30 March 2011

Bookfilm: Charles Portis, TRUE GRIT (1968)

The work of American writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen is something of an acquired taste, and with enough time and study I feel confident that I have acquired it. Shown "Fargo" way before I could appreciate it, I eased into their work and eventually crowned 2009's "A Serious Man" my favorite movie of that year. I know that I like them because I will faithfully go to see their movies even when I'm not sure what they're on about -- and 2010's "True Grit" would definitely fall into that category.

"So it's a remake... of a Western..." doesn't sell well to my quadrant, and that this remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie exceeded box office expectations probably reflects the classic holiday movie dilemma more than anything. ("I can't talk to these people any more... but what movie will they all dislike the least?" Last year's "Sherlock Holmes" did gangbusters for my family, because we like action, trickery and Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr almost smoochin'.) But in the end I couldn't rope anyone in my family into seeing "True Grit" apart from my dad, the old-school Coenite responsible for that first viewing of "Fargo."

I liked the movie just all right, in the end. I need some Jeff Bridges detox time because every role he takes looks the same to me, was pleasantly surprised by Matt Damon and surprised neutrally by Josh Brolin (forgot he was in the movie, although he is on the poster!) By far my greatest enjoyment was derived from the performance of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the 13-year-old with a wad of cash bent on avenging her father's death at the hands of his own hired man, who pays bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to take off after him into Indian country. Mattie may be naive, but she's also a total badass who stands up to men twice her age and weight without flinching. She's tenacious; no one tolerates her in most environments, but she clings on until the yielding point. A peculiar feeling swept over me contemplating Mattie Ross, which could be summed up as, "If I ever have a daughter, I hope we can watch this movie together."

My knowledge of Westerns as in literature is about on par with my knowledge of Westerns on film -- scanty and derived mostly from looking over other people's shoulders. I sat down with TRUE GRIT just to be able to say that I'd read it and move on to something for which I didn't already know the ending. This is the risk you run, reading the book after seeing the movie! (Suppose it's the other way as well... but never mind.) But with all due respect and the lagging processes of the New York Public Library, I didn't pick up TRUE GRIT until well into March. But the Mattie of the novel is even saucier than the movie version, and her voice delighted me. Here are my top five Mattie Ross Burns, which I actually took the time to type up:

  • "The magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and 'discursive.' Nothing is either too long or too short if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a 'graphic' writing style combined with educational aims. I do not fool around with newspapers. They are always after me for historical write-ups but when the talk gets around to money the paper editors are most of them 'cheap skates.'"
  • "LaBoeuf the Texan was at the table, shaved and clean. I supposed he could do nothing with the 'cowlick.' It is likely that he cultivated it."
  • "[Your work is] the same idea as a coon hunt. You are just trying to make your work sound harder than it is."
  • "Run home yourself. Nobody asked you to come up here wearing your big spurs."
  • "Keep your seat, trash." (This is from the best scene in the movie, and that's all I'll say about that.)

Portis' novel gives us some context into Mattie's telling of her tale (no spoilers!) without seeming as though it's embellishing her voice. Her frame of reference is explicitly Biblical, and I'm sure there were many in-text references which I did not get. In a way, her quest is resolutely Old Testament: Instead of giving up after her father's death, as her mother has seemed to do, Mattie invents herself a sort of avenging angel role and goes after his killer against the practical advice of everybody.

I can only guess how rare it is to encounter a female protagonist in a Western, who is not either Annie Oakley or a prostitute. In fact, after one character gives in to her demands another accuses him of basically being seduced by her, saying (and I will quote this to the end of time) "She has got you buffaloed with her saucy ways." It's funny because Mattie is the last character you would expect to behave in that way. You'd sooner see Rooster, the twice-divorced drunken old bounty hunter who just may have killed some women and children during the Civil War, whoops, flashing some sock garter. It just wouldn't happen. She is clear on her level of shenanigan, and that level is nil.

Literature could use more Mattie Rosses, and so could the world. If you're feeling that your line-up of female characters could use a little amplification, you should pick up TRUE GRIT even if you're having hesitations over the genre. As for the movie, I will begrudgingly say it's worth it for the final scene, and the song rolling over the end credits -- and a few other things. But read the book first. Don't be like me.


  • Dedicated as I am to you, my 2.87 readers, I didn't bother watching the 1969 "True Grit" for this post. If it had been available on Netflix Instant Watch, I might have considered it, but the result probably would have been the same. I know two things about the John Wayne classic: (1) According to some, it is less faithful to the Portis novel than the Coens' version, and (2) Mattie Ross is played by a 22-year-old with the most absolutely horribdiculous (=  horrible + ridiculous) haircut you have ever seen. It's like a bowl cut for a girl, but with bangs.
  • It was the worst ageing-down haircut I'd seen in a movie since the Drew Barrymore/ Jennifer Connelly pigtails in "He's Just Not That Into You."
  • This book was part of Your Oscar Nominees Reading List. Have you caught up on any post-Oscars reads recently? I did see some kind of book tie-in to THE KING'S SPEECH on the stand at B&N recently, related to Lionel Logue's diaries I think, but not enough to buy it right away.
  • The last time I ran this feature I called it the Reverse Filmbook, but that's really not whimsical enough.


The Armando Show said...

I admire your writing. Nice read.

Elizabeth said...

Well, I had a comment here, but then Blogger ate it.

The gist of it was that I thought the 2010 film was a lot funnier than the 1969 film, because Stanfield's and Bridges's comedic timing are each vastly superior to Darby's and Wayne's.

Ellen said...

Thanks, Armando!

Elizabeth: That's interesting -- I wonder if 1969 audiences would have found it funny, and it's just that our view of comedic timing has changed drastically since then, or that the Coen Brothers set out deliberately to make a Funny Movie (as opposed to a Western).

Wade Garrett said...

Elizabeth - I sypmathize; Blogger ate the four-paragram comment I just wrote.

I have not seen the 1969 movie version. There are two reasons why I never watched it: 1) my entire family hates John Wayne. In particular, my father and grandmother consider him to be one of the three most overrated Americans of all-time, along with Vince Lombardi and Ronald Reagan. 2) It looked to me like another "victory culture" John Wayne movie, and that his alcoholism and weight problem were 'realistic' characterists added to give the movie a sheen of edginess that audiences demanded in the era of The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It probably tells you something about me as a teenager that I jumped to that conclusion about the movie without having seen it.

I loved the Coen brothers' adaptation, and liked the novel just as much. Mattie Ross was the highlight of the movie, and I really enjoyed getting 230 pages of her narration, instead of having just one of three major roles in the film. She's a terrific character, and one of the most richly drawn young women I've seen in movies. The book fleshes her out even more. It made me want to read the rest of Charles Portis' novels. I really didn't expect to like it as much as I did.

Ellen said...

Wade, I also would be interested in checking out more of Portis' books, though I fear being disappointed that they are not all populated by Mattie Rosses.

Now no more of that Vince Lombardi nonsense in here...