Category Archives: Directors and Actors

Great Performances in Westerns, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 4, 2013

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Tom Dunson in Red River, Hondo Lane in Hondo, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

stagecoachRingoRingo stops the stage and the movie.

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Wayne is the most memorable and enduring western star that the movies have seen, appearing over a long career that began in silent movies and lasted until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  Unlike some other great western stars, he was always the protagonist, although a couple of his characters (Tom Dunson, Ethan Edwards) had some near-psychotic edges to them.  He seemed larger-than-life in the Wayne persona that was always part of his character in a film.  These listed here are his greatest performances, but there are others that could make the list, such as Wil Andersen in The Cowboys and J.B. Books in The Shootist.

  • In the role that made him a star, Wayne captures the screen instantly in the shot in which he flags down the coach in 1939’s Stagecoach.  As the Ringo Kid, his mission for revenge and his relationship with bad girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) dominate the movie when the titular coach isn’t being chased by Indians.  The camera loves him, and director John Ford knew how to use him well, even here in their first work together. 
  • It wasn’t just Ford; Wayne’s work with other directors could be excellent as well.  For example, as the obsessive Tom Dunson, his relationship with foster son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first and one of his best roles) is the backbone of Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.  He’s John Wayne clear through, but his behavior is edgy and uncertain enough that we’re not quite sure how the conflict will end.  That’s good writing and directing, too.  All of this worked together to make the first great cattle drive western, with John Wayne at the heart of it.
  • Hondo Lane is an ill-tempered Arizona scout who puts up with no nonsense and is all business, even in his relationship with Geraldine Page and her son.  Although he had used a longarm to good effect in Stagecoach, his seeming familiarity with a rifle in this role was even more natural.  (It became an integral part of Wayne’s performance as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, as well.)  He carries the movie, as he usually did, and this excellent performance tends to be underrated in part because this 3D movie wasn’t readily available for viewing for several decades after its release, when the short-lived 3D fashion of the early 1950s had faded.
  • The occasionally irrational and always obsessive Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is nevertheless the character who captures us and carries us through his odyssey in pursuit of a niece taken by Comanches.  His towering obsession is rivaled by the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley, but he stands up to it with a compelling performance for a great director (John Ford again).  One of the iconic shots at the end of the movie shows Ethan Edwards silhouetted in a cabin doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand before he turns and walks back out into the sunlight.  And we’re not sure to what future.  (Wayne said the pose was an homage to his mentor Harry Carey, whose widow Olive and son Harry Jr. were part of the cast here.)
  • In his second western with director Howard Hawks, Wayne carries the story in Rio Bravo as Sheriff John T. Chance, under siege much of the movie.  He faces bad guys who have much greater numbers and resources, while he has only a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a gimpy jailor (cackling Walter Brennan) and a very young gunman (Ricky Nelson) to stand with him.  He even makes the May-December romance with a much younger Angie Dickinson seem reasonable.  Here, as in some other films, Wayne was more convincing with a rifle than with a pistol, especially as he got older.  And he was beginning to age when he made this movie.  Wayne played the same character in two more Hawks remakes, with progressively worse results each time.
  • His best acting was arguably in Red River and The Searchers, but he won his Best Actor Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  As an aging, one-eyed, drunken U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker, he leads a small party into the Indian Territory in search of a murderer and other miscreants.  One of the defining moments of his career in film takes place in a mountain meadow, where the indomitable Rooster Cogburn, facing off alone against four outlaws on horseback, shouts his challenge “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and charges, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.  Thrilling stuff.  Good writing and direction, too.  It’s interesting to compare Wayne’s version of the character with the Cogburn played 40 years later by another excellent actor, Jeff Bridges.

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Newman as Butch, and the real Butch Cassidy.

Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Always a superb actor, Newman brought an elusive quality to most of his performances and played all over the map as the roles required.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in one of the greatest he restored the almost-forgotten outlaw Butch Cassidy’s mythology as a likeable western Robin Hood.  Especially effective because of good directing, a legendarily great screenplay by William Goldman, excellent cinematography, a notable score and a balancing performance by Robert Redford, Newman’s Cassidy is nevertheless what moves the film, especially in the first half.  The chemistry between Newman and Redford is probably the most significant element in making the movie compelling.  For another really good performance in a western, see Newman in Hombre.

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Redford as Sundance, and the real Harry Longabaugh

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and Jeremiah Johnson in Jeremiah Johnson

Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, and his natural reticence plays well in westerns that are written with due regard for the taciturn nature of many real westerners.  A native westerner himself, Redford could play them well.  It would have been good to see him in more westerns, but after the early part of his career, such films were no longer in cinematic fashion.  He can be seen in westerns with a modern setting and a concern for social attitudes:  The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). And he directed and narrated a beautiful film about the 1920s modern west in A River Runs Through It (1992).

  • As the less talkative, better-shooting half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford’s Sundance is engraved on the memories of those who love westerns.  Two of the best Sundance moments of the movie:  The initial scene, shot in sepia tones, where Sundance is at a card table, accused of cheating.  The setup is brilliant at revealing elements of both Butch and Sundance’s characters and establishing Sundance’s reputation.  And in Bolivia as the pair is trying out for jobs as payroll guards, when Strother Martin as the “colorful” mine manager asks for a demonstration of shooting ability.  Inexplicably, Sundance misses badly.  He asks, “Can I move?”  “What do you mean, move?”  “I’m better when I move.”  And with that he draws, shoots and hits the target multiple times within what seems like a heartbeat.  He was born for the role.

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Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, and the real Liver-Eating Johnston.

  • Not as heralded these days but even more difficult was Redford’s performance as Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man extraordinaire.  There’s not a lot of dialogue, Redford is alone on the screen much of the time, and he has to carry the movie himself.  He does.  The silences seem part of the story, and he’s very effective in the action sequences, although he doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the historical Johnson.  He makes relationships seem convincing with few words, on those few occasions when he forms them.  There’s good directing at work here, but the film depends on Redford’s performance.

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Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies

Both of these roles now seem unimaginable in other hands.  Duvall is one of the pre-eminent actors of his time, and not as a conventional leading man.  He could be on this list for his performances as Boss Spearman in Open Range and Print Ritter in Broken Trail as well.

  • Gus McCrae is the more loquacious of the two ex-Texas rangers around whom the epic Lonesome Dove revolves, and he carries more than his share of the action.  He’s garrulous and compelling, and it’s especially his relationships (with Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston) that interest us.  He’s more engaged than Call with the black-hearted Indian outlaw Blue Duck, and he and Tommy Lee Jones (as Woodrow Call) balance each other nicely.  Lonesome Dove might have been made for television, but Duvall himself sees this as his defining performance.   For Duvall as similar characters leading trail drives, see the other two in what Duvall refers to as his western trail-boss trilogy, Open Range and Broken Trail.
  • As alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall won an Academy Award as Best Actor.  He’s convincing in a May-December relationship with Tess Harper, and he’s great at bringing us along as he sobers up and establishes a new family in which he’s only one of the wounded spirits.  It’s a terrific performance in a very good movie, not seen often enough.  For a comparable performance by another actor in a similar role, see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.  For another similarly great performance by Duvall, albeit in a non-western, see The Apostle.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove

Younger than Duvall, Jones nevertheless was persuasive as Woodrow Call, Gus McCrae’s long-time friend, co-Texas ranger and ranching partner.  A native Texan, Jones as Call embodied the taciturn, emotionally-repressed man of action.  It’s one of the high points in his career.  One stand-out moment:  As a mounted cavalryman in a Nebraska cow town starts to beat young cowhand Newt with a whip, Call spies the action from down the street.  Without a wasted motion, he bounds onto his horse (the Hell-Bitch), rides her full-tilt into the cavalryman and his mount and starts beating him bloody with a branding iron.  His explanation when finally pulled off by McCrae?  “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man.”  Grizzled and unhesitating, he’s a fit companion and complement to McCrae.  James Garner takes the role of an older Call in Streets of Laredo, and, although the material isn’t as strong as Lonesome Dove, he’s surprisingly good, too.  For other good Jones performances, see him as the long-lost half-Indian father in The Missing, as Hewey Calloway in The Good Old Boys (MfTV, 1995), and as the world-weary modern Texas sheriff in No Country for Old Men.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2013

This is the first of seven posts focusing on individual actors who gave excellent performances in westerns, regardless of whether the entire movie was excellent.  The list is quite selective; there are a lot of really good performances that don’t show up here.  It is intended to point to the very best, in no particular order.  The list is also open for additions, but you should wait until the completion of the series to make sure your suggestion isn’t already on the list.  Some (e.g., Lee Marvin, John Wayne) are on the list for multiple roles.

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Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in The Alamo

Especially for baby boomers, it’s hard to get past the coonskin-capped caricature of Tennessee’s David Crockett rooted in Fess Parker’s work for Disney in the 1950s.  Thornton does the best job on film in portraying a real Crockett—a frontier personality who seems like he could have been a successful politician, with both personal magnetism and some sensitivity.  One scene that lingers in the mind is Crockett at twilight, playing a fiddle on the walls of the Alamo as a Tennessee counterpoint to the Mexican deguello (the cut-throat bugle call), with death looming two or three hundred yards out.  Another is wordless, as he places cocked pistols in the hands of a Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) almost too weak to hold them, prostrate with typhoid.  Best of all, he doesn’t wear a coonskin cap.  With his Arkansas accent, Thornton would be a natural for westerns, if there were more being made.  He did show up effectively in a bit part in Tombstone, as a violent gambler backed down by Wyatt Earp.  This recounting of the Alamo story isn’t among the very greatest westerns, but it is the most accurate historically and it’s worth watching for Thornton’s performance.  

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Thomas Haden Church as Tom Harte in Broken Trail

Church uses his distinctive voice and a stony face marvelously in his role as Tom Harte, lifelong ne’er-do-well cowboy and nephew to Robert Duvall’s Print Ritter.  Initially Harte is seemingly motivated by resentment that his inheritance has gone to his mother’s brother, but he nevertheless develops as a stand-up guy whose flinty resolve is the bedrock quality that ultimately saves everybody.  He’s relied on at key points in the plot’s backbone story, and he comes through believably.  His initial judgment is schooled at times by Ritter, and he rises to that tutelage.  He’s helped by good production design that makes him look authentic.  Church is another actor who seems made for westerns but will never get the opportunity to make many.  In some ways here he’s reminiscent of Lee Marvin, although he successfully plays lighter roles elsewhere (see Sideways, for example) as well.  This made-for-television miniseries is highly re-watchable, with several excellent performances (Duvall, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper and others) in addition to Church’s.  He’s probably the most historically-accurate Billy Clanton on film in Tombstone.

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Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

Doc Holliday is the showiest role for an actor in the Wyatt Earp story, retold many times.  Earlier versions were played by the physically robust Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas, as well as by excellent character actor Jason Robards.  Kilmer probably does it better than anyone (with the possible exception of Dennis Quaid), being believably tubercular and hair-trigger dangerous, yet with an educated intelligence behind it all.  A lovely performance, one of the best in a western in recent memory.  His lines “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” have continuing resonance for their whimsical quality with an underlying edge and implicit threat.  But also look at his cameo as a not-terribly-effective cavalry captain in The Missing.  Kilmer is the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (here) and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, 2012).

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Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

A lesser actor would have been overshadowed by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in this version of the Earp story.  Russell was not only convincing in a role that can be quite dour (see Costner’s version, as well as Burt Lancaster’s and James Garner’s) because it deals with a relentless quest for vengeance, but he also seems more balanced.  And physically he bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the most famous photographs of Earp.  On top of that he’s a terrific actor, believable in action and motivation and in his relationship with Holliday.  We believe him when he’s restraining violence and when he isn’t.  He makes an excellent center for the most successful retelling of the Earp story since the 1940s.  For a late-career resurgence in westerns, see him in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight (both in late 2015).

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Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp

Quaid’s performance is often overlooked because of Kilmer’s dazzling performance in the same role a year earlier and because the Kasdan-Costner version of the story was kind of a cinematic clunker.  Quaid nevertheless is very convincing as the tubercular dentist and killer.  He lost so much weight for the role that it left new lines in his face, and Holliday’s innate meanness showed through in Quaid’s performance.  That’s unusual for an actor whose most bankable characteristic is his devil-may-care grin.  Although Holliday has been played by some superb actors, Quaid and Kilmer are the best in the role so far.

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Lee Marvin as Masters in Seven Men From Now, Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rico Fardan in The Professionals and dual roles (Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn) in Cat Ballou

Marvin and Richard Boone were probably the best villains in the history of westerns, and they were both very versatile actors.  Marvin had an implacable quality that served him well in various roles, especially in (but not limited to) the roles listed here:

  • The most effective of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns featured an ambiguous bad guy, one whose relationship with Scott’s character could possibly go in different directions.  That was true of the first such movie, Seven Men From Now.  Masters had once been put in jail by Scott’s Ben Stride and they are wary of each other, but Marvin’s capacity for menace increases as the movie goes along and provides for an excellent denouement.  In particular, look at the claustrophobic scene in the back of a wagon at night in the rain, when Masters starts a story that strips two of the other characters bare psychologically until Stride kicks him back out into rain.
  • Marvin’s menace is unmitigated in his role as the villain in the title in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The movie is full of remarkable performances (John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode), but Marvin’s palpable bad-guy-ness makes it all work.  He’s one of the easiest-to-hate villains ever in a western, with a psychotic edge to his performance here.  (For a variation on this role, see him in The Comancheros where, in a brief part, he seems considerably worse than the movie’s ostensible real bad guys.)
  • Marvin won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his dual role in Cat Ballou as drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and his noseless, black-clad assassin brother Tim Strawn.  There is a memorable photographic still from this performance of the inebriated Shelleen on his apparently drunk horse, both of them leaning against the side of a building, trying to stay upright.
  • Marvin could also do convincing good guys, as in his performance as Rico Fardan in The Professionals.  Here he principally projects control, hardness and competence (as he would later in The Dirty Dozen), with an overlay of elusive principle.  He’s the team leader, and although the movie’s an ensemble success, that’s in large part because Marvin is so believable as Fardan.  Marvin’s military background (he had been a Marine) shows through to advantage.  He could also be on this list for his performance in the title role in 1970’s Monte Walsh.

 BooneRioConchos As Lassiter in Rio Conchos.

Richard Boone as Frank Usher in The Tall T and as Major Jim Lassiter in Rio Conchos

Like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone is best remembered for the villains he played.  Like Marvin, Boone had a distinctive voice which he used to considerable advantage.  He could play silkier than Marvin and was very good at inhabiting the margins of villainy in different ways.

  • In Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, Boone as Frank Usher develops a strange relationship with Randolph Scott’s flinty Brennan.  He’s never anything other than bad, the mastermind of murders, kidnapping and robbery with two henchmen he thinks are below him.  But there’s a sense that he could have been something else, that he shares some dreams and aspirations with Brennan.  Some of that’s in the writing, which is quite spare.  But mostly it’s in Boone’s performance.  For a couple of other great Boone villains, see Hombre and Big Jake.  For earlier Boone bad guys in slighter movies, see Ten Wanted Men, Man Without a Star and Robbers’ Roost.
  • Major Jim Lassiter is an embittered, alcoholic Confederate veteran who hunts Apaches in revenge for their killing of his wife and son.  He is by far the most interesting character in the expeditionary ensemble in Rio Conchos.  It’s one of his rare opportunities to play an ambiguous character on the right side, and he carries the movie.  For work with some similarities (i.e., Boone playing parts other than overtly bad guys), see A Thunder of Drums and his work as the enigmatic Paladin in television’s Have Gun Will Travel.

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