Monday, January 10, 2011

A Tale Of Two Roosters With True Grit

Jeff BridgesIn comparing the 1969 film True Grit with John Wayne and the 2010 True Grit with Jeff Bridges, there is only one clear winner. His name is Charles Portis, who originally wrote the novel in 1968. It also appeared as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post that same year.

Portis is the winner in that adaptations of his story managed to resonate with film goers a generation apart, with the exception that Mattie Ross plays very differently today. In the 1969 adaptation, Ross (Kim Darby) comes across as naive but uncharacteristically independent for the time. In the 2010 adaptation, Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes across steely and straightforward with no explanation.

The Portis story behind the film adaptations.

The story is the tale of a 14-year-old girl who hires a fearless, one-eyed and often drunk U.S. marshal known as "Rooster" Cogburn to help her bring her father's murderer, Tom Chaney, to justice. The unlikely pair are joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf, who has been tracking Chaney for killing a senator and his dog.

In the story, the characters develop an appreciation for each other and their apparent differences, with Cogburn and LaBoeuf providing a contrast of two very different kinds of lawmen. Their differences are punctuated by how Mattie Ross interacts with them, which solidifies her bond with Cogburn even if LaBoeuf would seem the more likely confidant.

The differences are distinguishable but not better or worse.

Critics have been uncharacteristically kind to the Joel and Ethan Coen version, which earned ample praise simply for not coming across like a Coen film. The adaptation may be truer version being shot in settings like the novel describes and telling the story from the girl's point of view, but less so in what it omits. Certainly, the bleakness is more characteristic of the book as is the starker conclusion, sadly empty but authentically so.

At the same time, the script written by Coens is shorter on detail and character depth as compared to the one written in 1969 by Marguerite Roberts. With a different cast, it may not have compared to the original with exception to the film work.

Both are a bit slow to the draw at the start, with the new narrative weaker than the original scene that reveals why Chaney kills Mattie's father. As for the rest, the newer and thinner script yields a thinner sort of adventurous trio.

The new script changes the character chemistry.

John WayneGlen Campbell played LaBoeuf as rash but affable. Matt Damon plays him as convicted. Barry Pepper plays 'Lucky' Ned Pepper as a dirty scoundrel. Robert Duvall played him as a mastermind, who just wanted to be left alone. John Wayne played Rooster as smart and steadfast, despite his love of whiskey. Jeff Bridges plays him starkly, a grit of a different kind, like a flickering lamp running low on oil.

The performances in the latter may be stronger overall and the film tighter without the sometimes campy flair that creeps into the 1969 version, but the contrast of the characters is diminished to a matter of convictions as opposed to personality and life experience. So, for everything gained in the new film, it sacrifices charm, making the Coen Rooster the curmudgeon we love to watch and the Roberts Rooster the one we loved.

Collectively, watching the films within close proximity yields a unique experience. Both make each other greater than either can be on their own. It is the composite memory of the two films that pay tribute to Portis' distinguished anti-hero and proves Cogburn is cool in any era.

True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010) Share A 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Some people have taken to saying nostalgia is the only appeal of the 1969 version. However, the details may hint that it is how one defines true grit that will produce a rough firmness of character or an abrasive personality that entertains more than it endures. That is not to say one is better than the other. Just different.

True Grit (1969) is available on iTunes. There is a True Grit (Special Collector's Edition) on Amazon, which also carries the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn. The 2010 version is now available on iTunes.
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