ROPE-A-DOPE….AGAIN

Rooster said, “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank water from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.”

“Then you don’t believe it?” asked LaBoeuf.

“I believed it the first twenty-five times I heard it.”

(True Grit, Charles Portis, 1968)

For the record, I’m dumber than Rooster Cogburn. The first five thousand times I heard the wild, independent cowboy spirits of the American media tell me they had Donald Trump on the ropes, I believed it.

Now we’re on to reassurance 5,001, something to do with the Russians, national security, General Flynn, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Nordstrom dropping Ivanka’s line and Pearl Harbor.

Yawn.

It’s striking that none of Trump’s opponents–meaning everybody who isn’t in his inner circle, which I gauge to be about three of his children and something less than three of his “advisers”–have figured out that a twenty-one month political winning streak against every established political/intellectual center of power or influence in the Western world probably has not happened by virtue of the amazing luck of an imbecile.

Trump has already established that he’s a political genius. (The laugh of the week was Mark Cuban trying to sell himself as a viable alternative on Bill O’Reilly’s show, without, of course, admitting he was doing anything of the kind!) It’s time to start treating him like one.

It’s also time to stop assuming he won’t show a similar talent for governance. He might not. It’s way too early to tell. But given his track record and the quality of his opponents–who can only hope to win with numbers if it’s warm bodies we’re counting, because it’s clear there aren’t three functioning brain cells among the lot–I wouldn’t bet against him.

Hell, maybe he really is Andy Jackson. There must be some reason I couldn’t get this out of my head during this afternoon’s surreal press conference, in which the working press dutifully played the British.

If I were advising Trump, I’d tell him to show up at his next rally (which, surprise, surprise, is this week, right next to Disney World) in a coonskin cap and carrying a musket. (If Disney’s parent corporation has gone so bonkers they stopped selling those in the gift shops, they deserve every bad thing that happens to them between now the Judgment.)

Heck, we’ve gone this far down the rabbit hole, there’s no call to stop now.

SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

MISSPYMDISPOSES

“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Notes on Narrative in True Grit and the Breathlessly Awaited Eleventh Maxim!)

[NOTE: This is an update of a piece I roughed out for my own amusement back when the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit reached theaters in 2010. I love both film versions and think the novel is a masterpiece. But, for the sake of this piece, that’s actually neither here nor there…I was more fascinated by two other, not entirely unrelated elements. First, the Coens’ ability to hoodwink the media in much the same fashion that politicians do, namely by relying on a mindset that is both lazy and servile. Second, by just how hard true narrative is to really master….Since it fits some themes I frequently visit here, I finally got around to putting it in shape….Well, good enough for a blog post anyway!]

First….True Grit, in whatever form, is Mattie Ross’ story. so here she is, saying her piece in three voices:

First voice:

TRUEGRITCOVER

“He (Rooster Cogburn) directed LaBoeuf to take his horse and find a position up on the north slope about midway along one stroke of the V, and explained that he would take up a corresponding position on the south slope. Nothing was said about me with regard to the plan and I elected to stay with Rooster.”–from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit.

Second voice:

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“I go where Rooster goes.”–Kim Darby, from the 1969 film version.

Third voice:

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“I picked the wrong man.”–Hailee Steinfeld, from the 2010 film version (choosing LaBoeuf over Cogburn).

That is, she picked this guy:

TRUE GRIT

Over this guy:

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Not for a date mind you, but to kill the bad men.

As Hailee Steinfeld’s folks might say: Oy vey.

And so, with all that in mind for starters…a little rumination:

It’s a testimony to just how great a character Mattie Ross is, and how many valid interpretations she might be able to bear, that the choice Hailee Steinfeld’s “Third Voice” Mattie makes in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit does not sink their very fine film.

By all rights it should.

Having already violated the impeccable narrative structure of their source considerably by, among other things, having Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf leave the scene once (to be brought back by some not overly reasonable coincidence), the Coens have him not only leave it a second time (for no better reasons and to be brought back under a circumstance that is, if anything, even less likely than the first), but leave it with Mattie begging to be taken along!

That’s about as far from “I elected to stay with Rooster,” or “I go where Rooster goes,” as anyone can get.

Naturally, the chorus of those who insisted the Coens were “truer” to the book, in form, spirit or both, was loud and long–not merely an echo of what the Coens’ themselves had been very publicly insisting ever since it got about they were re-making True Grit, but, by the time the film was released, a rising crescendo.

The most egregious example of that crescendo was probably Dana Stevens at Slate.com, who, a whole day after admitting in one of the website’s podcasts that she had never read the book or seen the original film, blithely wrote:

“…this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne.”

Granting that anyone who uses the word “cult” to describe a million-copy bestseller (which has subsequently inspired two major hit movies, one of which merely won that obscure cult figure, Mr. Wayne, an Oscar, plus a sequel and a network television movie, all before becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller again upon the release of the second movie) probably cannot be considered an intellectual titan, there’s no reason to pick on Stevens.

Allen Barra (writing for the Daily Beast), after noting how “surprising” it was that so few reviewers actually knew Portis’ novel, then gave an example of how closely the Coen brothers had stuck to the source:

“The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

‘The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive….Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.’

‘Where,’ Mattie wants to know, ‘can I find this Rooster?’”

Well, actually, the description of Cogburn, and Mattie’s response, were preserved in the Coens’ version. But the description of Quinn is considerably altered…enough that it deflates the clear punch of Portis’ prose, a mistake the original film never made once and which the Coens made, if not frequently, then at least far more than they needed to.

Incidentally Barra, having declared himself a fan of both Portis and this newer version of the film, is no fan of the original, which he describes as “sloppily made.”

Detailing the sloppiness of Barra’s own review would require a small essay of it’s own (that described above is the least of it), but at least he’s not Tom Shone.

Shone, a former film critic of the London Sunday Times who did not have a paid outlet at the time, but perhaps merely wanted to give Dana Stevens a full run for her money, wrote about the film on his website. He complained of a “plot robbed of forward thrust by fidelity to the meandering byways of Portis’ plot (is there a limit to the number of times Le Boeuf can change his mind about whether he wants to be with the other two or not?)”

Gee, if he had left out the specifics of his complaint, I might have been able to conclude he had actually read the novel and just wasn’t very perceptive.

But, no, he needed to go the last mile and prove himself something worse (because, of course, the “meandering” to which he so disapprovingly refers is all the Coens and none of Portis).

If only I could believe that the Sunday Times had sacked him for such.

As it is, I’m stuck leaving my faith in human virtue to the side yet again and am thrown back on purely philosophical questions such as whether Mattie Ross would have any more truck with me than with thee?

See, I’ve never been too sure.

My first acquaintance with Mattie was in the first film. I saw some piece of it on television some time in the vaguely remembered seventies. My viewing was in black and white, on a 19-inch rolling screen (there used to be a thing called vertical hold, children, and in your poorer households, it did not always “hold”). I remember being struck by how little Mattie, and the actress playing her, cared for whether she was liked.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never encountered anyone in life or (discounting villains) the movies, who cared so little.

Brave choice by Ms. Darby and she’s still paying the price.

John Wayne, thankfully, will always have defenders, and so opinion was fairly evenly divided among reviewers. the blogosphere and the general public, as to the worth of his performance as Rooster Cogburn. But in the wake of the Coens’ version, I didn’t find a single mainstream defender of Darby (who was instead retrospectively slagged and slandered for being “perky,” “adorable” and “crush-worthy,” not to mention far too old to be playing a fourteen-year-old and a pain in Henry Hathaway’s neck).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I rate Darby’s performance in the original True Grit as the second best ever given by a woman in a western (just behind Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…don’t worry she never got the credit she deserved either).

You don’t have to agree with me or even think Darby was any good at all to attend further. Such things are purely subjective. But If you found her “adorable,” please check yourself into some government facility. I’m depressed enough as it is. I don’t need to see my tax dollars being further wasted not helping you.

There’s no such thing as an “adorable” Mattie and no such thing as an intelligent actress, writer or director who would ever want to see her portrayed that way. Whatever one thinks about the people playing those various roles in the versions of True Grit that now exist for the world’s perusal, none of them were or are stupid.

And that gets to the heart of what’s really, really good (I’d even say great) about the newer version…and also what’s rather problematic about it.

It gives us not only a Rooster Cogburn who is vastly different than the original film (but still perfectly valid in terms of the novel’s structure and themes), but a vastly different Mattie.

These differences have been variously noted–Cogburn more than Mattie, if only because John Wayne cannot be readily dismissed even by a brain-dead intelligentsia (which I believe I have fairly represented above). But because no one took Darby seriously, the only thing that has been left to say about Steinfeld is that (take breathless pause here) she really is the age Mattie is recalling in the novel (narrated from old age), and she’s not Kim Darby.

Bad luck her, I thought after seeing the ubiquitous trailer in the months leading up the Coen version’s release.

But you know what? Breathless reviews aside, Steinfeld’s Mattie quickly won me over and she did it the only way (given my history with both the book and the earlier film) she could have.

That’s by giving a performance that ranks high on the list of women in westerns all by itself (just off-hand, I’d say top ten and pushing for a spot in that top five I listed).

This is perhaps even more than usually impressive because she’s got so much working against her at the start.

She might have been thirteen (only a year younger than the Mattie of the novel’s principal action and eight years younger than Darby had been, though it should be noted Darby was not really playing fourteen but probably more like sixteen or seventeen, an age for which she was more than credible and which, unlike having LaBoeuf ride off a couple of times for no good reason, does no damage to the story), but she was also a lot of other things.

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(Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld)

First off, tall (5’8″ according to the publicity at the time and you can believe it when she stands next to the sheriff Barra refers to above and I can’t be the only one who found myself thinking she could take him three falls out of five) where Mattie was short (“no bigger than a corn nubbin” according to Rooster in all versions including, rather incongruously, this one).

Also drop-dead gorgeous where Mattie was plain (in the book) or at least not gorgeous (in Darby’s case);

Not to mention an arrow-straight force of nature with no hint of sorrow touching her face outside one very brief (and well-played) scene when she is given her murdered father’s possessions, and no feminine quaver touching her voice (Darby made quietly and deeply effective use of both).

And, oh yeah, Steinfeld was in a Coen brothers movie and not just any Coen brothers movie but one where they’ve made a reach for the brass ring and invested themselves emotionally and narratively to a very high degree.

Somehow, Steinfeld–and, to be fair, the Coens as well–made all that work for the character.

I never quite bought the Coens’ repeated story (always couched as supremely ironic serendipity) that they scoured the country in general and the south in particular and, at the last possible moment, miraculously found the one girl in America who could, in their oft-repeated phrase, “handle the language.” Let’s just say I’m not surprised that when two Jewish guys from Minnesota who have spent most of their adult lives making movies decided to re-invent Mattie Ross, they searched the world over and finally settled for a tall, gorgeous, Jewish kid from the movie capital of the world.

And nothing wrong with that by the way.

As I say, Steinfeld really is all that. Nothing much resembling Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross, maybe, but the sort of humdinger who makes it very easy to think she could have got the job done her own way had she by chance been set down in Fort Smith in the 1870s!

The Coens deserve credit for more than a slick marketing campaign, though. They made a relatively complex narrative film (brave enough) and, for once, laid their own joke-ridden quasi-nihilism largely to one side (all but unheard of for anyone as invested in po-mo cynicism as they are).

Of course, such things take practice and whenever they left Portis to one side and struck out on their own, they tended to get lost.

Steinfeld’s Mattie, for instance, is an accomplished rider and horse-trader, but is strangely ignorant of a pony’s eating habits. Having been told by a young hand who is as confused by her ignorance as the viewer might be, that a horse likes apples (who knew!), she steals a supply of them from a bowl at the boarding house where she is staying (an action Portis’ Mattie would never contemplate and the Coens’ Mattie, still capable of telling Rooster, “It’s all stealing” in a later scene, is not sufficiently re-imagined to accommodate).

These are small things but they demonstrate how easy it is to lose track of narrative essence if you don’t have the requisite habits of mind and are rather accustomed to using bits of business and cheap “irony” for connective tissue instead of meaningful human behavior.

Even more problematic, the Coens’ needless departures from Portis’ structure, are not fully fleshed out. Hence we have Mattie, not LaBoeuf, questioning Rooster Cogburn’s morals when he announces his intention to shoot one of Ned Pepper’s gang in the back. And Rooster putting Mattie, not LaBoeuf, in danger when they encounter their first bandits (something Portis’ Rooster would never have done). The reason Mattie has to behave thusly, against her own grain, is that the Coens’ re-imagined story has LaBoeuf elsewhere. Unfortunately, for all the changes they’ve rung in Mattie’s character, there’s nothing to indicate their Mattie would be likely to have a moral–as opposed to practical–qualm as to whether vicious outlaws were shot in the back or that their Rooster would put Mattie in unnecessary danger (at least not while he’s sober).

Again, these are small things, but annoying because needless–and probably a mistake the Coens could have avoided reflexively by this point in their careers if they had spent the last twenty-five years making films worthy of their considerable talents instead of the modestly amusing (or modestly disturbing) time-killers which they have chosen to produce instead.

But I digress. If you can either ignore these sort of things or leave them to one side–and I confess I saw the movie five times in the theater and have seen it at least as many more on DVD, so yes, I have to admit it is certainly possible–this is at least within shouting distance of being a great western and the most worthy addition to the form’s screen-canon since the original Lonesome Dove miniseries (which in turn was the most worthy addition since 1962, the year of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, though there were certainly some good ones in between).

I don’t think it rates quite as high as those landmarks but that’s no shame. John Ford was film’s greatest narrative master and Valance was the decades-long culmination of habits the Coens were trying out for the first time. Ride the High Country was one of the few times Peckinpah would ever keep things simple enough to make an emotionally complicated film that didn’t actually require a more than basic narrative. So coming only a little short of those marks still ranks as a fine achievement.

As impressive as their actual film was, though, it could never hold a candle to the Coens ability to control the other narrative….the narrative the intelligentsia (such as it is) would be bound to accept and perpetuate unless they wanted to go completely off-script and do something besides carry water for the cool people.

Fat chance, that. Hence, the one thing the Coens most assuredly didn’t do–stay true to the book–was bound to be the thing they most consistently got credit for doing.

Just like they planned it.

And, maybe not surprisingly, the next time I caught up with them they were doing this. Nothing to do with developing any more complex narrative then, and small wonder.

So for an Eleventh Maxim, I suggest borrowing a simple rule from politics (one which we mere citizens need not cast aside in our quest to understand either politics or art merely because virtually all political “journalists” do), and suggest to critics that they resist their own worst instincts and insist on treating artists thus:

Never listen to what they say. Only watch what they do!

 

LITERATURE FROM THE GOOD OLD TWENTIETH CENTURY

[In the further interest of acquainting my loyal readers with my general frame of artistic reference–and just for fun–here are a few notes on “My Favorite English Language novels of the 20th century that I actually read in the 20th century” (and actually compiled at the end of it because, hey, that’s my idea of fun!)…Among books I’ve read for the first time since, I would add Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Among books I’ve re-read since, I would add Charles Portis’ True Grit and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve come to realize is at least as conveniently misunderstood and widely abused by the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate as Gone With the Wind is by the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve. But I’ll stick with the ten I picked at the time. It’s not like anything that’s happened since has made me think any less of them!…These are in no particular order.]

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway 1926)

The book that not only made Hemingway’s reputation but placed in on such a firm foundation that it was able to more or less survive everything that happened after 1939. Which is saying something.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929)

This sort of made Faulkner’s reputation and certainly justified it. It also put Joycean invention at the service of compelling narrative, the very thing Joyce himself took such pains to avoid. Afterward, Faulkner took considerable pains to avoid such things himself, but once, at least, he was the equal of the old masters.

Old New York (Edith Wharton, 1924)

I felt like I had been there. And that Ms. Wharton was the only person who could ever make me want to go back.

A Mouse Is Born (Anita Loos, 1951)

Is it mere coincidence that the best, funniest and most effectively absurdist novel I’ve read about Hollywood is also among the most ignored? Somehow, I never think so when I’m reading it.

The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)

A man solves a murder (in a Hollywoodland not so far removed from Ms. Loos’) using little more than the very same attitude that will refuse to let him pretend the solution–or any solution–ever had the slightest chance of changing anything that might have been worth changing.

Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler, 1952)

The greatest of the world’s seeming endless supply of spy novelists, defining the Twentieth Century, thusly: To participate was to lose.

The Man In the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick, 1962)

When I first read this, I was still young, and I thought Dick’s vision was a touch hyperbolic (though still genuinely unsettling). My subsequent running engagement with reality has long since brought me around to his way of thinking.

Burr (Gore Vidal, 1973)

Most of the reasons America was bound to come up a bit short, winding their dry, anecdotal way through what is likely the best historical novel written by an American.

A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1924)

Tragicomedy about children and pirates. Its original American publisher insisted on calling it “The Innocent Voyage.” For as long as it stood, that represented the least accurate title in the publishing industry’s long, ignominious history of mislabeling things.

Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

The Old South taken apart more thoroughly and savagely than Faulkner, General Sherman or James Baldwin ever could–meaning by a more or less sympathetic insider. Interesting–and subversive–that Scarlett O’Hara, every genteel southerner’s living nightmare, has come to represent their “way of life” in the public imagination so thoroughly. As the century’s most famous English-language literary character by a wide margin (and the only American literary character of any era who is both fully three-dimensional and undeniably iconic), she will probably do so forever. Believe me, they deserved less.

 

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!