By Bruce Edward Walker
Although Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of True Grit suffers from the “been there, done that” aspect of the genre stretching original, it’s still a worthwhile and entertaining effort. It’s been more than 40 years since John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell set out to capture Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, and now Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon are saddled and mounted to ride against Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.
Charles Portis’ novel True Grit was yet another entry in the demystification of the Old West subgenre. The novel and the 1969 film it inspired marked one more step in an aesthetic transition from the simplistic “white hats versus black hats” depictions of the cinematic oaters preceding it. With True Grit, cinema continued its evolution toward gritty portrayals of good guys who do bad things and vice versa, which became a staple of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s. True, Sergio Leone’s films got there first and Sam Peckinpah took it to its apex – or nadir, if you prefer – with The Wild Bunch.
For his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, a crotchety, hard-drinking, morally compromised U.S. Marshall, John Wayne won an Academy Award; mostly, one might surmise, to reward the Duke for playing against type after positively depicting the Green Berets in a film of the same name Wayne also co-directed during the height of the Vietnam Conflict. Nevertheless, his initial turn as Cogburn was a more-than-passable performance from an actor largely accustomed by this time to resting on his celluloid iconic status.
So intent were the filmmakers behind the 1969 True Grit to broadcast a new era of Hollywood horse opera, they cast Jay Silverheels, known primarily for playing television’s Tonto in the 1940s and ‘50s, as a condemned Indian who dies on the scaffold. Once the Lone Ranger’s noble and reliable sidekick is offed, all bets are off.
Further, True Grit veered from the traditional depiction of the Western frontier conquered by rough-and-tumble men, instead portraying the attempts to refine and civilize the West at century’s end through still strong yet feminine instincts. In the instance of True Grit, the woman is a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, with a distinct sense of justice and seeming preternatural understanding of the law. As the eldest of three children and daughter of an ineffective mother, Mattie assumes the role as head of her family after her father is murdered, and later becomes wrangler to Rooster and Texas Ranger La Boeuf.
In the book and subsequent 1969 film portrayal by Kim Darby, Mattie Ross is boyish and unattractive in appearance, and bossy and imperious in demeanor. Contrast this with the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, where even the most rustic situations can’t mask the Hollywood glamour of a Natalie Wood, Angie Dickinson or Vera Miles, damsels more often in need of machismo assistance than not.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie in the Coens’ 2010 adaptation of True Grit. The Coens decide to update the feminist subtext of the original book and film by making Mattie not only wily, tough and smart. Yes, the 2010 Mattie reboot is also very pretty. While her performance is admirable in a plum role, Steinfeld’s peaches-and-cream complexion broadcasts a message in all caps: “You can be TOUGH, SMART AND ATTRACTIVE.” One can almost hear the feminist cheer “You go, girl!” throughout the film, which is somewhat of a distraction; especially because throughout the script, Mattie is referred to as nothing much to look at, which is clearly not the case.
A minor quibble, to be sure. The film captures more of the dark story from the Portis novel, as well as good portions of the dialogue – tailor-made for a film made by the Coen brothers, whose use of inflated language to comedic effect is well known. And yet, the Coens allow their story to meander a bit much, reining the narrative of the source work only occasionally. Still, those viewers anticipating plentiful Coen-inspired laughs won’t leave the theater disappointed.
La Boeuf serves as comedic relief in the story, a self-impressed hotshot who finally gains the admiration of Mattie and Rooster. Played by Glen Campbell in the original and Matt Damon in the latest version, La Boeuf is a difficult role to get wrong, and I’m happy to report both Campbell and Damon acquit themselves nicely.
And what of the 2010 Rooster Cogburn? Jeff Bridges assumes the eye patch, grizzled appearance and off-balance, middle-aged spread the character requires with aplomb. Does the Big Lebowski’s Dude call out the Duke and claim the role for Bridges? As a fan of the original and an ardent film viewer who continuously finds new things to admire about John Wayne’s acting, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up. Bridges, fresh off his own Academy Award for his boozy performance in last year’s Crazy Heart, throws caution to the wind as another whiskey-soaked has-been with just a few more tricks up his sleeve. He’ll never match the Duke’s classic rendering of the climactic “Fill yer hands …” line, but then no one could.
When Wayne reprised the Cogburn role in a dreadful sequel with Katherine Hepburn, he squandered much of the equity he earned in the original True Grit. Let’s hope Bridges banks his Cogburn and leaves well enough alone.