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Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Little Girls Are Made Of

As a fan of the novelist Charles Portis, I've always felt a little bad that most people probably associate the title True Grit not with his 1968 novel but the movie version of it that was made the next year, a movie whose sole purpose was to give John Wayne a last-ditch chance to win an Oscar. He played the bloated, hard-drinking, one-eyed U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is hired by the fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross to catch his father's murderer, ideally so that she can then shoot him herself. The role gave Wayne the chance to poke fun at himself as an over-the-hill action star and offscreen proponent of homicidal politics. (Rooster is recommended to Mattie as "the meanest" of all available marshals, and is introduced in a courtroom scene in which we learn that he is most reluctant to bring a man in alive if there's any reason to think he'll be any quieter dead.) In other words, it enabled him to turn to his advantage all the things that, in pretty much all his other late performances, turned him into a shambling punch line. He's entertaining, and very cute, in it: it's probably one of the best Wallace Beery performances ever given, including the ones actually given by Wallace Beery. He's fun to watch, but if you compared his Rooster to Jeff Bridges's performance in the new version from the Coen brothers, you might have trouble guessing which of these guys played Ethan Edwards.

That said, what's really frustrating about the 1969 movie, as an adaptation of the novel, is that the book is Mattie's story: she's both the central character and the narrator, relating the story as an old woman, and as she describes them, the cutthroats and lowlifes she encounters speak in a mannered, stylized diction that she presumably thinks is how people should talk in a proper work of literature. The script of the 1969 movie replicated much of Portis's dialogue, but it shifted Mattie (awkwardly played by a 21-year-old Kim Darby) to the side and dispensed with the conceit that the events we were seeing had been filtered through her memory, and without that framework, many of the actors seemed to be crucified on their own lines. (The most embarrassing performance was given by Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who throws in with Rooster and Mattie; it's the kind of thing that ought to have ended someone's movie career before it began. Oddly enough, the only other movie made from a Portis novel, 1970's Norwood, reunited Campbell and Darby in the leads, which is reason enough to suspect that the credited producer was a front for Guy Grand.) Strother Martin was the only cast member who managed to deliver his lines as if he'd been speaking like that his whole life, and the scenes with the horse trader he played in the original were the only moments in the new movie where I thought back a little longingly on the earlier movie.

Bridges and Matt Damon, as La Boeuf, both put on a great show, but the star of this True Grit is Hailee Steinfeld, who, in her feature debut, can stand alongside Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone and Delphine Chanéac of Splice in what's been a good movie year for young women who should probably be in charge of combat operations in Afghanistan. And I liked the movie she's in more unreservedly than any other Coen brothers picture that I've seen in a while. For people who've seen the earlier movie version, the best way I can suggest the differences between the two is that Rooster's post-shootout rescue of Mattie from a snake-infested pit, which in the Wayne movie seems to be there just to make the film longer, is, along with the galloping horse journey that follows, the heart and soul of this one. I like the Coens a lot better when they're exploring themes of light and darkness through action than when they're pretending to think deep thoughts about them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie True Grit on TV as a child and never thought about the novel. Later, I was trying understand this blogging world. I was impressed by Scott Mclemee and took his recommendation of Portis's novels off to the library. For the next two weeks I kept giggling out loud on the Boston Orange Line. Later when McLemee recommended checking out your blog I figured it would probably be good too. I think I've checked it at least every other day since.