Well, the new year is upon us and that can mean only one thing: that Cheryl had her birthday. This birthday was special for a couple of reasons. First of all, I turned 50 and second, it was my first birthday without Cigi. Believe me, I felt bad when I awoke on New Year's Eve and realized that, for the first time, she wasn't going to be there to share it with me. But it wasn't a total loss. In fact, I had one of the nicest birthdays in many years due to a spanko friend who invited me out on January 2nd for a day of good spanking, good food and a good movie.
I used to be a huge movie fan (back in the days when Hollywood made movies with acting). I used to love character studies and coming-of-age films the best. One of my favorite movies was "True Grit". I first saw it as an 8-year-old in 1969 with my dad and my sisters. My dad was probably the world's biggest John Wayne fan. As I have mentioned in other entries, he was a Marine and most Marines were John Wayne fans. At the time, the movie was way over my head. The only scene that actually resonated with me was the spanking scene (much, much more on that later!). I first read Charles Portis' excellent novel of the same name when I was, ironically, 14 (the same age as Mattie Ross, the teenage protagonist in the film). My parents were very picky about the kinds of books they let us read, but my dad figured I had already seen the movie so reading the book could do no harm. I expected the book to go the way the movie had and was surprised that it didn't. The book is written from Mattie's point of view and so it's somewhat stilted and pious sounding. The language and unusual syntax was very hard for me to get my 14-year-old brain around. But I read the book until, at last, it fell apart. And I began to wish that Hollywood would come up with a better version of the story.
The original film isn't a bad film, necessarily. It reflects the time in which it was made. After reading the book, I realized that the actress who played Mattie Ross was too old for the part. No way could Kim Darby convincingly pass herself off as a teenager. It was rather like the 17-year-old Judy Garland trying to convincingly play the 12-year-old Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz". Miss Darby was petite and did try to speak the way the girl in the book did, but her short haircut wasn't appropriate given the era. The girl on the front of my copy of the book had long braids (like Laura on "Little House On the Prairie") and that was what I thought would look better for a newer version of the film. Imagine my surprise when the new version was released! This girl has braids! Braids that would make Wednesday Addams jealous.
The original film looked and sounded (thanks to Elmer Bernstein's score) like a big Hollywood movie. Nothing subtle here. The soundtrack is so totally bombastic that I always end up having to turn down the sound on my TV when I watch it. The soundtrack to the new film features mainly traditional hymns (like "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms") and folk songs. Really haunting and atmospheric.
The characters were also painted somewhat differently. Wayne's Rooster Cogburn is pretty much the same character The Duke played in every movie he ever made. And there's nothing wrong with that. He won an Oscar, for crying out loud. But Glen Campbell as La Bouef? Who's idea was it to cast a singer in the role of the Texas Ranger? I can picture some suit sitting in a conference room, a deadline bearing down on him, saying "Let's get Glen Campbell!" Not exactly a stroke of genius. But for 40 years, that was what we had. As a child, I had instantly disliked his character due to one line early in the film. A man seated at the table with him (at the Monarc boardinghouse) tells him that the chicken and dumplings will hurt his eyes and he calls the man a "squirrel-headed bastard". No need to swear just because the man told a bad joke. In the new movie, when we first see LaBouef, he's sitting on the porch of the boarding house, his feet resting on the porch railing and lighting his pipe. Mattie walks past him, saying nothing, and then learns that he has taken the only available room and she will be doubling up again.
I don't want to give away the movie for those of my readers who haven't seen it yet, but many of the scenes we loved in the original find their way into the new version, including the snake pit scene, the Stonehill scene (where Mattie haggles over the price she will accept for her father's horse), the river crossing, and of course, the spanking scene.
When I heard that a remake was in the works, I automatically assumed that any modern movie director would be much too PC to include it. In old westerns, children (or women) who acted too big for their britches were often taken down a peg or two with a well-applied licking. In the original, when Mattie refuses to turn around and go home, but puts her horse right into the water and fords it without the benefit of a ferry, the marshal and the Texas Ranger ride off, hoping to lose her and discourage her enough to make her turn tail and go home. As she's riding past them, Campbell grabs her off her horse and tosses her on the ground with the unbelievable line "Now we'll see what tune you sing!" He breaks a switch off a nearby shrub and takes it to her until the marshal intervenes by drawing his pistola on him. In the new version, the marshal and the Texas Ranger simply sit there on their horses and watch her cross the river. The marshal looks grim but slightly amused. LaBouef looks furious. He gets off his horse, walks over to her, grabs her off her horse and says it's "time for your spanking!" Then he puts her over his knee and smacks her backside a few times before realizing that a switch would do the job better. I believe he even pushes her coat tail out of the way.
In the original, after the spanking is over, Mattie jumps off the ground and says "This has given me an idea!" In the new one, no such thing happens. Tearfully, she gets back on her horse (which, just as it was in the original, is called Little Blackie) and the trio rides off.
The movie doesn't have the "happy Hollywood ending" as my spanko friend called it. But I won't spoil it for those who haven't caught the film yet (what? there's a spanko who hasn't seen it yet?).
Jeff Bridges does an awesome job with the Cogburn character. He doesn't spend even one second trying to imitate John Wayne. He gives his own interpretation of the character. And Bridges has played some memorable characters. The crusty sea captain in "White Squall" comes to mind. His first words to Mattie when she goes to the courthouse to see him are "What do you want, girl?" He isn't a lovable drunk in this film. He comes off in some scenes as rather pathetic. But when the chips are down, he's there.
Matt Damon's LaBouef is so far above Glen Campbell's that it's like comparing apples to oranges. I admit I was never a Matt Damon fan (although I loved him in "Good Will Hunting" and was happy when he won an Oscar for writing the screenplay) but it was refreshing to see what a professional actor would do with the part of the puffed up Texas Ranger. He spanks Mattie, not because he dislikes her, but because no child would speak to an adult the way she speaks to him and not get something for it. Not in that era, anyway. A young girl was easily disregarded in those days. Even Cogburn tells her to go home as "they'll need help with the churnin'".
As Mattie Ross, first timer Hailee Steinfeld hits the nail on the head. She turns in one of the best performances of the year in her first film. Working with a bunch of A-list actors and two directors would be daunting for anyone. But her portrayal of the tough but vulnerable Mattie Ross is so good and so endearing that I can't picture anyone else ever playing her.
Doing what amounts to a cameo, Josh Brolin as the murderer Tom Chaney, is both dark and somewhat comical. "I know you...little Mattie the bookkeeper!" I waited the whole movie for that line. I wish they had fleshed his character out a little, but Chaney is destined to be a minor character.
Barry Pepper takes the role of Lucky Ned Pepper (played by Robert Duvall in the original) and hits it out of the park. Pepper does great with characters. I loved him as Roger Maris in "61*". And, of course, he was great in "Saving Private Ryan". I hardly recognized the good-looking actor under all the make up they had on him for the role.
So if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and go. This is one of those "big sky" pictures that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Maybe, just maybe, this will spur Hollywood to start making good westerns again.
And when Oscar time rolls around, don't be surprised if a few actors from "True Grit" walk away with statues.