Many critics and film fans have suggested that John Wayne won his sole Academy Award as a result of a sentimental nod to his career, rather than for the actual performance in the original True Grit. There is nothing wrong with that if it is true, it often happens that the Academy seems to do make goods when they have failed to deliver in the past. I think however that the people who truly believe this about the 1969 Wayne performance must be blind. John Wayne does a comedic turn as a cowboy, much more effectively than Lee Marvin four years earlier, and he is bad-ass John Wayne to boot. Wayne did many westerns with strong comedy themes, although he was not usually the clown, someone else in the picture was. Here he was front and center as a near tragic washout, with a drinking problem and a pig headed attitude. You could laugh at what he said, what he did, and what he was. The tone was sentimental and the movie played for pure entertainment purposes. I saw this movie in theaters when I was a kid, I must have been just eleven, but I knew I was watching something special because I enjoyed it so much.
The Coen Brother’s version of True Grit is just as special, but with a completely different tone. When the shot for shot remake of Psycho came out several years ago, everyone wondered why do it? The answer is is this movie, to see how tone and performance can alter the way we see the story. True Grit is not a shot for shot remake, in fact the Coen Brothers claim it is not a remake at all. The word “re-imagining” has been invented by film-makers to justify taking old movies and doing them again, without sounding like you are simply trying to cash in on the same story twice. I first remember hearing the phrase used to describe Tim Burton’s version of Planet of the Apes. True Grit is the first time I have heard the phrase used where it is clear that there was a re-imagining of the story. Unlike the other remakes that tinker with the story and try to put a twist on it to make something new, this version of True Grit tells the exact same story, with much of the dialog exactly the same as the original, but it changes the tone of the story in subtle yet dramatic ways.
The music in the film is elegiac, at the start of the film it is mournful for the father that has been lost. At the end of the movie it is a tribute to heroes that have passed. Most of the film highlights traditions, ways of speaking and mores that are also dead and gone. In the original Wayne version of the film the cinematography was crisp and beautiful to look at but it did not call attention to time or place, it was simply workmanlike to move us through the story. In the current version, the cinematography tells a story also, about the harshness of the life in those days, the isolation and loneliness that a body would feel in a place that was not unknown, but was less than well traveled. The images, lighting and color palate suggest a way of life that is long gone. The dialog in the film highlights this tone even more. While many of the same lines were used in the original, there are more examples of the archaic speech patterns in this version. They turn the English language into a foreign sounding flow of syntax and adjectives. This is another reminder of how the world has changed.
Since the performances are the substance of the original’s strength, it is essential to compare the work done in these roles. Jeff Bridges’ take on Rooster Cogburn is substantially different than John Waynes. Wayne was likable, even when he said or did things that as an audience we might not approve of. There was never any doubt that he was a Hero, even if it was a tattered one. Bridges on the other hand is likable sometimes and despicable other times. We can believe that he has abandoned the chase and is leaving Mattie on her own. His intolerance of others is not just comedic contentiousness, but plain disdain for the opinion of others. He also sounds like someone who is drunk most of the time, phlegm in his voice and marbles in his mouth. His take may be the more accurate view of a lawman in the times, but it is not as iconic. It may suffer a bit in the Awards season because it is so similar to the role he played last year in Crazy Heart that he may not get credit for the hard work it takes to play this kind of a drunk. His character in last years film is much close to the John Wayne performance than the same character he is playing.
Matt Damon is a tool, but he is also a good actor and a bright guy. He has it all over Glen Campbell as an actor so it is really not much of a comparison. Glen Campbell was a singer/guitarist who was making his big screen debut, and as far as I can tell his only theatrical acting feature. Damon is an actor/writer with awards and dozens of feature film roles to his credit. The resolution of his character’s storyline is a little incomplete, but much more satisfying in the new version than in the 1969 version. Both times, the role was set up for comedic purposes, and both times it works as a way of injecting some sly humor into the story and providing a solution to a story element.
The character of Mattie Ross is pivotal to the new version of the story, in the long run the issue of “True Grit” is that she is the one that has it all along. Kim Darby was an actress that I don’t think anybody ever cared much for. She was well cast in some things but not especially versatile and her looks were a bit bland. I thought she was believable as a fourteen year old when I first saw this movie, when I see it now she seems a little old. Hailee Steinfeld is fourteen and plays older because the times seem to demand that sort of maturity in those situations. Darby’s take on the character seems petulant and obstinate while this new young actress comes across as steely and resolute. She is in nearly every scene in the film and stands up well next to professionals like Bridges and Damon.
Josh Brolin is third billed in the new version but his part is relatively small. He is perfectly cast as the prairie scum that kills Mattie’s father and sets the story in motion. There is humor in his role but the menace is much more in evidence than in the part as played by Jeff Corey in the Wayne version. Both takes on the character show us a low life who brings misery into the lives of those he has contact with, but the part adds just enough more in the new tale that we understand it a little better. Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper in the new film, he has the unfortunate task of filling in for one of the great actors of the 2oth century, Robert Duvall. Both times the role is written for a fairly generic bad guy. Duvall added some charisma to Ned Pepper, and you can tell he was a leader, even if it was of horrible human beings. Barry Pepper works because he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. He uses the same manner of speech as the other main characters and delivers it with gusto. His retort to Rooster that his threat is “Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man” is acceptable but lacks the sense of superiority that Duvall used when he delivered it.
There are a dozen character parts in the original that were fleshed out more than in the new version. The members of the Ned Pepper gang get very little focus in the 2010 film, and the scene in the cabin while maybe more jarring, is limited by the absence of Dennis Hopper as Moon. Of course the background character I payed most attention to was Col. Stonehill the horse trader. The comedic interaction between he and Mattie is a chess game that everyone can watch and enjoy. This years version was fine, the actor Dakin Matthews has an expressive face and gets most of the laughs with his eyes, but frankly he is simply outclassed here. Strother Martin appeared in all three of the great westerns from 1969, True Grit, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In each of those pictures he is hysterical, but the utter frustration, flummoxing, and final surrender he does in the original True Grit cannot be matched. His voice is so appropriate, and well developed, that all that arcane dialog sounds like it was written specifically with him in mind.
Either version of True Grit is something that is worth your time. If you are one of those people that worship at the feet of the Coens, you will not be disappointed, and if you think John Wayne is definitive, you are right, but that doesn’t make the new version any less valid. The new version is darker in tone and strains to be saying something that may not need to be said. It is also funny, dramatic and filled with lines that are simply fun to listen to good actors saying.