Monday, January 31, 2011

True Grits: A Comparison


If you don't want to know about True Grit, just stop now.

It's takes a strong will, a determined effort, a stick-to-it-iveness not everyone can summon.

An inner toughness to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

But, I decided to ignore the old fuckers behind me who would not shut the fuck up, and the old fucker across the aisle who could not get that red and white striped candy out of the plastic wrapper for AT LEAST 20 minutes, and I watched Joel and Ethan's latest, True Grit.

I've seen Henry Hathaway's version 25 times minimum. It's one of those flicks,... I can do most of the dialog from memory. When I heard the Coens were doing a "remake" I hoped they weren't doing just a "remake." They didn't.

I hesitate to call Hathaway's version "the original" as both Henry and the Coen brothers' films are adaptations of the book by Charles Portis.

Up until recently, I hadn't given much credit to Portis, sort of like I don't give credit to Peter Benchley. I always saw True Grit as Henry Hathaway's creation.

And that's where Kim Darby comes in to play.

When you've seen the '69 version as many times as I've seen it, you cannot help but comparing the two movies, and the actors in them. Rooster Cogburn became John Wayne's signature role, and it won him a Best Actor Oscar. (do I capitalize Oscar?)

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself, The Dude vs. The Duke is not the first comparison to be made.

Hathaway's version had a sort of sunny, dum-dee-dum, everything in the old west was cleaned and pressed look to it. Even the guys who were lynched in Fort Smith at the beginning were clean. Marquerite Roberts handled the screenplay for Hathaway and, probably due to the fact that it was 1969, decided to feature John Wayne. Perhaps that was at Hathaway's urging, I don't know.

The Coens also handled the screenplay, and leading up to going to see it, I'd heard there were some differences between the two movies; the Coens supposedly sticking more closely to the book. Joel and Ethan's version has a darker feel, right down to the soundtrack. Not gloomy, just non-sunny. Whereas Hathaway made a western with mountain scenery, Joel and Ethan set it in Arkansas and the cinematographer goes to great lengths to show the authentic Arkansas and Chocktaw Nation/Oklahoma terrain as depicted in the book.

Anyway, just around the time the old man across the aisle got his (first) red and white striped candy out of that balky cellophane, the train pulled into Fort Smith and off stepped Mattie Ross with Yarnell in tow, supposedly he was to keep an eye on her.

First difference right away, Hathaway/Roberts gave the back story of Mattie's father, Frank Ross, being killed by his farm hand Tom Cheney before taking Kim Darby/Mattie into town.

The Coens let that part of the story unfold through the words of the narrator, a 48 year old Mattie Ross. Oh, that's interesting. Hmm. I wonder if those seniors behind me heard what she said. Apparently one of them didn't because his companion repeated it....for the entire theater to hear. Old people talk in movies, and the "Do you mind???" look doesn't phase them.

Sorry, where was I? Watching how actors read lines of dialog that I already know by heart, with their own take on it, is something I rarely see. I hate "remakes" as they're almost always inferior. It's more of a play thing for me. I can see how stage actors can change the feel of The Life of Henry the Fifth with body language and inflection and facial expression. Not so much in movies.

At least, that's what I used to think.

Hailee Steinfeld, a 13 year old (at the time of filming) actress from California, was chosen from, according to the Coens, thousands who read for the part. They were looking for a certain maturity required to play the part of Mattie. She had to be just right to capture the character they felt Portis had created.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I was mentally comparing the two True Grits. Couldn't help it. Lynching scenes, similar, but the Coens made it a bit more graphic.

I absolutely adored Strother Marrtin, Hathaway's choice to play Col Stonehill, the horse trader from Fort Smith. As Hailee/Mattie walked into Stonehill's office to haggle over her late father's ponies recently purchased, I began immediately comparing Dakin Matthews to Strother Martin.

It was close enough to the same dialog that I was able to see the two actors' different interpretation of their lines and both did them in a fashion that seemed as realistic as hell. Kudos to Dakin Matthews even though he didn't get to do the "I heard a young girl had fallen down a well, and I thought perhaps it was you!" line.

But it's at that point where I suddenly realized that the entire movie is different. Holy crap, Hailee Steinfeld is acting like, like, a 14 year old girl!

Kim Darby was a 20something actress playing Mattie, and it felt that way. Hathaway focused much less on the character's youth, and more on her spunky cuteness. Darby was the unfortunate recipient of one of those 1960s "And Introducing" things during the opening credits, but that couldn't stop The Duke from eating the furniture in every scene, probably because Hathaway was feeding it to him. The Hathaway version is about Rooster Cogburn.

Through Henry Hathaway's camera, Rooster is the one with "true grit."

I can see now why the Coens auditioned so many young actresses for the role of Mattie Ross. It takes a certain maturity to play the part of a 14 year old girl, who is mature well beyond her years in any part. Add to that the setting, 1878 Arkansas, and I start to see why Hailee Steinfeld was getting so much praise when the movie was first released.

It is an astonishing performance.

Her exchanges with LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) have a completely different feel than those between Darby and Glen Campbell under Hathaway's direction. The Coens allowed Steinfeld to play the part as it was written, and that difference changes the performance of Damon/LeBoeuf. Hell, her performance makes everybody's performance different in the Coens' True Grit.

It's just a completely different dynamic. LeBoeuf for instance is now a man arguing with a little girl, and the little girl is winning.

There are differences in the storyline itself as it is told by Joel and Ethan. Slight plot alterations. LeBoeuf is not nearly as prominent, nor is Lucky Ned Pepper. Robert Duvall's Ned Pepper got a lot more face time than does Barry Pepper's Lucky Ned Pepper. (try typing that three times fast.)

Ditto Tom Cheney. Josh Brolin's Cheney is wonderfully performed, but something of a minor role when compared to Jeff Corey's turn as the powder-burned asshole who killed that little girl's daddy.

That brings me to The Dude. Jeff Bridges is an outstanding actor. He just keeps on being great. Is he ever not good? He does essentially the same lines that The Duke read, he's got the eye-patch (on his right by the way as opposed to Duke's left) , he's got the gravelly voice, and the sloppy drunken thing down pat. But Rooster Cogburn, as played by Jeff Bridges, is a much darker character. He's not comical, he's darkly funny.

At one point he decides he's had enough and tells LeBoeuf to take the girl and just go.

"I'm out." says Rooster.

He comes back.

The Coens wrap the whole thing up pretty much the same way that Hathaway/Roberts did, with a few noticeable changes.


In the first True Grit, LeBoeuf dies. Not so this time. Although we never see the older LeBoeuf, through a letter read by Mattie, we learn that he's joined a traveling wild west show that's passing through Fort Smith. He invites Mattie to come visit him when they pass through. He tells her he's 25 years older since they last spoke, and a lot slower, but he's doing well. When she goes to see him, now a 48 year old one-armed spinster (the snake-bite cost her her left arm*), she learns that he passed away just three weeks prior.

Rooster and Mattie reunite after her snakebite near-death experience in the 1969 film, whereas in the Coens' movie, Mattie blacks out just as Rooster gets her to safety and she never sees him again. She reads a letter she got from him as she walks into the setting sun, and the film ends with narrator Mattie talking about her life, and her adventure with these guys when she was just 14.

And as I walked out of the theater, I began to think about Charles Portis. So that's what True Grit is about! It's the little girl who has true grit.

What an idea for a character. Absolutely fantastic.

Charles Portis is 77 now, and according to what I've read, something of a hermit. Apparently he still shows up in Little Rock from time to time. Wiki calls him "A recluse who enjoys traveling in Mexico."

I often wonder why supremely talented writers like Portis decide to drop out of sight. How can someone with such amazing skill stop doing what they're so fucking good at? Why does a great writer go Salinger?

I find myself glad on the one hand that I have a few new books that I'm simply going to have to read, Norwood, The Dog of The South, Masters of Atlantis, ....and True Grit.(no, I've never read it.)

On the other hand, I'm somewhat saddened to know there isn't more from this guy. It almost makes me want to read these few books of his more slowly, to savor the flavor, as I know there are no more after that.

If you haven't seen True Grit, I don't think I've given too much away. By all means go see the movie. It's one of the best I've seen in years.

Also, I hope Hailee Steinfeld does not win an Oscar for supporting actress (supporting actress? huh?) Not because she doesn't deserve it but because I'd like to see her develop her skills before the "And introducing" Hollywood types chew her up and spit her out.

(Note to Joel and Ethan. Re: Mattie's missing left arm....the snake bit her on the right hand.)


MichaelRyerson said...

Seen 'em both. Agree with most of what you're saying with a couple of exceptions. The first movie was (in my estimation) just slightly above average. By this time the Duke was slipping into that never-neverland from which star-celebrities do not return (think Jerry Lewis). The Duke was beginning to surround himself with little more than place-holding sycophants and assorted has-beens (think Bruce Cabot). Kim Darby wasn't asked to do much and it's a good thing. Glen Campbell was plain awful. Hathaway, Duvall and the great Jeff Corey saved it. It wasn't as bad as Big Jake, Chisum, Hellfighters or Brannigan but then again none of them had Strother Martin, John Doucette or Dennis Hopper either. Still the source material was serviceable and given the willingness of the Coens to allow the dirtyfingernails to show and move the narrative back onto the Matty Ross character a really superior movie was possible. Jeff Bridges owns it, chewing scenery from the witness-stand to broken bed to riding Little Blackie into the ground, he simply owns it. Thought the kid was exceptional (now we'll see if she's got legs), Matt Damon okay in a thankless role and Barry Pepper stunning and it's always nice to see Josh Brolin apparently got his acting chops from his mother.

Michael said...

I thought the same thing about Pepper. Less face time than Duvall got, but Barry is always good, and in this role he shows how less really is more sometimes. A nice casting choice.

Damon really showed me something here. I was so ready to not like him, expected a Jason Bourne smoldering thing, but he avoided that.

Brolin would have had a tough time matching Corey, so in his case less is more again. Corey was so good. "Why does everything always happen to me??"

We disagree on Glen Campbell. We agree on the Duke.

rundeep said...

There are only 2 movies in which I find the Duke's acting acceptable: "The Quiet Man", one of my all-time favorites, and, oddly, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" which is one of my favorite all-time Westerns. Cliches firmly in place but well done. I remember seeing "True Grit" in the theater with my brother and thought it was okay, but that 14 year old girl looked like a 20 year old boy and I never got over that. I was in love with Glenn Campbell at the time, and I refused to acknowledge his limitations. The Coen brothers can do no wrong as far as I am concerned.

Michael said...

No big John Wayne fan here either, and The Green Berets is probably the worst movie ever made with the possible exception of Stallone's Cobra. But I do think Liberty Valance and The Searchers are both exceptional RD, especially the latter.

Coens are batting 1.000 as far as I'm concerned. From Miller's Crossing to Barton Fink to Lebowski to this. Fargo kills me still. I am so glad they didn't try to go too quirky with True Grit.

rundeep said...

It's interesting to me they can do crazy original work like "O Brother Where Art Thou" or "Fargo" or "TBL" and then do utterly faithful, brilliant adaptations like this and "No Country for Old Men."

rundeep said...

You alive Mike? Dug out? I'm thinking it's still better to be in Chicago than Cairo. Watching CNN and it's scary.

Michael said...

No Country! Thank you. I knew I was forgetting a really recent good one. See Javier with Conan? Funny guy.

Alive and well dear, thank you. Ferocious storm. Blog to follow in a day or two. Let the shock wear off.

Compared to Cairo, this blizzard is a temporary, local, inconvenience. I'm following it pretty closely, what's the word...volatile?

Tom said...

Cogburn was the one at the show, and Cogburn was the one that died before they had a chance to meet. The old people must have distracted you.

Andrew Ryan said...

Yup, Tom's right – Cogburn was the one who died three days before she got to the show.

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