Tag Archives: Jeff Bridges

Wild Bill (1995)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2014

Wild Bill—Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar, Steve Reevis (1995; Dir: Walter Hill)

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This film sports an excellent cast with Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, and, best of all, one of the greatest living masters of the western movie, Walter Hill directing.  Should be great, right?  It doesn’t seem to be, though.

Jeff Bridges does look terrific as Wild Bill; there is very good production design on this film.  At the start of the movie, there are brief vignettes from his career as a lawman:  battling cavalrymen from the Seventh Cavalry in a bar in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays City, Kansas, killing several of them; killing Phil Coe and, accidentally, his own deputy Mike Williams, in Abilene; and jousting with and killing Sioux chief Whistler (Blackfoot actor Steve Reevis) on the plains, at Whistler’s insistence.  All those incidents get him to the rough mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876.  He hasn’t been a lawman for five years, and he’s 39 years old.  He makes his living as a gambler (badly, apparently).  His eyesight is going, thanks to glaucoma.  He may be suffering from a venereal disease.  And he drinks a lot and takes refuge in smoking opium.

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Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok; Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane.  One looks pretty authentic, and one less so.

As soon as he gets to Deadwood, he encounters old friend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), who makes it plain she’d like to renew an old relationship and even take it farther.  He doesn’t reciprocate, although he still values the friendship.  Jack McCall (David Arquette) is the none-too-smart son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), whom Hickok had once promised to marry.  Instead, he went off to scout for the army and, when he came back six months later, she had a relationship going with Dave Tutt.  Hickok killed Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, and Susannah died in an asylum.  McCall announces he intends to kill Hickok, but Hickok, who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t have much fear when it comes to guns, doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

Bill hits the opium den, and smoking the stuff takes him back to other events in his life.  Sometimes those are in color, as with his gunfight in Cheyenne with a crippled Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), with Bill tied to a chair.  Usually, the flashbacks are in black and white, often with a skewed angle, as when Bill encounters a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers.  He remembers the McCandles fight that made his reputation as a gunfighter and almost killed him.  He remembers his brief and unsuccessful theatrical career with Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine in a cameo).  He remembers Susannah Moore and Dave Tutt, as well.  McCall finds him in the opium den relatively helpless under the effects of the narcotic, but he’s not as helpless as he seems.

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Cheyenne dog soldiers in an opium dream.

Finally McCall and several desperadoes, including Donnie Lonnigan (James Remar) and Jubal Pickett (Stoney Jackson), get the drop on Hickok as he and Calamity Jane are dallying in No. 10 saloon.  Hickok friends Charley Prince (John Hurt, apparently an English version of actual Hickok friend Charley Utter) and California Joe (James Gammon) join them, as well as a prostitute on whom McCall has a fixation (Christina Applegate).  We know how this is going to end, and it takes a while getting there with all these extraneous characters.  Finally, Bill gets some of the desperadoes and chases off the rest.  But he’s holding black aces and eights, and the weaselly McCall shoots him in the back of the head with a derringer, to be hung himself later.  Nowhere does Bill’s recent wife, Agnes Lake, show up, nor is she referred to.

Jeff Bridges is an excellent actor, and he looks good in the part.  He communicates Hickok’s fearlessness and a powerful personality.  But it’s not an attractive period in Hickok’s life, and the performance seems a bit over the top.  The Hickok gunfight scenes are very effective and believable.  Ellen Barkin is much more attractive than the real Calamity Jane, as is usual in a movie about Hickok.  Although there are a number of good character actors (Bruce Dern, John Hurt, James Gammon, Diane Lane), many of them seem extraneous to what’s going on, especially during that overly-extended final sequence in the bar.  Hurt’s character talks too much, meaning the writing isn’t as good as it could be.  Arquette’s McCall is probably intended to be as weaselly as he is here, but he’s on screen too much.

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The real James Butler Hickok and his murderer, Jack McCall, the first person executed by federal authorities in Dakota Territory.

Director Walter Hill has made what may be the best movie to date about Jesse James (The Long Riders), as well as an underrated film about Geronimo (Geronimo: An American Legend) and the really excellent made-for-television Broken Trail.  He has a genuine feel for westerns, but this is probably his weakest.  The movie claims to be based on a good novel by Pete Dexter, Deadwood, and the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe, but it certainly doesn’t keep very closely to the novel.  Hill himself wrote the screenplay, so he has no one else to blame for that.  It was not a success at the box office, costing more than $30,000,000 and making back only $2,168,000 domestically.

Cinematography, mostly in color but also occasionally in sepia tones and black and white, is by Lloyd Ahern (Broken Trail).  Music is by Van Dyke Parks, who also did the music for the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).  Perhaps that’s why the song over the opening and closing credits is the same as that used as the theme music for True Grit:  the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Jeff Bridges starred in that one, too, as Rooster Cogburn.  Wild Bill is only 98 minutes, but it feels longer, which is not a good sign.  However, if you’re particularly interested in cinematic versions of Wild Bill Hickok, Jeff Bridges’ work in westerns or the career of Walter Hill, you’ll want to watch this, too, if only for the sake of completeness.  This doesn’t keep particularly close to the facts of Bill’s life, but neither do most movies featuring Wild Bill Hickok.  In particular, McCall had no relationship with Hickok.  He was just someone who had lost money to Hickok the night before and killed him opportunistically by shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 (acting alone).  The movie is rated R for violence and seaminess in language and sexual matters.

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Walter Hill directing Jeff Bridges.

Hill was also involved in the making of the cable television series Deadwood, which had some of the same gritty feel, directing the first episode (2004).  That one featured Keith Carradine as a world-weary Wild Bill for several episodes.  For an earlier and more adulatory version of Wild Bill’s myth, see Gary Cooper as Bill in The Plainsman (1936).  The definitive Wild Bill movie probably has yet to be made.

If you want the real historical background on James Butler Hickok, look for the biography by Joseph Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1974).

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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True Grit (the Remake)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 23, 2013

True Grit—Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Mathews (2010; Dir:  Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

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“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him.  He thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”  This line of Rooster Cogburn philosophy wasn’t explicit in the original 1969 True Grit.  Many wondered if a remake was necessary, especially with westerns being so out-of-cinematic-fashion and all.  But the result has been the Coen brothers’ most profitable movie to date, even taking into account their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.  The Coens’ attempt to return more closely to the original Charles Portis novel is successful on its own terms, even though much of the dialogue sounds familiar.

The outlines of the story are very familiar by now:  14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) from near Dardanelles in Yell County, Arkansas, sets out for Fort Smith in search of her father’s killer, only to find he has headed off into the wild and lawless Indian Territory to the west.  She hires one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), said to be the most ruthless of Judge Parker’s federal marshals, to pursue the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).   They are joined by a dandified Texas ranger, La Boeuf (pronounced “La Beef” and played by Matt Damon), who wants Chaney for a Texas murder.  In the end, all three pursuers have demonstrated their own versions of True Grit in battling outlaws, snakes and the elements in their pursuit of Chaney and his new associates.

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There are various elements that are unchanged from Henry Hathaway’s original film version of the story.  If anything, the remake keeps even closer to Portis’ period language and does so quite successfully.  The interplay between the three protagonists will seem familiar, if more balanced with a better actor in the La Boeuf role.  The high point of the movie’s action, Cogburn’s one-on-four joust with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang in a high mountain meadow, remains one of the most compelling sequences in any western. 

But there are other elements that are even more rewarding in the Coen brothers’ version than they were in the Hathaway movie.  The conscientious use of period details and a somber palette of colors in the production design are very thorough and work well with the dialogue.  There are upgrades in several of the roles:  Hailee Steinfeld in her first film role is magnificent as young Mattie Ross, in a role that could easily just be strident and irritating in the wrong hands, and Matt Damon’s performance as La Boeuf is a marked improvement on non-actor Glenn Campbell’s version of the role.  Rather than being a John Wayne vehicle (the original won Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar), this version is much more an ensemble effort.  The ending is truer to Portis’ novel.  The music by Carter Burwell, with its theme based on a 19th-century hymn tune (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” recognizable from 1955’s Night of the Hunter), feels not only authentic but haunting, and lends an elegiac tone to the entire film.  The cinematography often makes use of sepia tones to suggest old photographs and natural 19th-century lighting in the wintry setting.

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Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) confer on the trail.

If anything, making this movie might be harder now than it was in 1969.  The Coen brothers suggest that one reason is that rules for filmmaking with horses have become much more stringent in the intervening 40 years.  The Coens could throw their 14-year-old lead actress into a freezing river with impunity, but the water had to be at least a certain minimum temperature to do the same with a horse.  Among the less persuasive sequences are Rooster and Mattie’s desperate ride for medical help on the floundering Little Blackie.  One reason it’s less effective might be the inability to actually put such stress on an animal, and relying more on sound effects (such as the heavy equine breathing) and editing.  The rhythms of the motions of the two riders on the horse don’t seem right in the closeups, and that may be because they weren’t actually on a horse for those shots.

Nevertheless, the Old Testament flavor, from the initial scriptural “The wicked flee when no man pursueth…” (Proverbs 28:1), to the narrating Mattie Ross’s comment that a price must be paid for everything in this world save the grace of God, to the older Mattie’s thoughts on Rooster’s final resting place works very well.  It gives both the younger and older Mattie a hard and unforgiving edge (not in precisely the same way), which serves her and Rooster well in the hard and unforgiving territory where they must navigate and with the hard and unforgiving men with whom they must deal.  In the end we see not only True Grit on display with the three principals, but the honest affection and regard in which they come to hold each other and the way they have re-shaped the course of each other’s lives, especially young Mattie’s.  And there is a slight sadness for the ways in which the course of one’s life turns out to be other than one might have wished.

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Rooster Cogburn as played by the excellent Jeff Bridges (with the eye patch on the opposite eye from John Wayne) is more enigmatic, just as coarse, harder and, when the chips are down, just as capable and decisive as the earlier Cogburn.  Although Bridges didn’t win an Oscar for this role, he was nominated.  The supporting roles are well-played, especially Dakin Mathews as the horse trader Col. Stonehill in Fort Smith and Barry Pepper (scarcely recognizable in his woolly chaps, stringy hair and dental prosthetics) as Lucky Ned Pepper, head of the gang with which Chaney falls in.  They play roles that were superbly played in the original by Strother Martin and Robert Duvall, and they hold their own.  Josh Brolin has little screen time as Tom Chaney and he seems a bit overly charismatic for someone who is after all just a stupid killer; but he is otherwise excellent in the role.

This version of True Grit was a surprise success at the box office. The first $100 million western since the 1990s; it eventually passed Dances With Wolves to become the highest-grossing western ever made.  It received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (although the field for that award had been doubled to ten films beginning the previous year), Best Director for the Coen brothers, Best Actor for Jeff Bridges (even though he’d won for Crazy Heart the previous year and John Wayne had won for the same role 40 years earlier, so chances of Bridges actually winning were minimal), and Best Supporting Actress for Hailee Steinfeld.  It was also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Roger Deakins’ Cinematography.  It didn’t win any of them, defeated mostly by The King’s Speech.

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