I finally saw True Grit this week. Note: I have now seen 90% of the best picture nominees. I just need to see Winter’s Bone, and I’m set! And if I can sneak Rabbit Hole, Biutiful and Animal Kingdom in there, I’ll be able to see all the nominated performances. Totally doable.
Anyway, I loved True Grit. It was funny, exciting, and Hailee Steinfeld blew me away. To the point where I’m actually torn as to whether she or Melissa Leo is most deserving of the statue on Feb. 27th. I sometimes forget what a fan I am of the western genre until I am watching a western. I don’t remember watching a lot of them growing up, which is surprising considering what a huge fan my father is of the genre. For some reason, I guess he felt musicals and 80s action films were more appropriate for his young daughter to watch? I digress. When I am watching a western though, I get really into it – Horseback riding, gun-slinging, cattle russlin,’ old school cowboys who wear sexy hats and say “ma’am”… And yet, despite how much I enjoyed the film – and I really, really did – I found myself often comparing it not to its 1969 predecessor starring John Wayne (likely because, if I have seen the original, I have no recollection of it) but to another Western that I do recall in vivid detail from my childhood: Cat Ballou.
Cat Ballou is not a particularly well-known western. In fact, I think I’ve only met one person outside of my immediate family who’s familiar with the film, despite its fairly impressive cast: Jane Fonda as the titular hero! Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye (of Guys and Dolls fame) providing a musical narration of sorts! Lee Marvin, in his Oscar-winning performance as the washed-up drunken gun for hire! The movie is hilarious and kitschy and a lot of fun, though I do realize that a lot of my enjoyment of the film may stem from a nostalgic attachment to it. Regardless, while watching True Grit, all I kept thinking was how Mattie Ross was like a young Cat Ballou and Rooster Cogburn was a slightly more stable Kid Shelleen.
At first, it was little things – a headstrong young woman seeking justice for her father’s murder, hiring an alcoholic gunman to avenge said murder, a group of men bewitched by the tomboy who has injected herself into their posse, etc. And then, came a scene where Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn, in a drunken stupor, tries to prove he’s still as good a gunslinger as he once was by flinging things in the air and trying to shoot them. The scene was funny on its own, but the whole time I was watching it all I could think was, “He did it! He missed the barn!” That scene from Cat Ballou is one of those movie scenes where, no matter how many times I see it, I laugh. Every. Time.
I was so struck by the similarities between the films that when I got home, I actually had to look up when Charles Portis’ original novel was written (1968) in comparison to when Cat Ballou was made (1965) – just who was emulating who here? Then again, the stories are vastly different; Cat Ballou veers away from the “murder as revenge” idea in favour of a traditional train heist. Plus, Cat Ballou is more comedy than anything else, and True Grit, while funny at times, could never make that claim. Maybe the theme of headstrong young women in the Old West was just a popular one in the 60s, and neither story was a take on the other. After all, it’s not unusual for movies with similar plot devices to all come out around the same time – Dante’s Peak and Volcano, Deep Impact and Armageddon, and at TIFF this year I saw two films (Griff The Invisible and Super) about everyday men becoming vigilante superheroes, not unlike Kick-Ass from this past summer. And I think that unifying “girl power” theme is why I loved both films so much – I love stories about stubborn, headstrong women who become “one of the guys,” women who are tough, who are leaders, who are not afraid to be themselves and whose spirit is what makes the men in their lives respect and care for them. I could go on and on about my favourite heroines in film and literature and how they shaped a lot of who I am today, but that’s a whole other post waiting to happen.
Is True Grit my new favourite western? Sadly, no. Cat Ballou is just pretty much impossible to top for me, and probably always will be. The memory of sitting in front of the TV with my brother, cackling maniacally and rewinding the barn scene over and over is just such a hugely sentimental moment for me. And while I acknowledge that True Grit is probably the superior film, and is definitely in my personal Top 5 list for westerns, you just can’t beat watching Lee Marvin singing “Happy Birthday” to a corpse: