. He rode with Quantrill's Raiders, bloodiest of the Civil War Rebel guerrilla bands, the troop behind the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas. (Remember Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil?)
Rooster, though, still defends Quantrill, and when he talks to Mattie, about that or anything, it's blunt, weird and heartfelt. His voice rumbles away like an ill-used machine he only pulls out for trials and depositions, and you get the sense, as Wayne never gave us, that Rooster has barely talked to anyone much for all these years, at least in the stiff but unguarded way he opens up to Mattie. Instead, he's a solitary drinker whom the world ignores (unless they need his services).
Bridges plays Rooster as a melancholy man, a killer and a drunk who works for the law but doesn't really socialize with it. Wayne played him as a tough old gunslinging raconteur, the life of the party, with lots of salty, funny stories. (Bridges' Rooster is more like a sadder version of Wayne's stoic wanderer Ethan Edwards, in John Ford's The Searchers, and there's one scene where the Coens frame Bridges against an open doorway, just like the famous Searchers opening and closing silhouette shots.)
There are some other first-class performances in the Coen's Grit, just as there were in Hathaway's. Damon plays the naiveté and soldier-boy rectitude of LaBoeuf with a real heartland uprightness and fervor. Barry Pepper is fine as Ned Pepper, though he's no Duvall. Josh Brolin, who had a great year -- he also played the sneaky guilt-ridden writer in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger -- does mean, heartless outlawry to perfection as Tom Chaney. One look at Chaney's slack jaw and glittering eyes, one listen to his sloppy drawl, and you know he'll shoot anyone in the back, though he'll maybe count to 10 before he shoots his grandmother. Dakin Matthews deserves a really fine compliment: He's just as good as Strother Martin.
Hailee Steinfeld has the film's key role, and in the end, she nails Mattie's spunk and brains and deliberate non-flirtatiousness and sobriety. We believe her, all the way.
Hathaway and Roberts kept the story's darkness, but they gave it a sunnier frame. The Coens, by the end, flood the screen with a sense of loss, anguish, irrecoverable times. They remind us, as they did in Blood Simple and Fargo (two films that point right ahead to the mood and style of True Grit) that, no matter how much we laugh at anecdotes of grisliness and death, someone must always pay the price.
By the way, there's a haunting tune which threads all though the Coen's True Grit, played in a spare tinkly piano version, and then bursts forth under the credits, as a full-blown gospel song, sung with honeyed clarity by Iris DeMent. It's "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" -- and , if I were a betting man, I'd wager the Coens remembered it from the same movie I do, that we all do. It's the hymn that the evil preacher man Robert Mitchum kept singing in The Night of the Hunter, the movie (remember?) about two innocent young children, lost in a world of horrors and murder. Hearing the hymn again in the Coen brothers' True Grit, you sense irony, and dark comedy, and also a sheer love of the brave sentiment that drives that childlike, pure faith along, against all odds, in a world of killers, a world of death. "Leaning, leaning... Safe and secure from all alarms... Leaning, leaning... Leaning on the everlasting arms...." Like all the great gospel songs, like all the great movie westerns, this one included, it shoots straight to the heart.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Greatest Classic Legends: Marlon Brando (A)
U.S.: various directors, 1951-1967, TCM/Warner
Marlon Brando, America's finest movie actor by general consensus, began his career at the top, in his early 20s, with a revolutionary stage and film performance -- as Stanley Kowalski in playwright/screenwriter Tennessee Williams' and director Elia Kazan's classic American drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Streetcar vaulted young Brando to the leading position among the actors of his generation, and made "Method" and "Stanislavsky" synonyms for the new postwar trends in movie and theatrical realism. And Brando followed Stanley with a string of great performances that climaxed with his powerhouse Oscar-winning role as washed-up boxer/longshoreman Terry Malloy in Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg's On the Waterfront.
Then, after hitting what most people regarded (wrongly) as a long dry spell, Marlon reclaimed his champion's belt with two extraordinary 1972 performances, as the fatherly, menacing Don Vito Corleone in Francis Coppola's and Mario Puzo's The Godfather, and as the sensuous and self-destructive expatriate Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris.
Those roles sealed his reputation, and his fate. Most actors and critics, if not always audiences, worshiped Brando to the end. (He died in 2004.) But by the time he'd made his last movie in Montreal, The Score (a Frank Oz-directed comedy heist film costarring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton in the larger roles), he'd long demonstrated a kind of weird contempt for the profession that had made him a legend -- neglecting to learn his lines, sewing his speeches into the clothes of his costars (a problem for poor nude Maria Schneider in Last Tango), eating himself into a mountainous 300 pounds, sometimes going for years without acting professionally at all.
The young Adonis-like Brando was the actor whom critics and Britons believed would be the American stage and screen's great Hamlet (but he never even tried); the player for whom Tennessee Williams wrote play after play (but Brando turned them all done, except for the Sidney Lumet movie of Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind); the star for whom Coppola intended The Godfather II and Kazan intended The Arrangement (but he turned those down as well); the producer/star for whom Calder Willingham wrote and Stanley Kubrick was directing Brando's own pet project One Eyed Jacks (but he fired Kubrick); the great but perverse artist whom every director and every writer wanted for their films, but who always found reasons to turn projects down and go his own way.
In his later years, Brando no longer tackled the challenging roles of his youth, and he gradually stopped trying for his more bizarre later triumphs like The Missouri Breaks or Apocalypse Now. Instead, he parodied himself, parodied his great role of Don Corleone in movies like The Freshman, camped it up in shows like John Frankenheimer's oddball horror film The Island of Dr. Moreau. He was brilliant there, too.
There's something sad about Brando's strange lack of ambition in his later career, his strange contempt for the whole tradition and discipline, even the whole vanity, of acting. But he never lost his great talent, even when he seemed to be perversely hurling away his career. His roles may have become smaller and less interesting. But he himself was never uninteresting, never remotely run-of-the mill.
This box set contains two of his premier film performances -- as Stanley in Kazan's preferred cut of Streetcar, and as Marc Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz's surprisingly faithful film of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Great roles. Great performances. Of course.
The box, which borrows from Warner's earlier Brando Collection, also contains one of his finest, most underrated films, and roles: as the sexually ambivalent Captain Penderton in John Huston's preferred vision (with the intended golden-tinted cinematography) of his superb film of Carson McCullers' novel Reflections in a Golden Eye. And it contains one of his oddest, but most congenial performances, as the wily Japanese translator Sakini in Daniel Mann's movie of John Patrick's high-spirited postwar stage comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon. It's an excellent set, even if Brando's puckish Sakini bothers you.
In Brando's most famous scene and speech, in the back of the cab in On the Waterfront, he cries out to Rod Steiger as his crooked shyster brother Charlie, mouthpiece of Lee J. Cobb's labor mob, "You don't understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!" Ad we'll always remember that electrifying confession of failure, from the young brilliant actor who started out at the top. Because he was more than the contender; he was the champ. He had more than class; he had genius. He was more than somebody. He was Brando.
How odd that the actor hailed since his youth as the greatest in his profession could have so carelessly thrown it all away time and again. But talent is a curse as well as a blessing. It always came back to him. So let's raise a glass to Marlon, the patron saint of all actors, players and comedians -- and make sure that the speeches scribbled on our jackets and cuffs are clearly legible. After all, this isn't just anybody. This is the champ. (Extras: commentary on Streetcar by Karl Malden, Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; documentary and Robert Osborne intro on Julius Caesar; August Moon Featurette, Golden Eye backstage footage; trailers.)
A Streetcar Named Desire (A)
U.S.: Elia Kazan, 1951/1993
Elia Kazan's peerless staging of Tennessee William's masterful play, set in a steamy New Orleans where Eros and death ("Flores para las muertos!") dance their first tango. This movie has one of the all-time great movie casts (three of whom, but not Brando, won Oscars). Brando is the brutal, animalistic but charming Stanley. Vivien Leigh is the fragile, sensual, haunted Blanche DuBois. Kim Hunter is Stanley's wife and Blanche's sister, the screamed-over Stella. And Karl Malden is Blanche's kind and respectful suitor Mitch. This is Kazan's preferred cut, with the more downbeat ending, one which gives full power to Blanche's wrenchingly poignant last line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." No arguments: a masterpiece.
Julius Caesar (A)
U.S.: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1954
In a great cast -- which includes John Gielgud as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Deborah Kerr as Portia, Louis Calhern as Caesar, Edmond O'Brien as Casca, and Greer Garson as Calpurnia, Brando's Antony (for which he received special help from Gielgud) stands out for its sinewy cunning and devious eloquence. This is a Shakespearean film of real power and glory. And yes, Brando should have done that Hamlet. And Macbeth. And Henry V. And Cleopatra's Antony. And Iago. And, God help us, Falstaff.
The Teahouse of the August Moon (B)
U.S.: Daniel Mann, 1956
John Patrick's very likable comedy about how the "conquered" Japanese turn the tables on their often gullible Yank conquerors, was a Broadway showcase for David Wayne as Sakini and John Forsythe as Capt. Fisby, the roles taken here, very likably, by Brando and Glenn Ford. Machiko Kyo, the beauty of Rashomon and Ugetsu, plays a geisha, and Paul Ford repeats his Broadway hit role in his specialty: a dithering, whining boss. (Bilko!) You don't want Brando to make too many light comedies, but one Sakini is fine.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (A)
U.S.: John Huston,1967
A neglected classic. In fact, John Huston's silky, menacing, finely wrought adaptation of Carson McCullers' eerie novel of obsession and murder on a Southern Army post -- with Brando as the punctilious Capt. Weldon Penderton, Elizabeth Taylor as his lusty, busty wife Leonora, Brian Keith excellent as Leonora's remorseful Army guy lover Lt.-Col. Morris Langdon, the peerless Julie Harris as Langdon's sensitive soul wife Alison, Zorro David as Alison's outrageous manservant Anacleto (who paints the peacock with the golden eye), and Robert Forster as Pvt. Williams, the enlisted man object of Penderton's desire -- was the movie that actually opened up McCullers' fictional world for me. I love it.
Horribly reviewed in 1967, this movie was nevertheless admired by McCullers and regarded by Huston himself as "perfect," one of his own favorites among all his films. This is the rare golden-tinged print Huston intended and wanted but that that the studio wouldn't release. You can find the color release version -- which is also quite beautiful -- in the earlier Warner Brando collection. (They should have included both Reflections here.)