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Stacy Keach

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: The Gravy Train

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Gravy Train offers unlimited opportunities for self-congratulation to everyone in front of or behind the camera, and in front of the screen as well. Within that dubious category of experience it’s quite a satisfying show, as amply testified to by the raucous audience reaction during the recent Harvard Exit engagement. Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest turn in thoroughly researched performances as a pair of West Virginia rubes who reject a life of digging coal and head for the Big Town—the iconographically unbeatable Washington D.C.—to open a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. How to finance it? Why, with their share of the take in a low-comedy armored-car heist—except that the slickeroo mastermind from a bigger town, New York, crosses them up and disappears with the money. The Dion brothers (Keach and Forrest) finish out the film escaping from the trap he’s set for them, running the doublecrosser to earth, and shooting it out with him in a building that’s being demolished about their ears.

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Review: Conduct Unbecoming

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Hands-down winner of the Wrongest Possible Project from the Very Beginning Award for 1975 is Conduct Unbecoming, a dreadful adaptation of a perhaps worse play, and a movie so misconceived—by the infallibly inept Michael Anderson—that its very attempts to juice itself with artificial life manage to exacerbate its turgidity. The cast list is imposing but the players, while too professional a lot to come right out and guy the piece, can’t manage to salvage it either. (What the hell, pick up the bucks via a few day contracts and hop a plane to something better: Christopher Plummer’s turn as Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King is discreetly fine enough to erase the memory of half a career’s worth of vainglorious posturing in junk like this.)

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Out of the Past: Brewster McCloud

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Uniformed marching bands with twirlers. Red, white, and blue. Frustrated chauffeurs who can’t quite comprehend the world of their passengers. An arrival at the airport by charter plane, covered by an on-the-spot news announcer. The death and funeral of someone named Green(e). A reference to car racing. Some wild driving and a crash that brings many of the characters together. The more you look, the more similarities you find between Brewster McCloud and Nashville. Themes, motifs, devices, even characters and character relationships unite the two films. In each film, Shelley Duvall plays a naïve and sexually capricious free spirit, though in Brewster McCloud the impact of her affections on the men she favors is far more serious than in the frivolous flirtations of Nashville. In each film she takes up, at least briefly, with the son of a wealthy and powerful man: Bernard Weeks in Brewster McCloud is a sensitive and talented young man whose artistic inclinations have been stifled by his father, who has made him his business secretary—the same relationship, in fact, that Bud bears to Haven Hamilton in Nashville. In each film, too, Michael Murphy plays a visitor from California whose cool ways contrast sharply with those of the people around him, and whose comings and goings lend a kind of unity and purpose to the development of the film’s events. His escort, in each film, is a lovable but somewhat slow-witted man, whose home life we glimpse in a dinner scene (though Patrolman Johnson’s outrageous three sets of twin sons in Brewster McCloud contrast sharply in tone and intent with the two deaf children of Delbert and Linnea Reese in Nashville).

All these imagistic coincidences suggest similarities in more abstract areas as well; and sure enough, they’re there. Each film attempts a sweeping satirical commentary on virtually every major aspect of American life: sexuality, class-struggle, race relations, ambition, success and failure, economics, crime, politics, religion. The more obvious, less integrated Brewster McCloud uses original songs on its soundtrack to comment on action and character development, and counterpoints the loose, rambling structure of the film’s events with comment on philosophical and anthropological concepts from an anonymous Lecturer whose location and character never directly connect with the characters of the film’s story. Nashville‘s use of songs and the continuous comment of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign truck are, however, not significantly different—only a more successful integration of these devices into the film. The purpose of the devices is the same: to extend the meaning and significance of the film’s events to a larger scope, to link microcosm with macrocosm.

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