December 14, 2010

true grits

Regrettably, this post is not about the cookbook True Grits: Recipes Inspired By the Movies of John Wayne. My apologies to writers Lee Pfeiffer and Michael Lewis, although I do intend to make  “They Were Eggspendable” (p. 6) and “Hondocakes” (p. 12) for breakfast this weekend. No, instead I’ll be considering Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, and the film adaptation by producer Hal Wallis and director Henry Hathaway the following year. All of this was spurred, of course, by the Coen Brothers’ take on the material, still named True Grit, which comes out on December 22nd.

Portis’ novel is anchored by the starched voice of Mattie Ross, a stiff-backed Presbyterian who recalls the grim events that followed the murder of her father, Frank. Narrating the tale as a prim spinster in 1928, she details, with stark Old Testament morality, how she earned her revenge as a young girl from Dardenlle, Yell County Arkansas (she intones her birthplace to strangers like a prayer) in 1873. She is decisive and declamatory, with an eye for irrelevant bits of history. When the trail of the murderer snakes through Indian Territory to a supply store , she dryly notes: “The store is now part of the modern little city of McAlester, Oklahoma, where for a long time ‘coal was king.’ McAlester is also the international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” There is a bit of the schoolmarm in her, eager to educate as much as to “avenge her father’s blood.”

It is her voice that captivates, a preternaturally calm control stabbed with stubborn wit, rarely exhibiting the childishness of her age. As Ed Park wrote in his epic ode to Portis in The Believer, “Her steadfast, unsentimental voice—Portis’s sublime ventriloquism—maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.”  I could only detect one scene of playfulness – when she asks her two lawmen to act out a ghost story around the fire. These two men, Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (he prononunces it “LaBeef”), are far more immature than Mattie, at one point wasting a third of their corn dodgers for an impromptu shooting competition (not dissimilar to Montgomery Clift and John Ireland’s macho shoot-off in Red River).

Cogburn is an inveterate drunkard and former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla group. He’s also a Federal Marshal who had killed over 20 men since his short time wearing the badge, a fact which led Mattie to choose him to help her find the killer, Tom Chaney. Incapable of a domesticated life (“Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone”), he thrives on the deprivation of the outdoors. LeBoeuf is handsome, conceited, and a bit of a dandy. Upon first seeing him Mattie remarks, “His manner was stuck-up and he had a smug grin that made you nervous when he turned it on you.” Despite that, “he made me worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose”, one of the other rare notes of vulnerability in her bullish persona.

Mattie is a shifty, opaque creation, and endlessly fascinating. She’s a whip-smart girl who turns personal history biblical (her vengeance on Chaney, who is physically marked like Cain, recalls the Old Testament God), and biblical history local (she quotes verse to settle daily disputes). She stubbornly sits still on the ledge in-between, refusing to concede her pragmatism or her divine beliefs as rattlesnakes nip at her flesh.

Before the book was published, Portis’ agent passed out galleys to the major studios, setting off a minor bidding war. According to Randy Roberts and James Stewart Olson in John Wayne: American, Wayne’s production company, Batjac, submitted a bid of $400,000, but it was issued after the deadline had closed. The rights were awarded to Hal B. Wallis, whom Wayne soon wooed to land the part of Rooster Cogburn. The role of Mattie Ross was originally offered to Mia Farrow, who turned it down, supposedly on the advice of Robert Mitchum, and it was eventually given to Kim Darby, a little-known TV actress.  Robert Duvall snarls through the film as gang leader Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper has a bit part as a squealer at the same time Easy Rider was unspooling, a portentous straddle of Old/New Hollywood.  Wallis switched the shooting location from Arkansas to Montrose, Colorado, in the western slopes of the Rockies, over Portis’ objections.

Hathaway and Wallis lightened the tone of of Portis’ more fatalistically comic work, turning it into an agreeably swashbuckling affair centered on Cogburn, whose rough edges and thieving past are sanded down to an inoffensive nub (Dave Kehr opted to call it “cutesy-poo”). There is no voice-over, which eliminates many of Mattie’s idiosyncratic asides, and the ace DP Lucien Ballard’s cinematography here is made up of bright and airy postcard shots that looks like a well-funded autumnal Coors commercial. It lacks the textural menace of nature in the book, in which cold and hunger attack as much as Chaney.

Wallis’ True Grit, then, is an entirely new work, with only a surface relationship to Portis’, and shouldn’t be limited, or belittled, solely in comparison to the book’s greatness. It was transformed into a John Wayne star vehicle as he was transitioning into more cantankerous character parts, so the film was rigged up into a sturdy, eager to please example of old Hollywood craftsmanship. Stocked with stellar supporting performances from Duvall, Hopper, Strother Martin, and even Glen Cambpell as the preening pretty boy LeBouef, it’s a companionable if not resonant bit of Saturday afternoon entertainment.

In a revealing exchange, Henry Hathway recalled the arguments he had with Wayne over wearing the eye-patch:

When he was first put to it, Wayne told me, ‘I’m not gonna wear that patch on my eye.’ He said, “I’m not an actor to begin with, I’m a reactor, and no way will I wear a patch.”

This is a wonderful pocket self-analysis from Wayne of his work – he’s such a superb and sensitive performer because of how he reacts to the actors around him. Some of his best work is in backgrounds – think of his proud, fatherly gaze and reluctant gait in Rio Bravo as he stands outside his circle of friends singing in jail – maneuvering his bulky body to convey the resignation of old age and the burdens of leadership. He’s one of the finest collaborative actors, whether it’s sparking off Montgomery Clift in Red River or bending towards Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande like a weed to the sun. In donning the eye-patch, he becomes the buffoon being reacted to, a gallumphing showboat rather indifferent to the performers around him (Kim Darby is unmoored and affectless as a result). But his self-parodistic grunting and hamming stirred the dozing Academy voters, who awarded him his first and only Oscar for best actor.