While watching a football game last week I noticed with interest the PR campaign surrounding the release of the remake of the 1969 classic, True Grit. It was at first, like most intrusions upon my enjoyment of televised sports, an occasion for mild distraction that with repetition became a downright annoyance. As I watched Jeff Bridges emote with growling menace in the movie trailer, I grew nostalgic for the effortless ease of John Wayne’s portrayal of a role that fit him like a second skin. I questioned the futility of an effort to try and top it.
Now, I don’t begrudge Tinseltown’s constant desire to reach back into its past glories for inspiration; many classics were themselves the result of previous incarnations, like The Maltese Falcon, which in 1941 was the third filmed version of the Dashiell Hammett novel. And some stories must be retold every few years or so — A Christmas Carol quickly comes to mind, although for me, nothing can top the 1951 classic with Alastair Sim — just to keep them fresh in movie-going minds.
But there are some characterizations that should be off limits, like Rooster Cogburn. Yes, it’s true that there was a dreary TV remake and a big-screen sequel starring the Duke himself, but these paled in comparison to the original. One of the reasons for the popularity of True Grit was not so much the against-type casting of Wayne as a boozy bounty hunter, but that he could make such a reprobate an engaging character. And this was largely possible only because he was John Wayne.
Modern movie-goers who only know the Duke from watching a few of the 200 or so movies he left behind have missed out on what made him so beloved by most of the country: his innate goodness and sense of fair play; the embodiment of all that was America. He was also handsome in a way that stands in glorious counterpoint to the weepy, navel-gazing adolescents that are said to appeal to women today. Wayne as a young man, fresh off the USC playing fields was lean, lank and sported the kind of gaze that would later be labeled “bedroom eyes.”
Now Jeff Bridges is a fine actor and most probably a good Joe in his own right, but, like most of today’s entertainers, he lacks that imprint of individuality that made a Wayne or most of yesterday’s stars shine. This is why, with few exceptions, the art of mimicry no longer exists. There is no Frank Gorshin, Rich Little or John Byner; men whose routines consisted solely in delivering prop-less impressions of actors and actresses like Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn. Why? Because there are no characters in Hollywood today. How would you imitate a Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, or Julia Roberts?
Now, it’s not really fair to speak about this movie without having seen it, but I would be very surprised if Bridges’ Cogburn displayed anything but a smattering of the wayward charm infused into the character by John Wayne; who could? This ability to make even hard-bitten characters — think Tom Dunson in Red River or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers — attractive and even lovable, is one of the things that endeared him to most of America and made the left despise him even more than for just his politics. This is beautifully summed up by Salon writer Jonathan Leithem, in a strange piece that seems to argue that his politics invalidate whatever acting skill he might have had: “Thank heaven he’s also a laughable political ignoramus, a warmongering hypocrite who never served in the armed forces. Thank heaven he’s associated with the western, an easily dismissible film genre.”
Of course the western is not so easily dismissed, as we have so sorrily seen in the past few decades. Every couple of years or so, the leftists in Hollywood try and fail miserably to capture the spirit of the West as so wonderfully done by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, who gave us not just cardboard heroes, but real men confronted by the complexity of western expansion. The truth is, Americans have loved westerns as a connection with their predecessors who were brave, bold and free, and mostly contemptuous of government nonsense: men like Rooster Cogburn.
Remake True Grit? You might as well try and outdo Gable in Gone With the Wind or Bogart in Casablanca. Some folks are already suggesting that this remake might eclipse the beloved original, but I call that pretty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!