True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969). Netflix just sent me the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges, and I thought maybe I should see the original first. Sometimes, the Oscars can help us understand a movie, even given the problems overall with the awards. In this case, True Grit was nominated for two Oscars. One was for Best Song (the god-awful “True Grit”, which lost to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” … I’m not a big fan of that one, either, but at least I remember it and could hum a few bars). The other was for John Wayne as Best Actor, and, of course, he won. What does it tell us when a movie gets one Oscar for Best Actor, and no other nominations except Best Song? It tells us that the movie itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The other actors didn’t get nominated. The director didn’t get nominated. The screenplay wasn’t nominated. Not the score, not the cinematography, not the costumes. We can agree that Oscar nominations are often flawed, and still appreciate that True Grit, at the least, didn’t exactly wow the members of the Academy. On the other hand, there’s John Wayne. Rooster Cogburn was his best part in years, and he played the comedic possibilities in the role perfectly. He may have benefited in the voting by the presence of both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy … the film was highly regarded, won Best Picture in fact, and it’s possible Hoffman and Voight together got more votes than Wayne alone, but in splitting their votes, they left room for Wayne to get the trophy. Whatever. Wayne is just fine in True Grit. But, to demonstrate the follies of Oscar, Wayne had only been nominated twice before for Best Actor. He wasn’t nominated for Stagecoach, or Red River, or The Searchers, or Rio Bravo, all of them better movies than True Grit, and all of them featuring performances by Wayne that surpass his work as Cogburn. So this is what Oscar tells us: True Grit was an undistinguished movie, OK, good entertainment, with a fun performance by the iconic John Wayne that works largely because we know him from his earlier, better roles. 7/10. For something more substantial from Wayne, check out any of the four movies I mentioned above. For a truly great Western from 1969, there’s The Wild Bunch. And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has its champions, although I am not one of them, and it’s also a Western from 1969.
True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010). Perhaps I can extend the Oscar discussion into this film, which was nominated for ten, but which won zero. If there is nothing in this True Grit that stands out the way John Wayne did in his “give me an Oscar, already” performance in 1969, there is so much quality that it hardly matters. I don’t know that it’s worthwhile to compare the two versions. I’m more taken with the place of True Grit within the work of the Coens. I always feel like I don’t appreciate them enough … I think a movie like No Country for Old Men is very good, but others think it is a classic … I liked The Big Lebowski OK, it’s the cult favorite of all time to its fans. I’m usually impressed with their movies, but don’t always enjoy them (Fargo being the exception, and their best movie, to my mind). True Grit lacks whatever it is that bothers me about them, though … I think it is as good as No Country for Old Men. It just barely sneaks into the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, at #250. 8/10. (I should draw attention to the fact that I am plagiarizing myself without knowing it. This is what I said earlier this year about Barton Fink: “I think of myself as someone who doesn’t much care for the Coen brothers, but looking over their work, it is clear that the more accurate assessment is that I like them, but not as much as some do. Fargo is my favorite of their movies. I thought No Country for Old Men was very good. But the cult movies, like The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple … it’s not that I don’t like them, I do, but I don’t gush over them. I don’t think they come close to Fargo. And once we get to Miller’s Crossing, they’ve lost me.”) For something else by the Coens, obviously I’d recommend Fargo. My favorite movie with Jeff Bridges is The Last Picture Show. For another 21st-century Western, I like The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2000).
Private Parts (Paul Bartel, 1972). I thought it was impossible to be surprised by the director who made the infamous Eating Raoul. In that film, a conservative couple takes to murdering rich “swingers” for their money … by the end of the movie, we’re treated to cannibalism. Private Parts, Bartel’s first feature, is darker than Raoul, enough so that it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a comedy, although there are some very funny moments. It deals with voyeurism, gender, gay priests, psycho killers, sex with dolls, decapitations, some of this implied, some clearly shown, all wrapped in a story of a hotel with secrets, which makes the movie a mystery, I suppose. Bartel manages to shock the audience while maintaining an almost jocular tone … none of us have anything to hide, we’re all “perverts” in our own way, which is another way of saying “perversion” is ordinary. The whole thing could be seen as an homage to Psycho, if Hitchcock was funnier and more open about his methods. Produced by Roger’s brother Gene Corman on a budget of about seven dollars, with a cast filled with actors who are largely unknown outside of Private Parts (unfortunate in the case of Ayn Ruymen in particular … she plays the lead and is very appealing). The music is by Oscar-winner Hugo Friedhofer, the cinematographer is Andrew Davis, who went on to direct films like Under Siege and The Fugitive. Baby Boomers will enjoy seeing Chip from My Three Sons in a supporting role. The craftsmanship on the film is excellent … you never feel like you’re watching a cheapie B picture. Private Parts is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re one of those people who especially like stuff that isn’t for everyone, this is right up your alley. 7/10. For other Bartel films, the obvious choice is Eating Raoul. I’m fond of his charming performance in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. There’s not a lot I can recommend that features Ayn Ruymen, but the TV movie Go Ask Alice is a cult film of a different kind, and she’s in it. It’s really hard to come up with movies that connect with this one … how about Sugar Cookies, with Bartel’s buddy Mary Woronov? It’s not much good (I blame associate producer Oliver Stone), but Woronov rises above the material.
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953). 7/10.
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993). 6/10.