Posted by Moira Finnie on December 2, 2009
A holiday movie, like the raised expectations of the festive season, can be burdened with some pretty extravagant hopes. Like the day itself, we always seem to hope for a cinematic experience that might transcend the reality of an enjoyable if sometimes stressful day such as Thanksgiving. This year we got lucky. After rejecting family votes for some familiar films, including Avalon (1990-Barry Levinson), with its cri de coeur line, “you cut the too-key without me?!” spoken by with the now immortal Lou Jacobi; any hopes for those who wanted to see The Searchers (1956-John Ford) for the umpteenth time were also dashed; as was one l-tryptophan induced vote for Pulp Fiction (1994-Quentin Tarantino). We finally settled on a movie with little obvious connection to the holidays, The Straight Story (1999) on DVD.
The punning title of the film, based in part on Alvin Straight‘s name, is one ironic note, since we learn about this central character only in bits and pieces of conversations during his encounters with characters such as a pregnant runaway teen, a John Deere salesman, an agitated woman whose daily commute is punctuated with regular encounters between a passing deer and her front bumper. This winding route back to his brother’s home is convoluted and we can only see bits and pieces of it, just as we only get to know Alvin in glimpses he chooses to give us. As Alvin, played with such eloquence by Richard Farnsworth, he is a man whose life, as it nears a close, is still a bit of mystery to him as well. His calm and dignity, as well as his humor guide him along his way, though we have hints of a more turbulent interior life, especially in one scene in a bar when warfare is recalled with a still sharp devastation a half century after it was experienced, implying that Straight‘s life may have taken more hidden twists and turns than he can ever fully acknowledge or atone for in his life. This almost Ozu-like attitude seems to be the only kind thing that time has done for this man as it has taught him the value of acceptance and forgiveness in the face of this relentless thief.
The vein of unexpected sensitivity evident in Lynch‘s earlier movie about another real life figure, The Elephant Man (1980), resurfaced in The Straight Story. The latter movie stands out since it is not presented as a very fast trip through a dark carnival fun house that is more typical of this director’s iconoclastic movies that disturb our perceptions, making us mistrust the familiar. Focusing on people relegated to the fringes of American society, the challenge in The Straight Story for the filmmakers and the viewer is to listen carefully, adapting our frenetic pace to the seemingly bland but hypnotic patterns of this film. Seeing this movie can be one of those cinematic experiences that stays with you for days after, maybe even changing the viewer for the better. Filmed in a glorious Autumn, the bucolic aspects of this movie, do not mask the darkness that is there. Straight‘s family is marked by estrangement, poverty, a sorrow and injustice related to an incident that occurred when a daughter’s children are removed from her care following a tragic fire. Beneath the understanding way that strangers approach and listen to Alvin‘s cockamamie reasons for traveling in such a hazardous fashion, there is an awareness of the danger he faces and the implicit possibility that one of the strangers might harm him or try to have him committed to a nursing home against his will. Those things happen in this world, but, as this movie makes clear, sometimes generosity, bemusement, genuine curiosity and respect survive too. Alvin seems reluctant to engage too closely with the people he meets, as if he is a bit afraid of the consequences of intimacy. When a runaway teenager expresses doubt about the value of her relatives’ understanding for her circumstances, Alvin, who calls the sarcastic girl “Missy” while giving her food, offers an apparently intentionally instructive analogy between a bundle of sticks being far less unlikely to break than one stick (an allusion to the ancient Roman symbol for imperial strength, the fasces). The preoccupied air with which he delivers this homey bit seems to imply that Alvin knows these things because he’s been that broken stick more than once in his own time. Before it is too late, he is making a foolhardy if grand gesture of reaching out to a family member.
The film was based on a real life tale that hit the news in 1994 when Alvin Straight, a 73 year old man, trekked a few hundred miles across Northern Iowa to Wisconsin to visit an ailing older brother who had recently had a stroke. Mr. Straight‘s poor eyesight made it impossible for him to get a driver’s license and his hips were so weak he needed two canes to get around, but the former laborer, World War II and Korean War veteran, a widower and the father of seven children, chose an unlikely vehicle to use as he embarked on his journey: a 1966 John Deere lawn mower that could top out at five miles an hour. His mode of travel didn’t really make much sense, though he rejected a bus trip and became more determined to do it his way after his family expressed doubts. (Come to think of it, having taken a few very long bus trips in my time, that beat up rider mower does seem more appealing than some public transport).
As the film begins, we are presented with what seems to be an odd couple, an old man, Farnsworth, and his mentally challenged daughter, Rose, embodied by Sissy Spacek, whose halting speech seems to indicate an observant character absorbed in her own private thoughts as much as it does a person with a handicap. The intrusiveness of the modern media-soaked world doesn’t seem to penetrate into their lives. One of the few concessions to the age of communication comes when a telephone erupts off camera, just after the pair, sitting calmly in the dark of their small house, agree that they both “love a lightning storm”. With the grumbling thunder and lightning as around them, it is clear that the father and daughter share a home, and a life in which their awareness of the world around them includes tenderness, sadness, resignation and some tacit acceptance of their own individuality. Their reverie is interrupted by a brief phone call informing them that the father’s brother Lyle has had a stroke, followed again by silence–with the void filled by the simple chords of a guitar and the father’s changing face as he absorbs the meaning of these words. Announcing later that he has decided “to go back on the road again”, the father silences his daughter’s concerns over his plans with the statement that “I know you understand” that he has to do this his way. What little dialogue there is in this movie seems improvised and poetic, delivered with an off hand gravity and sneaky humor that is delightful.
One of the key experiences that can be derived from this movie is that the film’s soundtrack, filled with natural, ambient sounds, and small, spoken revelations, casually delivered throughout the course of the 112 minute film draws us in gradually, slowing us down, complemented by a spare score written by Lynch regular, Angelo Badalamenti. There is an eloquence in the beautifully lined face of actor Richard Farnsworth, as well as an emotional gravity in many of the lines spoken by the actor. There’s also a lot of humor in this movie. My family, perhaps being a little naughty and adolescent, nevertheless broke up completely over the use of the simple word “wiener”. A woman’s ferocious frustration just driving back and forth to work each day and finding herself hitting a deer regularly would normally be sad–but the look of bewilderment on Farnsworth‘s stricken face as he tries to calm her down is inadvertently comical. Best of all is a scene in which the old man, preparing for his planned trip to see his brother, visits a local hardware store for supplies, as seen below:
The real Alvin Straight (seen at right) began to attract attention after embarking on his odyssey on July 5th, 1994, pulling an overloaded 10-foot trailer with gas, food, clothes and camping gear behind him as he rolled toward his destination by way of the first leg of US Highway 61 North. As the summer blossomed into the beginning of harvest time, the trip along back roads ultimately took over six weeks, allowing for periods when his vehicle repeatedly broke down during the 240 mile adventure. Only four days into the trip, the engine failed on his mower in West Bend, Iowa, a mere 21 miles from where he had started in Laurens, Iowa. A bit cheesed off by this ill-timed fate so soon after beginning, “the lawn mower man” had to part with nearly $250 of his tiny bankroll to replace everything from the points, the condenser, plugs, the generator and the starter. Things became even a bit more frustrating when this outlay led to his money running out by the second half of July, forcing Mr. Straight to camp out until his next Social Security check arrived in the yard of an accommodating family. Finally arriving at his brother Henry‘s home near Blue River, Wisconsin, Alvin did so while still riding his mower–even if it was being pushed by a kindly farmer, after one more break down a few miles from the house. This unexpected arrival prompted an apparently underwhelmed Henry to remark dryly to the press, “All I could do was unhitch his mower. It ain’t hard to unhitch.”
The hubbub surrounding this event led reporters from The New York Times and Mid-Western newspapers to chronicle his unlikely hegira, but Mr. Straight did not enjoy the attention that he received in real life, shrugging off invitations from David Letterman, Jay Leno and even Paul Harvey, (who was undoubtedly longing “to tell the rest of the [straight] story…”). The brothers, btw, reconciled their now petty differences. Alvin Straight‘s brother moved back to Iowa around 1996 to be near his formerly estranged family. That same year the fragile health of Alvin led to his death at 75 from a heart problem. On the way to his burial, a John Deere mower brought up the rear of the funeral cortege. An unlikely, minor human interest story caught the eye of director Lynch, who took on the task of bringing something uncharacteristic yet deceptively powerful to the screen with a script by John Roach and Mary Sweeney for the Disney corporation.
In the film, the central character is played superbly by Richard Farnsworth, who enjoyed the greatest acclaim of his career when this movie was released in 1999. Surprisingly, the former veteran stunt man and late blooming actor was reportedly not the first choice for the role. Gregory Peck and Lynch veteran John Hurt were both announced for the part before Farnsworth was cast, just about two weeks prior to the date when the production was scheduled to begin. Already unofficially semi-retired and himself struggling with a bum hip due for replacement, Farnsworth, who did not wish to appear in excessively violent or foul mouthed roles, was a bit reluctant to accept the part until his agent reminded him that the empathic Elephant Man was a project that the actor had been deeply touched by when he viewed it. After receiving a copy of the scenario, the actor said that “The minute I read the script, I identified with this old character, and I fell in love with his story.” While working on the movie, Mr. Farnsworth later told reporters that he and everyone else on the picture soon realized that they were making something special–even though they weren’t quite sure what it was about all the time. The “geriatric leading man”, as one rather unnecessarily snide article once described him, came late to his unlikely status as a star, with his name appearing above the title only when he was pushing 62.
Growing up in the Great Depression in California, Farnsworth dropped out of school at age fifteen, taking on any job he could find as a stable boy. When he was offered a job in the movies as a stunt rider for $7 a day along with a box lunch after he’d been pulling down only $6 a week while working on a polo field, he took a chance, even though the work was only promised for three weeks. After helping studio reps find some small Mongolian horses for an ill-conceived Gary Cooper movie, The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938-Archie Mayo) and appearing earlier as an uncredited jockey in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937-Sam Wood), the wiry youngster began to make his way as a stunt man and an occasional bit player in Hollywood in the studio era.
Seven John Ford films later, working as a stunt double and cowboy coach for a young New York actor named Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948-Howard Hawks), (which entailed teaching Clift the proper way to wear his hat and roll his cigarettes), Farnsworth even played an unlikely and anonymous gladiator among the teeming slave rebels in Spartacus (1960-Stanley Kubrick) while doubling for the star, Kirk Douglas.
He had regular television gigs as a stunt double for Guy Madison in Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok in the fifties, (a younger Farnsworth can be seen above on the left with Madison) . He also worked with a young Steve McQueen on the television series, Wanted Dead Or Alive. Summing up his lifetime of diverse experiences with “decent people as well as the prima donnas” he met on the sets in later life, Farnsworth expressed gratitude for the breathing room that his stunt man duties sometimes provided from clashes of egos and occasionally political differences in Hollywood. Of the very big stars he’d met and worked with in his day, Farnsworth described Joel McCrea, “a real working cowboy”, as the finest person of the bunch, with Henry Fonda and John Wayne also cited as cooperative and pleasant men and actors. While he helped to co-found a Stunt Man’s Association in the sixties, Farnsworth also found time to work as a rodeo rider as a bareback rider in his younger years, and joining familiar faces Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens when they were bulldogging on the rodeo circuit before the movies became their métier.
Farnsworth did not take on anything more demanding than lines like “Get a rope!” and “Hangings too good for him!” in his many movies until the age of 57, after he decided that “the ground was getting too hard”, making his stunt man days a memory. Taking on the part of a seasoned ranch hand helping Jane Fonda run her post WWII ranch in director Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman (1978) was as close to playing the kind of person the stuntman-turned-actor felt comfortable with in his new status. As Farnsworth explained it, he wasn’t “much of an actor, but when he could play a rural character who was used to being around animals” that felt natural to him. He was unexpectedly nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for this part. While he didn’t win that award, he was deemed the Best Supporting Actor that year for the movie part by the National Society of Film Critics, tying with Robert Morley for Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978). Featured roles in such popular movies as the elegiac Western Tom Horn (1980-William Wiard), The Natural (1984-Barry Levinson) Misery (1990-Rob Reiner), and television productions such as the CBC’s adaptation of Anne of Green Gables solidified his new found status as an actor.
As a sucker since childhood for Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books about a misplaced orphan on Prince Edward Island at the beginning of the 1900s, Farnsworth‘s characterization of the profoundly shy, deceptively quiet farmer “Matthew Cuthbert” was the ideal realization of this timid soul, who, at the age of sixty, blossoms into a fulfilling kinship with his young ward, “Anne Shirley” as he encourages her growth into a person who could stand up to his harsher sister, and find a way to value herself as someone who has a contribution to make to the greater world. Apparently, I am not alone in relishing the actor’s finely wrought character since the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television awarded him with a Gemini Award for his work as a Supporting Actor in 1986. Here is an interview with the shy Farnsworth done while he was making Anne of Green Gables:
Perhaps this recognition is not too surprising, since Farnsworth‘s earlier role in a Canadian produced film about a real life gentleman train robber, known as Bill Miner (aka George Edwards) in The Grey Fox (1982-Phillip Borsos) remains one of my favorite movie westerns–though it is one that sorely needs to be seen. The movie tells the story of a legendary soft spoken robber of American birth, who may have been the first to say “hands up”. After spending most of his life in prison, he was believed to be involved in Canada’s first train robbery. After serving 33 years in San Quentin for stage coach robbery, the proud and unrepentant Miner was released in 1901 into a changed world where his courtly manner and zest for life make him seem strangely offbeat. Seeing Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in a contemporary theater proves to be transformative, and Miner announces that he still feels that he has “ambition in me that just won’t quit.” Heading for Canada, he soon embarks on another escapade after encountering a cruder, younger, would-be highwayman:
Roguishly appealing and charming to all those who encounter this stranger in Canada, Farnsworth‘s unexpected mischievous grace and his tender understanding of others wins him new and unexpected allies (including a local constable). The actor’s graceful naturalism and the way that his every flicker of thought and feeling seems to register in his blue eyes makes him a magnetic figure throughout this well made film. His scenes with the feminist photographer he encounters in Canada are filled with playful affection and ultimately, enormous tenderness even though he tells her that the possibility of their being together is dim.
Captured in the Kamloops, British Columbia, Miner’s friends and admirers in the area packed the courtroom and lined the tracks when he was eventually sent to prison by train. Though over sixty at the time, Miner escaped and was recaptured repeatedly after that, generally eluding police up until his death. This movie received positive critical attention worldwide for blending beautiful production values, (with a score by Michael Conway Baker that featured The Chieftains and period conscious cinematography by Frank Tidy), and for the scene-stealing joy of watching Richard Farnsworth along with Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs (as his independent minded lady friend), the movie swept awards worldwide–except for America. Strangely, though The Grey Fox was once shown regularly on cable, in recent years it has completely disappeared to the best of my knowledge, though it is available on VHS and no DVD has been commercially released in North America.
By the time that Richard Farnsworth was once again nominated for an Oscar, this time as Best Actor following the release of The Straight Story, the possibility of another role of such scope was unlikely and he knew it, though he expressed hope that this movie might make it easier for actors over the age of 45 to get work, especially, as he maintained, “there’s a heckuva lot of talent out there.” Despite a halting gait, and a haunting look on his beautifully aged face, the actor clearly seemed to enjoy the attention that he justly received in the lead up to the Academy Awards ceremony. Mr. Farnsworth asserted that “As long as there are old geezer roles that I’m suited to, I’ll keep working.” However, it was not to be. Despite contributing to over 300 films in his working life, and literally learning his job from the ground up, he did not receive an Oscar, (which went to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty that year). It was only a few months later that the actor, who was reportedly suffering from bone cancer when he was offered the job to play in The Straight Story, took his own life at age 80. Despite that somber end to a well lived life, Farnsworth, who was married to one woman for 38 years prior to her death in 1985, (and engaged to another forty years his junior for the last decade of his life), left a son, a daughter, and some of the best character acting of any age on film. As Richard Farnsworth commented after losing the Oscar for the last time: “The best horse don’t always win the race.”
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