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Ned Beatty

Review: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Curious that both films built around the legendary Judge Roy Bean, self-styled purveyor of Law West of the Pecos, should suffer so grossly from mode trouble. The Westerner, directed by William Wyler in 1940, featured one of the all-time great performances on screen in the presence of Walter Brennan (nominally a “supporting actor,” in which category he copped a richly merited third Oscar); Brennan’s irrepressible craziness as the lethal scoundrel with an unreasoning devotion to the beauty of Lily Langtry and an ill-advised sentimental tolerance of drifter Gary Cooper, who ended up killing him, almost saved this confused western that vacillated without conviction between freakishly comical behavioralism and socioeconomic sanctimoniousness about farmers in cattle country, and, visually, between the near-stereoscopic crispness of Gregg Toland’s realistic cinematography and some jarringly pointless and punk process work. John Huston’s new Roy Bean film has no problems as gross as that, but neither has it anything as potently good as Brennan’s characterization to recommend it. Paul Newman can’t resist waving his professional integrity like a flag, and this generally works for the worst (e.g., the hysterical and monolithically conceived WUSA); here integrity takes the form of flamboyantly trying on an unglamorous character part and, moreover, playing it in a single comic key. As George Roy Hill remarked in his documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman can play comedy successfully only when he doesn’t remember to tell himself he’s playing comedy. (There is, incidentally, an unforgivable Son of Butch Cassidy number involving Newman, Victoria Principal, a bear, and a song about the marmalade, molasses, and honey that keep falling on my head.)

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Review: White Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.

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Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

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Review: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

One’s lip needn’t tremble with forthrightness in suggesting that W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings is John Avildsen’s most likable movie; on the amiability meter, Joe and Save the Tiger leave nowhere to go but up. But as sneak-preview audiences already begin to murmur about the overselling of Nashville (I’m inclined to say that’s their problem, and will undoubtedly contribute to it in MTN 43), it may be time to put in a word or two in behalf of this very easy-to-take summertime divertissement. Burt Reynolds jovially represents himself as a Chevy-driving stick-up man who is so effective at convincing service station attendants to part with the money in the till that he generally has them wishing him to “come back again, y’ hear.” He specializes in one chain of stations, with the result that a fire-and-brimstone, black-garbed ex-lawman is hired to run him down. Thunder claps when this fellow (played by Art Carney with what we might call austere relish) closes his notebook; he’s an ex-lawman only because his former constituents had the temerity to expect him to enforce the law on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, while ducking out on an earnest local cop who wants to nail him on a traffic violation, W.W. Bright (Reynolds) falls in with a country-western band that can’t get out of the toolies. At first for a lark, then—to his own bewilderment—in earnest, he begins to promote them. How to support the outfit while waiting until they’re good enough to take the Grand Ole Opry by storm? Well, heck, that oil company just opened a li’l ol’ bank right down the road…. W.W. is every bit as heavyhanded about its hick comedy as its two sententious predecessors were about their solemn concerns, but once one gives up on the notion of directorial finesse and settles back to enjoy the broad humor, it’s quite a pleasant show.

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Review: The Big Bus

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

The Big Bus is no movie to slap down first-run admission prices for, but if it turns up on a double bill with another halfway-enticing film, plan to give it a chance. I’d like to pretend it’s a better movie than it is, because most of the notices I’ve read have taken it to task unduly: its failings aren’t gross and its modest pleasures are so far superior to the general run this slummy summer season that I feel very kindly toward it. The worst thing about the film is a pantingly insistent—and quite superfluous—foreword that wants us to know we’re watching a sendup of disaster pictures. And if sending up disaster pictures is a little like putting rosy contact lenses on an albino, well, all right, maybe there are better ways of expending money and talent. But James Frawley is an intelligent director who’s had precious few chances to exercise his talent: even with post-release prodding from the Lincoln Center Film Festival, Kid Blue never achieved better than cult standing, and the earlier The Christian Licorice Store remains on a shelf somewhere.

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Review: Superman

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

People come up and they ask, “Is Superman any good?” The unspoken question seems to be: “Could they spend all that money and generate all that hype and fail to make anything but a dog?” The answer to both is Yes: the movie is a lot of fun, and the lot of talented people involved have managed to get a lot of their talent very enjoyably on view.

How satisfied you feel about Superman will depend in part on how readily you accommodate the idea of its partaking of three different, but provocatively counterpointed, styles. The first segment, a reel-or-so’s worth of film, deals with the last days of the Mighty Man’s native planet Krypton, an ice-mirror environment where the electric whiteness of Marlon Brando’s hair—he’s Jor-El, father of Kal-El, the as-yet-unrenamed baby Superman—and the solarized, lucent whiteness of the costumes suggest both the abstract superiority (though not necessarily superior abstractness) of the race and the imminence of their burning themselves out. From Brando’s opening peroration before the grim, grey, titanic floating physogs of the other ruling elders, while three unspeakably depraved Kryptonians stand trapped within a shaft of light and a sort of perpetually self-balancing Möbius strip, this episode is stunningly visualized in audacious sci-fi terms, and a note of high sentence is convincingly sustained in the face of inspired preposterousness. (It is only after leaving the theater that one realizes the three monstrous villains, exiled to the blackest reaches of the universe via a genuinely disturbing special effect, have never been referred to again. As with the earlier Salkind superproduction, The Three/Four Musketeers, there is another part to Superman mostly in the can already; tune in next Christmas for the terrible vengeance of Non, Ursa, and the satanic General Zod!…) As a solar storm predicted by the all-wise Jor-El shatters the crystalline splendor of Krypton civilization, the elder dispatches his only begotten son in his own personal starship, complete with memory bank of instructive aphorisms to prepare the infant for life on Earth—a backward planet, but a not-inhospitable destination for a healthy boy with such a dense molecular structure.

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