cathyr19355: Stock photo of myself (Martial)
posted by [personal profile] cathyr19355 at 09:44pm on 23/01/2011 under ,
As is clear from his review of the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit," [livejournal.com profile] esrblog believes that Hailee Steinfeld's performance as Mattie Ross was inferior to Kim Darby's performance in the 1969 John Wayne version. In order to be able to continue the debate meaningfully with him, I watched the 1969 version.

Watching both movies within a short time-span is an interesting exercise in discerning how small changes between different adaptations of the same book can produce strikingly different experiences for the viewer. The most basic difference between the two is the visuals. The 1969 movie blazes with sunlight and natural color, despite the grim nature of Mattie Ross's assigned task. It appears to be set in summer, or at least at a time of year not cursed with foul weather. The 2010 movie, in contrast, is dimmer and darker. It is set late in the year; the trees are mostly bare, and several scenes show snow flying, even if there is little or no snow on the ground.

The cultural setting of the two movies differs as well. The 1969 movie is set in a Hollywoodized West; there is no shortage of solid, permanent looking buildings in Fort Smith. The town folk are colorfully dressed, and seem prosperous. The Coen Brothers' Fort Smith, in contrast, is clearly a frontier town. Though the basics of commerce, justice and trade are present, they are housed in rough-looking wooden buildings, while the inhabitants wear darker, more practical-seeming clothes.

There are other small changes that contribute to the difference in tone between the two movies. For example, in the 1969 movie the woman who runs the boarding house in Fort Smith where Mattie stays appears younger and better-looking than the same character in the 2010 movie, so it's plausible when LeBoeuf flirts with her. On the other hand, there's no flirting, nor any plausible reason for flirting, in the 2010 movie--it's too serious for that. Similarly, we don't get to see more than a glimpse of the proprietor of the Chinese grocery where Cogburn lives in the 2010 movie, but in the original the old Chinese man is a character (if a minor one), as is the ginger cat that lives there with them.

Finally, styles in cinematography have changed. As [livejournal.com profile] esrblog reminded me, modern movies have been heavily influenced by television, with its reliance on tight close-ups and more intimate scenes than were previously popular on the silver screen. The 1969 film was shot when the broad panoramas of early movie Westerns were still a dominant influence.

None of this is surprising. The Coens sought to give us a highly realistic "True Grit" in a West where poverty and crime were desperately real, while the 1969 film tries to emphasize the energy and courage of the West and the folks who carried their brand of civilization out to the frontier.

On the other hand, having just finished reading Portis's original novel this afternoon, I can't really say that either film is particularly "truer" to the novel. Each of the movies has scenes, dialogue, and plot elements from the book that were changed in, or do not even appear, in the other. Some examples may be in order. To avoid spoiling any reader's experience of either movie, I'll put these under a cut.

Read more... )

But this exercise in comparison doesn't really help answer the question, "which version is better?" I can and have easily concluded that I like the Coen brothers' version much better--I like the greater feel of authenticity, of almost historic drama, that their movie has, and that in my opinion the 1969 picture, steeped in Hollywood Western idiom, lacks. On the other hand, the Coens' pursuit of authenticity has led them, in some cases, to choose to make the story darker and more disturbing than the novel originally warranted. Just because I liked the greater historicity of the Coens' effort better doesn't automatically mean it's a "better" movie. Making a judgment on that basis is an unfair comparison between apples and oranges.

I think that to make the ultimate judgment between the 1969 and 2010 films requires us to focus on the acting, and indeed it's the acting that has led me to write this essay. [livejournal.com profile] esrblog blogged about how he thought the performance of Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie in the 2010 version, was inferior to the performance of Kim Darby, who played the role in the 1969 movie. If IMDB is to be believed, John Wayne thought Darby's performance was dreadful and was upset about having to act with her.

But I think both of them are wrong. Darby's performance is, in some ways, a lot *like* Steinfeld's and a bit more realistic than you'd expect given the rest of the movie. Darby is more convincing in her role in some ways, particularly in that she's a much better horsewoman than Steinfeld. However, Steinfeld *is* actually 14 (Darby, young-looking though she is, was 21 when she made the 1969 movie) and does a better job, I think, in coming across as a precocious, priggish child--which is what Mattie was.

Overall, I think the 2010 movie is better. Not because it's more "realistic", in some sense, but because the three leads, Bridges, Steinfeld, and Matt Damon, do a better job of ensemble acting, particularly in the scenes on the trail. In the story of "True Grit" the roles of Cogburn, Mattie Ross and LeBoeuf are central, and the three actors portraying them need to be capable both of being convincing alone and in interacting with each other.

Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld did this very well, and "sold" the story in the 2010 movie despite occasional jarring elements. In the 1969 movie, both Wayne and Darby were up to this challenge, but Glen Campbell (yes, the singer Glen Campbell, nearly forgotten now thank God), who played LeBoeuf, definitely was not. ([livejournal.com profile] esrblog and I are in agreement on this point.) For some reason, Campbell spoke most of his lines with a smirky grin on his face--even if he was supposed to be angry, or concerned. (I was surprised that he managed to keep a grin off his face after he was shot in the climactic scene.) In my opinion, having to act together with Campbell degraded both Wayne's performance and Darby's --though Wayne still received an Oscar for his work, in the end. I'd say Wayne earned it.

Of course, everyone's mileage will vary about which movie they prefer. I say, see them both, and read the book, before you decide one movie or the other is best.
Mood:: 'intrigued' intrigued

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