Sunday, June 14, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: True Grit

In his meditation on the 30 year anniversary of John Wayne's death, Roger Ebert mentioned that this was one of his favorite John Wayne scenes. Turns out it was one of the Duke's, too. "I guess that scene in 'True Grit' is about the best scene I ever did," Ebert reports him saying, when the critic brought it up. Maybe he was just being nice. All we have is his word. With John Wayne, that's good enough.

The Story: Kim Darby got it right.

Even though they cast a peculiar actress with a button-nose and afraid of horses, she knew how Mattie Ross was to be played just from the words of Charles Portis' novel: the stilted English that would tolerate no contraction, the hay-seed formality—Jane Austen in Kansas. By contrast, Reuben J. Cogburn is a slurring mess with cuss-words, busted plurals and un-present tenses. John Wayne followed it to the letter, but managed to still make it sound like John Wayne-speak, pilgrim—he didn't make it stiff, he made it sound natural.

It's a fine adaptation by black-listed scripter Marguerite Roberts (Wayne wanted the part, and made no waves about her script, calling it "The best western anyone's written in years"—he could be like that, unconsciously generous, surprising people) and Henry Hathaway's no-nonsense direction makes the thing lope along at a good pace, while taking advantage of some spectacular scenery. In the scene here, it looks to be studio back-drop, but it's pure Portis, with Wayne at his most gregarious.

And Wayne was a fine actor, don't fool yourself. He could blow away accomplished actors like Montgomery Clift right off the screen if he thought them unco-operative. He does a little bit of that strategy here, too: a lot of the scene is played with Wayne facing askance of the camera, drawing the audience in, making them come to him. But even though he found Kim Darby odd, he still worked with her—more than once examining this scene, I noticed Wayne pulling back when she pulled back, the two in an odd-see-saw of body-movement. He saw what she was doing, and acted with it, not agin' it.

But then Wayne, like a lot of Hollywood stars, had a great sense of body language, which he used to great effect, even more so than the odd rhythms and cadences he brought to his speeches. Here, he has to contend with the eye-patch, using it to comedic effect, the one good eye popping out in reaction every-so-often. And you can notice that he works his jaw a lot, left and right, showing that at least one part of "Rooster" Cogburn was slightly unhinged. I've been looking--he's jutted that jaw out in a lot of movies, but never to and fro. It's a subtle move on his part for this one character. And it already negates a lot of arguments to say that John Wayne could not be sub-tle.

But back to "True Grit:" it feels a shade too much like a Wayne western. That's usually what happened—Wayne was too big a personality, and too wily an actor not to dominate every scene he was in, though at times he could be generous. If the Mattie Ross character wasn't such an assertive odd duck (and Darby played her rather goose-like) Wayne would completely walk away with the picture. As it is, Rooster's affection for her is played up in the film ("By God," he says at one point, "she reminds me of me!"), so she's helped by that reflection.

It is for that reason that the best movie news I've heard in some time is that the Coen Brothers are doing a re-make sometime down the road. The novel is perfect material for them, and they'll place the emphasis back where Portis intended, which is back to Mattie Ross. Now, that will be fun.

The Set-Up: The minuscule Mattie Ross Posse - consisting of Miss Ross (Kim Darby), Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (John Wayne), and a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Glen Campbell) - have just shed first blood against the Lucky Ned Pepper Gang, which had a hand in killing Mattie's father, as well as a "little" Texas Senator. Dead already are "Moon" (Dennis Hopper) and his brother Emmett Quincey (Jeremy Slate), and the three are staked out waiting to see if Ned (Robert Duvall) and his band of miscreants might make a stop-over. "Rooster" has just persuaded Mattie not to bring her too-big revolver along so "she won't shoot her foot off." It's time to reconnoiter, re-load and reminisce.


Mattie Ross: Why do you keep that one chamber empty?

Rooster Cogburn: So, I won't shoot my foot off!

Rooster: Corn-dodger?
Mattie: Light a match and let me see it first.
Rooster: What for?
Mattie: Well, some of 'em got blood on 'em.

Rooster: Well, we ain't lightin' no matches.

Mattie: Well, I don't want any. What'd you do before you became a peace officer?

Rooster: Oh, just about everything...'cept keep school.

Mattie: How'd you lose your eye?

Rooster: 'Was in the war.

Rooster: The Lone Jack. Little scrap outside o' Kansas City.

Mattie: What'd you do after the war?

Rooster: I robbed me a federal paymaster and went to Cairo, Illinois, an' bought an eatin' place there called The Green Frog, an' married a grass widow.

Rooster: ...Place had a billiard table.

Mattie: You never told me you had a wife.

Rooster: Oh, I didn't have her long. My friends was a pack o' river rats, an' she didn't crave their so-ciety, so she up and left me and went back to her first husband who was clerkin' in a hardware store in Paducah.

Rooster: "Goodbye, Reuben" she says. "The love o' decency does not abide in you." That's a de-vorced woman talkin' for ya...'bout decency.

Rooster: Well, I told her. I said, "Goodbye, Nola. I hope that nail-selling bastard makes you happy this time."

Mattie: Did you have any children?

Rooster: Hm. There was a boy. Nola taken him with her. He never liked me anyway.

Rooster: A clumsier child you'll never see than Horace. I bet he broke 40 cup.

Mattie: Never did get you for stealing that money.

Rooster: Well, I didn't consider it "stealin'"

Mattie: Didn't belong to ya!

Rooster: I needed a road stake! It was like that little high-interest bank in New Mexico. Needed a road stake and there it was! I never...robbed no citizen, taken a man's watch!

Mattie: It's all stealing.

Rooster: That's the position those New Mexicans took! I had to flee for my life!! Bo was a young colt, then. No horse him into the ground.

Rooster: When that posse thinned out, I...I turned ol' Bo around, an' takin' them reins in my teeth, I charged them boys, firing two Navy sixes. They musta all been married men that loved their families...

Rooster: ...'cause they scattered an' run for home.

Mattie: You don't have any family, do ya? Except Chin Lee and that lazy cat.

Rooster: Oh, General...Price don't belong to me. Cats don't belong to nobody. He just rooms with me! 'Course I depend on him.

Rooster: Well, uh, sister, you better try an' get some sleep. I'll wake ya up...when they...get here.

Mattie curls up and sleeps. Rooster checks his rifle again, scans the horizon, looks down at Mattie and smiles. He eats a corn-dodger, blood or no.

"True Grit"

Words by Charles Portis and Marguerite Roberts

Pictures by Lucien Ballard and Henry Hathaway

"True Grit" is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

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