Friday, March 16, 2012

True Grit and My Problem with The Duke

Why have I always had such an aversion to John Wayne films? Enough people liked him to name an airport after him in Orange County.

This week I borrowed the original True Grit from of the library in an attempt to get clarification on this issue. For some reason, he was loved, even adored by the American public. Yet when I look at him as an actor, he is so weak it is embarrassing, at least by today’s standards. In recent years the few times I’ve watched him he comes across as a caricature of himself? Am I being too harsh? So that past couple evenings I watched The Duke to see if his Oscar-winning performance in True Grit would change my mind.

At the outset, the directing seems exceptionally weak. Director Henry Hathaway allows actors to remain stilted when not delivering lines. But that’s not a crime against Mr. Wayne.

It’s Rooster Cogburn here, on the witness. Sounds just like John Wayne. He’s a bit crotchety and likable. Sort of. Now he’s having to deal with the girl. He tries to sound tough, but gosh, he just seems so amiably boisterous. She’s determined, and it’s a Western and she’s jabbering to get Mr. Cogburn involved in her case, and… well, that was easy.

It’s not an altogether original malady to be a caricature of oneself. Clint Eastwood has a certain Clint persona in most, if not all, of his films. Tom Cruise played a lot of roles that suited him, but has demonstrated a measure of range at times.

So, we’re 34 minutes in and John Wayne is just being himself. Glen Campbell has revealed he’s no actor either. All the lines are delivered in such a stilted manner I can hardly wait to be done with this masterpiece.

Rooster Cogburn is supposedly a drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal, but as cantankerous as he carries himself, he still comes across as a softy. Here’s Kim Darby laying down the law with Cogburn, signing him up with a handful of green and a contract. And so it goes….

It’s dawning on me exactly what it is that made people go to theaters to see The Duke. When you invest time with a film, you’re moving into a relationship with a group of characters. The Duke was a guy who was easy to hang around with. “They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit,” Kim Darby says. But the audience knows he’s just having fun.

The director in this 1969 film, Henry Hathaway, was born Marquis Henri Leonard de Fiennes. In keeping with Hollywood habits of nom de plumes, he must have had his reasons, as did Mr. Wayne who was born Marion Morrison. In the same year Sam Peckinpaugh released The Wild Bunch (a Western), Dustin Hoffman and John Voigt outperformed the world with Midnight Cowboy (a different kind of cowboy movie), and Newman and Redford teamed up to give us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (yet another kind of Western), we find True Grit dropped into our laps. Cowboy themes were hot. Paint Your Wagon, a Western musical, came out that year, too. Of the bunch, well, this film just feels so limp in comparison to any of them.

At this point I’m half-way through the flick and I realize my problem. I thought it was supposed to be acting, but The Duke is just having fun being a character. You can see it in the way he’s interrogating those two men they smoked out of the cabin. He’s delivering his tough guy lines and the whole crew is on the verge of cracking up. And the audience is lapping it up as well.

Now here’s another scene shot in a fake outdoor setting that must have been filmed in a studio. Fake clouds, fake sky, and the dialogue sounds recorded indoors as well. Would Brad Pitt put himself in a role like this? DeNiro? Ed Harris? (OK, was in a fake outdoors scene in Hoffa, and it stood out like Ronald McDonald in a gorilla cage at the zoo. Truman Show, too, had a fake sky over a fake town, but that was its schtick.)

Well, lookie here, its Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper, on his way to the big time. It won't be long before he's adopted into the Corleone family.

Enough's enough. I won't spoil the end though most of you know how it goes... Hopefully I don't come across too harsh here. Making movies back then was a different game. How he'd fare in today's environment of hyped expectations I don't really know. What do you think?

Meantime, it's a weekend coming up and a nice one at that. Get outside and breathe a little fresh air if you can. You might also want to visit an art gallery or two. There are at least three in Canal Park, and there's also a nice hideaway in Carlton called Art Dimensions, which doubles as a rest stop for bicycle enthusiasts on the Munger Trail. Carlton Bike Rental is there in the event you want to do some biking yourself. (They also do repairs.)

In other news... the Limbo Gallery has announced its pairings for the Artist Kamikaze IV. The theme will be INTERGALACTIC. Artist Kamikaze IV will be on display at Pizza Luce during the month of June this year. Details to come.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ed, I can understand what you're getting at, but my take is that you need to consider the expectations of each cinematic era.
In my opinion, The Duke was revolutionary relative to movie aesthetics before him. In reality it was the work of a duo, the two Johns (Ford and Wayne) completed each other.
I once wrote a post in my blog about John Wayne and James Stewart that I think serve as example of what I'm trying to say:
"The more I watch those classic westerns, the more I realize however that I tend to prefer the roles given to John Wayne than the ones given to James Stewart. Wayne's characters are imperfect, sometimes nasty, what gives them a touch of roughness and realism that's lacking in many of Stewart's roles. Stewart's characters tend to be too nice and gentle, at least from my perspective."

Ed Newman said...

I guess I don't remember the Jimmy Stewart roles other than Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (in which John Wayne also played.) No doubt some of the "lightweight" acting in those days was due in part to the fact that they cranked out films at a hazardously fast clip... like every two or three weeks. Today's pace is far more tedious and painstaking to get everything "right"...
It may be, too, that some of my attitude was formed in my "rebellious youth" in which I went against what was popular. But that's not all of it. It's hard to believe Midnight Cowboy and True Grit were from the same year. Midnight Cowboy pointed to the future of where films were going, both in the acting and the themes. John Wayne wasn't just a caricature of himself, he was emblematic of that former era.

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