Skip to main content

He loves to pull a cork, I know that!

True Grit

(SPOILERS) In the wake of the Coen Brothers’ version, there isn’t really much need to see this first cinematic go round of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel again. Unless you adore John Wayne. It won him his Best Actor Oscar, of course, but if you came to True Grit cold, with zero knowledge of the background to his receiving the statuette, you’d reasonably be mystified quite how that came to pass.

Rooster: I never shot nobody I didn’t have to.

It wasn’t after all, as if Wayne was popular amongst his Hollywood liberal peers. And he was outright anathema to the burgeoning New Hollywood that could be seen all over his fellow nominees that year – he couldn’t have received much more of a kick in the nuts than the top award going to a movie appropriating the iconography of his esteemed western genre and riddling it with rape, male prostitution and homosexuality! But as Anthony Holden tells it in The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, the town’s “sentiment will always favour a local man who has made a very public recovery from apparently terminal cancer”.

Boarder: Watch out for the chicken and dumplings. They’ll hurt your eyes.
LaBouef: How’s that?
Boarder: They’ll hurt your eyes lookin’ for the chicken.

And Wayne isn’t much of anything special in the movie. Sure, he can offer “bold talk for a one-eyed fat man”; there’s an abundance of choice dialogue, much straight from the novel, it seems (above); lines like “I always go backward when I’m backing away” are fodder for his easy drawl. But he vaunted this as a character part, rather than playing himself, and the parts where the character are foregrounded tend not to travel so well. His drunk acting isn’t so great (his demijohns are clearly empty, his stuntman doesn’t fall of his horse with aplomb, and he never seems remotely pished).

True Grit has all the style of a ’50s western; unsurprising, since Henry Hathaway was very much of the old-school Hollywood tradition. There’s the occasional observational colour (the old woman smiling merrily to herself at the hanging), but little has much evidence of care or rigour. I doubt very much the picture would have been significantly different had Mia Farrow played Mattie, rather than Kim Darby – Farrow was warned off Hathaway by Robert Mitchum – or had Elvis played La Boeuf instead of Glen Campbell (the King would surely have been a distraction).

There are several new-gen actors in the mix, including Dennis Hopper (who had history with Waynes, John in The Sons of Katie Elder and Patrick in The Young Land) and Robert Duvall (who butted heads with both director and star). They’re villains of course, the latter getting a death scene (“Your partner’s killed you, and I’ve done for him”) after helpfully providing Rooster with all the lowdown he needs. That sequence, had it not been filmed so sloppily by Hathaway, would be quite grisly, featuring as if does stabbing and dismemberment (Hopper’s buddy brings a blade down on his fingers).

Darby is fine, if a little on the performative side; she’s obviously intended to be stroppy, prissy, proper, stubborn and wilful, but she manages to leave out the endearing above all part (Wayne reputedly wasn’t keen on her acting, although she has nothing but nice things to say about him). Her delivery of “And I don’t like the way you’re cutting up that turkey”, aimed at Hopper and his associate, made me smile, though. Campbell wasn’t favoured by Hathaway, who considered him wooden, and it seems Campbell wouldn’t disagree (“I’d never acted in a movie before, and every time I see True Grit, I think my record’s still clean”).

Captain Finch: They’re dead?
Rooster: Well, I wouldn’t want you to bury them if they wasn’t.

I honestly can’t remember if I’d seen this previously – while I’d taken in many of Wayne’s westerns in my formative years, they tend to blur into one. Consequently, I took note of how similar both versions were, a testament to the source material, I guess, but also making Ethan Coen’s justifications for the remake seem a little less robust (the 2010 remake is superior in every respect, barring that the Coens fail to include Rooster’s cat General Sterling Price; they, of course, have experience with less-than-appealing appreciations of the feline – Inside Lewyn Davis – so perhaps it’s as well the General is absent). I was particularly surprised that the chicken man – Harold Parmalee – is a feature of both versions, as I’d have taken him to be an inimitable Coens invention, as much as the bear man.

Hopper and Wayne were both at the Oscars that year (he was nominated for the Easy Rider screenplay, a source of some contention in itself); As Peter Biskind tells it, deranged Dennis was Wayne’s “in-house communist”, whom he would rail at whenever anti-Nam protesting was occurring; Hopper went over to congratulate the screen titan, who had whispered “Beginner’s luck” to Babs Streisand on winning. Wayne also apparently accosted Richard Burton and told him “You should have won”; Burton was a man’s man of, course; I couldn’t see Wayne having suggested the same to louche lush Peter O’Toole or either of the Midnight Cowboys. Apparently, Burton and Wayne then caroused the night away.

Mattie: They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.

He’d return to Rooster Cogburn in the movie of the same name five years later. The most notable part is that there was still an appetite for such a picture(s); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may have been the hit of the year, but True Grit was also in the Top Ten, while other nu-westerns (the previous years’ Once Upon a Time in the West; The Wild Bunch was in the Top Twenty) didn’t make nearly the same waves with audiences, however justifiably legendary their status is now.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi