The wife and I decided we would go to the movie theater to see the new Coen brothers film, True Grit, their version of the book and which inspired the 1969 movie that provided John Wayne with his lone Academy Award. I will not attempt to speak for my wife as she is quite capable of doing that for herself, but I rather enjoyed the contemporary retelling of the Charles Portis novel. It was a rousing and stirring entertainment.
It would be crass to relate the details of the film, but I will say the superb performance by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld properly places the emphasis of the story on Mattie Ross instead of the supporting character of Sheriff Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. I have never been a fan of Wayne due to his appallingly unkind and crude racial views about Native Americans and African-Americans. Additionally, I do not find him as an actor to be someone whose body of work I have much admiration for.
The decision to cast Jeff Bridges at Rooster Cogburn was an exemplary one by the Coens. He is a vastly superior actor in comparison to Wayne and has a great chemistry with his youthful co-star. Wayne reportedly had little regard for Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the earlier version.
The film has done well at the box office and received ten Academy Award nominations this week including Best Picture, a second consecutive Best Actor nomination for Mr. Bridges and a Best Supporting Actress nod to Miss Steinfeld.
The Best Supporting Actress nomination actually makes little to no sense. Steinfeld is on-screen for the majority of the film. It is her story that is the centerpiece and she more than capably holds her own paired with veteran actors of the caliber of Bridges, Matt Damon as the pompous Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (pronounced “la beef”) and Josh Brolin as the villainous coward and murderer, Tom Chaney.
In a just and fair world, Steinfeld would have nominated in her rightful category: Best Actress. Alas, the world is neither just nor fair. Young actresses often are kicked down to the lesser “Best Supporting” category whether their performance is a leading one or not.
There are some critics who do not appreciate this film as much as I do. I strongly believe they are very much in error and I will list a few ways in which True Grit 2010 stands head and shoulders about True Grit 1969.
* John Wayne won his Oscar playing Rooster Cogburn for sentimental reasons as much as his performance. He triumphed over Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days, Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. That speaks clearly to me that Wayne sailed to victory as nothing so much as a lifetime achievement award for “the Duke.”
* Kim Darby was 22-years-old trying to play 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Hailee Steinfeld was 13-years-old when she played the part. Clearly the advantage is with Miss Steinfeld.
* Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen are vastly superior to Henry Hathaway who directed the 1969 version.
* Matt Damon vs. country singer Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf? Nothing more needs be said about that.
I do not know if I believe True Grit to be the best movie of 2010, but it is worthy being considered as one of the best. I would not be distraught should it be chosen by the Academy Awards as such.
If my phrasing seems stiffly formal and oddly unnatural as it deviates wildly from my usual casual (and often profane) writing style, it may be a lingering influence from viewing this film. A Coen brothers film would not be a Coen brothers film without an artistic flourish peculiar to them and in True Grit it is the extremely stylized way of speaking everyone uses in this version of the West. Think of Fargo with horses and jangling spurs. Contractions are used only rarely. There is slang and collaquisms peculiar to the time in question but as soon as you settle back in your chair you will find the dialogue affected and forced and rich and resonant. I found it to be the latter and not the former. The actors speak as if Shakespeare had relocated to the Old West.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the cinematography of Roger Deakins and the musical score by Carter Burwell. Now I have.
I do have one reservation: much like Spike Lee, the Coens do not always wrap up their films with tidy endings. I am not entirely satisfied with the wrap-up of True Grit, but at least it is not No Country For Old Men.
Please keep in mind: this is not a remake of the first film. It is an adaptation of the book.
True Grit has a heart and soul I do not recall in the original and I will enjoy adding this film to my collection to be viewed again at my leisure.
And now I will stop talking this way.