Friday, April 29, 2011

Two Movies and a Book

Jules Older on True Grit in his occasional e-mail newsletter

Royal weddings aside, everybody’s talkin’ bout a pair of films: True Grit the Elder and True Grit the Usurper. Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout which one’s better.

Here's how the argument goes: The original’s clearly better; it starred The Duke in his only Academy Award-winning performance. Nah, the remake’s better — Duke-schmook, you can't beat the Coen brothers.

I've recently watched both, and I yam happy to provide you with what I know you've been seeking: the definitive answer. Which is…

There's no contest — True Grit II is the winner. The first did have John Wayne, and he turned in a fine performance. But Jeff Bridges is no slouch, either. Though I'd give him the nod, let’s call that part a tie.

But while the first movie starred Wayne, the second doesn’t star Bridges. The real star is a 13-year-old phenom named Hailee Steinfeld. She acts circles around the original’s Kim Darby, who, though no slouch herself, looked and sounded like who she was — a 20-year-old acting the part of a young teen.

As you'd expect from the Coens and a movie called True Grit, in their film, everybody looks like they haven't washed for a week, or in the case of Bridges, for 16 weeks. In the original, even if they'd been riding the dusty trail and sleeping rough, every actor’s hair was squeaky clean. Every male actor was freshly shaved. Even that drunken roughneck Rooster Cogburn appeared to have just stepped out of a Rodeo Drive spa.

What's more, the first Grit’s director, Henry Hathaway, shot for the scenery. Every outdoor image was framed or backdropped by a glorious mountain range or clear-flowing river or fertile valley — the score could have been God Bless America. (Actually, the score was soaring strings, the auditory equivalent of those scenic backdrops.) It was shot like a western musical, more Oklahoma! than Arkansas. By contrast, the Coens focus tight on Rooster, on Mattie, on the villains they're chasing. Given the story, that’s a much better choice.

So. The winner and champeen is True Grit 2010. I adored it. Liked the 1969 version — adored the remake.

But not quite as much as I adored the book they're both based on.
True Grit by Charles Portis came out in 1968. In the midst of a summer-long trip to Japan and jonesing for something American, I picked it up in a Tokyo bookstore. Fell in love with it that night. Re-read it last month and felt the love anew.

True Grit, the book, is an American classic, right up there with Tom Sawyer and Grapes of Wrath. It’s recently been re-issued in paperback by The Overlook Press. I so highly recommend it to you.

Will you love it, too? If you love the lede graf, the answer is yes.
Here's how Portis opens:
Pople do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

— jules

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