Somewhere around the time between the first True Grit in 1969 and McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971, westerns, along with the rest of Hollywood genres and cliches, started getting re-invented as darker, grittier, and supposedly more realistic. Around the same time John Wayne was trying to re-establish the myth of a noble war in The Green Berets, the youth of America was soundly rejecting the notion there was any real purpose for being atwar in Vietnam, and all the other rosy myths starting collapsing along with it.
John Wayne, after a vast career playing the iconic, stalwart cowboy John Wayne was squarely ridiculed by the youth of America for trying to stir up patriotism for a futile effort to put America’s stamp on the outcome of Vietnam’s internal struggle. But the very next year, in a possibly symbolic rebuke to that rejection, the aging voters at the Academy Awards gave Wayne the Oscar for best actor in True Grit. Of course, everyone acknowledged that he got the award more for being John Wayne than for his usual stiff, awkward acting, but the role was anything but a stretch: He played a drunk, crabby old bastard who’d sooner shoot you than spend any time trying to reason with you. So perhaps the award really was for the 40-plus previous years of nobly holding his temperament.
I don’t question the Coen brothers choice for wanting to re-make True Grit. I love westerns and I never mind seeing them reinvented. My favorite HBO series Deadwood pretty much fed every previous TV series western to Wu’s hogs as dead cadavers. But anytime you re-make something, you invite a scorecard comparison. So here’s mine:
Jeff Bridges vs. John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn
I have to give this one to John Wayne. By the time he played the role, Wayne WAS a mean-spirited crabby old bastard. And no matter how much Jeff Bridges tries to approximate one with his grime and girth and generally sour disposition, well, somehow the Dude still abides. And I just don’t buy it. There’s still a gentleness about him no grit or eye patch can mask.
Hailee Steinfeld vs. Kim Darby as Mattie Ross
The 14 year-old girl narrator and center of the story is a marvelous invention of novelist Charles Portis to re-examine a great western adventure from a different perspective. And to have all the usual suspects from a western react to her unexpected willpower is an ongoing treat. Steinfeld does a praiseworthy job reciting the long, stoic dialogue from the book without flinching, but Kim Darby is just more … unexpected. There’s just not much little girlish about Steinfeld which, I suppose, is the point after she’s had her father gunned down. But shouldn’t we see the 14 year-old girl peek out once and a while to really contrast with the harsh setting and characters of the western environment she has pursued to enact her revenge? The irony is that Steinfeld really is 14 and Darby was about 21 when she played the role. What does that say about how fast kids grow up today? I used to joke that a nine year-old anywhere else was a 30 year-old in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a joke. Just ask Roman Polanski. This one goes to Kim Darby for being the real 14 year-old.
Matt Damon vs. Glen Campbell as LaBoef
Hands down this one goes to Matt Damon. Glen Campbell holds his own as a decent enough actor playing the self-important Texas Ranger, but come on, his part was immaculate. And, of course I’m talking about the one in his hair helmet. And 40 years later it’s still hard to get the high-pitched clarion call of his TV series intro, “Hey everybody, I’m Glen Campbell” out of my head. Kudos to him for introducing us to the Smothers Brothers and Steve Martin, though. Matt Damon plays the role with just the right panache of preening narcissism you would expect from … Texas.
Sets, production values, and costumes go to the new True Grit. Everything was just a bit too bright in the original, which is always a good reason for revisionist westerns. It probably has a lot to do with technical specifications or lighting necessary for the film stock back then (I’m ignorant in such matters). But a dim set is, unfortunately, a more believable set in these non-electric instances.
Scenery goes to the original. Come on, it was so purty. I get that the harsh realm of the environment was the point of the Coen brothers take on Mattie’s adventure. But gosh, dangit, it’s the big beautiful West. I want to see purple mountains majesty and all that good stuff.
Side characters go to the original. Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper. Strother Martin as the horse trader. Jeff Corey as Chaney (so much more like a perverted older uncle than Josh Brolin in his scenes with Mattie). No contests.
Again, I gotta go with John Wayne hooting and hollering and jumping his fat rumpus over the fence on his horse. It’s such an iconic image that old Hollywood must have just lapped it up thinking, “Yup, we still got it.” Contrast that with the somber cemetery scene of the new version with Mattie minus her arm (from the infected snake bite) grimly pondering all the dead, including Cogburn and LaBoef. Sure, it’s closer to the novel, but for misery sakes, at some point you gotta lighten up and realize it’s just a movie. Did I watch Rooster Cogburn for nearly three hours (in the original) just so there could be no fond goodbye between him and Mattie and he’s just out of the picture and worm food by the end? That’s a lousy return on my investment. You just spent three hours making me grow fond of the crabby old bastard. And, watching it again the other night, I did. Great roles deserve a final bow. The original had one; the new one doesn’t. Except for the one-armed (instead of one-eyed) Mattie, who’s now … the crabby old bastard.
Okay, I get it. Nice touch. But I still prefer the original.
— A. Wayne Carter