Movie Review: John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges
by Owen Gleiberman / Entertainment Weekly / December 27, 2010
It doesn’t take rocket science to see why True Grit enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of any Coen brothers movie to date. The film may not have won the Coens their most rapturous reviews (though the critics were largely enthusiastic), and it’s hardly their best or most defining work. Yet it’s a remake of a famous and, indeed, iconic Hollywood movie — one that, while not quite a “classic,” remains a robust and beloved end-of-the-studio-system-era Western.
OMG, I used the R-word! — I called True Grit a “remake.” The vulgarity, the lowbrow cluelessness on my part! From the outset, you see, the directorial and studio spin on this movie has been to insist that it’s a completely different animal from the deeply sentimental 1969 when-fresh-faced-teenybopper-met-grizzled-old-marshal fable of popular vengeance. The Coens, making their publicity rounds, have talked and talked about how they went back to Charles Portis’ original novel, which was published in 1968. But if, like me, you’ve never read the novel (and I would guesstimate that 97 percent of the people who saw True Grit over the weekend have not), then after all the remake? what remake?! spin, you might be startled to see how close the movie really does come to the 1969 version. At times, it borders on being a scene-for-scene, line-for-line gloss on it.
There are differences, of course. The Coen brothers’ version is more tasteful and intimate and art-directed, a kind of color-coordinated curio. Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is notably younger than Kim Darby’s (which, at times, makes the new Mattie seem even more of an old movie concoction), and major sections of the picture are set at night (a technique that worked a lot better in No Country for Old Men). That said, the essential hook of the new True Grit is, and always was, the sheer curiosity factor of wanting to see Jeff Bridges, in his born-again middle-aged movie-star prime, take on the role of Rooster Cogburn, the part that won John Wayne his only Academy Award.
There’s a reason that a great many people still don’t hold Wayne’s cornball-crusty performance in very high esteem. By the late ’60s, movies were in the middle of a revolution, and they had a new audience, known (it now sounds so quaint) as the Film Generation. At the time, a lot of folks under a certain age felt that it was almost their duty to hate John Wayne. He’d become the living embodiment of the Old Values. He was a saber-rattling conservative who, only the year before, in 1968, had pushed his pro-Vietnam hawkishness to the nth degree in the jarringly jingoistic The Green Berets. He had every right to, of course. But what made The Green Berets, as a corrective to Hollywood liberalism, so infamous and despised is that it was such a didactically wooden combat movie. All that came through, really, was the propaganda. And this reinforced the notion that Wayne, though he remained the most larger-than-life of all Hollywood movie stars, was never, in the fullest sense, an actor. He had come to be seen as the macho cartoon version of himself: the arms-out swagger, the slow-motion molasses drawl, the toughness that never wavered.
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