Monday, May 5, 2008

True Grit

"True Grit" (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Yeah, John Wayne got his Oscar for it, and I could harp that it's a performance both hammy and less disciplined than Wayne's usual output, and nowhere near Wayne at his best, but The Academy, in their sentiment-besotted wisdom, chose this as the film to finally honor Wayne, as they honored Bogart for, of all things, "The African Queen."

At least they acknowledged and honored them.

But it would be easy to dismiss "
True Grit," as just "the film that got Wayne the Oscar." It's a marvellous combination of rough action, gritty Western, social commentary and an Emancipation Tract. It's a post-modern Western that fits into the niche of Peckinpah and Leone (without the attention-grabbing direction and editing), and slots easily into Wayne's output, which is a nifty balancing act to pull off. And it's entertaining as all Hell.

Credit has to be given to
Charles Portis' original novel, with its prissy female narration, it's school-marmish way with the English language ("Jane Austen writes a Western"), and it's abundance of humor given the clash of style and subject matter--when Mattie Ross falls into a snake-pit, breaking her arm and leaving her vulnerable to rattlers, this is Portis' passage "I thought 'I am in a bad way.'" Fact is, Portis' book feels like it was written at the time, and, even though it turns the genre on its maiden-head, it could just as easily stand on the bookshelves with the pulps of the Old West and not reveal its academic pedigree. The actors' peculiar way with pro-nun-cye-ation makes a good dramatical equivalence. (sic)

Credit also the screenplay by Marguerite Roberts (who was black-listed, a fact that Wayne ignored when giving enthusiastic praise to the screenplay), and the no-nonsense, cut-to-the-bone direction of Henry Hathaway. The only fly-in-the-ointment is singer Glen Campbell's acting debut as "LaBoeuf" (heh), but even that works to the film's advantage--Campbell's such a "burr in the boot," his amateurishness "plays."*

Seeing the film as a young lad, I remember the extremely quotable Wayne dialog ("She reminds me of me!," or Wayne's admonition to his horse after having the temerity to fall on in after being shot: "Dammit, Beau...first time ya ever gave me reason ta...cuss ya"), and the near-occassion of violence--the severing of fingers (and it's Dennis Hopper's fingers--his presence, and Robert Duvall's, give the movie added re-visitation enjoyment) made quite the impression on me in a world dominated by Disney and television.
But as an adult, one appreciates Hathaway's eye for grand vista's (framing in the same painterly fashion as he used shadowy urban spaces in the 40's), Elmer Bernstein's mature background score that gooses when it needs to and keens in quiet moments,
Kim Darby's eccentric performance (did she ever play a normal human being?) made even more amazing in that she was deathly afraid of horses, and the latter half of the episode when Wayne takes the edge off Reuben J. Cogburn, and leans back into John Wayne pater-familias territory. My memory retains the image of snake-bit Mattie Ross being administered to at a trading post, and the camera heaving to the door-way holding a silent, unmoving John Wayne, eyes in shadow (of course, one's wearing an eye-patch!) doing nothing but watching not-helplessly, his hand up-raised on the door-frame, keeping danger away. God only knows how long he's stood at that door, or how long he will.

Perhaps that's why they gave him the Oscar--despite all the tinkering with the Western tradition, it still became a "John Wayne movie."

Or, maybe it's just because he wore an eye-patch. The Academy loves disability performances.

* I remember Wayne appearing on The Joey Bishop Show (the talk version) around the time of the movie's theater-run, and Bishop asking him "How was Glen Campbell's acting?," and Wayne paused...a wonderful example of how he used theatrics and his persona...and said, simply "He's a Hell of a singer."

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