Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).

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Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 

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  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 

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Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.

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Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.

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Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.

 

James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

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  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.

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  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.

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  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.

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Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.

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Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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