True Grits

CHARLES PORTIS EYES JOHN WAYNE ON THE SET OF TRUE GRIT

Regrettably, this post is not about the cookbook True Grits: Recipes Inspired By the Movies of John Wayne. My apologies to writers Lee Pfeiffer and Michael Lewis, although I do intend to make  “They Were Eggspendable” (p. 6) and “Hondocakes” (p. 12) for breakfast this weekend. No, instead I’ll be considering Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, and the film adaptation by producer Hal Wallis and director Henry Hathaway the following year. All of this was spurred, of course, by the Coen Brothers’ take on the material, still named True Grit, which comes out on December 22nd.

Portis’ novel is anchored by the starched voice of Mattie Ross, a stiff-backed Presbyterian who recalls the grim events that followed the murder of her father, Frank. Narrating the tale as a prim spinster in 1928, she details, with stark Old Testament morality, how she earned her revenge as a young girl from Dardenlle, Yell County Arkansas (she intones her birthplace to strangers like a prayer) in 1873. She is decisive and declamatory, with an eye for irrelevant bits of history. When the trail of the murderer snakes through Indian Territory to a supply store , she dryly notes: “The store is now part of the modern little city of McAlester, Oklahoma, where for a long time ‘coal was king.’ McAlester is also the international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” There is a bit of the schoolmarm in her, eager to educate as much as to “avenge her father’s blood.”

It is her voice that captivates, a preternaturally calm control stabbed with stubborn wit, rarely exhibiting the childishness of her age. As Ed Park wrote in his epic ode to Portis in The Believer, “Her steadfast, unsentimental voice—Portis’s sublime ventriloquism—maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.”  I could only detect one scene of playfulness – when she asks her two lawmen to act out a ghost story around the fire. These two men, Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (he prononunces it “LaBeef”), are far more immature than Mattie, at one point wasting a third of their corn dodgers for an impromptu shooting competition (not dissimilar to Montgomery Clift and John Ireland’s macho shoot-off in Red River).

Cogburn is an inveterate drunkard and former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla group. He’s also a Federal Marshal who had killed over 20 men since his short time wearing the badge, a fact which led Mattie to choose him to help her find the killer, Tom Chaney. Incapable of a domesticated life (“Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone”), he thrives on the deprivation of the outdoors. LeBoeuf is handsome, conceited, and a bit of a dandy. Upon first seeing him Mattie remarks, “His manner was stuck-up and he had a smug grin that made you nervous when he turned it on you.” Despite that, “he made me worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose”, one of the other rare notes of vulnerability in her bullish persona.

Mattie is a shifty, opaque creation, and endlessly fascinating. She’s a whip-smart girl who turns personal history biblical (her vengeance on Chaney, who is physically marked like Cain, recalls the Old Testament God), and biblical history local (she quotes verse to settle daily disputes). She stubbornly sits still on the ledge in-between, refusing to concede her pragmatism or her divine beliefs as rattlesnakes nip at her flesh.

Before the book was published, Portis’ agent passed out galleys to the major studios, setting off a minor bidding war. According to Randy Roberts and James Stewart Olson in John Wayne: American, Wayne’s production company, Batjac, submitted a bid of $400,000, but it was issued after the deadline had closed. The rights were awarded to Hal B. Wallis, whom Wayne soon wooed to land the part of Rooster Cogburn. The role of Mattie Ross was originally offered to Mia Farrow, who turned it down, supposedly on the advice of Robert Mitchum, and it was eventually given to Kim Darby, a little-known TV actress.  Robert Duvall snarls through the film as gang leader Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper has a bit part as a squealer at the same time Easy Rider was unspooling, a portentous straddle of Old/New Hollywood.  Wallis switched the shooting location from Arkansas to Montrose, Colorado, in the western slopes of the Rockies, over Portis’ objections.

Hathaway and Wallis lightened the tone of of Portis’ more fatalistically comic work, turning it into an agreeably swashbuckling affair centered on Cogburn, whose rough edges and thieving past are sanded down to an inoffensive nub (Dave Kehr opted to call it “cutesy-poo”). There is no voice-over, which eliminates many of Mattie’s idiosyncratic asides, and the ace DP Lucien Ballard’s cinematography here is made up of bright and airy postcard shots that looks like a well-funded autumnal Coors commercial. It lacks the textural menace of nature in the book, in which cold and hunger attack as much as Chaney.

Wallis’ True Grit, then, is an entirely new work, with only a surface relationship to Portis’, and shouldn’t be limited, or belittled, solely in comparison to the book’s greatness. It was transformed into a John Wayne star vehicle as he was transitioning into more cantankerous character parts, so the film was rigged up into a sturdy, eager to please example of old Hollywood craftsmanship. Stocked with stellar supporting performances from Duvall, Hopper, Strother Martin, and even Glen Cambpell as the preening pretty boy LeBouef, it’s a companionable if not resonant bit of Saturday afternoon entertainment.

In a revealing exchange, Henry Hathway recalled the arguments he had with Wayne over wearing the eye-patch:

When he was first put to it, Wayne told me, ‘I’m not gonna wear that patch on my eye.’ He said, “I’m not an actor to begin with, I’m a reactor, and no way will I wear a patch.”

This is a wonderful pocket self-analysis from Wayne of his work – he’s such a superb and sensitive performer because of how he reacts to the actors around him. Some of his best work is in backgrounds – think of his proud, fatherly gaze and reluctant gait in Rio Bravo as he stands outside his circle of friends singing in jail - maneuvering his bulky body to convey the resignation of old age and the burdens of leadership. He’s one of the finest collaborative actors, whether it’s sparking off Montgomery Clift in Red River or bending towards Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande like a weed to the sun. In donning the eye-patch, he becomes the buffoon being reacted to, a gallumphing showboat rather indifferent to the performers around him (Kim Darby is unmoored and affectless as a result). But his self-parodistic grunting and hamming stirred the dozing Academy voters, who awarded him his first and only Oscar for best actor.

 

32 Responses True Grits
Posted By Mitch Farish : December 14, 2010 2:58 pm

Nice post. I haven’t read the book, and so I think a little more highly of Wayne’s performance than you. But is struck me a while back how many of Wayne’s post war roles are in reaction to generational change and young characters–to Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER; to Rick Nelson in RIO BRAVO; and to James Caan in ELDORADO.

In TRUE GRIT, however, his interactions with Matty Ross remind me not so much of these other more interesting roles, than they do of Wallace Beery’s reactions with Margaret O’Brien in 1940s MGM westerns.

Posted By Mitch Farish : December 14, 2010 2:58 pm

Nice post. I haven’t read the book, and so I think a little more highly of Wayne’s performance than you. But is struck me a while back how many of Wayne’s post war roles are in reaction to generational change and young characters–to Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER; to Rick Nelson in RIO BRAVO; and to James Caan in ELDORADO.

In TRUE GRIT, however, his interactions with Matty Ross remind me not so much of these other more interesting roles, than they do of Wallace Beery’s reactions with Margaret O’Brien in 1940s MGM westerns.

Posted By Kingrat : December 14, 2010 6:10 pm

According to Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum, Mitchum warned Mia Farrow that Henry Hathaway was difficult to work with, so she turned down the role. Later on, Mia may have wished that she’d made TRUE GRIT rather than her film with Mitchum, SECRET CEREMONY.

Posted By Kingrat : December 14, 2010 6:10 pm

According to Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum, Mitchum warned Mia Farrow that Henry Hathaway was difficult to work with, so she turned down the role. Later on, Mia may have wished that she’d made TRUE GRIT rather than her film with Mitchum, SECRET CEREMONY.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 14, 2010 9:00 pm

I certainly remember purchasing that copy of the paperback book probably after I saw the movie as a teenager. Kim Darby was familiar to me from so many TV roles and related to her best, naturally. I don’t know that I’d call her “little known” in relation to her TV career, though. She guest-starred on just about every major TV show of the early 1960s. She was definitely the go-to teen actress of the time (and played younger than her actual age). Very impressive TV credits!

Thanks for this look back at the original before the new one comes out. Hearing lots of positive things about the girl who plays Mattie in the new one…

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 14, 2010 9:00 pm

I certainly remember purchasing that copy of the paperback book probably after I saw the movie as a teenager. Kim Darby was familiar to me from so many TV roles and related to her best, naturally. I don’t know that I’d call her “little known” in relation to her TV career, though. She guest-starred on just about every major TV show of the early 1960s. She was definitely the go-to teen actress of the time (and played younger than her actual age). Very impressive TV credits!

Thanks for this look back at the original before the new one comes out. Hearing lots of positive things about the girl who plays Mattie in the new one…

Posted By Jenni : December 14, 2010 10:20 pm

I read Portis’s book, True Grit, last year, and enjoyed it. It made me appreciate the movie with John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glenn Campbell more. Was wondering if Glenn Campbell was the first choice for LaBoef? I think I’ll wait to see the Coen brothers remake. I imagine it won’t be filmed like a Coors postcard, but will be darker, and more violent.

Posted By Jenni : December 14, 2010 10:20 pm

I read Portis’s book, True Grit, last year, and enjoyed it. It made me appreciate the movie with John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glenn Campbell more. Was wondering if Glenn Campbell was the first choice for LaBoef? I think I’ll wait to see the Coen brothers remake. I imagine it won’t be filmed like a Coors postcard, but will be darker, and more violent.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 15, 2010 2:27 am

Love the book and the movie. Though the tone of the original movie is lighter than the book, it still gets alot right. And The Duke was great in it. He was comical, yes, but he also really had true grit. That wonderful scene where he charges Ned Pepper and his gang, pistol in one hand, shotgun in the other, is classic and cool as hell. That’s a man you should not mess with. I look forward to seeing the new movie, but The Dude will not tower over The Duke.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 15, 2010 2:27 am

Love the book and the movie. Though the tone of the original movie is lighter than the book, it still gets alot right. And The Duke was great in it. He was comical, yes, but he also really had true grit. That wonderful scene where he charges Ned Pepper and his gang, pistol in one hand, shotgun in the other, is classic and cool as hell. That’s a man you should not mess with. I look forward to seeing the new movie, but The Dude will not tower over The Duke.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : December 15, 2010 11:09 am

Mitch – all those films you mentioned are directed by Howard Hawks, who I think pushed Wayne into a more “reactive” mode than others. In all three you mentioned he gives wonderful performances, and El Dorado is especially powerful on the subject of aging.

Thanks for the background info, Kingrat and Medusa, sorry I mischaracterized Kim Darby’s career, it was just my own ignorance. The Mitchum story sounds more like gossip than reality to me though, a story passed around so much it passes as truth. But I certainly could be wrong.

Jenni, I do think Campbell was the first choice for box office reasons, he even recorded the theme song.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : December 15, 2010 11:09 am

Mitch – all those films you mentioned are directed by Howard Hawks, who I think pushed Wayne into a more “reactive” mode than others. In all three you mentioned he gives wonderful performances, and El Dorado is especially powerful on the subject of aging.

Thanks for the background info, Kingrat and Medusa, sorry I mischaracterized Kim Darby’s career, it was just my own ignorance. The Mitchum story sounds more like gossip than reality to me though, a story passed around so much it passes as truth. But I certainly could be wrong.

Jenni, I do think Campbell was the first choice for box office reasons, he even recorded the theme song.

Posted By Thomas Krul : December 15, 2010 4:36 pm

Oof, this is SUCH a much better article (and vehicle for building interest in the new version) than the interview Vanity Fair just posted. I watched “True Grit” as a kid on Beta cassette, of all things and I still recall that I wasn’t a fan of the lead actress.

Posted By Thomas Krul : December 15, 2010 4:36 pm

Oof, this is SUCH a much better article (and vehicle for building interest in the new version) than the interview Vanity Fair just posted. I watched “True Grit” as a kid on Beta cassette, of all things and I still recall that I wasn’t a fan of the lead actress.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 15, 2010 7:39 pm

I am sure that few people are aware that Campbell and Darby reunited the following year for another film produced by Wallis. It was called NORWOOD.

He was the lead, she was his romantic interest and Joe Namath was also starred. Since Kim and Glen did not work for Hal again, my guess is that he cancelled their contracts after this one.

I saw it in 1970, 40 years ago, when it came out, and when I was stationed at Fort Lee, Va. (a place which, from what I understand, is doing a lot better than Campbell and Darby).

I will be astounded if anyone calls me on this and says they recall this Paramount film vividly.

I don’t remember a lot from 40 years ago. I remember the poster showed Joe and Glen and said something like: Country Glen and Good-time Glen are out for fun! I remember a scene on a bus where Glen puts the moves on Kim.

My reference books tell me that the plot is about an ex-Gi and his quest to become a nationally known singer.

Here are some other thoughts:

-Mia Farrow seems like odd casting for the role but she was only two years older than Darby.

-I wasn’t going to see the new TRUE GRIT but I may now after reading your write-up. I can see that there is a lot that could be done with the original book.
I generally like the Coen Brothers films. But I am tired of all the remakes Hollywood does, generally bad.
I would not want to see anyone else tackle the roles of Cody Jarrett, Lou Gehrig or Rick Blaine.
I felt that way about Rooster Cogburn too. But we’ll see.

-There’s a lady on my street who owns a mean dog named Rooster Cogburn. I wonder if the dog has an identity crisis. Is he a rooster or a dog?
She posted a sign: Beware of the Dog. I suppose if she posted a sign – Beware of Rooster – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

- I too always thought that Wayne’s Rooster seemed like a Wallace Beery character. But, remember, Beery once won a Best Actor Oscar (and this is a real slap in the face to actors like Edward G. Robinson, Mitchum, Widmark, Robert Ryan and Claude Rains who never won Oscars for the roles they played.)

Posted By Al Lowe : December 15, 2010 7:39 pm

I am sure that few people are aware that Campbell and Darby reunited the following year for another film produced by Wallis. It was called NORWOOD.

He was the lead, she was his romantic interest and Joe Namath was also starred. Since Kim and Glen did not work for Hal again, my guess is that he cancelled their contracts after this one.

I saw it in 1970, 40 years ago, when it came out, and when I was stationed at Fort Lee, Va. (a place which, from what I understand, is doing a lot better than Campbell and Darby).

I will be astounded if anyone calls me on this and says they recall this Paramount film vividly.

I don’t remember a lot from 40 years ago. I remember the poster showed Joe and Glen and said something like: Country Glen and Good-time Glen are out for fun! I remember a scene on a bus where Glen puts the moves on Kim.

My reference books tell me that the plot is about an ex-Gi and his quest to become a nationally known singer.

Here are some other thoughts:

-Mia Farrow seems like odd casting for the role but she was only two years older than Darby.

-I wasn’t going to see the new TRUE GRIT but I may now after reading your write-up. I can see that there is a lot that could be done with the original book.
I generally like the Coen Brothers films. But I am tired of all the remakes Hollywood does, generally bad.
I would not want to see anyone else tackle the roles of Cody Jarrett, Lou Gehrig or Rick Blaine.
I felt that way about Rooster Cogburn too. But we’ll see.

-There’s a lady on my street who owns a mean dog named Rooster Cogburn. I wonder if the dog has an identity crisis. Is he a rooster or a dog?
She posted a sign: Beware of the Dog. I suppose if she posted a sign – Beware of Rooster – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

- I too always thought that Wayne’s Rooster seemed like a Wallace Beery character. But, remember, Beery once won a Best Actor Oscar (and this is a real slap in the face to actors like Edward G. Robinson, Mitchum, Widmark, Robert Ryan and Claude Rains who never won Oscars for the roles they played.)

Posted By Al Lowe : December 15, 2010 7:40 pm

Oops. I meant to say Country Glen and Good-time Joe.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 15, 2010 7:40 pm

Oops. I meant to say Country Glen and Good-time Joe.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 16, 2010 11:15 am

Al, of course I remember “Norwood”! It was part of my interest in Kim Darby — I think I also had a paperback book of it. I don’t remember it “vividly” but I did see it, at the theater. Haven’t seen it recently, seems never to have showed up in movie packages, which is kind of weird. Not even late night fare.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 16, 2010 11:15 am

Al, of course I remember “Norwood”! It was part of my interest in Kim Darby — I think I also had a paperback book of it. I don’t remember it “vividly” but I did see it, at the theater. Haven’t seen it recently, seems never to have showed up in movie packages, which is kind of weird. Not even late night fare.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : December 16, 2010 11:16 am

Al,

Thanks for pointing this out – NORWOOD is also an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel. I’d really like to track this down after I read it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : December 16, 2010 11:16 am

Al,

Thanks for pointing this out – NORWOOD is also an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel. I’d really like to track this down after I read it.

Posted By JK : December 26, 2010 4:07 am

Great piece. Even though I’d heard that Wayne’s Oscar was for sentimental reasons, I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe it now. I always thought that it was just the New Hollywood getting it’s snarkon. I love watching his expressions in the film, looking down at his cards or glowering over his horse at the bandits.

I heard this but can’t confirm it: does anyone know if Elvis Presley was offered the Glen Cambpell part first (and his notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker turned it down)? It’s something I keep hearing but can’t nail down anywhere.

Posted By JK : December 26, 2010 4:07 am

Great piece. Even though I’d heard that Wayne’s Oscar was for sentimental reasons, I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe it now. I always thought that it was just the New Hollywood getting it’s snarkon. I love watching his expressions in the film, looking down at his cards or glowering over his horse at the bandits.

I heard this but can’t confirm it: does anyone know if Elvis Presley was offered the Glen Cambpell part first (and his notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker turned it down)? It’s something I keep hearing but can’t nail down anywhere.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 26, 2010 11:22 am

Being something of an Elvis freak, I have heard and read about many parts that passed by Elvis due to the Colonel (The James Dean Story, The Defiant Ones, West Side Story and A Star is Born are just a few examples), but I have never heard he was offered the role of Le Boeuf in True Grit. I think he would have relished the part and it wouldn’t have been as stiff a performance as Campbell’s.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 26, 2010 11:22 am

Being something of an Elvis freak, I have heard and read about many parts that passed by Elvis due to the Colonel (The James Dean Story, The Defiant Ones, West Side Story and A Star is Born are just a few examples), but I have never heard he was offered the role of Le Boeuf in True Grit. I think he would have relished the part and it wouldn’t have been as stiff a performance as Campbell’s.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 8, 2011 7:40 pm

Warren Oates starred in made for TV movie”True Grit”(1978). FYI.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 8, 2011 7:40 pm

Warren Oates starred in made for TV movie”True Grit”(1978). FYI.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 11:52 am

I saw the new True Grit yesterday. It has been quite some time since I last read the book, but it seems to me that the original movie was truer to the book than the new movie. The new one may have a darker tone and more subdued atmosphere about it, not as comical, but the original seems to stick closer to the book. There were a couple of things and situations in the new movie that I don’t recall being in the book. A rereading is due. And to anyone that thinks that the Dude outdid the Duke is flat out wrong.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 11:52 am

I saw the new True Grit yesterday. It has been quite some time since I last read the book, but it seems to me that the original movie was truer to the book than the new movie. The new one may have a darker tone and more subdued atmosphere about it, not as comical, but the original seems to stick closer to the book. There were a couple of things and situations in the new movie that I don’t recall being in the book. A rereading is due. And to anyone that thinks that the Dude outdid the Duke is flat out wrong.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 19, 2011 7:31 pm

When is Hollywood going to stop remaking our precious orginals into the latest blockbuster? How do they know if it will be or not? Hmph! They want to trick us with sentimentally for these by-gone gems. Oh yes, then AMC can play “True Grit”(1969) every Wednesday and Thursday and Saturday. And they will do this around playing five other westerns in a vicious circle non-stop all month. When are the cable channels I get, going to play more Classic Western cinema?

Posted By Juana Maria : May 19, 2011 7:31 pm

When is Hollywood going to stop remaking our precious orginals into the latest blockbuster? How do they know if it will be or not? Hmph! They want to trick us with sentimentally for these by-gone gems. Oh yes, then AMC can play “True Grit”(1969) every Wednesday and Thursday and Saturday. And they will do this around playing five other westerns in a vicious circle non-stop all month. When are the cable channels I get, going to play more Classic Western cinema?

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